Sylvia Pankhurst had a difficult relationship with her older sister Christabel. Christabel concentrated on campaigning for the vote for upper middle-class women and during World War I was handing out white feathers to non-combatant men. She ended up as an Adventist in the USA. Meanwhile the less glamorous Sylvia was a socialist as well as a feminist, opposed the First World War and in later years campaigned against Fascism and imperialism.
They were both members of the Clarion Cycle Club, “ a socialist cycling group associated with Robert Blatchford’s radical newspaper The Clarion. Unlike most other cycling organisations of the time, the CCC extended membership to women when it founded its first chapter in 1894. Early invites to club meets often noted that ladies were especially welcome, and generally a handful did attend.”
This anecdote from their cycling days indicates something of the friction between the handsome, physically stronger Christabel and her younger, sicklier sister. It seems appropriate that Christabel had a smart new machine, while Sylvia had a cobbled-together affair made out of gas piping.
“Those were the high days of Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, and the cycling clubs which helped to make its popularity. Christabel had already been demanding a bicycle at Southport in 1893, but the Doctor shrank from the thought of his young daughters riding among the traffic, and it was not until about 1906 that she had her way. I had no desire to ride; but from the habit of loyalty to her, I stood by her side when she made her demands. Our parents took it as matter of course that if Christabel rode I must go with her as a companion. We were now entered as members of the Clarion Cycling Club. Christabel and Mrs. Pankhurst scanned the catalogues of the principal cycle makers, and consulted the club to discover the best machine for speed. The first grade Rudge Whitworth was the final choice; it cost something over £30. I did not care what sort of bicycle I might get. Already, though our parents never discussed such matters in our presence, I had learnt from our aunts that they were not without financial worries. Therefore I was pleased when our teacher mentioned to Mrs. Pankhurst a cheap little machine, which a comrade had made at home out of gas piping. It was of curious design, low geared and rather too small for me; but it did not occur, either to Mrs Pankhurst or to me, that the machine was placing upon me a considerable handicap, when, in rather poor health, I attempted to keep pace with my elder and more athletic sister.
Thenceforward, every available day was spent in cycling. Though the journeys were often too long for me, and I would scarcely pedal the last miles, the Sundays with the club were pleasant. It was delightful to be out in the country, and the men were kind in helping push one up the steepest hills. It was when riding alone with Christabel that I endured a veritable torture. My crimson face and gasping breath were the wordless answer to her impatient ‘Come on!’ Afraid of being considered a nuisance, I would strain and strive till it seemed that my heart would burst. Finally she would disappear from me, climbing some hill, and arrive home somehow an hour before me. I remember being thrown over the handle-bars and rising up so shaken that I had to walk for some distance before I could remount, while she rode on, not noticing that I had ceased to follow. She delighted in hill climbing, and was proud to be able to mount the noted steeps which some of the men in the club essayed in vain. Dr. Pankhurst accepted, but obviously regretted this craze for cycling, which took us away from home every Sunday and seemed to be drawing us away from the public interests so dear to him.
One summer holiday we all had rooms in a farm-house at Pickmore, [sic] close to a camp held there by the Clarion Club. Crowds of young men and women, generally rather ostentatious in their love-making, in what was the Clarion way, came down there, and parties of “Cinderella” children were brought in relays for a week’s holiday. Robert Blatchford spent a few days there with his daughters, keeping exclusively to his chosen circle of friends, as he always did. About the same time the Clarion Clubs held their annual gathering in Chester. Christabel insisted that we should go, and I managed to accomplish the journey somehow. Mrs. Pankhurst joined us by train. Blatchford and his friends had booked the commercial room, the only comfortable room in the hotel, whereat there was much murmuring among the members. He came out to talk to Mrs. Pankhurst, and endeavoured to persuade her that Keir Hardie could not be “straight,” because his paper, the Labour Leader must be losing money every week. Christabel and I were both annoyed by this attack on our friend, and when Blatchford presently invited us into the commercial room, Christabel interposed: “Mother, do not go!” Blatchford’s attacks on Hardie because of Hardie’s work for peace and internationalism were a prominent and regrettable feature in the Socialist movement of those days.”
From Sheila Hanlon’s excellent blog on Women’s Cycling