E. Sylvia Pankhurst May 1917
First published: in Women’s Dreadnought, 26 May 1917;
Marked up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive.
The great Whitechapel and Commercial Roads run through the heart of the London Jewish and immigrant quarter. Russians, Romanians, Armenians, peoples of all oppressed nationalities live here, Jews forming the majority, for Jews, the people who have no country, are always most cruelly oppressed by tyrannical Governments.
Under the grey skies of this northern [European] city the people of the East still cling to the gay, rich colours they knew in lands where the sun pours from the cloudless blue sky unhindered by smoke or mist.
In the shops of the Whitechapel Road are vivid magenta and emerald coloured blouses in a style quite other than that which British workers obtain where they go shopping in Poplar or Bow. On the stalls of the open markets are gorgeous pine patter stuffs, exceedingly low in price. A man passes by with a silk embroidered bed-quilt over his shoulder: its brilliant magenta-pink and ultra marine blue flash down the dingy street.
Old women fruit-sellers, who might have stepped from a picture of the Rialto by Carpaccio or Bellini, or who might have sat with their wares by the roadside watching Jesus on his way to work in Joseph’s shop. One sees old ladies with wigs of stiff brown hair, relics of the head coverings which were once de rigueur for Jewish matrons.
It is a hive of industry. Almost every house has its tailoring, cap-making, fur-dressing, watching-making, millinery or other business. Behind the houses, erected in what were once their gardens, are further workrooms, where girls are bending over sewing machines, and tailors with long beards and black skull caps are sitting cross-legged at their work.
The teeming human population is packed away in any spaces not occupied by the industries from which they live. They are huddled closely together in block dwellings where trades also are carried on; in houses built for a single family which now shelter several families and branches of industry: in tiny hovels built in back courts and alleys with high walls barring out the sunlight and passages between the buildings sometimes barely three feet wide.
Everywhere is careful thrift and busy labour. Behind the tobacconist’s counter the mother and daughter are making cigarettes: the daughter, with the pile of fragrant golden shreds before her, rolls them, the mother cuts the ends with a pair of curved clippers. In the tailor’s shop the husband and wife leave their work to serve the customer, and the wife finds time also to prepare appetising dishes from cheap ingredients, according to the elaborate rites of the Jewish faith.
To the smoke and squalor and devitalising atmosphere of this commercial city, on whose ground landlords exploit alike the native and the immigrant population, these Eastern peoples have brought with them the stores of energy possessed by those whose forefathers have lived a simple life. This energy may ebb from their city-bred descendants, but it is present.
One sees evidence of it in that most miserable of alleys which is built close up to the high wall of the railway, so that the rooms of the houses there never see the full light of day. The street borders upon the foreign quarter: its inhabitants are mainly British and deeply sunk in poverty, unfortunate people who can afford to live in no better place. All is drab and hopeless; cracked windows with dingy rags for curtains, weary, ill-clad women, pale and thin-legged children. One house stands out from the all-prevailing squalor: on its window skills are wooden tubs painted bright green in which flowers are growing. Jewish immigrants live there; they earn perhaps no more money than their British neighbours, but they have health and energy; whilst the fathers and mothers of the British families in the street are casual workers in poor health, people who are breaking down in the ruthless struggle for existence. But such contrasts one also sees amongst our native population: contrasts springing from similar causes.
For the most part the Eastern immigrants are skilled in many handicrafts, not spoiled by long contact with highly sub-divided modern industrial processes in which the workers are merely feeders of machines and they have taught their children to be tradesmen.
“They take your work”, politicians with special ends to serve cry to the British people, and the despairing toilers in times of unemployment take up the tale: “They take our work!”
Under socialism, as today in our homes, we all shall benefit from the ready service of those who love work for its own sake. Their efforts, undeflected by the private capitalist, will go directly to increase the common stock in which all will share, and raise the common average of necessaries and adornments.
Even under the present capitalist system war has made plainer than ever before the value of labour, because the withdrawal of men to fight and of men and women to make instruments of slaughter has increased the importance of every productive pair of hands. We lack hands to cultivate the soil, to build ships to replace those which are being destroyed so wantonly from day to day, and to carry on all forms of industry.
And yet some men and women would clear out that hive of industry in East London. What farmer would be so foolish as to smoke out his hive of honey bees, leaving untouched the wasps’ nest in his orchard. Yet we may liken the East End, with its teeming population of British and foreign workers, to a hive of bees; and the West End rich, who in the main live merely upon the work of others, to the wasps that eat the farmer’s apples.
The British people long read with horror of the Russian anti-semitic pogroms, but now, alas, we have had a pogrom of our own, and as in Russia under the Tsar’s dominion, our British pogrom was carried out by the police.
