Australia’s Unruly Pankhurst

Geraldine FelaGeraldine Fela is a Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) student at the Australian National University (ANU) majoring in History and Arabic. She has a longstanding interest in the history of the Australian LGBT movement and in 2015 her research in this area received the ANU’s undergraduate history award, the David Campbell prize. More recently, she has become fascinated with the complicated life of Adela Pankhurst. Geraldine is a current member of the editorial team responsible for the ANU Undergraduate Research Journal, she lives in Canberra with her partner and reads everything she can about gay history.

Adela Pankhurst, what have you done?
Meddled with poison, handled a gun?

Nine months gaol from Notley Moore,

For openly pleading the cause of the poor.

R.H. Long, 1917


We will go up to Parliament to see Billy Hughes in spite of the Police. I believe in action not words!

Adela Pankhurst, September 1917


In August and September of 1917 Adela Pankhurst —revolutionary socialist, feminist and exiled daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst—was perhaps the most dangerous woman in Australia, or at the very least in Melbourne. By November of the same year she was locked up in Pentridge Prison. Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes must have breathed a sigh of relief. Adela had been “making herself a damned nuisance” for months now and he hadn’t known quite what to do with “the little devil”. [1] For Hughes prison was an answer, albeit a temporary one.

So what made Adela Pankhurst so dangerous? Why just weeks after marrying her long time comrade Thomas Walsh, did she find herself miserable and alone in the cells of Melbourne’s most infamous women’s prison? To understand this we need to look not only at her activity in late 1917 but also her years of campaigning against the Hughes government and the First World War.

Adela arrived in Australia in March of 1914 leaving an unhappy political and personal rift with her mother and sister Christabel behind her. Upon her arrival under Melbourne’s steely grey skies she threw herself into political activity. A staunch pacifist, she opposed World War One and published a widely distributed pamphlet Put Up the Sword, the goal of which was “setting forth the causes and disastrous social effects of war”. [2] Known in the leftist paper press as ‘plucky little Adela’ she did speaking tours across the country delivering her anti-war message, packing out regional town halls and inner city theatres.

Over 1915 she became increasingly dangerous to the federal Labor government. As the disastrous and gruesome Gallipoli campaign dragged on into the second half of 1915, the number of men enlisting fell. Passionately pro-British, Billy Hughes, who succeeded Andrew Fisher as Labor prime minister in October 1915, decided after visiting Britain and the Western Front in the first half of 1916 that Australia needed to introduce conscription. To maintain the nation’s contribution to the war effort, Australia’s forces, which were suffering deadly losses, would need to be replenished. Hughes, a Labor Prime Minister, would have a fight on his hands. The unions— the power base of his party—and rank and file Labor members were opposed to conscription. What followed was a bitter struggle stretched over two referendums. Adela stood proudly at the helm of the ‘No’ campaign, fighting against the conscription of working class men into what she believed was a senseless war waged “by small gangs of wealthy men” in the name of “the bastard Imperialism”. [3]

Adela spoke at countless rallies and meetings of the so-called ‘antis’ or anti-conscriptionists. These were passionate and often difficult affairs. Adela was, by most accounts, a revelatory speaker. A report from Vida Goldstein’s left wing women’s paper Woman Voter described one of her addresses in Adelaide in ecstatic terms:

Adela Pankhurst has been in Adelaide, and Adelaide is different because Adela has been in it…She did more propaganda work in a few days than all of us in a year, and she is absolutely irrefutable and irrepressible. When it was known that she was going to speak in the King’s Theatre on Sunday night, the 17th inst., it was as if the Wind had breathed over the Valley of the Dry Bones, and, behold! The Bone arose and were living, breathing men and women, who made a solid rush at the theatre and packed it from floor to ceiling… [4]

Adela spoke to adoring crowds but also faced the wrath of soldiers, some of whom loathed the anti conscription campaign, and consistently invaded and interrupted mass meetings. Worryingly for Hughes and his government, Adela showed a talent for neutralising these situations and pleading her case.

In December 1915 at the Bijou theatre in Melbourne a group of angry and drunk soldiers interrupted a mass meeting. According to the Melbourne daily The Argus they invaded the stage crying “down with the pro-German”. Adela took to the stage and made her case, arguing for “an honourable peace so that the brave men at the front could return and enjoy it”. Adela pointed to the hypocrisy of a government who wanted men to “fill up cards and go fight” but could not promise jobs upon their return and was doing nothing for their families at home. The Argus reports that the men were quiet as Adela spoke and a lull fell over the crowd. When she finished, the soldiers became rowdy again, singing the national anthem loudly to a room of silent ‘antis’. [5]

It’s impossible to know what impact Adela had on those particular soldiers, but her ability to captivate and hold even the most hostile of audiences was, by all accounts, astounding. It must have been terrifying for Hughes and his government and surveillance files suggest that over this time Adela was under an increasingly close watch. [6] Hughes’ fears were well founded. On 28 October 1916 a plebiscite was held and the ‘No’ vote won. The result split the Labor party down the middle. As far as Hughes’ conscription agenda was concerned, Adela was probably the most dangerous woman alive.

