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Newly discovered letters reveal Sylvia Pankhurst’s wiretapping fears

Newly uncovered correspondence has revealed Sylvia Pankhurst’s concerns over wiretapping, 70 years before the Government disclosed her secret surveillance by MI5 to the public.

Dr Sarah Jackson
Dr Sarah Jackson

Newly discovered letters reveal Sylvia Pankhurst’s wiretapping fears

Newly uncovered correspondence has revealed Sylvia Pankhurst’s concerns over wiretapping, 70 years before the Government disclosed her secret surveillance by MI5 to the public.

As part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research fellowship at the BT Archives, Dr Sarah Jackson – an Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University – discovered two letters from Pankhurst to the Postmaster General, questioning the Post Office’s practice of installing ‘duplicate telephone lines,’ enabling users to listen-in and opening the door to ‘improper use by unscrupulous persons’.

Writing from her home on 6 February 1934, Sylvia Pankhurst argued that the installation of duplicate lines for the purpose of intercepting calls would be ‘opposed to the best interests of the community and contrary to public policy’.

Although Pankhurst received a response to her first letter, additional hand-written notes between Post Office employees explained that the response to any subsequent letters must be to ‘stonewall’ Pankhurst.

It was revealed in 2004 that MI5 had monitored Pankhurst’s movements and intercepted her letters in the 1930s and 1940s. There are even references in MI5’s files to ‘telephone checks’ and other intercepted calls.

MI5 files on Sylvia Pankhurst contained information on her work to achieve women’s suffrage as part of the Worker’s Suffrage Federation going back as far as 1914.


Pankhurst’s concerns were initially triggered by a newspaper story of a gynaecologist who was struck off following an affair with a patient. Their relationship had been discovered by the husband of the patient who had made arrangements 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 calls.

Sarah Jackson, Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University, 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.”

Roey Sweet, AHRC 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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Newly discovered letters reveal Sylvia Pankhurst’s wiretapping fears

Published on 18 December 2018
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