Writ on Cold Slate

Poems by Sylvia Pankhurst
With photographs by Norah Smyth

In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst was sentenced to six months in prison for publishing articles in the Workers’ Dreadnought asking 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.

First 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 Slate 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’.

Sample Poems

A Wreck

   Slow passed the year, and still she lay abed,
until the walls seemed near and nearer creeping,
as though they’d seize some treasure she held close,
or hear some secret that she murmured low;
their hues of faded mildew pained her sight
their numerous streaks and splashes spread and ran,
and some were food and some were milk long dried:
all relics of the struggles passing here.

   Strange violent scenes would oft her mind invade;
some haggard prisoner writhing under hands,
ah, many hands, so many hands and hard,
and tall strong forms on her that all bore down,
the while she plunged in fevered hopeless fight,
her heart wild-beating and her fears awrack.

   Then those ringed shapes upon the wall ’gan move,
as though some loathly worm, uncanny, slow,
unwelcome as the tomb, were wearing through;
from out the floor the worms seemed rise and writhe,
and nearer crept, until her heart did stop.

   Each blotch of food upon the wall did swell,
grew soft, prolific in a numerous spawn;
the darkness thick did teem with myriad forms,
hot breaths did mock her flesh, strange eyes did peer,
and through the air wild cries did seem to break,
like silent griefs, one sees, but cannot hear;
in blackest shades did whirl small points of light
and horrid shapes shot by with teeth and claws,
a roar of jeering voices filled her ears,
its soundless sound her life did seem to quench.

   Into her cell at last the moon would peep,
and by some freak, upon its walls would throw
three squares of light, for one on either hand
and one in front of her would strangely fall;
and each reflection would the window show,
its panes of light and cruel bars of shade,
as though the moon her very self would mock,
in spiteful beaming still reveal the bars.

   But oh the prisoner would have blessed the sun
if even so much had he done for her;
his golden shining, even into cell,
had brought new life had he but entered in.

   The morning brings no gladness to her sense;
only regret the chase for sleep is o’er;
though whilst it wore all weary was that chase,
and for its end most painfully she wept;
most painfully in truth, in deep despond;
for now awaketh day to racking noise
and harsh routine, oh monstrous cold routine,
that doth dry up the very wells of thought.

   The light that momently increaseth swift,
smiteth with pain on her fatigued eyes,
and oh the wind, the wind it waileth so.

   A curious hatred doth her door awake
in her numbed brain that shrinketh from that sight,
loathing its ugly shape, its crossbars three,
its spy-hole centred in an iron disc,
whence hidden faces stealthily gaze in.

   Swift footed to and fro with jangling keys,
so many officers go hurrying by,
their steps seem ever tramping through her brain
which daily wanes to narrower imagery;
and when the door’s exchanged for barred gate,
and dusky corridor exposed to sight,
she sees those aproned warders as they run.
hither and thither, never do they sit;
grows she to hate them that they thus may move
in seeming freedom which she freedom thinks,
and hold the keys that lock the prisoners in.

   But all her hatred is compound of dread,
for when two come together to the cell,
oh then the hearts of prisoners almost die,
and quailing fear doth cover them and choke;
for more than one doth always violence mean;
a threat of force, of force to be applied,
unless all patiently we do endure
that which coercion only can enforce.

   Because of this together two they send;
but in their faces, when our fear abates,
we read, full surely, that they would not come,
and that they dread, as we, this cruel smart,
this brutal search that every sense affronts,
twice monthly when it comes all unawares.

   So hated she those helpless arms of force
that do the bidding of the Power beyond
in dumb obedience, reflecting not,
helping to keep old Capital enthroned,
for meagre pittance; sharing not his spoils:
they’re herded under, key by ten each night,
and often work a day of sixteen hours.

   Hated she more those high ones who each morn
came marching through to look into the cells;
before their coming, all the air is rent
with noise of toil and eager driving cries.

*****

   Sore ill she was, for when she wept no more,
because no tears were left to her to flow,
then wept she inwardly with tears of blood,
and long this hemorrhage her forces sapped.

   The doctor ordered milk, and milk she begged;
but oft times in the grinding dull routine,
milk was forgot, or else was sour they said;
and likely ‘twas, for prison food is poor,
contractors are a class full apt to cheat
and helpless prisoners but little heard.

   Milk was forgot, and many things beside,
and she did fret and grumble at their lack,
until she fancied them withheld in spite.

   A growing feud she built up day by day,
bewixt herself and all the prison staff;
yea, every creature who within those walls,
in seeming freedom came athwart her gaze;
and every bruise and scar upon her door,
and every splash upon the walls did tell
where prisoners fought and soon were overwhelmed;
oh ever these did cry to her to fight,
rebel, break down this discipline of stone,
and this complacency so iron hard.

   Thus ruthless Fate, with frowns, span out her thread.

