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Letters discovered in BT archive reveal Sylvia Pankhurst's wiretapping fears

Date: 18/12/2018

Letters between Sylvia Pankhurst and the Office of the Postmaster General

Newly uncovered correspondence has revealed that leading suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst expressed concerns over wiretapping, 70 years before the Government disclosed her secret surveillance by MI5 to the public.

As part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded (AHRC) research fellowship [1] at BT Archives, Dr Sarah Jackson – an Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University – discovered two letters from Pankhurst to the Postmaster General, questioning the Post Office’s practice of installing ‘duplicate telephone lines,’ enabling users to listen-in and opening the door to ‘improper use by unscrupulous persons’.

Writing from her home on 6 February 1934, Sylvia Pankhurst argued that the installation of duplicate lines for the purpose of intercepting calls would be ‘opposed to the best interests of the community and contrary to public policy’.

Although Pankhurst received a response to her first letter, additional hand-written notes between Post Office employees explained that the response to any subsequent letters must be to ‘stonewall’ Pankhurst.

It was revealed in 2004 that MI5 had monitored Pankhurst’s movements and intercepted her letters in the 1930s and 1940s. There are even references in MI5’s files to ‘telephone checks’ and other intercepted calls.

MI5 files on Sylvia Pankhurst contained information on her work to achieve women’s suffrage as part of the Worker’s Suffrage Federation going back as far as 1914.

Pankhurst’s concerns were initially triggered by a newspaper story of a gynaecologist who was struck off following an affair with a patient. Their relationship had been discovered by the husband of the patient who had made arrangements with the Post Office (which ran the UK’s telephone service at the time) to duplicate the phone line installed on his house in order to intercept calls.

Dr Sarah Jackson, Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University

Dr Sarah Jackson, Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Sifting through a file of old press cuttings about wiretapping, I was astonished to find letters from Sylvia Pankhurst to the Postmaster General revealing her concerns about surveillance. In the year that we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage, the discovery brings home once again the efforts and achievements of this remarkable woman.”

Professor Roey Sweet, Arts and Humanities Research Council Director of Partnerships and Engagement, added: “Sylvia Pankhurst is generally remembered today simply as a militant suffragette, but the exciting discovery of these letters reminds us that her fight for women’s political rights was part of her lifelong commitment to socialist and revolutionary politics, pacifism and internationalism – commitments that would have led to the phone tapping, against which she so rightly objected.”


For more information, images and to talk to Dr Sarah Jackson about the newly discovered letters please contact: Joe Lewis, Press and Social Media officer at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on 01793 416021 or joseph.lewis@ahrc.ukri.org.

Notes to Editors:

[1] The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Leadership Fellows scheme provides time for researchers to undertake focused individual research alongside collaborative activities, which have the potential to generate a transformative impact on their subject area and beyond.  Leadership Fellows awards are supported as a partnership with Research Organisations.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is part of UK Research and Innovation, funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: archaeology, area studies, the creative and performing arts, design, digital content, heritage, history, languages, philosophy and much more. This financial year we will spend approximately £98 million on research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides economic, social and cultural benefits to the UK, but contributes to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe.

You can find out more information via ahrc.ukri.org or following us on Twitter at @ahrcpress, on Facebook at @artsandhumanitiesresearchcouncil, or Instagram at @ahrcpress.

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