Walker Melvina

Melvina Walker

Melvina Walker was born in Jersey later she became a lady’s maid and she could recount many a story about the goings on amongst the ‘High Life’.

Somehow Melvina ended up as a docker’s wife in the East End of London (Poplar) and becomes centrally involved in Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End campaign’s that established a branch of the WSPU in a shop in Bow Road in 1911.

Sylvia recounted the passion of Melvina Walker: "She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full flood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood’.

Sylvia Pankhurst would often send East End working class women like Melvina to talk to women in other branches of the Women’s Social & Political Union in places like Kensington and Mayfair. Sylvia states: "Their speeches made a startling impression upon those women of another world, to whom hard manual toil and the lack of necessaries were unknown." And that she was ‘one of the most popular open air speakers in any movement in London". 

As the battle for the vote for women increased so did the tactics of the WSPU when the campaign of arson by the WSPU started in 1912, Sylvia denounced it and she was also moving towards a broader ‘socialist’ approach to women’s rights and was calling for a ‘Peoples Army’ to fight against class oppression. When Sylvia Pankhurst dared to speak on a platform alongside James Connolly at the Royal Albert Hall in 1914, a meeting demanding the release of Jim Larkin, arising from his leadership of the previous year’s Dublin Lock-out, she was summoned by her Sister Christabel the self appointed leader of the WSPU and Sylvia and the East London section were expelled from the WSPU.

The East London WSPU now became simply the ELFS  East London Federation of Suffragettes (adding the colour red to the green, white and purple of the WSPU). In March 1914, Zelie Emerson, a fellow member, suggested that they should start a socialist newspaper that focused on the problems of working women. Sylvia Pankhurst agreed and together with a small group of women made plans to produce a weekly paper for working-class women. Pankhurst favoured calling it the ‘Workers’ Mate’ but the group preferred the title suggested by Mary Paterson, the ‘Women’s Dreadnought’ and the first edition appeared on March 21st 1914.

During the World War I Melvina, Sylvia and other members of the ELFS did much to highlight the plight of East End women many of whom had husbands in the Army, forcing them and their families deeper into poverty. Melvina speaking in 1914 highlighted the impact of profiteering carried out by businesses during the War: The Sunday joint had doubled in price and it was useless to talk about a scarcity of flour and sugar, there were tons and tons of it stacked up in the docks, our men (dockers) go in and see it, so they know.

The ELFS during the war focused on relief work, opening an unemployment bureau, toy and boot factory and five children’s feeding centres, which offered free milk to mothers and a nurse to advise them on the health of their babies, a cost price restaurant.

During the War period the ELFS worked closely with dockers, seamen, gas workers, labourers, firemen and post office workers and according moved closer to the official Labour movement, affiliating to Poplar Labour Representation Committee in 1917. However, after the Russian Revolution in 1917 Melvina, Sylvia and the Federation threw themselves wholeheartedly into support for the Revolution believing a Revolution in
Britain was imminent.

They changed the name of the East London Federation of Suffragettes to the Women’s Suffrage Federation (in 1916) and then to the Workers Socialist Federation (1918). The name of their journal also changed from `Women’s Dreadnought’ to ‘Workers Dreadnought’ in 1917. The headquarters of the Workers Socialist Federation was at 400 Old Ford Road.

One of the WSF earliest supporters was Harry Pollitt (later General Secretary of the Communist Party) then living in a basement bedroom in Poplar and working as a ship repairer, he soon became involved in speaking on behalf of the WSF and also in the production of `Workers Dreadnought’ Pollitt stating "(The WSF had) some of the most self sacrificing and hardworking people, it had been my fortune to come into contact with" and, referring to Melvina Walker in particular, stating "I felt for her the same sort of affection as existed between me and my mother".

The Workers Socialist Federation where key supporters of the `Hands of Russia’ campaign, which opposed military intervention against Soviet Russia. Already Britain had set a number of military detachments to `safe guard’ British interests in Russia. The Hands off Russia Campaign was vital in ensuring Britain was not dragged into supporting the counter revolutionaries.

Melvina, as a docker’s wife, and the WSF had strong links with the dockers and seamen and as such were in a position to monitor cargo movements as Pollitt states: "Mrs Walker of Poplar toiled like a Trojan, on a shopping morning you could rely on seeing her in Crisp Street, talking to groups of women about Russia and how we must help, asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to those trying to crush the revolution".

Harry Pollitt also recalled how he Melvina and Jack Tanner had tried to explain the case for the police strike of 1919 to the dockers, but despite their best efforts they did not have an easy time in persuading them of the merits of this solidarity!

Melvina represented the Workers Socialist Federation at the Communist Unity Conference in London (which helped to establish the Communist Party) the other WSF delegates included Sylvia Pankhurst, and the WSF second in command Nora Smyth.

As the protracted discussions on Communist Unity went on, so Sylvia Pankhurst and the WSF became more and more opposed to any form of parliamentary work and any contact with the Labour Party (The WSF had been expelled from Poplar Labour party in 1919). Sylvia was also refusing to allow the Workers Dreadnought to come under the new Communist Party’s control and while Melvina and other WSF members joined the Communist Party they largely faded away.

The WSF seems to have drifted into further `ultra leftism’ by the time Melvina was part of a delegation that approached the Poplar Guardians on 31st January 1922, this time accusing them and Julia Scurr in particular of a climb down in their campaign for full unemployment relief. Melvina stating "you appear to be hopeless and are merely the bulwark between us and the capitalist class to keep us in subjection" the meeting lasted until 4.30 in the morning.

The next day the Times (1st February 1922) stated, "it is the fate of extremists to find their actions challenged by others more extreme than themselves". Of course the Poplar Guardians/Councillors did make a stand and were duly sent to Prison. Melvina herself was also sent to prison for a month for remarks she made during a speech at Limehouse Town Hall.

Michael Walker

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