Sylvia Pankhurst and the East End 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 more than any other suffragette as a result and often went on hunger strike.
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. On seeing the poverty of women in the East End she stayed and set about campaigning 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 try and 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 first headquarters of the East London Suffragettes
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. 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.
Stroudley Walk – Site of Sylvia Pankhurst’s first speech in the East End
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 13 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.”
Bromley Public Hall – One of the first meeting places for the East London suffragettes
Still standing, the hall was the location for some of the first meetings of the East London Suffragettes, that was until they got kicked out for being too militant. The suffragettes had begun to take what they called ‘direct action’, being loud in public places, disrupting church services and generally challenging the status quo. The powers in the public hall didn’t like it too much and they were out.
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 authorites. 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.
George Lansbury Memorial – The site of 39 Bow Road where he once lived
George was an MP elected to parliament in 1911 and a major supporter of womens suffrage, he resigned his seat in order to stand as a ‘votes for women‘ candidate. Sylvia Pankhurst originally came to the East End in 1912 to campaign for Lansbury as a representative of the Womens Social and Political Union. He didn’t get elected but continued to support Pankhurst as she chose to stay on in the area to continue her fight to to champion the cause of suffrage.
Lansbury was also the Mayor of Poplar twice. He gained notoriety 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 and between 1931-35 was 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.
321 Roman Road – Second headquarters of the ELFS
The second location of the ELFS from February 2013 to May 2014 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.”
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 cut-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 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.
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 escapted from the police
Another building which is no longer there, the building was the site of an incident of legend when in 1913 Pankhurst escaped from the police after having given a speech on the steps of the building. Also present by all accounts was ‘Kosher’ Bill, a 6ft Jewish boxer who when it was known the police might be around often acted as Sylvia’s bodyguard. The police had snuck in the back though and would have caught the two speakers had the crowd not noticed. Sylvia jumped into a crowd of supporters and was disguised in an old hat and coat and smuggled her out.
The tale was remembered in Pankhurst’s own words: “On November 5th 1913, 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 mistake. 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 the Payne’s who Sylvia Pankhurst lived with for a year and where she recovered from hunger strike
After being expelled from the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’ Sylvia Pankhurst came to live with Jessie Payne, a bootmaker. She was taken to the house on a stretcher in 1913, when following arrest for speaking in public she went on a hunger and thirst strike. It wasn’t something the prison authorities approved of and the resultant force feeding was not pleasant, according to Pankhurst in a letter she wrote to her mother which she managed to get smuggled out of Holloway.
“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.”
She lived at 28 Ford Road for a year and it was here where Jessie Payne and Dr. Flora Murray nursed her back to health. Pankhurst lived there for a year in the two roomed tenement. Jessie Payne was described by Pankhurst as a “dark, pale woman of middle age and one of the most benevolent women I’ve ever known.”
Whilst living at the address she would also often write articles in socialist papers for the Clarion, the Merthyr Pioneer and the Glasgow Herald.
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.
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