   Again the milk came not; ah, now she’d smash;
and smash she did; aye, every pot and crock;
the noise excited; followed sickening calm;
she rang her bell. No answer; all seemed still;
those hurrying footsteps strangely faded far;
and like the bottom of a well that place;
only the feeble howling of the wind gave tongue;
and, as a wretch that’s drowning, longed she now
for human voices; human presence near;
for those all-serving warders she did hate
(once she did hate; but that was long ago),
for lonely fear did cover her with dread,
till she did scream that answer her they must;
so from the window she the smashed crocks flung,
and then the books; and next the bed was torn,
the sheets and blankets and the mattress, all,
thrust out of window, squeezed them through the bars;
yet still they came not; still the silence grew;
all minor sounds her fears did muffle close.

   Then she upwrenched the oilcloth at her feet,
and beat with it in frenzy on the door,
as in a wild hysteria exalt;
fled was the quiet, loud the awful clangs.
   The prisoners shuddered through the length of cells,
with startled nerves all tortured and distraught,
and now with tightened sinews crouched and clutched,
and now like caged beasts did pace and moan;
ah, banged she still! So long the noise endured;
and like a brooding storm hung stealthy fear.

   Talking at last outside; the doctor’s voice;
he ordered she remain there as she was,
as she had left herself, without a bed,
clothed but in night-shift and with naked feet;
the magistrates, who come inspecting round,
her further punishment would soon decree.

   Or she did pity us, or strength did ebb,
for through the night we heard of her no sound,
and silently the long cold hours she bore,
till with returning day, to her so harsh,
her bootless battle she again renewed.

   Now she is gone; her cell at last is void,
for they have swept upon her in a swarm,
and overwhelmed her swift: windeth Fate’s thread.

   Follows the nightmare of the padded cell,
dark days of madness and a deep despair,
a desperate rage that casts itself in vain
on that which recketh not, more hard than stone.

   Three weeks are added to her prison term,
and more’s to add, for now she will not eat;
food most distasteful leave they daily there,
and silent pass; to her doth no one speak
in that cold cell, close-locked, where now she lies,
till with a tube, at last, the crowd will come,
to force it into her resisting frame;
then pour down food nature will swift reject,
when thus, as in a violent rape, ’tis forced.

   So weareth on the useless tragedy,
her body ruined, mind’s command o’erthrown
to join the many on the rocks; a wreck.

For Half a Year

   Like to Persephone upon the brink,
a moment pause I from the dock to gaze,
before descending by those narrow steps
unto a world of shades for half a year;
amid the dusky Court a mist there swims
of ruddy faces blending into smiles,
and one stands forth, dead white, with staring eyes.

*****

   Exalted on the Bench that harsh old man,
clad in the purple of his Mayoral state,
mouthing impatiently with hands a’twitch,
the while I speak, by right of law allowed.

   Oft interrupting, now he breaketh forth, .
his parchment cheeks distort, his eyes spit hate,
libel on libel hurls, that hired Press scribes
may circulate for gulling simple folk,
masking what lights may glimmer forth to show
their present exploitation and his sins,
by talk of loot, loot, loot, and pillage cruel,
and silly ogre stories, patent lies,
‘gainst Soviet Russia, whence I’m late returned.

   His soul sits in a cellar hoarding gold;
o’er mighty realms his power extending rules;
knowing no bounds in his ambitious dreams,
which still to what he has, add more he would.

   His paper tokens pass the world around,
compel in Africa the Negro’s toil,
make magic fingers of far Japs to ply,
their art mis-prized for its so meagre cost,
because on little rice they can exist.

   For him, in India, poor ryots toil,
their immemorial Communism crushed,
robbed of their produce and by famine scourged,
dying like flies whilst he exports their grain.

   For him, in Britain too, the miner delves;
weavers and spinners follow ceaseless toil,
their wage by far competitors depressed,
children and parents in those Eastern mills,
worse fed than beasts and nothing better housed.

   Here, in Wealth’s citadel, old wretched dens,
for him each week provide most monstrous dues,
a blighting charge upon their tenant hordes.

   For him are children stunted, infants die;
poor mother drudges leave their wailing babes;
herself the exploited maiden cheaply sells,
to snatch youth’s pleasures, else debarred from her;
for bare indeed the pittance he accords,
to such as she who are so swift replaced.

   Upon his call to war, go millions forth
prepared to die if he will give them bread.

   This is the very hub and central spring
of that I fight, that hoary power of wealth;
he’s its defender, its first magistrate;
I who attack it, being tried by him,
to mine antagonist must plead my Cause.

   He hath the power, and he will vengeance take;
that was decided ere the case was called;
for me remains one duty one resource;
to cry a challenge in this Mansion House,
this pompous citadel of wealthy pride,
and make its dock a very sounding board
for the indictment of his festering sins,
that shall go ringing forth throughout the world,
and with it carry all my wit can tell
of that most glorious future, long desired,
when Communism like the morning dawns.

*****

   When in the black and jolting van I pass,
to narrow cell of dingy walls and drear
and little window high, with small barred panes;
when’s clanged the heavy door and double-locked,
and brief day to an early evening fades,
crouching with stiff cold limbs on lowly bed,
the bruised spirit longing to be free,
and deep-shocked senses trembling from the stroke,
riseth that white face in the darkness here.