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Sylvia Pankhurst raised phone-tap concerns in 1930s

19/12/2018

Sylvia Pankhurst raised phone-tap concerns in 1930s

Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst raised concerns about phone-tapping in the 1930s, decades before MI5 revealed it had kept her under surveillance.

Pankhurst, who was imprisoned many times for her involvement in the Suffragette movement, wrote her concerns in newly-discovered letters.

As part of a research fellowship at BT Archives - funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded (AHRC) - Dr Sarah Jackson 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, 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 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.

Dr 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.”

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