Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Suffragettes

Sylvia Pankhurst lived in East London. Here she supported the working class women of the East End. She established the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. A vocal advocate not only for the vote but also for the rights of the working classes.

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 was the daughter of Emmeline and sister of Christabel. She 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. This was 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. The name Sylvia Pankhurst became well known as she would speak out across East London. This was much to the ire of the authorities. Pankhurst was arrested and sent to prison eight times between 1913 and 1914. There she would suffer force feeding on each occasion.

Sylvia Pankhurst who formed the East London Federation of the Suffragettes
Sylvia Pankhurst who formed the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

Votes for Women

Sylvia Pankhurst arrived in East London during 1912 to campaign for George Lansbury. He was standing for parliament under a ‘Votes for Women’ banner having resigned his seat in order to do so. Lansbury didn’t win but on seeing the poverty of women in the East End Sylvia decided to stay. She set about shaping her campaign for suffrage amongst the working poor of the area.

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.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Locations

198 Bow Road – The Bow Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union

Sylvia moved to the East End in 1912. She had decided to continue the drive to build a grassroots movement among the working classes.  The East End was one of the poorest areas in the country. 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 the 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 more than likely have been a tough place to live. Now 198 Bow Road’s approximate location is on the site of Canterbury House. This is the social housing that was built in its place.

The approximate site of 198 Bow Road the former Bakers where Sylvia Pankhurst first moved into and painted 'Votes for Women' on the front/.  The bit of wall overgrown with green is its approximate location.
The approximate site of 198 Bow Road the former Bakers where Sylvia Pankhurst first moved into and painted ‘Votes for Women’ on the front. The bit of wall overgrown with green is its approximate location.
Sylvia Pankhurst outside the old Bakers at 198 Bow Road in East London which she moved into
Sylvia Pankhurst speaking on scaffolding in 1912 outside the old Bakers at 198 Bow Road which she moved into. You can just see part of the ‘Votes for Women’ sign she painted on the front

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. The suffragettes knew that militant tactics would be necessary in order to gain publicity. At the end of that first meeting they marched towards the local bank and police station. There 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. Sylvia Pankhurst would make her first public speech in East London. This was 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.

Bromley Public Hall
Bromley Public Hall site of the first public meeting of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

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 East London alongside fellow campaigner Zelie Emerson. It was from the back of a horse and cart near where the dry cleaners is now. It was also next to something known as the Obelisk. Pankhurst had 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. However she also recognised that for people already suffering with dire economic circumstances. Then to risk imprisonment and a possible loss of livelihood was a big ask for the cause.

Stroudley Walk Sufragettes
According to the Diamond Geezer blog, the Dry Cleaners and the block of flats in this uninspiring area is an approximate location of Sylvia Pankhurst’s speech from the back of the wagon by the obelisk.

Taking Direct Action

After the speech was over Sylvia alongside a few others called Mrs. Watkins, Mrs. Moore and Annie Lansbury. All finished up by throwing stones which broke the glass of an undertakers called Selby & Sons. This was where St. Mary’s Court is now. The undertaker’s is still going although the shop itself has moved just around the corner onto Bow Road itself. The police didn’t take long to arrest her. This was alongside some other supporters such as Willie Lansbury, who broke a window at the Bromley Public Hall, and Zelie Emerson who broke a window at the liberal club.

It was 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. Then after a period of time were force fed. It was a process which was often brutal and pretty barbaric.  Upon leaving according to Pankhurstwe found we were too ill to do anything for some weeks.”

st marys court sufragettes
St. Mary’s Court now stands where Selby & Sons Undertakers once stood

Letter to Emmeline Pankhurst

Whilst in prison, Pankhurst managed to smuggle out a letter to her mother Emmeline Pankhurst. It 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 when 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.

Bow Police Station would have been a familiar place to many of the sufragettes prior to their journey to Holloway
Bow Police Station would have been a familiar place to many of the sufragettes prior to their journey to Holloway

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.”

The site of the former 321 Roman Road from where the Women's Dreadnought was published and which for a time was the headquarters of the East London Sufragettes.  Unrecognisable now it's on the corner of Parnell Road and Roman Road
The site of the former 321 Roman Road from where the Women’s Dreadnought was published and which for a time was the headquarters of the East London Sufragettes. Unrecognisable now it’s on the corner of Parnell Road and Roman Road

Roman Road Market – Where the Woman’s Dreadnought would have been sold

Still going strong, the Roman Road market was where a stall would be set up during the Saturday market. The stall would be used to recruit people and to 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. 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‘, formed in 1914, was sold.

The Roman Road market still going strong.  The Women's Dreadnought would have been sold here
The Roman Road market still going strong. The Women’s Dreadnought would have been sold here
Selling the womens dreadnought on the roman road
Selling the Women’s Dreadnought on the Roman Road. This picture was taken by Norah Smyth an active member of the ELFS

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. Then, after speaking at a meeting inside, the police had managed to get behind the curtain and onto the platform. This was whilst Pankhurst was speaking. At the same time they were also attempting to get in via the main doors. Sylvia had initially arrived at the Baths in disguise knowing that the police would have attempted to arrest her.

