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SYLVIA'S 'WOMEN WORKERS OF ENGLAND' PROJECT

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THE NORTHERN PAINTING TOUR

By Jacqueline Mulhallen

In summer 1907, Sylvia Pankhurst set off on a tour of the north of England and part of Scotland to make paintings and write articles about the condition of women workers. Although interrupted by requests to support the Women’s Social and Political Union at by-elections, she continued this tour until Christmas. Cradley Heath in Staffordshire was her first stop, where the women worked making nails and chains with average earnings at five shillings a week, not allowed to take the more highly skilled work. The area is known as the Black Country. Sylvia described it as a ‘blighted countryside’ with ‘a hideous disregard of elementary decencies in housing and sanitation’. At Leicester, the industry which employed women was shoe and boot making. She commented on the monotony of this: ‘always toecaps’. Ironically, the comment of the women watching her paint was, ‘I should never have the patience to do it’.

Sylvia painted the women working in the coal industry at the pit brow in Wigan. The bankswomen earned less than half what men did for the same job. When the coaltubs came to the surface in the cage from the pits, they entered the cage, dragged the tubs out and gave them a push to send them rolling off along the railway lines. The ‘pit brow lassies’ met the tubs and pushed, dragged and guided them on their way to the sorting screens, long belts which moved continuously and carried the coal with them, turning the points and pushing them towards the receiver where they were emptied. On either side of the sorting screens, rows of women picked out pieces of stone, wood and other waste stuff and removed what stuck to the coal, sometimes with their fingers. At the Potteries, Sylvia made paintings and drawings of women working in the pottery industry, where they were debarred from more highly skilled jobs but turned the wheels for men throwers, trod the lathe for men turners; they earned 7/- a week. Lead colic, jaundice and lead paralysis were among the industrial diseases here and stillborn babies or ones who died soon after birth were common. Lead glaze saved fuel.

When Sylvia went to Scarborough, she was pleased that the Scottish women, who moved along the east coast in the wake of the herrings, appeared to have a healthier outdoor life, singing and chattering over the fish they cleaned and packed into barrels. At Berwick, half the farm hands were women, ‘stooking’ or setting up the sheaves that had been left lying on the ground by the (male) reapers; threshing in the barns, making straw ropes, loading produce on a cart. Her final stop was at a Glasgow cotton mill, where she made a number of paintings of the women workers but found the spinning room so hot she almost fainted. The operatives told her they were all made sick by the heat and bad air at first. The ring-spinning room where the children worked was the worst of all.

In his book Sylvia Pankhurst: Artist and Crusader (1979), Dr Richard Pankhurst drew on the articles which Sylvia wrote on these trades in the magazine Votes for Women, 1908-1911; and reproduced some of her paintings and drawings. There is a possibility that many more are extant. Richard remarks that none of the paintings survive from Cradley Heath, where Sylvia went out to paint every day. In 1991, however, I found a copy of The London Magazine, 1908, which accompanied an article by Sylvia with reproductions of several of her paintings not included in any known collection. The frontispiece was a full colour reproduction of a chain maker at work. The others, in black and white, included pit brow lassies, shoemakers, a nailmaker and a cotton spinner. The price and the content of the magazine suggest it was intended for a middle-class readership and it is possible that readers bought the paintings. If so, it would be wonderful to know where they are.

JACQUELINE MULHALLEN is a writer with a special interest in Sylvia Pankhurst. She is also an actor. In the 1990s she formed a theatre group to tour a play about her called Sylvia read about it here.