Helen Crawfurd

Helen Crawfurd

Helen Jack, the daughter of a master baker, was born in the Gorbals district of Glasgow on 9th November 1877. Her father, William Jack, was a member of the Conservative Party and a member of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Helen shared her father's religious views and became a Sunday school teacher.

In 1898 Helen married Reverend Alexander Montgomerie Crawfurd. His parish was in a slum area of Glasgow and she was deeply shocked by the suffering endured by the working classes. She wrote to a friend about the "appalling misery and poverty of the workers in Glasgow, physically broken down bodies, bowlegged, rickets."

Helen Crawfurd also became very interested in the work of Josephine Butler. She was especially impressed by The Education and Employment of Women. Crawfurd became convinced that the situation would only change when women had the vote and in 1900 she joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1900. Crawfurd claimed “that if the Mothers of the race had some say, then things would be changed.” She held regular meetings in her Glasgow house and took part in protest meetings but she became increasingly frustrated by the lack success of the movement.

By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women's rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women's suffrage. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) decided to use different methods to obtain the publicity they thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister's house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison.

On the 13th October, 1908 the WSPU held a large demonstration in London and then tried to enter the House of Commons. There were violent clashes with the police and 24 women were arrested, including Emily Pankhurst, who was sentenced to three months in prison.

In July, 1909, an imprisoned suffragette, Marion Wallace-Dunlop, refused to eat. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, it was decided to release her. Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emily Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, endured ten of these hunger-strikes.

Crawfurd agreed with the strategy of the WSPU and in 1910 she joined the organisation. Two years later she broke the windows of the Minister of Education's residence in central London, for which she was arrested and sentenced to one month's imprisonment in Holloway Prison.

In 1913 Helen Crawfurd was arrested for attacking police officers who were attempting to arrest the Emily Pankhurst at a public meeting in Glasgow. Although released later that night without charge, Helen was re-arrested the following night for smashing the windows of the army recruiting offices in the city, and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment in Duke Street Prison. Crawfurd immediately went on hunger-strike and after eight-days she was released under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act.

In 1914 her husband and mother both died. Crawfurd was now one of the WSPU leaders in Scotland. In 1914 Crawfurd spoke at a meeting organised to protest against the imprisonment of two suffragettes in Perth. She was arrested and charged with making inflammatory comments and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment. She immediately went on hunger strike and was released five days into her sentence.

Later that year Crawford was arrested and charged for a bomb attack which damaged the Botanic Gardens. She was found guilty and received a prison sentence of two years. Again she went on hunger strike, her third in less than two years, and was once more released under the conditions of the Cat and Mouse Act.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emily Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Helen Crawfurd, disagreed with this strategy and like other militants such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard, Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon and Winnie Mason eventually joined the Women's Peace Party. She also became active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and began to organise Scottish women in a campaign to oppose Britain's involvement in the First World War.

Soon after the outbreak of war, private landlords in Glasgow began to increase rents. This was seen as a blatant example of war-time profiteering. In response to this action, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan established the Glasgow Women's Housing Association. Crawfurd was elected secretary and helped organise a campaign of non-payment of rents. The group gained support from the Clyde Workers' Committee and the Independent Labour Party.

On 17th November 1915 the three organizations took part in one of the largest demonstrations in Scottish political history. Tens of thousands marched through the streets of Glasgow. The government was shocked by this show of force and passed the Rent Restriction Act which froze working class rents, not only in Glasgow but throughout Britain, for the duration of the war.

In 1915 and her friends, Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan, set up the Glasgow branch of the Women's International League. The following year the three women established the Women's Peace Crusade (WPC). Other members included Ethel Snowden and Selina Cooper.

In February 1916 the Clyde Workers' Committee became involved in a dispute at Beardmores Munitions Works in Parkhead. The government claimed that the strike was a ploy by the CWC to prevent the manufacture of munitions and therefore to harm the war effort. On 25th March, Arthur McManus, David Kirkwood, Willie Gallacher and other members of the CWC were arrested by the authorities under the Defence of the Realm Act. The men were eventually court-martialled and sentenced to be deported from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Helen Crawfurd took part in the protests against these deportations and as a result was arrested by the police. However, she was released without charge.

Crawfurd was a member of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women's International League at Zurich in 1919. This delegation included Ethel Snowden, Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. This delegation chose Helen Crawfurd to make the report to the Conference on their behalf.

Helen Crawfurd
Helen Crawfurd (c. 1920)

After the war Crawfurd continued as one of the leaders of the Independent Labour Party. However, she became increasingly disillusioned with the political direction of the ILP. She argued that it had abandoned its socialism and this feeling increased after attending the Second Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1920 where she met Lenin, who convinced her that he believed that women had an important role in the global communist movement.

in April 1920 Crawfurd joined forces with Willie Gallacher, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Tom Bell and Willie Paul to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers.

