Suffragette city – Mary Minihan on a link to a pioneering feminist

When my husband told me his great-granduncle had married a Pankhurst, I just had to do some digging

Family trees always turn up something interesting. When my husband told me his great-granduncle had married a Pankhurst, I was tickled to think I might be ever-so-slightly connected to the Mancunian suffragettes by that traditionally most patriarchal of institutions: marriage.

But, as our old journalism tutor used to say, “If your mother says she loves you – check it out”. So I looked into it.

And, true enough, the ancestral relative he’d spoken about – Tom Walsh, born January 15th, 1871 – had left Youghal, Co Cork, for Australia in 1893 and ended up marrying Adela Pankhurst – the youngest daughter of matriarch Emmeline – in 1917.

Tom and Adela were a true pair of radical activists, long before the term was fashionable. Seafarer Tom was a committed trade unionist who, as general secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia, organised a large-scale strike in 1919 and was put in prison for three months for his troubles.


He later became president of his union.

He also worked as a provocative journalist, signing his articles “Sinbad the Sailor”. A grainy photograph of Tom as a youngish man shows an intense-looking, bespectacled character in a well-fitting jacket and waistcoat. In all photographs he is exceptionally well dressed. The family back in Youghal were tailors by trade, so perhaps pride in appearance was a thread that tied him to home.

Photographs of a youthful Adela, meanwhile, show her to be small in stature, defiant in appearance, and often dressed in the familiar, white high-necked blouses and long skirts we associate with the suffragette movement.

The least well-known of the daughters of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst, she grew up somewhat in the shadow of older sisters Christabel and Sylvia, but she too threw herself into the cause of women’s liberation.

Adela was as a staunch member of what you might call the Pankhurst “family business”, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), enthusiastically earning her militant feminist stripes in England by heckling Winston Churchill. She “assaulted” a policeman by slapping him on the hand, which her friend later claimed was “as big as a ham”, and subsequently survived a week in Manchester’s Strangeways prison.

But long-running tensions with her mother and eldest sister could not be resolved – differences of opinion within feminist movements being nothing new – and in 1914 Adela departed for the southern hemisphere, or perhaps was encouraged to do so with the help of a one-way ticket.

She campaigned heavily against Australian participation in what later became known as the first World War, much to the horror of her mother as the WSPU had suspended its activities to support the war effort.

The year Adela came to Australia was the year that Tom’s first wife, Margaret O’Heir, died of tuberculosis. He had had three children with Margaret and would go on to have another five with Adela.

Tom and Adela campaigned against conscription and were early members of the Communist Party of Australia, but they fell out with that fledgling organisation in time.

An infamous photograph of Tom and Adela in Japan can be seen on the National Library of Australia’s website. They visited as guests of the Japanese government in 1939.

I think it’s fair to say the wheels came off Adela’s ideological wagon as she advanced in years. Among the problematic causes she went on to champion were the Australia First movement. She was arrested and interred once again in March 1942.

Adela is barely mentioned in the 2015 film Suffragette starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline, with a supporting cast including Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan.

But while the awkward sibling has been effectively written out of the Pankhurst narrative, she and Tom have a joint entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which is surely about as romantic as it gets.

The entry, compiled by Susan Hogan, rather touchingly says Adela believed that “children would not be allowed to suffer” once women had the vote.

Photographs of the couple in their later years show them poring over books at home together, their features softened by age. Adela is seen typing and cutting a rose bush with a scissors. Tom died in 1943 and Adela in 1961.

Scions of the Walsh family in Australia and Youghal are in sporadic touch by email, trading snippets of lore which have been passed down, confused and straightened up again over the years.

And my father-in-law, another Tom Walsh, a proud Youghal man who still lives in the town of his birth, will be celebrating his 80th birthday there on Friday (January 27th) in the company of his large extended family.