Radical Scot Helen Crawfurd fought for Emmeline Pankhurst in 1914 Battle of Glasgow, met Lenin and made history in Dunoon – Susan Morrison

Born in the Gorbals in 1877, Helen Crawfurd’s extraordinary life saw her imprisoned several times and elected to political office

In April 1945, the Dunoon Observer breathlessly reported that history was being made. The respectable, if slightly fading, Clydeside resort had just elected its first female councillor. Not just any lady politician. This one had once been a deep-red Communist, travelled to Moscow to meet Lenin and had both defended and hollered down a Pankhurst. No wonder they were agog. History was, indeed, in the making. To be fair, the eyes of the world were elsewhere that particular spring.

Her name was Helen Crawfurd. She was a Gorbals lass, born Helen Jack in 1877. Her father was a baker by trade, who took the family to briefly live in Ipswich, but that didn’t work out. They returned to a city buckling under industrial levels of poverty and squalor. Helen threw herself into the pastoral work of Broomielaw’s Brownsfield Kirk.

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Her work with the parish poor clearly impressed the minister, the Reverend Alexander Crawfurd. He was in fact so impressed that he proposed marriage to the 21-year-old Helen. The Rev was 68. The chatter from the pews must have been deafening, but Helen said yes.

Call to arms

He probably didn’t bet on his young wife becoming a raging socialist. They did read the Bible together, but Helen read just about everything that came to hand, novels, tracts, pamphlets. Helen was one of those committed early 20th-century radicals who really did their homework. When this revolutionary reader heard a suffragette speaker demanding votes for women, it was a call to arms. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and stepped into the front lines to fight for the right to vote.

In some ways the Reverend had himself to blame. Helen maintained that her Christianity’s radical flavour had been encouraged by her husband's fondness for preaching about “Christ Militant”. She used it as a battle cry when she and her sisters went out to chuck rocks through the window of an army recruiting office. That got her arrested. As she was dragged off to prison, she tried to convert the police to her cause.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, pictured being arrested in 1914, had a 'Bodyguard' of women to defend her and Helen Crawfurd joined in one famous fight in Glasgow that same year (Picture: Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, pictured being arrested in 1914, had a 'Bodyguard' of women to defend her and Helen Crawfurd joined in one famous fight in Glasgow that same year (Picture: Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, pictured being arrested in 1914, had a 'Bodyguard' of women to defend her and Helen Crawfurd joined in one famous fight in Glasgow that same year (Picture: Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She was a ‘graduate’ of both Holloway and Perth Prisons, but that only seems to have fanned the flames. She was now a free agent, having lost that kind if slightly baffled husband.

In March 1914, she stood alongside the ‘Bodyguard’, the suffragettes tasked with protecting Emmeline Pankhurst when she came to speak at St Andrews Hall in Glasgow. Emmeline was under a ‘cat and mouse’ order. She had been released from prison when her health deteriorated following force-feeding, but one step or word out of line, and back inside she went.

Changing loyalties

The authorities had heard that Ms Pankhurst was about to put in an appearance in Glasgow. Helen was ready to swing punches in her defence. At eight o’clock, Emmeline Pankhurst suddenly appeared on stage. The police made their move. They rushed forward, only to discover the pretty flower garlands around the platform hid barbed wire. The ‘Bodyguards’ fought back, using their skills in ju-jitsu, and the Indian Clubs they had hidden in their skirts.

Helen was in the thick of the action. She lost her hat and later wrote of “my hair streaming down my back, and every button off my costume jacket”. Just about everyone got arrested. It became known as The Battle of Glasgow, but it's almost forgotten now, overshadowed by a gunshot in Sarajevo. World War One changed everything, even Helen’s loyalty to the Pankhusts.

It's not surprising that we find Helen fighting alongside Mary Barbour and the rent strikers, organising soup kitchens and, most importantly, in the Women’s Peace Crusade. This put her into direct conflict with the very women she once battled policemen to protect.

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The Pankhursts had become recruiting sergeants for a new female army in this war, the munitions workers. Pacifist Helen was appalled. During a war-worker recruiting drive, ironically again in Glasgow, Christabelle Pankhurst must have been shocked to be faced with Crawfurd in fine fury, hollering her down.

White-coated munitions workers had to be called off before they went for her. The very women she had once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with were relying on brute force to silence opposition, just like men. She might have felt down, but she was not out. She never stopped campaigning for peace and socialism.

Peasants in Tsar’s box at Bolshoi

In 1920, she had to go and see the Soviet Union for herself, which she did by getting smuggled across on a Norwegian trawler. Naturally. She actually met Lenin. He had “twinkling brown eyes”. She went to the Bolshoi and saw peasants sitting in the Tsar's box, the Imperial Eagle replaced with the Hammer and Sickle.

She fought elections in 1929 and 1931, but by 1933, she seems to have been tired. She and her sister Jean settled in Dunoon. Helen probably thought her political life was over, until, that is, the council dismissed concerns of local women. ‘‘Like an old war horse, my fighting spirit arose,” she said, and in 1945 she swept to power on the Dunoon Town Council in that historic election, her new husband, George Anderson, by her side.

The campaigning spirit had never really left her. Even in sleepy Dunoon, she roused herself for new battles. She became Dunoon Counci’s health convener and housing convener. She commandeered unused homes for homeless families. She fought to set and maintain fair rents.

Helen’s spirit was willing, but her health went against her. She did great work, but she had to step down from the council. A lifetime of campaigning had worn her down. She was widowed again in 1952. Helen and her sister lived on quietly in Dunoon. Jean died in 1954, and only hours later, Helen herself was found dead in a chair at their home, a peaceful end for a woman who always fought for those who couldn’t.

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