Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Suffragettes, historic locations and where to find them
Living in East London you are surrounded by history, not least that of the suffragettes. In fact, when you come from Bow, you can’t fail to acknowledge that in actual fact you are at the epicentre of one of the most important movements from recent history.
Bow was the headquarters of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. Led by Sylvia Pankhurst, it was an offshoot of the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’. Sylvia, the daughter of Emmeline and sister of Christabel, was a campaigner for more than just the vote, she opened a nursery, a cost-price restaurant and a co-operative toy factory. All with view to try and improve the conditions of the women of the East End, one of the country’s most deprived areas.
A vocal advocate for working class women she also published a newspaper called the Woman’s Dreadnought and often spoke out at venues across the East End, much to the ire of the authorities. She was arrested and sent to prison eight times between 1913 and 1914 suffering force feeding on each occasion.
Sylvia Pankhurst came to Bow in 1912 to campaign for George Lansbury who was standing for parliament under a ‘Votes for Women’ banner having resigned his seat in order to do so. Lansbury didn’t win that time but on seeing the poverty of women in the East End Sylvia decided to stay and set about shaping her campaign for suffrage amongst the working poor of the area.
So for this post I thought I’d follow in the footsteps of Sylvia as she established the East London Federation of Suffragettes in Bow. Exploring some of the key spots to find out a bit more about the locations, where to find them, what they look like now and what happened within them. The area has changed a lot, so you will need to use your imagination. Some of the areas have been completely wiped from the map. Since Sylvia lived in the area it has transformed, mainly as the result of slum clearances and the bombs of the second world war.
198 Bow Road – Sylvia Pankhurst’s shop and the Bow Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union
Sylvia moved to the East End in 1912 having decided to continue the drive to build a grassroots movement among the working classes. Having initially come into the area to campaign for George Lansbury. The East End was one of the poorest areas in the country and 198 Bow Road, a former Bakers, was the place she moved into. Initially setting up the Bow branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) it wouldn’t be until 1914 when Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes would fully break away from the WSPU.
It’s no longer there sadly, the area where it was having been completely obliterated, destroyed entirely by the London County Council in 1933 as part of an extensive slum clearance programme. It’s a great shame, it was once the heart of Bow with back to back houses and warrens of little alleys, nowadays it would be full of character, then it would have more than likely have been a tough place to live. Now 198 Bow Road’s approximate location is on the site of Canterbury House, the social housing that was built in its place.
Bromley Public Hall – Site of the first public meeting of the East London Federation of Suffragettes
Still standing, the hall was the location the first public meeting of the East London Federation of Suffragettes on 14 February 1913. Knowing that militant tactics would be necessary in order to gain publicity, upon the conclusion of the meeting they marched towards the local bank and police station where they proceeded to break some windows. Sylvia Pankhurst and Zelie Emerson were both arrested although only received fines which were quickly paid. Further action would take place 3 days later on 17 February 2013 when Pankhurst would make her first public speech in the East End at a demonstration in a location not far away in what is now Stroudley Walk. After the demonstration, more windows were broken including one at the Bromley Public Hall. This time Pankhurst and Emerson along with Willie Lansbury, Annie Lansbury, Alice Moore and a lady known as Mrs Watkins were all arrested and sent to prison.
Stroudley Walk – Site of Sylvia Pankhurst’s first speech in the East End and her subsequent arrest
Just round the corner Sylvia Pankhurst made her first speech in the East End alongside fellow campaigner Zelie Emerson. It was from the back of a horse and cart approximately where the dry cleaners is now and next to something known as the Obelisk which Pankhurst described as a “mean looking monument in a dreary almost unlighted open space near Bow Church.”
It was February 17 1913 and the suffragettes were determined to make a scene that day, it was Pankhurst claimed “the beginning of militancy in East London”. Climbing on the back of the cart, she urged people to join the movement yet recognised that for people already suffering with dire economic circumstances to risk imprisonment and a possible loss of livelihood was a big ask for the cause.
After the speech was over she alongside a few others called Mrs. Watkins, Mrs. Moore and Annie Lansbury finished up by throwing stones which broke the glass of an undertakers called Selby & Sons which, by all accounts, was by where St. Mary’s Court is now. The undertaker’s is still going although the shop itself has now moved just around the corner on Bow Road itself. The police didn’t take long to arrest her alongside some other supporters such as Willie Lansbury who broke a window at the Bromley Public Hall whilst Zelie Emerson broke a window at the liberal club.
