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Remembering suffrage feminists and miners – but forgetting the Pentonville 5

2015 June 7
Poster at Copenhagen airport. Why the apparent dog looks like a duck is beyond me...

Poster at Copenhagen airport. Why the apparent dog looks like a duck is beyond me…

Last week I was very pleased to be invited to speak to a group of Public History and Memory Studies Phd students at Roskilde University in Copenhagen. I was referring to some of my earlier work on the practice of groups such as suffrage feminists and labour movement activists in making their own histories.

Such history-making, of course, is not just of the present. I argued that the collection of material culture by suffrage feminists before the 1914 -18 war helped them be remembered in the future as did their media-focussed action. Like the striking miners in the 1984 -5 strike the suffrage feminists, rightly, saw their actions as far-reaching. They were, they declared, “making history” and were wary of being “written out of history” once the vote was finally won in 1928. It is obvious that the miners’ strike is remembered for the consequences – the massive labour movement defeat and the closure of the British coal industry. But it is also remembered because of the ephemera made and collected at the time: decorated plates, ornaments made of coal, tea towels with slogans, pamphlet and collections of writing and, of course, photographs and visual media.Their physical existence helps the striking miners be remembered.

By way of contrast in the summer of 1972 dockers resisted closure of the London docks. Their shop steward leaders refused to stop picketing a container depot and were imprisoned but the so-called Pentonville 5 were quickly released due to mass strike action and loopholes found within days in the law. Even the TUC called for a future general strike.  However, this important event in labour history is barely remembered today. The images and material culture that must exist seem not to have been centrally kept and collected.  A pity,the event surely needs to be better known.

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