She eventually escaped by jumping into the crowd. Then 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.”

Zelie Emerson

zelie emerson
Zelie Emerson who received two head wounds in separate incidents at the Bow Baths.

Her good friend Zelie Emerson was then struck outside the building. This was with what Pankhurst describes as a lead weighted instrument. It fractured 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. She would be force fed and then released after nine days on a stretcher.

The next incident occurred on 5 November 1913. Then Pankhurst was due to speak at the Baths for the inaugural meeting of the People’s Army. This was in itself a response to police brutality. It was 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. She was 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 the suffragettes.

The People’s Army

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.”

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The site of the glorious old Bow Baths with the former public library still standing in the foreground.  The building that replaced is wasn’t so glorious
Bow public baths with library in the foreground circa 1914
Bow public baths with library in the foreground circa 1914

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.

jessie payne
Jessie Payne outside the Houses of Parliament in 1914 from a photograph taken by Norah Smyth

Pankhurst was released just over a week later under a law known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act‘. This had been passed in March 1913 so that 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. This was 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. It meant sentences were often extended over much longer periods.

Jessie Payne

Following this particular arrest in July 1913 Pankhurst was in really poor health. This was a result of hunger, sleep deprivation and forced feeding. She was taken to the home of Jessie Payne and her husband on a stretcher. Eventually 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. She 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. She 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.

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St. Stephens Green is where 28 Ford Road would have stood.  The area has been extensively cleared with virtually no contemporary housing from the time when Pankhurst would have lived there. One of George Lansbury’s former homes would also have been nearby on St. Stephen’s Road however all that area too has been cleared.

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 location of the Mothers Arms, formerly the Gunmakers Arms which was taken over by Pankhurst and turned into a day centre
The location of the Mothers Arms, formerly the Gunmakers Arms which was taken over by Pankhurst and turned into a day centre

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“.

Keir Hardie

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 Lord Morpeth pub
The Lord Morpeth pub which would have been around in Pankhurst’s day, 400 Old Ford Road would have been it’s neighbour on the right
jerome davenport suffragette mural
On the side of the Lord Morpeth overlooking the space which would have been occupied by the hall there is also a giant mural of Sylvia painted in 2018.

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.

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The old toy factory can still be seen albeit now as a nice little terrace in a leafy little street called Norman Grove just behind the Roman Road.
women working in the toy factory
Women at work inside the Toy Factory. Picture taken by Norah Smyth

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. Hpwever her found little support for his belief in women’s suffrage from his colleagues. Describing them 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. This was for the act of force feeding. Shaking his fist and shouting “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.”

Resignation from Parliament

george lansbury
George Lansbury resigned from his seat in parliament to fight on a platform of Votes for Women in 1912

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.

The George Lansbury memorial stands on the site of his former home now demolished on the Bow Road
The George Lansbury memorial stands on the site of his former home now demolished on the Bow Road. He moved into 39 Bow Road in 1916

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.

The Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock on Bow Road just opposite Bow Road station.  At the time of the photo some work was taking place on the outside of the building
The Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock on Bow Road just opposite Bow Road station. At the time of the photo some work was taking place on the outside of the building
Minnie Lansbury being congratulated on the way to  Poplar Town Hall prior to being sent to Holloway
Minnie Lansbury being congratulated on the way to Poplar Town Hall prior to being sent to Holloway

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.

This article forms the first part of our historical series looking at the history of East London and in particular of old Bow


  1. This is a really interesting read. I’ve yet to see the current film “suffragette” but this gives some great background London based insights into how dedicated they were to achieve universal suffrage. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks very much the film was what inspired me to write the post after hearing lots of good things about it. I’d also always known that there was a strong presence in the East End and particularly the Bow area but had no idea that it was to such an extent until I started the research. Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Hi Stuart, what a brilliant post. I saved it for when I had time to read and fully digest it. I had no idea that the suffragettes were connected to East London. And reading about them in the context of an actual area of London really brought the story alive for me. And as a lover of historical walks, I enjoyed how you linked history to the locations. If you ever feel inspired to another piece of this type, Captain Cook is linked to various East End locations in Stepney, Mile End Road. 🙂

  3. Wow! This is an amazing insight and historical events, people and places in the heart of the East End. It make me even more proud reading this that Bow has been my home since moving here in 1975. My mother always says that the East End has a lot of history. Only recently I discovered that on the same road close to the Bow bus garage is a listed building that was a large match factory, actually the largest factory in London, which once employed 3,000 women and girls. Its now converted into a large private residential housing complex. Its a reddish bricked building and really stands out when you walk past. Good to see it has remained. I’m looking forward to discover more of this area of London that I have called home since the early 70’s. Many thanks for writing this article. It was a pleasure to read.

    1. Thanks Ronald its really appreciated that you took the time to comment. The red brick building you mention is the old Bryant and May factory where the famous matchgirls strike took place. It was a key event in the history of workers rights and was a big deal at the time as the matchgirls worked in appalling conditions there. Your right the East End has so much in it and Bow in particular is packed full of history

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