Crawfurd was appointed to the executive committee and given the task of increasing female membership of the CPGB. According to her biographer, Michael Byers: "Helen took to this task with great enthusiasm, editing a separate women's page in the official newspaper of the CPGB 'The Communist', in which she sought to inform ordinary women of the way in which communism could liberate them from both capitalist and sexual domination."

Helen Crawfurd in Germany in 1922
Helen Crawfurd in Germany in 1922

During the Russian Civil War Crawfurd played a leading role in the work of the Workers International Relief Organisation (WIR). In 1922 she became secretary of the WIR and arranged for help to be given to aid economically distressed regions in other parts of Europe. This included mining communities during the 1926 General Strike.

Crawfurd supported the leadership of A. J. Cook and was appalled when the TUC General Council announced that the General Strike was over. Crawfurd argued: "The General Council of the Trades Union Congress, in order to save their miserable faces and to whitewash themselves, must needs find a scapegoat and put their sins upon it and send it out into the wilderness - and they foolishly imagine that in their recent attempt to vilify the leaders of the miners, they have as easily hoodwinked the British workers as the children of Israel fondly imagined they could hoodwink their God.... If Cook could be made to hear the voice of the whole working class, who are solidly behind him and the miners, they would never hesitate. Only the operation of the embargo without waiting for a decision by the men who betrayed the General Strike will assure them of this support."

In 1927 Helen Crawfurd helped to establish the League Against Imperialism. Other members included Albert Einstein, Jawaharlal Nehru, Fenner Brockway, Arthur McManus, Willy Münzenberg, and Reginald Bridgeman.

Helen Crawfurd with the Women's section of the Merthyr Tydfil Communist Party in 1925
Helen Crawfurd with the Women's section of the Merthyr Tydfil Communist Party in 1925

Crawfurd was active in the fight against the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Unlike some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain she supported Britain's involvement in the Second World War.

In 1946 Helen Crawfurd was elected the first woman councillor on Dunoon Council. The following year she married fellow Communist Party member George Anderson. She also wrote her memoirs, which unfortunately have never been published.

Helen Crawfurd died at her home in Dunoon on 18th April 1954.

Primary Sources

(1) Helen Crawfurd, The Woman Worker (August 1926)

To the women in the coalfields, whether wife, sister or mother of the miner miner, the present situation gives food for thought.

Along with the menfolk; she has faced hunger, uncertainty and the knowledge of debts mounting up and of health and strength going down. Her own hunger has been bad enough, but that of her children has been infinitely more terrible.

Sunshine and the company of her fellows in meeting or demonstration;has kept alive in her spark of hope. Financial, help from workers in all lands, especially from Soviet Russia has proved to her the fellow feeling of the international working class. Red Friday of last year had encouraged her to hope, that the bitter lessons learned by the 1921 betrayal (Black Friday), and the subsequent reductions of all workers’ wages during 1922 (£,600,000,000) had been effective.

Whatever the leaders of the General Council may say, the fact remains that the magnificent solidarity shown by the organised workers during the nine days of the General Strike, was in support of the miners’ slogan, “Not a penny off the Pay. Not a Minute on the day.” They had learned that if the miners’ conditions were worsened theirs would follow as in 1922. The magnificent solidarity shown during those nine days gave promise of the struggle being, short and decisive. The calling off of the strike and the subsequent weeks of slow torture and suffering of the miners, their wives and children, are something that will go down in history as an infinitely greater betrayal than that of 1921. Not only was it a betrayal of the miners, but it was a gross betrayal of the whole Trade Union Movement. If Thomas and the other members of the General Council thought the Strike was wrong why did they not denounce it? Why did they not resign before leading their men into it? And why, having led them into it and having definitely promised in their directions sent out that:

“The General Council further direct that Executives of the Unions concerned shall definitely declare that in the event of any action being taken and trade union agreements being placed in jeopardy, it be definitely agreed that there will be no general resumpution of work until those agreements are fully recognised.” (Memorandum sent out by T.U.C., 30th April, 1926; signed A. Pugh, Chairman, Walter Citrine, Secretary.)

Why, having made this promise, did they allow their members to be humiliated by signing in their name the most grovelling and humiliating terms of peace, while still in a position to gain honourable terms.

The General Council of the Trades Union Congress, in order to save their miserable faces and to whitewash themselves, must needs find a scapegoat and put their sins upon it and send it out into the wilderness - and they foolishly imagine that in their recent attempt to vilify the leaders of the miners, they have as easily hoodwinked the British workers as the children of Israel fondly imagined they could hoodwink their God. Well, it won’t just work, and the day of reckoning is approaching!!! The rank and file of the workers did not betray the miners, neither in the General Strike, nor even in the present situation which calls for an embargo in handling of all coal. Again, it is the weak and vacillating, leadership which is proving itself Capitalism’s most valuable ally. Baldwin must go, and so must his allies.

