Kate Sharpley: what do we know?

What (and how) do we know about Kate Sharpley? Albert Meltzer tells her story in I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels [chapter 20] and in ‘Kate Sharpley’s story’ from 1978, published after his death in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library number 6 (September 1996). We have no documentary evidence that she threw her family’s medals in the Queen’s face during the First World War. That no echoes have appeared in the welter of digital historical sources now available is curious.

We have spent a long time digging around in anarchist history in an attempt to recover the names, lives and perspectives of the grassroots militants who made up the anarchist movement. Albert was key figure in arguing for that perspective (see ‘Albert Meltzer and the fight for working class history’ In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 76, October 2013). We know that Albert had an anecdotal approach to history. Digging into the history of the 1945 split in British anarchism has made us appreciate how his view of past events was coloured by later internal conflicts in the movement. However, looking at that history shows us that every account needs to be read critically.

Is ‘Kate Sharpley’s story’ just that, a story? It’s possible, but what would it change? If she only wished that she’d thrown them, perhaps it should be a warning about the power of anecdote, and the problems of anarchist history?