Co-operative housekeeping - Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst describes her experience of daily life in a co-operative home.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on June 25, 2009

I haven't described our Co-operative home to you. It is built round a square garden and there is another garden round it. There is also a garden on the roof. The dining- room and kitchen are on the top floor. The school nursery, crèche, and children's garden is at the end of the block of buildings. There are a tennis court, croquet lawn, a hall for meetings, concerts, dances, and so on, a sewing room, workshops for all sorts of crafts, a library and gymnasium, and two big summer houses in the garden, one of which is for the older children. (...)

I had only just got upstairs again when there was a knock on our door and some one called 'Cleaners?.' 'Not here,' I said, and I heard them go on to the next door. Then I peeped out and saw some young men and women in blue overalls. They had all sorts of machines I had never seen before with them, including a thing I recognised from pictures I had seen as a vacuum cleaner. I felt sorry I had missed the chance of seeing it work. But presently, one of the young women came back and said she thought my flat had been missed out by mistake. I just opened the door and let them come in with the vacuum cleaner and all the rest of their tackle, so that I could see how the cleaner worked.

Ethel, careless little minx, had made some nasty black marks on the new carpet, through not cleaning her muddy shoes when she came in I had wiped up the mess as best I could, but the marks still showed, and I thought I should have to wash the corner of the carpet with soap and water. When the cleaner had passed over the place, the marks had quite disappeared. It seemed quite a miracle to me then.

I was just beginning to wash -- I hate washing -- I loathe housework -- when one of the young women in blue said: 'Look.' we do it like this!'

Before I could interpose, she began packing the plates into a rack in a cupboard over the sink -- I had wondered what that cupboard was for. When she had put them all in, she turned a tap that sent streams of hot water over them. She could make it soapy or plain. When they were clean, she turned on another tap that sent a gust of hot air over them until they were dry. 'You can leave them in these until you want to use them again,' she said, 'but I should do as little as possible of that up here if I were you -- it's much nicer having meals in the common rooms.

I had put some of the children's pinafores to soak. 'Oh don't do that. We get those done in the laundry; if you don't mind, we'll take them down in the tub as they are. We'll let you have it back later.' 'Frank, will you please carry that tub into the trolley for me; it has to go down to the laundry?' 'I see you know how to use the electric cooker. Mary has done the pans for you. If you want to do them for yourself at any time, just use the automatic pan cleanser as soon as you've finished with them; turn that on for a few seconds, so, then that, that, and that, so, so, and so you'll find it only takes a few seconds -- but really, I shouldn't bother with cooking up here, if I were you.

The place was now all spick and span: it would have taken me the greater part of the morning to do the cleaning, and now in a few minutes it was finished, and far better than I could ever have done it. I stood there feeling a fool and uncomfortable, as though I were having the work done for me under false pretences.

After the cleaners had gone, I decided I would do my shopping and take Rene and Laura with me, but they were nowhere to be seen in the garden, and I called and searched till a nurse came out of what I found to be the baby's garden. She told me that two fresh pupils had come unannounced to the nursery school, and that these were probably the children I was looking for. 'You'll find they've made themselves quite at home with us!'

I went with her and discovered Rene and Laura. Rene was doing musical exercises with some other children, who were following each other round and round on a circle painted in white on the floor. Rene was pointing her toes and dancing along like a little peacock! Laura, I could see through a doorway in another room; she was wearing another pretty, new overall, with an apron over it, and was helping to wait on some little girls and boys who were sitting at a table, having buns and milk.

I called to my children. Rene looked over her shoulder and tossed her head at me laughing. 'I can't mother, I'm too busy.' Laura didn't even hear me. I went for Laura first, took the dish of buns out of her hands, and began to undo the apron. She screamed and cried.

One of the teachers came to me. 'Won't you let your little girl stay?' 'No, I will not!' I called Rene again, while I wrenched off Laura's overall; she was resisting with all her might. Rene took no notice of me until one of the teachers told her to go to me. I dragged my children away. They were both crying as hard as they could, and the worst of it was, they wouldn't stop when I got them home.

When Ethel came in from school, her first question was: 'May I go to dinner with the other children?' I told her, 'No.' She pouted and grumbled that she didn't want 'a nasty old dinner all by ourselves.' She took the part of Rene and Laura, who were still sulking and crying. 'Why can't you let them go to the nursery school, where they'd enjoy themselves and learn something? I think it's too bad of you, mother!'

Presently, Ethel burst out: 'Our school is quite different since we went away -- all been done up; you wouldn't know it; and the lessons are much nicer; all the teachers are new; I'm going to learn the piano, and French, and all sorts of things. Everything's better than it used to be!'

When she was in the doorway, ready to go, she went on again: 'I don't care what you say, mother, I'm going to have tea with the other children; I'm going to see what everything's like. I'm not going to live all to ourselves. I've been hearing all about it from the other girls in playtime, and I think it's lovely, whatever you say, so there! You told me they were horrid people, but they are not -- and why don't you try it yourself, mother? The other girls' mothers like it.'

She banged the door, and then opened it for a moment, smiling, and shaking her head at me. 'Now mind, I'm not coming in to tea!' I was so much astonished, I just sat and looked at her; then I called:

'Ethel, Ethel!' but she'd gone scampering downstairs.

Another hour's crying and nonsense from Rene and Laura was too much for me, and I thought, after all, it was only sending them to school a few years earlier, and they'd soon get tired of it, anyway. So I washed their faces and brushed their hair, and let them run into the nursery school with a message: 'Mother says we can come now.

After that, I felt very uncomfortable -- every one else was working, and I had nothing to do. The children didn't like coming home to meals, they kept running off to have their's with the other children; the cleaners came in every morning. I was still getting an allowance as a working housekeeper, but I felt I was getting it under false pretences, and I wondered whether it wouldn't be stopped on that ground.

One day, when a member of the House Committee came to ask why I didn't put out my basket of things for the mendery. I said that I'd done all my mending, but I'd help to mend someone else's things in the mendery, if they'd have me to work there. She said yes, they'd be glad to have me; but perhaps I'd like to see some of the other neighbouring workshops too; she offered to take me that afternoon, if I'd like to go, and I agreed.

When we got to the mendery, I felt ashamed of what I'd been calling mending, for the menders there were making the things look as good as new. Much of the work was done by machinery. I saw that it was a new trade that I'd have to learn. It was the same in the kitchen and the laundry; it was all run by experts, and I realised that I had not learnt to do anything properly. I told my guide how I felt. 'Every one feels like that at first,' she said, 'but you'll soon learn.'

After we had seen the domestic workshops serving our house and others near it, we went to see the boot and clothing factories, a book bindery and finally a pottery. The pottery fascinated me, and when we came to the china- painting room, I said: 'If only I could learn that! I've been wanting to work at something like that all my life.' 'But why not?' said my guide. 'You can begin learning the trade to-morrow.' And so I did. I got myself engaged the same afternoon.

That evening, I threw all my reserves away. I went with my children to supper in the Household Common Room, played tennis with some of the other inmates, and finished up, with a dance on the roof.

Since then, I have tried to be a Communist and to help the Communists in every way that I can. I am so fortunate in my work; I do enjoy it! I like the Communist life in every way, and I'm anxious to see it made more complete. I hope it will soon spread all over the world.

There are the children! Let us go to meet them.

Published in Workers' Dreadnought, 28 August 1920. Taken from the Antagonism website.