Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.
Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.
Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.
Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.
1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.
By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.
During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.
During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.
The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.
Sources and Further Reading
Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].
Couzin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Saltaire Society Scotland. No date, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/awards/outstanding-women/2015-nominees/helen-crawfurd/
Simkin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/CRIcrawfordH.htm
Todd, Amy. “Women and Peace: Helen Crawfurd.” On History. Last modified 6th May 2019, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://blog.history.ac.uk/2019/05/women-and-peace-helen-crawfurd/