It was probably all very symbolic, Pankhurst and her supporters wanted to be martyrs that day and to make a point. They were all sent to prison and sentenced to a month’s hard labour, the women went to Holloway and Willie Lansbury to Brixton. It was said though that the arrests “sparked a tremendous flame of enthusiasm” for the movement in the East End. Whilst in prison the suffragettes went on hunger strike and after a period of time were force fed, a process that was often brutal and pretty barbaric. Upon leaving according to Pankhurst “we found we were too ill to do anything for some weeks.”
Whilst in prison, Pankhurst managed to smuggle out a letter to her mother Emmeline Pankhurst which described some of the tortures she suffered as a result of the forced feeding.
“I am fighting, fighting, fighting. I have four, five and six wardesses every day as well as the two doctors. I am fed by stomach tube twice a day, they prise open my mouth with a steel gag pressing it in where there is a gap in my teeth. I resist all the time… The night before last I vomited the last meal and was ill all night and was sick after both meals yesterday. I am afraid they might be saying we don’t resist yet my shoulders are bruised with struggling, whilst they hold the tube into my throat. I used to feel I should go mad at first, and be pretty near to it, as I think they feared, but I have got over that, and my digestion is the thing that is most likely to suffer now.”
Bow Police Station – Where many of the suffragettes would have been taken
This was the place that more than a few of the East London suffragettes would have been taken to as their direct action provoked the ire of the authorities. The police station is where they would have been held before being transferred to Holloway Prison. Sylvia had become the scourge of the East London police who sought to put her behind bars at any opportunity. She evaded them more often than not thanks for her extensive network of supporters around the East End, it was an area not normally enamoured to the police so she had no problem avoiding capture.
321 Roman Road – Second headquarters of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes
The second location of the ELFS from February 1913 to May 1914 is another which is sadly no longer there. It’s approximate location was on the corner of the Roman Road and Parnell Street. According to Pankhurst:
“We decided to take a shop and house at 321 Roman Rd at a weekly rental of 14s 6d a week. It was the only shop to let in the road. The shop window was broken right across, and was only held together by putty. The landlord would not put in new glass, nor would he repair the many holes in the shop and passage flooring because he thought we would only stay a short time. But all such things have since been done.
Plenty of friends at once rallied round us. Women …. came in and scrubbed the floors and cleaned the windows. Mrs Wise, who kept the sweetshop next door, lent us a trestle table for a counter and helped us to put up purple, white and green flags. Her little boy took down the shutters for us every morning, and put them up each night, and her little girls often came in to sweep.”
Roman Road Market – Where the Woman’s Dreadnought would have been sold
Still going strong, the Roman Road market was one of the locations where a stall would be set up during the Saturday market. They’d use the stall to recruit people to the cause and learn about the stories of the real women of the East End. The East London Federation of Suffragette was formed as an independent organisation having being expelled from the WPSU. Sylvia felt that she needed to spend more time with the working class women of the East End whereas Emmeline and Christobel felt that they needed to recruit more higher end women to the cause. It was at the Roman Road market that ‘The Woman’s Dreadnought‘ the paper of the ELFS formed in 1914 was sold.
Bow Baths – At the heart of the Roman Road and where Pankhurst escaped from the police
Another building which is no longer there, the baths were the site of a couple of incidents. First on 13 October 1913 when after speaking at a meeting inside the Baths the police had managed to get behind the curtain and onto the platform where Pankhurst was speaking whilst also attempting to get in via the main doors. She had arrived at the Baths in disguise knowing that the police would have attempted to arrest her.
She eventually escaped by jumping into the crowd and being ushered away in a hat and coat which somebody had given her to aid the escape. The resulting fracas ended with the police attacking the crowd with clubs. According to Pankhurst “Mrs Mary Leigh was knocked insensible, Mrs Ives was held up by the collar and struck with a truncheon so hard that her arm was broken. Miss Forbes Robertson, sister of the great actor, also had her arm broken and many unknown men and women were hurt. The people in the gallery retaliated by throwing chairs down on the police.”
Her good friend Zelie Emerson was then struck outside the building with what Pankhurst describes as a lead weighted instrument, fracturing her skull. Although Pankhurst escaped she was arrested the next night on the steps of the Poplar Town Hall, once again going on hunger strike, being force fed and then released after nine days on a stretcher.
