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Last updated:19 May 2016

Adela Pankhurst

Although Adela (born 1885) is the least remembered of the Pankhurst sisters, in 1929 Dora Montefiore wrote that ‘I found her far and away the most intelligent of that family’.  Adela was one of those who formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and when the WSPU changed tactics in 1905, Adela was given the task of disrupting the meetings of the then Liberal, Winston Churchill. Despite being forcibly ejected from a meeting Adela, weighing less than seven stone, was convicted of assaulting a policeman and served the first of many prison sentences.

Adela Pankhurst book coverAdela was a paid organiser for the WSPU and an inspiring speaker, but Sylvia Pankhurst argued that she was given little credit by her mother. Sylvia wrote that Adela was ‘the subject of sharper criticism than the other organisers had to face’.  In 1907 Adela put much effort into supporting working class women in the 28-week long weavers’ strike in Hebden Bridge but was criticised for not focussing on obtaining the vote.

Adela began to have doubts about the tactic of violence and the undemocratic nature of the WSPU. She observed that she operated under a ‘strict intellectual dictatorship’.  Above all, her mother and Christabel feared that Adela was becoming an advocate of socialism.

Adela spent some time recovering from her exertions and was visited by Christabel who asked her not to speak in public again. She accepted this ‘advice’ and studied at horticultural college and then in 1913 became a governess in Switzerland. Whilst in Switzerland Adela was summoned to Paris by Christabel and, dubbed a failure by most of her family, was given her one-way fare to Australia, where she remained for the rest of her life.

She left Britain in February 1914 and began a new political and personal life in Australia. She worked closely with Vida Goldstein and became an organiser for the Women’s Political Association and the Women’s Peace Army. She wrote an anti-war pamphlet Put up the sword, and her main campaigning effort was against conscription and high food prices. She soon found herself in prison for defying bans on meetings.

She married Tom Walsh, a fellow socialist and a prominent trade unionist, in 1917 but soon after went to prison to serve a four-month sentence. She began to be more of an advocate for socialism and broke with Vida Goldstein and worked more with the Victorian Socialist Party.

Tom and Adela were founding members of the Communist Party of Australia but soon left owing to what they saw as factionalism. Adela wrote her last article for the Australian Communist in 1922 and both she and Tom moved off in a radically different political direction. After a difficult period in the Seamen’s Union Tom became an anti-communist campaigner and Adela wrote for a deeply Conservative magazine initially called Pounds, Shillings and Pence but subsequently called Pioneers.

Shortly before her death in 1928 her mother Emmeline, who had similarly become right wing, wrote to Adela regretting the rift that had occurred between them.

In 1929 Adela formed the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire which was anti-communist, pro-family and -Christianity and a strong advocate of the benefits of the British Empire. She wrote for the journal of the Guild - Empire Gazette - and by 1931 was earning an income from the Guild which eased the couple’s financial difficulties. She argued for industrial peace in the face of high unemployment and advocated cooperation between employers and workers. In that capacity she addressed an anti-miners meeting attacking the Miners Federation and other trade unions.

Adela and Tom became more involved in foreign policy and by 1936 became pro-German and attacked peace groups in Australia and throughout the world for being the recipients of ‘Moscow Gold’. They became advocates for fascism and stout defenders of Nazi Germany, including support for anti-semitism. In 1938 the President of the Guild of Empire resigned in response to Adela’s increasing extremism.

After going to Japan as guests of the Japanese Tourist Bureau they became advocates for the Japanese cause and put forward the view that Japan would be a better ally than the United States. They joined the strongly anti-communist Australia First movement but, after Pearl Harbour the organisation were denounced as ‘traitors’ to Australia. In March 1942 Adela was arrested and interned. In October, in echoes of her previous life in Britain, she began a hunger strike in order to obtain her release. Her specific need was to be with her seriously ill husband and Tom subsequently died in April 1943. His death marked the end of her involvement in politics and she worked as a nurse. She died in 1961, having been received into the Catholic Church the previous year.

The Working Class Movement Library has a wealth of material on the Pankhurst family to come in and read, but Adela has attracted less biographical interest. There are some general studies such as Emmeline and her daughters by Iris Noble [I35], The Pankhursts by Martin Pugh [I40] and The fighting Pankhursts by David Mitchell [A13]. Sylvia Pankhurst’s The suffragette movement [H44] deals with the contribution of Adela, but the principal work is Adela Pankhurst: the wayward suffragette by Verna Coleman [JS50] which is very comprehensive on her time in Australia.