Her threat to the government only increased as Australia entered a painful stretch of wartime poverty and strife. In August and September of 1917 the states of New South Wales and Victoria were rocked by a massive strike. The strike was a spontaneous revolt against wartime hardships. Wages and standards of living were falling and the senseless carnage of the war was becoming increasingly apparent. Though the strike in the railways and coal mines sharpened the hardships of many families, who relied on coal for heating, there was mass popular support for the workers. [7]

In Melbourne huge demonstrations were held in solidarity with the strikers and, predictably, Adela led many of these. These so called ‘bread riots’ defied the War Precautions Act which forbade gatherings in certain public spaces, particularly near parliament house. The demonstrations escalated over the month of August and on the 30th Adela was arrested along with two other women. According to court reports she addressed a crowd of around 6,000, calling on them to “defy the police, break into parliament, if necessary, and see Billy Hughes to know what he will do to give food for the starving children. ” she led the demonstration in a march on Parliament House before being summarily arrested. [8]

Adela was charged and released but it seems this only sharpened her determination and willingness to push the boundaries. Following her arrest she gave a number of speeches encouraging the use of what she referred to as ‘other methods’. The demonstrations became increasingly daring, on 3 September a crowd marched on parliament, smashing shop windows as they went.

Despite this escalating activity, it wasn’t until a mass demonstration on 20 September that Adela was finally deemed too dangerous to stay on the streets. She delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of thousands, calling on them to “touch the pockets” [9] of the government and big business. As the crowd marched on parliament house troopers wielding battons halted them and a street battle broke out. The crowd dispersed and began smashing shop windows up and down Melbourne’s main streets, soon the demonstrators headed towards the wharves, smashing the office windows of a number of unpopular firms, including J. B. Ellerker Pty Ltd, which was famous for its use of scab labour during the strike. [10] In showing herself willing to incite property damage, Adela had become a threat not only to Hughes but to Australian business. It was for this demonstration that she was imprisoned in November 1917.

On 8 November Prime Minister Hughes, split from the Labor party and now leading the Nationalist party in a coalition government, announced another conscription referendum. Perhaps he hoped that with ‘Plucky little Adela’ in a cell he might have better luck the second time around. But the work of the anti-conscription campaign and of course indefatigable Adela, had torn irreparable holes in Hughes’ pro-war, pro-British agenda. On 20 December 1917, the Australian people rejected conscription once again.

Adela’s time in prison was, by all accounts, miserable. However her imprisonment is not the true tragedy of the Adela Pankhurst story. Far sadder, is the story of her political degeneration. Once a staunch communist, the rise of Stalinism in the 1920s saw her reject leftism in its entirety. Her rabid anti-communism led her further and further to the right. Throughout the 1920s she worked with the government in a number of industrial disputes, helping to break strikes. In the early 1940s she helped found the proto-fascist Australia First Movement, though this was an uneasy relationship as Adela opposed Australia’s war with Japan in the Pacific. Never comfortable with the strict atheism of her childhood, in 1960 Adela converted to Catholicism and died a year later, on 23 May 1961.

Adela ultimately betrayed the causes she fought so hard for between 1915 and 1917. She rejected feminism and the politics of class to line up behind conservative governments and even, for a time, behind the Nazi regime in Germany. This, perhaps correctly, has precluded her from fame in Australian feminist or labour history. Nevertheless, Adela was, for a moment, a courageous defender of the oppressed. The Adela of 1915,1916 and 1917 held a deep regard for human life and fought for a world that matched this. It was this conviction that made her so dangerous to Billy Hughes, a Prime Minister hell-bent on dragging working class men into the carnage of World War One.

Adela was also dangerous because she had little regard for the sanctity of property. She felt the hardships of working people deeply and was not afraid to break laws or smash glass to fight for better conditions. As she astutely observed in 1917, unlike the starving children of Melbourne, “glass windows have got no feeling whatsoever”. [11]


[1] Verna Coleman, Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996), 79.

[2] Adela Pankhurst, Put up the Sword, (Melbourne: Fraser and Jenkinson, 1915), Xi.

[3] Pankhurst, Put up the Sword, 197.

[4] Vida Goldstein, ‘Adela pankhurst’ The Woman Voter, 28 September 1916, p.1, National Library of Australia (NLA).

[5] ‘A “Peace” meeting: Socialists interrupted, Soldiers seize the stage, Miss Pankhurst on enlistment’ The Argus, December 20 1915, p.8, NLA.

[6] World War I Intelligence section case files, Miss Pankhurst. Miss Vida Goldstein, MP16/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra; Investigations into Queensland persons and organisations suspected of disloyalty, Papers regarding Miss Adela Pankhurst and Miss Celia Johns, BP4/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[7] Judith Smart, ‘Feminists, Food and the Fair Price: The Cost of Living Demonstrations in Melbourne, August-September 1917’, Labour History 50 (1986): 113-114.

[8] Common Law (CL) files, Porter v Adela Pankhurst. High Court Under to Review, MP401/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[9] Smart, ‘Feminists, Food and the Fair Price’ 121.

[10] Ibid., 122.

[11] Smart, ‘Feminists, Food and the Fair Price’ 121.


Coleman, Verna. Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996.

Smart, Judith. ‘Feminists, Food and the Fair Price: The Cost of Living Demonstrations in Melbourne, August-September 1917’. Labour History 50 (1986): 113-131.

Argus. Melbourne.

The Woman Voter. Melbourne.

World War I Intelligence section case files, Miss Pankhurst. Miss Vida Goldstein, MP16/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Investigations into Queensland persons and organisations suspected of disloyalty, Papers regarding Miss Adela Pankhurst and Miss Celia Johns, BP4/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Common Law (CL) files, Porter v Adela Pankhurst. High Court Under to Review, MP401/1. National Archives of Australia, Canberra.



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