Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932

Key political figures of the Red Clydeside period

Helen Crawfurd (1877-1954)

Michael Byers 2002 Glasgow Digital Library

Helen Crawfurd - a glorious life of struggle

Helen Crawfurd Anderson was born in 1877 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, the fourth daughter in a family of seven (Helen having three sisters and three brothers). Helen's father was a master baker who ran two bakeries in the Gorbals, and he was also a member of the local Conservative Party, who represented Tory interests in the Glasgow branch of the Operative Bakers Association. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was still a young girl, her father being offered a better position within the bakery company, but they returned to Glasgow in 1894 when Helen was in her late teens. Helen was raised in a deeply religious environment, her father being a strict Church of Scotland Presbyterian and her mother a confirmed Baptist. However, both parents encouraged political and religious discussion in the home and allowed Helen and her brothers and sisters to read widely. Not unsurprisingly, given this background, religion played an important role in the early adult life of Helen Crawfurd. She attended and hosted evangelical Sunday school meetings in Glasgow, and it was in her capacity as a Sunday school teacher that she met her husband the Reverend Alexander Montgomerie Crawfurd, whom she married in 1898.

However, Helen became increasingly disillusioned with the church during the early years of her married life, especially its teachings regarding the position of women in society, which she believed actively promoted discrimination against women. Around the period of 1900-01 Helen joined the Womens Movement, her interest captured by her readings of the works of Josephine Butler, and she began to engage with other feminists in meetings and discussion groups throughout the Glasgow region. By 1910 Helen had found further expression for her suffrage beliefs in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation founded in 1903 with the purpose of securing the vote for women. Helen fully endorsed the militant tactics adopted by the WSPU leadership towards securing the vote for women, and Helen herself became active in militant politics for the first time soon afterwards. In 1912 she broke the windows of the Liberal Minister of Education's residence in central London, for which she was arrested and sentenced to one month's imprisonment in Holloway Prison. This episode proved to be the beginning of Helen's career as a militant suffragette. In 1913 she was arrested for attacking police officers who were attempting to arrest the suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst at a public meeting in St. Andrews Halls in Glasgow. Although released later that night without charge, Helen was promptly re-arrested the following night for smashing the windows of the army recruiting offices in Glasgow, and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment in Duke Street prison in Glasgow. It was during this term of imprisonment that Helen experienced her first hunger strike, which lasted eight days before she was released under the terms of the 'Cat and Mouse Act'. On her release Helen remained undaunted by her prison ordeal and continued to campaign for women's suffrage, becoming one of the most popular platform speakers in the Scottish suffragette movement. It was at one of these open-air meetings in Perth, organised to protest against the imprisonment of two suffragettes weeks earlier in Perth, that Helen was again arrested in the summer of 1914. Helen was charged with making inflammatory comments and was sentenced to one month's imprisonment, however she once again went on hunger strike and was released from Perth prison five days into her sentence. Shortly after her release and return to Glasgow, Helen was blamed for a bomb attack which damaged the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow's west end. The police charged Helen with this offence and she 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'.

Helen's involvement in the WSPU ceased shortly after the outbreak of the first world war because of the pro-war stance of Emily Pankhurst and the WSPU leadership. However, Helen's involvement in the women's movement was undoubtedly one of the main factors which contributed to her developing a socialist awareness, and prepared her for her entry into the world of radical politics. Helen's political awakening was also advanced by her experiences as wife of the manse in a parish which served the spiritual needs of the residents of the Anderson district of Glasgow. Life as the wife of a minister in this deprived slum area of Glasgow opened Helen's eyes to the type of misery and suffering endured by the working classes in Glasgow. Helen was appalled by the high rates of infant mortality and the degradation of families living in the slums of Anderson and throughout Glasgow, telling a friend in a letter of:

'Human misery indescribable... appalling misery and poverty of the workers in Glasgow, physically broken down bodies, bowlegged, rickets... this appalled me and the drunkenness at that time was to me a horror'