The next incident occurred on 5 November 1913 when Pankhurst was due to speak at the Baths at the inaugural meeting of the People’s Army. This was in itself a response to police brutality and something which Pankhurst describes as “an organisation that men and women may join to fight for freedom and in order that they may learn to cope with the repressive methods of the government servants.” Led by Norah Smyth, a leading player in the East London Federation of Suffragettes, the People’s Army was literally a makeshift army designed to act as a form of protection from the police persecution of suffragettes.
The tale was remembered in Pankhurst’s own words: “On my way to a Meeting to inaugurate the People’s Army, I happened to call at Mr (George) Lansbury’s house in St Stephen’s Rd. The house was immediately surrounded by detectives and policemen and there seemed no possibility of escape. But the people of Bow, on hearing of the trouble, came flocking out of the Baths where they had assembled. In the confusion that ensued the detectives dragged Miss Daisy Lansbury off in a taxi, and I went free.
When the police authorities realised their mistake, and learnt that I was actually speaking at the Baths, they sent hundreds of men to take me, but though they met the people in the Roman Rd as they came from the Meeting I escaped. Miss Emerson was again struck on the head, this time by a uniformed constable, and fell to the ground unconscious. Many other people were badly hurt. The people replied with spirit. Two mounted policemen were unhorsed and many others were disabled.”
28 Ford Road – Home of Jessie Payne who Sylvia Pankhurst lived with for a year and where she recovered from hunger strike
After what the authorities thought of as an inflammatory speech following a march from the East End to Trafalgar Square on 29 June 1913, a warrant for Pankhurst’s arrest was issued. She managed to evade capture for a while however on 8 July 1913 she was captured and sent to Holloway, where she would be forcibly fed.
Pankhurst was released just over a week later under a law known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act‘ which had been passed in March 1913 where suffragettes convicted of a crime could be released if they were deemed to be in poor health. However upon getting better they would be liable to be taken back to prison so that they could continue with their sentence. It was called the cat and mouse act because the possibility of re-arrest always hung-over the heads of those released and it meant sentences were often extended.
Following this particular arrest in July 1913 Pankhurst was in such poor health as a result of hunger, sleep deprivation and forced feeding that she was taken to the home of Jessie Payne and her husband on a stretcher. Eventually being nursed back to health but still running the risk of re-arrest and being sent back. Pankhurst lived for a year in the small house at 28 Ford Road and described Jessie Payne as a “dark, pale woman of middle age and one of the most benevolent women I’ve ever known.” Sylvia wrote about her time at the Payne’s and described the area and the house in some detail in an article she wrote called ‘A prisoner of bow‘.
Up until the outbreak of war in August 1914, Pankhurst would be arrested a total of 8 times. On each occasion she would go on hunger strike, be force fed and then recover before going back out again whilst at the same time trying to evade the authorities.
The Gunmakers and the Mothers Arms – Site of Pankhurst’s creche
Sylvia Pankhurst took over the Gunmakers Arms which stood at 438 Old Ford Road. She renamed it the Mothers Arms on account of her being an ardent pacifist and used it as a clinic and creche for mothers and babies. It was important, it allowed mothers of working age the opportunity to go out and earn money.
The Gunmakers Arms had originally been so called due to it’s proximity to the gun-making and munition factories which occupied this area on the edge of Victoria Park. Some of those factories are still there although now converted into housing. The building itself is no longer there, replaced by a block of flats itself with the entrance standing on it’s approximate location.
The Lord Morpeth Pub and 400 Old Ford Road – Site of the Women’s Hall and third headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes
One of the few remaining buildings from the time of the suffragettes, the sign of the Lord Morpeth once showed a suffragette holding a placard. It commemorated Sylvia Pankhurst who lived for a while just next door at 400 Old Ford Road and which became the headquarters of the ELFS. Pankhurst lived there with her friend Norah Smyth and a ‘Womens Hall’ was built just behind. It was the site of the cost-price restaurant which aimed to provide nutritious meals to the poor of the area after food prices rocketed at the outbreak of war in 1914.
The restaurant was another attempt to provide employment and ease suffering from the hard pressed people of the area. There was a mini-controversy however when a woman employed by Pankhurst, Ennis Richmond, refused to peel potatoes before putting them in soup. Ennis insisted that the skin was the healthiest and most nutritious part of the vegetable and would not give way. It was a concern to some of the others who felt that the poor people were made to eat “muck“.
