The fourth of seven children, Helen Crawfurd was born in the Gorbals, an area just south of the Clyde in Glasgow, in 1877. In spite of the family’s relocation to Ipswich while she was young, Crawfurd was to return to Glasgow in her teens and later became a leading voice in what has come to be known as the first wave of feminism, and a prominent peace activist of the age.
On returning to Glasgow, Crawfurd witnessed the desperate poverty in which so many members of her Clydeside minister husband’s parish were forced to live, noting that ‘skilled creators of the city’s wealth were living in squalor, in hovels unfit for human beings. I began to think that there must be something wrong with a system that could allow this.’ This proved to be an experience that moved the young Crawfurd to political action: she joined the Women’s Movement in 1900, and later, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1910.
The onset of the Great War in 1914 saw Emmeline Pankhurst take the WSPU into a pro-war stance in vehement nationalistic support of the British Government’s militaristic actions. An ideology she could not support, it was this shift in the WSPU’s political perspective which saw Crawfurd split with the organisation, widening her political priorities to focus upon the importance of peace and peace campaigning during this time of war. Attracted by their anti-war stance, in 1914 Crawfurd joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and continued her peace campaigning.
Throughout the Great War, Crawfurd worked tirelessly to promote the anti-war message about which she was so passionate, and succeeded in attracting other women from a range of different backgrounds to the emergent peace movement. With her friend, Agnes Dollan – also a member of the ILP, as well as a peace campaigner and activist for the rights of working people across Glasgow – she began to organise regular meetings on Glasgow Green in the city’s East End, with 1915 seeing the pair of friends found the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League.
Working with women activists from across Glasgow, Crawfurd helped establish a peace conference in the city, which later produced the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC). A leading voice in the anti-war movement of the time, the WPC rose to become a national institution, with Crawfurd at the helm as the group’s Honorary Secretary.
Throughout the war, Crawfurd remained highly active in Glasgow’s political circles. Elected secretary of The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association (GWHA), she became a catalyst for rallying women against rent increases across the city, an endeavor which led to the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, and was appointed Vice-President of the Scottish Divisional Council of the ILP by the end of the war. Throughout the war, Crawfurd remained a leading light in Glasgow’s peace movement.
Perhaps the best known incident of this phase of her activist career involved The WPC, the City of Glasgow and a few dozen umbrellas. Refused a request by the City of Glasgow for a peace deputation, the WPC decided instead to partake in peaceful protest in George Square in Glasgow’s city centre. Waving banners and distributing literature to passers-by, the women were eventually joined by members of the Patriot League. Far from peaceful allies, Patriot League members began tearing up leaflets and banners, forcing the women involved in the WPC demo to defend themselves with the only tools to hand: their brollies. Amongst the chaos and hubbub of the spat, both Crawfurd and Dollan managed to gain entry to the City Chambers, just as a City Corporation meeting was beginning. Showering the members in anti-war leaflets, the two women had finally succeeded in presenting the City of Glasgow with the full force of their peaceful politics.