On Friday night strange things took place in Whitechapel. Two young milliners, Misses R. and A.C., who had been to the Imperial Cinema at the King’s Hall, Commercial Road, came out to find themselves in the midst of a throng of people, who were being hustled and pushed this way and that by masses of police and some Australian soldiers. A number of motor lorries filled with men and boys were drawn up in the road.
The girls saw a lad pause, as if in surprise, to look into one of the lorries, and then saw him seized by police and bundled in. The police were catching at any men they saw and pushing them roughly into a billiard club next door to the picture palace. The girls walked on: police seemed to be everywhere, and just past New Road they saw the police dragging men out of a restaurant. A police inspector roughly pushed Miss R.C. “Oh don’t push!” she protested, whereat he struck her on the face, bruising her at the side of the eye.
“You swine, to hit my sister!” cried Miss A.C., whereat the Inspector struck her to the ground. “Charge them!” he called out to a constable. The girls were dragged off to Lemon Street Police Station, which was thronged with men and boys. There the girls were searched and put in a cell lighted only by grating.
At 11.45 p.m. they begged the woman searcher to tell their parents where they were, and again when they were charged at 12.15 or 12.30 they pleaded with the officer who received the charge to send a message to their home. One of them called to an inspector who was passing the cell, “Do my parents know?” whereupon he shut the grating and left them in the dark.
The distracted father went from place to place, from police station to hospital, searching for them. On arriving he was at first told they were not there and only learnt of their presence on a second visit at four a.m. At six a.m- they were released to him and ordered to appear in court next day, where they were fined £2 each for insulting behaviour. “Four pounds out of the family! Two pounds were all I earned last week! To strike me, and then make me pay for it!” protested Miss C.
But all over Whitechapel similar things were happening. Miss B—, a girl of 20, coming home with her father, aged 46, and her brother, aged 16, to their tobacconist’s shop in the Commercial Road, suddenly found her father dragged away from her. “Why are you taking my father?” she protested. The policeman twisted her arm, and flung her aside. Then she saw that her brother had disappeared. Her father was kept till twelve p.m.; her brother till 4 p.m.
A man ran out of his house in his shirt-sleeves on hearing a noise of shouting. He was bundled into a motor lorry.
Miss C., of Elder Street, Norton Folgate, on her way home, was held up by the crowd which had gathered outside Commercial Road Section House. Quite suddenly and without warning she was pushed off the pavement by a policeman who used foul language and in endeavouring to get out of the crowd she was again assaulted and insulted by a man whom she took to be a policeman in plain clothes.
Restaurants and clubs were raided; men were seized by the road side, and dragged from trams and buses. Some were dragged either by policemen or driven in motor lorries to Lemon Street Police Station or to the Section House in Commercial Street. Some were hustled into clubs and restaurants, either for examination or detention until they could be removed to the Police Station or Section House. Some men who showed papers were allowed to go free, but in what seems to have been by far the larger number of cases those who arrested them refused to look at their papers until several hours later.
In Whitechapel the number of men and boys detained is estimated to be from 1,200 to 1,500 or 2,000. Some put the number as high as three or four thousand. Yet only nine men were charged in Court as absentees, and only four were handed over the Military Authorities.
Middle-aged men and boys under sixteen years were taken. Some of the lads were young enough to cry, and one bald-headed man who said he was a grandfather was beaten by several policemen and was bleeding at the mouth. In the Section House especially, men and boys were crowded together in dark rooms scarcely capable of containing the numbers that were forced into them, and treated with wanton violence.
Mr S.G., a discharged soldier, of Kingsland Road, was at the St Mary’s Temperance Club in the Whitechapel Road when the police entered at 10.30pm. He at once went up to the inspector, telling him that he was a discharged soldier, and offered to show his papers. The inspector brushed him aside with a threat that something would be done to him if he were not quiet, and handed him over to two constables who put the “arm-lock” on him and took him to the Section House. At 11.45 his papers were examined by an officer, and he was allowed to go at 12.45.
Mr J.G., another discharged soldier, of Shoreditch, was taken at the same place. He also volunteered to show his papers, but the police refused to look at them. He was taken to the Section House, and put into a crowded room. He was told by an Australian soldier who was at the door to “push back”. Mr G. said: “It is impossible; there is such a crowd behind me.” The soldier hit him in the stomach. A policeman standing by the soldier took out his truncheon, and hit Mr G. on the shoulder; he was then dragged from the crowd, and handed over to a police-sergeant. The sergeant threw him into a cell. Mr G. was discharged two hours later.
An Australian soldier took off his coat, and offered to fight anyone in the room. A discharged soldier, who was there under arrest, said, “You are a disgrace to the uniform you are wearing.” Whereat the soldier knocked him senseless.
Mr P., yet another discharged soldier taken at the same place, showed the discharged badge which he was wearing, but was told that he might have bought it, and was detained for some hours afterwards. His brother, aged 15, was kept till four a-m- at the Section House.
A father who took his son’s papers to the Section House was asked his age. He answered, “Forty-seven”. “Come in then; in you go!” was the reply and he was dragged inside.