Such was the controversy Pankhurst even discussed the matter with Keir Hardie, an MP in the newly formed Independent Labour Party, he was a good friend of the Pankhurst family and someone who Pankhurst had once had a brief relationship. She apparently felt ashamed to be discussing such matters. Yet it was a perception important in the minds of the poor of the area who didn’t want to feel they were getting a substandard product because of who they were. Nowadays of course many people say that the skins are the most nutritious part so perhaps Mrs. Richmond was onto something.
The Toy Factory, 45 Norman Grove (formerly Road)
An important initiative born as a result of the outbreak of World War I when working men joined up to join the war effort. It left many women and families without a source of income as the men had to give up work. Soldiers wives were in theory supposed to receive an allowance but often didn’t receive it due to poor administrative systems and beauocracy. It meant that women in the east end who were already poor, struggled even more to make ends meat. The toy factory was a way for some women to earn money it also had a somewhere to drop off children so they could be looked after, one of the first ever creches!
The factory employed 59 women they turned out wooden toys and then dolls, stuffed cats, dogs and bears. Audaciously Sylvia decided to take a taxi to Selfridges, she met Gordon Selfridge himself and convinced him to become a stockist.
George Lansbury Memorial – The site of 39 Bow Road the former home of George Lansbury
George Lansbury, a long time campaigner for women’s suffrage, had a huge influence on the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. He was elected to parliament in December 1910 as an Independent Labour MP for Bow and Bromley but found little support for his belief in women’s suffrage from his colleagues who he described as a “weak and flabby lot“.
He was also once suspended from the house of commons after an impassioned attack on the prime minister Herbert Asquith for the act of force feeding. He shook his fist and shouted “You will go down as a man who tortured innocent women.” Then adding “Why, you’re beneath contempt. You call yourself a gentleman, and you forcibly feed and murder women in this fashion. You ought to be driven out of office.”
Unhappy at the lack of action regarding the issue of women’s suffrage, he resigned his seat in order to stand as a ‘votes for women‘ candidate in late 1912 and it was at this point that Sylvia Pankhurst originally came to the East End, initially to campaign for Lansbury as a representative of the Women’s Social and Political Union. He didn’t get elected but continued to support Pankhurst as she chose to stay on in the area and continue her fight to to champion the cause of suffrage.
Lansbury would later twice become the Mayor of Poplar. He gained notoriety in 1921 for refusing to levy some disproportionately high rates on the poor of the area. The council members were summoned to court and walked there in procession alongside a marching band. Thirty council members were sent to prison for contempt of court in what was a seminal moment in the birth of the labour movement. It didn’t hurt Lansbury too much, he was re-elected to parliament for Bow and Bromley in 1922 and then between 1931-35 became the leader of the Labour Party.
Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock – On the side of Electric House on Bow Road
Minnie was the daughter in law of George Lansbury having married his son Edgar and was one of the 30 councillors arrested. She was sent to Holloway Prison for six weeks where conditions were not good, she became ill whilst there having contracted pneumonia and died six weeks afterwards on New Years Day 1922 being released at the age of 32. She’d been to prison before of course, Minnie was an active campaigner to give women the vote. Her funeral was a major occasion with her coffin carried down the Bow Road by ex-servicemen, a huge crowd of mourners and nearly all the political and municipal leaders of East London.
This article was updated on 11 February 2018 to add further detail and stories. In particular I added detail around the tortures of force feeding and the cat and mouse act as well as adding some extra narrative around the events at the Bow Baths. The ordering of the locations were also amended so that people might more easily visit them in geographical order.
There are a number of excellent sources that helped put together this post. They are listed below and contain a wealth of information about the East London Suffragettes.
Feminist Fightback – Great tour featuring a number of the locations in this post
Exploring East London – Things to see in Bow
Spitalfields Life – East End Suffragette Map with photos and quotes.
East London Suffragettes – History of the East End Suffragettes
Sylvia Pankhurst – Sylvia in the East End. A lottery funded website dedicated to Sylvia Pankhurst and full of information
Diamond Geezer – Fantastic sources of information from this East End blogger including where to find some of the harder to find locations which we’ve used in this post.
International Institute of Social History – Papers from the estate of Sylvia Pankhurst which can be downloaded and read. The archive was given to the institute by Sylvia’s son Richard Pankhurst.
This article forms the first part of our historical series looking at the history of East London and in particular of old Bow