Helen's political activism and involvement in radical politics entered an intense phase in the later part of 1914 when she firstly joined Independent Labour Party (ILP) and then began to organise Scottish women in a campaign to oppose Britain's involvement in the first world war. In 1915 Helen, along with her close friend Agnes Dollan, set up the Glasgow branch of the Women's International League in an attempt to show solidarity with the women of other European countries who were also opposed to the war. However, the league itself was a non-confrontational and politically moderate body, being made up of a largely middle class membership which was non-socialist (if not anti-socialist) in nature. In an attempt to attract more working-class women and to forge a more militant opposition to militarism, Helen and her good friends Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan organised a women's peace conference in Glasgow in June 1916. From this initiative the Women's Peace Negotiation Crusade emerged in Glasgow, and a national body of the Women's Peace Crusade (WPC) was launched a year later in 1917, with Helen as honorary secretary. The WPC was pro-active in its opposition to the war, holding street meetings in working-class areas of industrial towns and cities throughout the central belt of Scotland, and on at least one occasion it was reported that WPC disrupted a meeting of Glasgow Town Council by distributing anti-war leaflets whilst it was in session.

Whilst Helen was immersed in her anti-war work during 1915, private landlords with properties in munitions districts of Glasgow saw the new demand for housing in these areas as an opportune moment to increase rents. These increases, in a period of already steep rises in the cost of living for many working-class families, were deeply unpopular throughout the munitions districts. They were seen by many as a blatant example of war-time profiteering by unscrupulous landlords, at a time when many of the husbands and sons of those expected to pay the increase in rents were paying the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe. In her capacity as secretary of the Glasgow Women's Housing Association, Helen helped organise a campaign of non-payment of rents and harassment of landlords' deputies who came calling for rents. The campaign succeeded in gaining widespread popular support in the working-class districts affected by the increases, along with political support from the ILP and industrial support from the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC). It was this triple alliance, along with the campaigning skills of women like Helen Crawfurd, Agnes Dollan and Mary Barbour, which enabled the working classes of Glasgow to achieve their victory over the landlords. A victory which was exemplified in the passing of the Rent Restrictions Act of 1915 which froze working class rents, not only in Glasgow but throughout Britain, for the duration of the first world war.

Helen's close involvement in the anti-war movement and the Clydeside rent strikes brought her into close contact with other Clydeside socialists and Marxists; men like John Maclean and the leaders of the CWC on Clydeside. Indeed Helen was invited to host a series of lectures at Maclean's Scottish Labour College, and along with Willie Gallacher, Emanuel Shinwell and Eleanor Stewart she appeared before magistrates in Glasgow for her role in the demonstrations against the deportation of CWC shop stewards after the dilution protests in the Glasgow munitions factories. By the end of the first world war Helen had established herself as a national political figure and was appointed vice-chairperson of the Scottish Divisional Council of the ILP in 1918.

Election address of Helen Crawfurd, 1921

By 1920 however, Helen was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political stance of the ILP. She began to view their policies as lacking in any real radicalism, and considered the ILP a reformist rather than a strictly socialist party. In 1920 two events happened which would lead to Helen's break with the ILP and her future adherence to communism. Firstly, she attended the second congress of the Third International in Moscow, at which she was afforded an interview with Lenin. She left this conference deeply impressed with the work of the Soviet government and also impressed by Lenin's belief in the important role which women had to play in the global communist movement. Secondly, on her return from Moscow, Crawfurd worked tirelessly for the affiliation of the ILP to the Communist International. However, affiliation was rejected by the ILP at its annual conference in 1920, and Crawfurd left the party in 1921 to join the fledgling Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Within months of joining the CPGB Helen was appointed to the executive committee and given the task of increasing female membership of the CPGB. 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.

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.

In 1944 Helen announced her retirement from public life and went to live with her sister in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. This period of retirement was short-lived however, and in 1946 Helen was elected the first woman councillor on Dunoon Council, a position she held for two years until ill health forced her to retire. Helen married again in 1947, to fellow Communist Party member George Anderson, and even at this late stage in her life Helen was keen to engage with others in discussing politics, initiating a discussion group in Dunoon for the study of Marxist literature.

Helen's final years were spent writing her memoirs, which still remain unpublished, although a draft of these memoirs is held at the Gallacher Memorial Library in Glasgow Caledonian University Library.

After a short illness, Helen Crawfurd died at her home in Dunoon on 18 April 1954, aged 77.