1920 Sylvia Pankhurst was sentenced to six months in prison for publishing
articles in the Workers’
London dockers not to load ships with arms to be used against the Bolsheviks.
At her trial she declared: ‘Capitalism is a wrong system of society and it has
got to be smashed – I would give my life to smash it.’ While she was in
Holloway prison Pankhurst wrote the poems that became Writ on Cold Slate
. It was the product of a period
of intense and unrelenting activism by Pankhurst on behalf of the East London Federation
of Suffragettes, campaigning for votes for women, and against
the First World War. During these years she was imprisoned fifteen times.
published in 1922, the book takes its title from the refusal of the prison authorities
to allow Sylvia Pankhurst any writing materials, so she had to use chalk
to write what she called ‘faithful lines upon inconsistent slate’. Writ on Cold
is a classic account of
life in a women’s prison – hardships and consolations,
loneliness and comradeship, cruelty and kindness. It’s a book about
poor food, hard beds, jangling keys, cleaning-duties, exercise yards, force-feeding
and padded-cells, ‘dark days of madness’ lived between ‘deep despair’
and ‘desperate rage.’ Above all, it’s a book about the stories of the working-class
women Pankhurst met in prison – the young and the old, the homeless
and the hungry, mothers, pregnant women and babies born in captivity
– ‘dregs from the ancient system’s wheel of waste’.