Helen Crawfurd

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Helen Crawfurd, 1877–1954


Born Helen Jack on the 9th of November 1877 in the district of Gorbals Glasgow, the 4th child of the family of 4 daughters and 3 sons of William Jack, a respected master baker and Helen Jack (nee Kyle). While still a child the family moved to Ipswich where she was educated. When Helen was 17 the family moved back to Glasgow to the middle-class district of Hyndland. Helen was shocked by the poverty and the conditions of Glasgow's working class and was made aware of politics by her parents. Her father was at one time President of the Operative Bakers Association. A deeply religious family, her father was Church of Scotland Presbyterian, her mother a confirmed Methodist. Discussions on religion and politics were a regular feature of the family home. Helen married the Reverend Alex Montgomerie Crawfurd on the 18th of September 1898. However she soon rebelled against the theological teaching of the Church, believing that it was discriminatory against women. Her interest in the women's movement was furthered by reading the works of Josephine Butler.

Women's Sufferage

She joined the suffrage movement around 1900 and in 1910 joined the Women's Social and Political Union, (WSPU). Helen fully endorsed the militant actions of the Pankhursts in attempting to gain the vote for women. In 1912 she was arrested and sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison for breaking the windows of the Liberal Minister of Education's residence in London. 1913 saw her again arrested for trying to protect Mrs. Pankhurst from police brutality at a meeting in the St. Andrew's Halls Glasgow. She was later released and re-arrested the following night for breaking the windows of the Army recruiting offices and sentenced to one month in Duke Street Prison Glasgow. It was in this prison that she went on her first hunger strike and 8 days later was released. Prison life did nothing to dent her passion, she went on to become one of the best know and most popular members of the Scottish Suffragette Movement. Helen was again arrested in 1914 at a meeting in Perth and sent to Perth Prison. After a 5 day hunger strike she was released. Shortly after her return to Glasgow a bomb exploded in Botanic Gardens Glasgow, she was blamed and this resulted in her fourth prison sentence and her third hunger strike in two years.


Shortly after the start of 1914 she left the WSPU because of its pro-war stance. Her shift from the radical suffrage politics to a socialist standpoint was in part due to her association with the Glasgow Repertory Theatre and the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, Galsworthy, Gorky and others. Helen was appalled at the infant mortality rate and sheer depravation in the Glasgow slums. Such conditions caused her to question a system that could tolerate this to continue. Around 1912 onwards Helen's speeches, though still with a Christian content, leaned towards a Socialist message. 1914 saw her proclaim her Socialist beliefs by joining the Independent Labour Party, (ILP). In spite of the loss of both her husband and her mother in 1914, Helen Crawfurd throughout the war was a constant and energetic political activist. Always keen to involve women in the fight against the war, Helen with her friend Agnes Dollan organised large and regular meetings on Glasgow Green. 1915 saw Helen and Agnes found the Glasgow branch of the Women's International League. In an attempt to attract more working-class women and form a strong militant anti-war movement, Helen with Mary Barbour and other women activists in June 1916 organised a peace conference, this gave birth to the Women's Peace Crusade (WPC) in Glasgow. June 1917 in Glasgow saw the launch of the National Women's Peace Crusade with Helen Crawfurd as its Honorary Secretary. Helen's strong anti-war stance brought her into contact with, and worked alongside, John MacLean.

Rent Strikes & ILP

While taking a leading role in the anti-war movement Helen was very active in the 1915 rent strikes. She was appointed secretary of the Glasgow Women's Housing Association (GWHA), and was an important figure in rallying housewives to fight the rent increases. Her efforts along with Mary Barbour, Agnes Dollan, Jessie Stephens and other women activists resulted in the "Rent Restriction Act" of 1915. This act benefited tenants all over the country.

By the end of the war Helen Crawfurd was seen as a national political figure. 1918 saw her appointed as Vice-President of the Scottish Divisional Council of the ILP. She was becoming disillusioned with the ILP, eeing it more a reformist group rather than socialist and was becoming more aware of the ideas of Tom Bell and Arthur McManus who in 1920 set up the British Communist Party. At the 1920 Easter conference of the ILP Helen presided at a meeting to form an unofficial group to be known as the "left wing" of the ILP.


While still Vice-President of the Scottish division of the ILP she accepted an invitation to the second congress of the Third Communist International in Moscow. Her journey there proved somewhat arduous. Her passport was confiscated by the Norwegian authorities. Avoiding the police she made her way to a fishing boat which carried her out to sea where she boarded a cargo vessel, it took her to the port of Alexandrovic and from there she made her way to Moscow where she had an interview with Lenin. She joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1921. The same year saw Helen appointed to the Executive Committee a position she held for many years. Helen was always keen to involve women and in 1922 she edited a page of the official communist party newspaper the "Communist" called Page for Women.

Famine Relief

1920 saw much of Helen's energy devoted to the Workers International Relief Organisation, (WIR). In 1922 she became its secretary. During her term she raised money for the famine-stricken region of the Volga this allowed them to carry out relief work in Germany and in all the mining districts of Britain during the miners' lock-out which followed the general strike of 1926. She also managed to extend the relief work to the famine-stricken west of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands during the depression. During the German elections of 1924 she addressed a meeting of 10,000 in Berlin on behalf of the German Communist Party (KPD). In the struggle against fascism prior to the 1939 war Helen was Secretary of the anti-fascist organisation in Glasgow. On the eve of the 2nd World War in 1939 she organised a Peace Congress of representatives from countries within the British Empire.

Latter Years

The small quiet town of Dunoon on the lower reaches of the Clyde became her home during the latter years of her life. Though Dunoon was the sort of town where elderly people go to retire Helen never retired, still working for the cause of women and for the working class community of the town. In 1945, while at the age of 68, she was elected to the Dunoon Town Council. Helen still kept up a considerable correspondence on both local and international affairs in the press. Just days before her death one of her letters appeared in the Daily Worker. At the age of 75 she was Chairperson of a session of the Scottish Congress of the Communist Party.

Helen Crawfurd Anderson died on the 18th of April 1954 at the age of 77.

Posted by John Couzin

The book Radical Glasgow

Radical Glasgow website