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Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst feared her telephone would be ‘wiretapped’

Documents found in the BT Archives revealed Ms Pankhurst feared for her privacy and that of other citizens.

Sylvia Pankhurst feared the practice of installing duplicate phone lines put citizens’ privacy at risk, newly found letters show (AHRC/Simon Jacobs/PA)
Sylvia Pankhurst feared the practice of installing duplicate phone lines put citizens’ privacy at risk, newly found letters show (AHRC/Simon Jacobs/PA)

Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst lobbied the Post Office against the practice of installing duplicate telephone lines over fears they could be used to intercept private calls, newly discovered letters have revealed.

Ms Pankhurst – who was herself the subject of an MI5 surveillance operation – wrote to the Postmaster General raising concerns that duplicate lines opened the door to “improper use by unscrupulous persons”.

In two letters found in the BT Archives in Holborn, central London, she argued that the practice was “opposed to the best interests of the community and contrary to public policy”.

She received a response to the first letter, which was dated February 6 1934, but internal, handwritten notes between Post Office employees showed they were instructed to “stonewall” Ms Pankhurst if she sent any further correspondence.

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Notes between Post Office staff agreeing to “Stonewall” suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst over her fears her phone calls could be intercepted (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

It emerged in 2004 that MI5 had monitored Ms Pankhurst’s movements and intercepted her letters in the 1930s and 1940s after previously classified government files were released.

Among the documents were references to MI5’s “telephone checks” and other intercepted calls.

The file contained information on her fight for women to be granted the vote and her work as part of the Worker’s Suffrage Federation going back as far as 1914.

Ms Pankhurst’s fears about duplicate phone lines were sparked by a news story about a gynaecologist who was struck off following an affair with a patient, the letters revealed.

The relationship was exposed by the husband of the patient who arranged 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 his wife’s calls.

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Detail of newspaper articles relating to newly discovered letters from Sylvia Pankhurst.at the BT Archive in Holborn, London (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

The letters were discovered by Dr Sarah Jackson – an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University.

Dr Jackson, who was conducting the research as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) fellowship, 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.”

Dr Jackson told the Press Association: “Buried in the files were two letters from Pankhurst about an extension line that had been installed in her home.

“The first response from the Post Office indicated that this was a normal extension line, but Pankhurst knew it wasn’t because she already had a normal extension line installed in her home.”

Although Pankhurst’s second letter went unanswered, the notes between employees at the Post Office suggests that responses were drafted but never sent.

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AHRC researcher Dr Sarah Jackson at the BT Archive in Holborn, London with newly discovered letters from Sylvia Pankhurst (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

Employees were instead instructed to ignore – “stonewall” – her if she wrote again.

Dr Jackson said: “It is quite clear that the Post Office knew about the extension line.

“We don’t know whether her concerns that her phone was being tapped were part of wider concerns about privacy, but the timing of the thirties when MI5 were actively monitoring her behaviour suggests she knew she was being monitored.

“These concerns are not new. People talk about spying being the second-oldest profession.”

Dr Jackson also suggested Ms Pankhurst’s concerns were part of her wider ideology: “She was very much a socialist.

“This is a really good example of Pankhurst. People only think about the militant suffragettes, but Pankhurst was quieter than her sister. Christabelle stole the limelight.

“Sylvia was very involved in Ethiopia, working on causes to do with eradicating fascism and poverty.”

Professor Roey Sweet, AHRC’s director of partnerships and engagement, said: “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.”

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