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The children of Poplar | Shot at dawn | The sorrow of women


The sorrow of women
Sylvia Pankhurst lived and worked in the Borough of Poplar, not far from Upper North Road and just a few miles east of Whitechapel. ‘The war spread its huge tentacles to all sections of the people, breaking them at the Front, bleeding them of energy and joy of life in the munitions factories,’ she wrote in her memoir of wartime life.

Manufacturing weapons (in which many women were employed because of the shortage of men) itself caused death. Sylvia reported: ‘At an inquest on Lydia Gibson, an examiner at a munitions factory who died from TNT poisoning in October 1916, it was revealed that she wore neither gloves nor respirator. At an inquest on Annie Nelson, who died from the same cause, a doctor said that respirators weren’t used in the factory where she worked because the medical arguments against them were stronger than those in their favour.’ More stringent measures were introduced, but still the workers’ skin turned yellow, still they became ill, still some died.

There are many sad stories of the suffering of women and children during the war. Sarah Brown’s is only one of them. Sarah and her husband had been happy, despite their poverty. Frank had a steady job and ‘never suffered a day’s illness’. Sarah worked for a clothing factory, while still managing to look after their six children, the youngest only a few months old in 1914. But when war began many factories closed. Frank was forced by his employer to ‘enlist or go’: he went, and so did his wages. There were many men like him, who willingly volunteered because they were unemployed.

After Sarah had pawned everything she could, and had nowhere to turn, she was persuaded to go to Sylvia Pankhurst for help. Sylvia’s intervention meant that Sarah at last received some of the benefit she was entitled to under War Office rules. But issuing of funds to the dependent families of soldiers was mired in bureaucracy and budget problems: most government money was being spent on the war. When Sarah wrote to the authorities asking for arrears still due to her, her letters went unanswered. But at least she and the children now had food to eat.

In the autumn of 1915 Sarah developed a hacking cough that didn’t go away. She was told she needed hospital treatment; but there was no-one else to look after the children, and they needed the few extra shillings (about £27 pounds a week in modern money) she could earn at the sewing-machine now some factories were open again. She pretended that she was fit. But in May 1916 she collapsed and was taken to hospital; her eldest daughter, now 14, was left to cope with the younger children alone. Sarah had tuberculosis.

In July she came home, if anything more ill. So did Frank, discharged from the army because he too was ill. His army pay was stopped, and (because he was now at home) so was Sarah’s allowance. He was also refused a pension. There was nothing for it: he had to work. He grew well-practised at hiding his own poor health both at home and at work. Meanwhile Sarah’s doctor could only provide palliatives for her by paying for them himself.

Sarah was the sort of person who doesn’t wish to trouble others, so it was only accidentally that Sylvia Pankhurst heard of the Browns’ straits. She at once brought free milk for the children to their tiny two-roomed home. She found Sarah lying in bed, desperately thin and pale – and still working: sewing table mats for the factory to help feed the family’s eight mouths. She was only 38 years old, and about to die. ‘It was a shame and scandal to humanity,’ wrote Sylvia.

The eldest and youngest children huddled together listening to the two women talking about Sarah’s story. ‘For them, as for her, it was part of the history of the Great War. She saw her life shipwrecked in the whirlpool of the immense tragedy wherein millions had lost all; and she asked, with wistful pity for those who would live on after her, when this cruel war would end.’

‘A shame and scandal to humanity’
It would be 2 years before prime minister David Lloyd George famously promised to make Britain ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’, though the thousands of disabled soldiers who made it back home found a poor welcome and little to hope for. It would be 30 years and another world war before the British welfare state was founded. Today, spending on war is still a greater priority than removing the causes of human suffering, of which war is one.

On Remembrance Day we are asked to remember ‘the dead of two world wars’. That roll of millions must also include the people who died on the ‘home front’. And there is no morally valid justification for such ways of death.

Originally published in PeaceMatters



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