Exploring Sylvia Pankhurst’s visit to the Little Commonwealth. By Gareth Beynon

‘Love and freedom are vital to the creation and upbringing of a child’: exploring Sylvia Pankhurst’s visit to the Little Commonwealth

Sylvia Pankhurst, with her friend and East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF) colleague Norah Smyth, visited the Little Commonwealth in Dorset on 23 October 1915.[i] She was one of around a dozen suffragettes whose presence at the Little Commonwealth is attested to by a signature in the organisations visitor book, held at the Planned Environment Therapy Archives at MB3. While digitising the book in the run up to Women’s History Month 2022 I became curious about what might have motivated Sylvia to make the journey from East London to rural Dorset in the autumn of 1915.

1 Sylvia Pankhurst and Norah Smyth’s signatures in the Little Commonwealth visitor’s book

Today the Little Commonwealth is perhaps best known for the controversy surrounding its end. The allegations against its superintendent, Homer Lane, which ultimately led to its closure in 1918 were first made in 1917. Sylvia and the other suffragettes who visited the site would have been visiting a place known for its attempts to provide a democratic and nurturing environment for ‘delinquent’ children and young people where they were taught life skills with an emphasis on manual work. Modelled on the Junior Republic movement in the United States, the Little Commonwealth took in young ‘delinquents’ and introduced them to a democratic community where the residents were encouraged to take shared responsibility for the running of the site. Positions of authority were elected and decisions discussed in general meetings. The Little Commonwealth presented itself as an experiment in utopian living that many suffragettes, social reformers and educationalists wanted to see in practice.

Lane spent a significant portion of his time in London giving talks to promote the work of the Little Commonwealth, often alongside its main financial backer George Montagu, the Ninth Earl of Sandwich from 1916. Sylvia’s interest in the project seems to date back to one of the earliest of these meetings, predating Lane’s involvement in the project, to 1911 when Montagu organised a meeting announcing his intention to begin a British establishment for boys along the lines of the Junior Republic movement in the United States. At this meeting Sylvia and fellow suffragette Lady Constance Lytton spoke from the floor to insist that the Little Commonwealth admit girls too, which was accepted by the Little Commonwealth’s organisers by the time it opened in 1913. That girls and boys had equal voting rights, even though boys tended to dominate the senior elected positions, made the Little Commonwealth of obvious interest to supporters of women’s suffrage.

While Sylvia and Montagu may seem unusual political allies, at this time she was a socialist moving increasingly towards communism, he was a Conservative, they both shared a longstanding and genuine commitment to penal reform. Indeed, the 1911 meeting at which the Little Commonwealth was launched was hosted by the Penal Reform League. The treatment of the suffragettes in prison, especially the horrors of force feeding, meant that many of them became advocates of prison reform. Lady Lytton was not force fed when she was arrested under her own name but when disguised as ‘Jane Wharton’, a working class suffragette, she was subjected to this torture and her horror at what she experienced goes a long way to explaining her presence at this meeting. As for Sylvia, she would go on to be imprisoned for window breaking in 1913 and was on a hunger and thirst strike for over a month, meaning that she was subjected daily to force feeding. During an earlier prison sentence in 1906 Sylvia had been instructed by her mother Emmeline and older sister Christabel, the leaders of the main suffragette organisation in Britain, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), not to do anything to draw attention to prison conditions lest it should distract public attention from the issue of women’s suffrage. Sylvia, being Sylvia, ignored this entirely and used her considerable skills as an artist to draw sketches of life in the prison which were sold to the press to raise both awareness and funds for the prison reform movement. An experiment like the Little Commonwealth, which eschewed corporal punishment, would have been of interest to somebody who had been on the receiving end of brutal treatment at the hands of the state.

Sylvia also visited prisons in New York, Chicago and Ottawa during North American speaking tours in 1911 and 1912 underlining her interest in the condition of prisoners. I have not been able to find any evidence of her visiting either the George Junior Republic in New York State or the Ford Republic in Michigan, the American forerunners of the Little Commonwealth, although she spoke in both New York City and Detroit and may have heard about them,  a packed speaking schedule probably ruled out such visits. She did, however, break with the schedule agreed by the WSPU on several other occasions when she wanted to see for herself something which her hosts were making bold claims for. She visited historically black colleges in the south and her conversations with staff and students there led her to give a fiery speech to a women’s club in Missouri, denouncing the racism of the suffrage movement in the state and arguing that their attitude created an unnecessary obstacle to the goals of the suffrage movement by alienating potential allies in the anti-racist movement. She also travelled to Native American reservations, which her hosts claimed were allowing the remnants of the population to preserve their way of life. She was appalled by what she saw and accused her hosts of genocide. This was, let’s remember, supposed to be a fundraising tour for the WSPU. For Sylvia, seeing the reality behind the bold claims made by the patrons, organisers and supporters of institutions was essential. This was not limited to her American tour, she visited Dublin during the 1913-14 lock-out and Glasgow during the First World War to meet Russian emigres and women involved in the rent strike movement.