All Whitechapel is astonished and dismayed. The lads and girls are indignant, the older people speak with a melancholy disillusionment.
Mrs S. and her husband are Russians, they keep a shop in the City, but live in Whitechapel. Mrs S. said: “I could never had imagined such a thing would happen. They seized on men walking quietly along and all were so frightened they got in as quickly as they could, or went with the policeman so quietly, you might have thought they were organised! The police took boys of 15 – kids, you know.” She went to the Section House to inquire after her husband, who was arrested. The police refused to give her any information, but she saw one of them hit a little boy, who cried bitterly.
Mr S., a kindly, serious man, said that men who had been examined at the Section House were re-arrested by other constables before they go to the corner of Commercial Road. “It is a very bad system,” he said sadly, “to or three hundred men in a room and if one of them only wants to look out, the policemen bang him on the head.”
Not only was Mr S. arrested, but his two brothers.
Mr H.S. saw many acts of violence in the street. A man was knocked down by the police, and the man’s brother protested that he suffered from fits, but the police kicked him as he lay there. A Russian, who was arrested said, “I came from Paris, and I have to go back there tomorrow”. A policeman seized him by the throat and said, “If I had my way, I’d have all your throats cut.”
Mr H.S. was himself arrested. He saw about 60 boys crowded into a cell so tightly that they could scarcely move: some fainted. A constable immediately took him by the throat and struck him, but another, looking at the book, admitted that it had been stamped. Then a constable seized H.S. by the arms and using him as a battering ram thrust him far in amongst a crowd of men packed into a small, dark, filthy room. The police kept striking the men at the door, and calling: “Get back, you swine; get back or I’ll murder you!” as the men within struggled for air.
Upstairs there were only 12 or 14 men in a large room. “And they imagine such things will make us fight for them,” he said. “I will not fight, and kill other men. I want to fight no one. If they pass a law to force Russians into the Army I have my business here, my wife is an English girl, but I will go to a neutral country and if they will not let me go they may taken me and shoot me: that I cannot help, only I will not fight. In Russia there is no law for objectors: they are shot.” He spoke earnestly, with sometimes a little flickering smile and one felt that, just so, with his head held erect and refusing a bandage for his clear eyes, he would stand to wait the shots.
Mrs E., a restaurant keeper, said that police and soldiers suddenly entered her premises and ordered that no one should move. At first she thought that a robbery or murder must have been committed. They dragged men and boys in from the street, kept them prisoners for a time, and then dragged them away. “Had my boy to go?” she said, afraid, “he is only 16”. The policeman told her to be silent. She never saw anything like it, except in Russia under the Tsar’s government and never there on such an extensive scale.
A correspondent writes that one of his friends was returning home when a constable arrested him. On the way to the station the policeman said: “Are you a Jew? You look like one.” “No” replied the prisoner: “you can see my registration card” The constable answered “Oh never mind; as you are not a bloody Jew I don’t think I shall detain you after all.” Says our correspondent: “Such an example of rank anti-semitism is worthy of old Tsar-ridden Russia!”
Yes, this is the first British anti-semitic pogrom: let us hope that we never seen another, for such customs once started are apt to grow more cruel and violent.
In Russia, whenever the people struggled more desperately for their freedom the police were instructed to organise a pogrom against the Jews and always the authorities strove to make the Russian people believe that the cause of their troubles, the enemy that they must fight, was not Tsardom, but the Jews. When war broke out with Germany it was declared by the police that the Jews were spies and on 9 January 1916 an official circular to the police department inciting anti-Jewish propaganda was sent to all Governors, Prefects and Local Authorities.
The Russian government, desiring that Jews should fighting in its army, promised to withdraw this circular, but on 3 June 1916, Tshenkeli complained that it was still being distributed and that others containing most hideous and unwarrantable accusations had been issues. As a result, many massacres took place, women and girls were outraged, old men were hung by the roadside.
But now Free Russia has granted freedom to the Jews and we should like to believe that anti-semitism is altogether banished from Russia. Are we to have a recrudescence of that old disgraceful savagery in this country?
The Conventions with Allied States Bill, which is passing through Parliament, will give the power to force the subjects of Russia, or of any other Allied Power, into the British Army. In the Bill as it stands they are allowed no option to go either to a neutral country or to the land of their birth. We offered free untrammelling hospitality to these fugitives: now our government holds them as prisoners, refusing them leave to go, refusing even the meagre rights of conscientious objection granted to British men. Yet the Jews were the earliest conscientious objectors.
There is much talk today of creating a Jewish state in Palestine and granting self-government to them there under British rule. Will the Jews be made conscripts also in Palestine? Anti-Jewish pogroms continue here. British mothers and fathers, you cannot save your sons by sending the sons of other nationalities to the slaughter! It is not these poor workers but powerful individuals who made the war and refuse to let it end!