If Cook could be made to hear the voice of the whole working class, who are solidly behind him and the miners, they would never hesitate. Only the operation of the embargo without waiting for a decision by the men who betrayed the General Strike will assure them of this support.

The leaders, like Clynes, MacDonald Thomas and Cramp, declare that the workers are not ready to give active support. This is not true. The workers are always in front of their Right-wing “leaders,” and the Dockers’ Strike in Plymouth and Boulogne, the Railwaymen’s Delegate Conference in South Wales, the resolution of the Manchester Railway Shopmen, have all shown that the mass of workers are profoundly dissatisfied with the unjustifiable calling off the Strike before justice was secured for the miners, and the other workers safeguarded against victimisation.

The workers realise that if the miners go back to work with lower wages and longer hours that will be only the first of a series of defeats inflicted on the whole working clsss. Next it will be the turn of the railwaymen, then the transport workers and dockers. Only a victory for the miners will protect wages. Only the embargo will enforce a victory for the miners.

And now the Bishops have appeared on the scene. Have they come to tell their fellow Bishops, who live largely on mining royalties to disgorge their ill-gotten gains? (The Bishop of Durham has £7,000 a year.) No, again it is the Baldwin slogan set to celestial music. “ The wages of all workers must come down” and again the miners must be the first victims. Arbitration and a promise to submit in advance to the findings of this arbitration court, is more dangerous ground than the workers have hitherto been called to traverse.

We Communists believe that capitalism can only continue to exist at the expense of the increasing misery of the working class. We also believe that only by loyalty and solidarity and organisation, can the workers triumph. The Bishops “whether consciously or unconsciously” to give them the benefit of the doubt, are simply another move in the capitalist game.

To you, women, the dark night seems long. But the organised might of the working class, under the courageous leadership of the Communist Party alone can bring the dawn and freedom to the struggling working class internationally.

(2) Michael Byers, Helen Crawfurd (2002)

Throughout the 1920s Helen's energies were devoted in large part to the Workers International Relief Organisation (WIR), an organisation set up to aid economically distressed regions of Soviet Russia. In 1922 Helen became secretary of the WIR, and under her auspices the WIR extended its relief efforts during the depression years to Germany, the Scottish Highlands and the west coast of Ireland. Helen's tireless work on behalf of the WIR gained her an international reputation as a political organiser, and as well as setting up countless socialist and trade union conferences throughout Europe, Helen also found time to involve herself with the establishment of the communist-inspired League Against Imperialism in 1927. In addition to her international duties with the WIR, Helen also involved herself with national issues in Britain. During the general strike of 1926 Helen travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting mining communities to distribute food, make speeches and generally give encouragement to striking miners and their families who had remained out on strike for a further six months after the TUC had called off the general strike. Helen's prominence within the CPGB, and in left-wing British politics generally, continued when she stood as Communist candidate for the Bothwell division of Lanarkshire in 1929 and North Aberdeen in 1931, failing however to get elected on both occasions.

In the 1930s Helen continued her close involvement in the WIR, but as a result of her travels and experiences throughout Europe during this period Helen also became deeply involved in the fight against fascism. On her return to Glasgow in 1933 she became secretary of two separate anti-fascist organisations, and although opposed to the first world war, Helen was supportive of the allies during World War II, not totally as a result of her support for Soviet Russia but, according to her, a result of her determination to see the defeat of fascism in Europe.

(3) Neil Rafeek, Helen Crawfurd Anderson (2006)

Born Helen Jack on 9 November 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, Helen Crawfurd Anderson (1877-1954) was the fourth child of William and Helen Jack who were politically Conservative and strongly religious. She met her future husband, the Rev Alexander Montgomerie Crawfurd, at evangelical Sunday school meetings. They married on 19 September 1898. Helen Crawfurd joined the Suffrage movement in 1900 and the Women's Social and Political Union (WPSU) in 1910. She began militant action for suffrage from 1912, breaking windows on several occasions, and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment in Glasgow where she conducted a hunger strike, an action repeated in Perth Prison in 1914 for five days. She left the WPSU in 1914 because of its support for the First World War and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In 1915 Crawfurd was secretary of the Glasgow Women's Housing Association and involved in the Rent Strikes in Glasgow. Also that year she formed the Women's International League with Agnes Dollan (1887-1966) and in 1916 became national secretary of the Women's Peace Crusade.

A major figure in the Scottish ILP by 1918, Crawfurd attended the Second Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1920 where she met Lenin. When the ILP rejected affiliation to the Third International, Crawfurd joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and was soon on its Executive Committee. She became secretary of the Workers International Relief Organisation (WIR) in 1923. She moved to Dunoon, Argyllshire, just before the Second World War and from 1945 until 1948 was appointed the first woman councillor there. Widowed in 1914, she married fellow Communist Party member George Anderson in 1945. Helen Crawfurd Anderson died at her home in Dunoon on 18 April 1954. Of tall elegant appearance, she was an impressive figure often wearing the black and purple colours of suffrage.