When I first came across the name Rose Witcop I was amazed to discover that a female Russian anarchist was advocating feminism and pioneering the cause of birth control from Shepherds Bush over a hundred years ago.
Rose (originally Rachel Vitkopski) was born an orthodox Jew to Freda and Shimon Vitkopski on 9th April 1890 in Kiev, Ukraine, which at that time was part of the Soviet Union. She was one of four children.
Her eldest sister Milly, born on 3rd March 1877, travelled alone to London in 1894. She worked in a tailoring sweatshop and managed to save enough money to bring her parents and Rose to England the following year.
Milly’s involvement in a bakers strike had led her to become involved with a group of London based Jewish anarchists. She went on to become the common-law wife of the German born anarchist Rudolf Rocker.
Rose Witcop (different surname spelling from her sister Witkop) became a member of the anarchist Jubilee Street Club with her sister Milly and her partner Rudolph. At this club Rose met Clerkenwell born Guy Aldred. Guy, apparently named after Guy Fawkes, was the founder of the Bakunin Press publishing house and he edited five Glasgow based anarchist periodicals; The Commune, The Council, The Herald of Revolt, The Spur, and The Word.
In 1907 Rose and Guy first started living together in Thorpebank Road, Shepherds Bush. A year or so later they moved to Richmond Gardens and Guy set up the Bakunin Press there. In the middle of a May Day parade on 2 May 1909 the heavily pregnant Rose was whisked off to Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, where she gave birth to their son Annesley.
Later that year Guy re-printed a controversial August issue of The Indian Socialist, which had advocated the independence of India and supported political assassination. Aldred was arrested and later found guilty of seditious libel and was sentenced to twelve months hard labour, which he served in Brixton Prison.
As a committed feminist Rose also contributed letters and articles arguing for women’s sexual, as well as political and economic liberation, to such journals as the Voice of Labour and The Freewoman.
She was once quoted as saying:
“The vote meant little to working-class women. She would not qualify for it anyway, so why should a woman who slaved all week in an ill-conditioned factory for paltry wages care whether middle-class women had the vote or not? Even if she had the vote, how many working-class women would bother to use it? And if they did use it, would it make any difference? What was required was the organisation of working women in an agitation for general emancipation; to make women understand that it is not the want of voting rights that creates bad conditions for her, but that social attitude which regards her as a slave, both in the factory and in the home.”
In the autumn of 1914 a woman named Margaret Sanger was due to stand trial in America for sending what was deemed to be an obscene publication through the post, namely a 16-page pamphlet containing graphic descriptions of various contraceptive methods. Margaret fled to England and for a short time stayed with Rose. Whilst in England she gave lectures on birth control to various workers groups. She later returned to America and in October 1916 opened the first American birth control clinic, in the in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn.
Guy was imprisoned from 1916 to 1919 as a conscientious objector and spent parts of his sentence in Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth Prisons. During his imprisonment Rose took over running The Spur and published several articles that Guy managed to get smuggled out of prison.
After Guys release from prison Rose started to concentrate her efforts on the issue of birth control. In 1923 Rose and Guy were arrested and charged for publishing and distributing Margaret Sanger‘s publication entitled ‘Family Limitation’. The illustrations and a reference to abortion in it were deemed to be obscene. However, the publication was later allowed to be printed without the disputed content.
There was a huge amount of press attention and Rose and Guy were supported both morally and financially at their appeal by Dora and Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes. In spite of all the support they lost the case. Shortly after this Rose and Guy separated.
Not deterred by her earlier prosecution Rose went on to re-published the Sanger text in 1925 but this time avoided prosecution. However, she had attracted the attention of officials at the Home Office, who were now threatening to deport her back to Russia.
Despite living apart from 1921, but to avoid deportation, Rose and Guy quickly arranged a legal marriage which took place in Glasgow on 2 February 1926. Both gave their professions as journalists. Rose’s address on the marriage certificate was given as Sinclair Gardens, Shepherds Bush.
In the same year Rose enlisted the assistance of Margaret Sanger and the Fulham Labour Party to open ‘The People’s Clinic’ in London. Unfortunately due to lack of funding she was forced to close it down in 1928.
Rose’s husband Guy Aldred died in the Western Infirmary, Glasgow on 16th October 1963. It was reported that when he died he had just 2/- (10 pence) in his pocket. Their son Annesley Guy Aldred died in 1979.