The First World War is of course a backdrop to the 1915 visit which cannot be ignored. At the outbreak of war the WSPU had announced that it was suspending all campaigning, whereas the ELF and other splinter organisations like United Suffragettes continued to build the movement. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the Little Commonwealth visitor book shows a disproportionate number of pacifists and other opponents of the war amongst its suffragette signatories.

The United Suffragettes was founded in 1914 by, amongst others, Emmeline and Fred Pethwick-Lawrence, former treasurers of the WSPU and editors of its newspaper Votes for Women. They had been expelled from the WSPU in 1913 following a disagreement with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst about strategy. Both were opponents of the war and Emmeline was the British organiser for the International Women’s Congress against World War One in 1915, which Sylvia had planned to attend had the UK government not suspended all shipping across the North Sea to prevent the majority of British delegates from attending; the congress would lead to the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which still operates today across 37 countries. Despite tactical disagreements, Sylvia retained a great admiration for the Pethick-Lawrences and in 1927 named her only child Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst after the three people she most admired: her father Richard, her long-time friend and probable lover the Labour politician Keir Hardie and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Emmeline was a public supporter of the Little Commonwealth and her husband Fred invested some of his significant wealth into its running. The Pethick-Lawrences appear three times in the visitor book and appear to have had an active interest in the projects running beyond the fundraising social occasions organised by the glamorous Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough. This friendship with the Pethick-Lawrences might then explain why Sylvia retained an interest in the Little Commonwealth after her intervention in the 1911 meeting.

That is not to say that Sylvia would have simply visited the Little Commonwealth because her friend told her too. The ELF at this time was working with young people and was experimenting with new kinds of community organisation. Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road, the address Sylvia Pankhurst and Norah Smyth gave in the visitor book, was the headquarters of the ELF from which a junior suffragette club for 14-18 year olds was run, the same age as the citizens at the Little Commonwealth. From September 1914 a ‘Cost Price Restaurant’ was also operated out of Women’s Hall and in 1915 the ELF began distributing milk to the mothers of underfed babies. It is therefore quite possible that Sylvia was looking to learn something about organising teenagers and how to feed large numbers of people on a budget from the Little Commonwealth.

The ambitious projects of the ELF were costly; fortunately for her, Sylvia could count on her friend Norah Smyth, who accompanied her on the trip to the Little Commonwealth. Her controlling father had forbidden Norah from going to university and when he died in 1911, leaving her the family fortune, Smyth rapidly through herself into activism with the suffragettes; within a year of her father’s death she was in hiding following an arson attack on a stately home. She is best remembered as a chauffeur and bodyguard for the Pankhursts, but this obscures her talents as an activist and photographer. She sided with Sylvia in the tactical disagreements among the Pankhursts in 1911-14, sharing Sylvia’s analysis that a large working class population within marching distance of parliament could be organised by the suffrage movement. Smyth also served as editor of the Dreadnaught, the ELF newspaper, Sylvia was unavailable, usually because she had been arrested. It is possible that, having seen the money that Smyth had invested in the ELF, Montagu, the Pethick-Lawrences and/or Homer Lane were keen for her to visit the Little Commonwealth in the hope that she would make a financial contribution to its running and that she asked her trusted friend Sylvia to come with her because she wanted her opinion on the place. If that was their plan, it appears to have been unsuccessful as there is no further record of any interaction between Norah Smyth and the Little Commonwealth; she did however continue to invest heavily in the ELF and Sylvia Pankhurst other political projects, following her into the Communist Party of Great Britain on its formation in 1920, then co-founding with her the Communist Workers’ Party in 1922. She even went so far as to sell personal possessions to keep the co-operative toy factory run by the ELFs successor organisation the Worker’s Socialist Federation from going under in 1920.

By its nature this article has been somewhat speculative; without a definitive statement from Sylvia we cannot be sure of her exact motivations for visiting the Little Commonwealth in the autumn of 1915. What we can say though is that throughout her life Sylvia showed a desire to see for herself what was going on in places she thought were significant, from moving to East London to build the ELF as a young women right through to spending her final five years living in Addis Ababa following years of campaigning for Ethiopian self-determination. Unlike her sister Christabel and mother Emmeline she did not see other progressive movements as rivals to women’s suffrage, vying for a finite amount of attention from the great and good of the land, but as allies, at least potentially, for building a better, more just world. Visiting the Little Commonwealth fits with both these trends which defined her life.


Gareth Beynon, Archivist, Mulberry Bush

[i] The main body of records for the Little Commonwealth are held by Dorset History Centre, see https://www.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/libraries-history-culture/dorset-history-centre

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