Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette Walking Tour in East London

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 countries most deprived areas.

A vocal advocate for working class women. She also published a newspaper called the Woman’s Dreadnought. She often spoke out at venues across the East End, much to the ire of the authorities. Between 1913 and 1914 she was arrested eight times. On each occasion she would be forcibly fed, a brutal practice that left her physically shattered.

jerome davenport suffragette mural
A mural of Sylvia Pankhurst on the side of the Lord Morpeth pub in Bow

The Bow and Bromley By-Election of 1912

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had been active in the East End since 1906. Slowly gaining traction amongst the working women of the area. Eventually the focus of their activities grew further towards the centre of London. Choosing to target the more affluent classes to help with their campaign.

It was the parliamentary by-election campaign in 1912 which re-launched some of the energy of campaigning in the East End. George Lansbury the MP for Bow and Bromley has been elected in December 1910 for the Independent Labour Party. Resigning his seat in October 1912 after finding little support for the idea of women’s suffrage in parliament. He chose to fight under a ‘Votes for Women’ banner. He lost but his campaign had prompted Sylvia to stay in the area. Her campaign would eventually evolve into the East London Federation of Suffragettes in early 1914.

A poster advertising a ‘Suffrage Demonstration at the Bow Palace. Both Pankhurst and George Lansbury would speak

Walking in the Footsteps of Sylvia Pankhurst

So this walking tour is based on the activities of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes. From the time of the ‘Votes for Women’ by-election in 1912. Through to the time that some women and all men received the vote in 1918. It looks at  some of the locations made famous by the activities of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. As well as some of the other key locations in the area which would have been familiar at the time.

The tour starts at Bow Road Underground Station. Heads up towards Roman Road and then onto Victoria Park before turning round again and finishing back at Bow Road. It should take around two and a half hours to complete.

Start and Finish – Bow Road tube station

Stop 1 – Bromley Public Hall and Bow Police Station (both contemporary buildings of the time)

From Bow Road underground station turn right and walk down Bow Road towards Bow Church. The grand red brick building on the opposite side of the road, just before the railway bridge, is Bow Police Station.

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. 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

Keep walking down towards Bow Church. Watch out for Bromley Public Hall which you will pass on the right hand side.

Bromley Public Hall – One of the first meeting places for the East London suffragettes

The hall was the location the first public meeting of the East London Federation of Suffragettes on 14 February 1913. After the meeting they marched towards the local bank and police station where they proceeded to break some windows. Sylvia Pankhurst and her American friend 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. Pankhurst would make her first public speech in the East End nearby. It 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. Pankhurst and Emerson were arrested again. Along with Willie Lansbury,  Annie Lansbury, Alice Moore and a lady known as Mrs Watkins. This time they were all sent to prison.

Bromley Public Hall

Keep walking down towards Bromley High Street and follow the road to the right. You will see a pedestrianised area which is known as Stroudley Walk. 

Stop 2 – Stroudley Walk

Stroudley Walk – Site of Sylvia Pankhurst’s first speech in the East End

Completely unrecognisable now from the time of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Stroudley Walk would at one point have been at the heart of the old village of Bow. It was here that  Sylvia Pankhurst made her first speech in the East End alongside her fellow campaigner Zelie Emerson. It was 17 February 1913. Stood on the back of a horse and cart, near to where the dry cleaners is today. She proclaimed “the beginning of militancy in East London”.

After the speech was over Pankhurst, Emerson and a number of others including Mrs. Watkins, Mrs. Moore, Annie Lansbury and Willie Lansbury went to purposely smash a few windows with a view to getting arrested. They broke windows at a local undertakers (approximately where St. Mary’s Court is now), the local liberal club and Bromley Public Hall. It was all symbolic. The women and some men who were involved wanted to be martyrs. They wanted to make a point. All were sent to prison and sentenced to a month’s hard labour. The women went to Holloway and Willie Lansbury to Brixton.  

Stroudley Walk today is a far cry from how it would have looked in Sylvia Pankhurst’s time

It was said 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. After a period of time they were force fed, a process that was often brutal and pretty barbaric.  Upon leaving according to Pankhurstwe found we were too ill to do anything for some weeks.”

Head back towards the Bow Road and Bow Church will be directly in front of you.

Stop 3 – Bow Church

Bow Church (the historic church at the heart of Bow)

Bow Church would have been very recognisable to anyone living in the area. The gateway to Essex. The church sat just before the bridge which gave the area it’s name. It crossed the river Lea over towards what is now Stratford. The whole area used to be known as Stratford atte Bow. The name referenced the Bow shaped bridge which crossed the river.

There is lots of history to talk about with regard to this church. It was first commissioned in 1311 by Bishop Ralph Baldock and was part of the parish of St. Dunstan’s in Stepney. It become its own parish in the 1700’s when it was consecrated as the church of St. Mary, Stratford, Bow. It’s been through number of changes of course. In 1829 the tower collapsed after being badly damaged in a storm. It was rebuilt but then in 1896 the chancel roof then collapsed due to decay. Then in then in 1941 the church suffered further damage after been hit by bombs from the blitz. Restoration work then begun in 1949 with the Queen visiting in 1951 to check on progress.

One of the most famous people connected with Bow Church is long time parishioner George Lansbury. The local MP for the area for many years. It was his stand, when he resigned from parliament, that kick started the suffragette movement in the East End of London. A long time and vocal supporter of women’s suffrage. He played a major role in the ongoing campaign. he eventually would become the leader of the Labour party between 1931 and 1935.

The Gladstone Statue at the front of Bow Church

Standing directly in front of Bow Church is a statue of a former Prime Minister, William Gladstone. The statue was commissioned by Theodore Bryant. He was one of the owners of the local Bryant and May match factory. He was also an admirer of the former prime minister. It was his factory that in 1888 would go on to be the location for one of the most famous strikes in the East End. An event commonly known as the Match Girls Strike.

Erected in 1882, the statue was hugely controversial. Not because of politics but because of how it was funded. Annie Besant in her article ‘White Slavery in London‘ exposed the poor working conditions in the factory. Published on 23 June 1888 it went on to reveal that six years from its erection the statue remained a “very bitter memory”…

“Mr. Theodore Bryant, to show his admiration of Mr. Gladstone and the greatness of his own public spirit. Bethought him to erect a statue to that eminent statesman. In order that his workgirls might have the privilege of contributing, he stopped 1s. each out of their wages, and further deprived them of half-a-day’s work by closing the factory, “giving them a holiday.” (“We don’t want no holidays,” said one of the girls pathetically, for — needless to say — the poorer employees of such a firm lose their wages when a holiday is “given.”)

So furious were the girls at this cruel plundering, that many went to the unveiling of the statue with stones and bricks in their pockets, and I was conscious of a wish that some of those bricks had made an impression on Mr. Bryant’s conscience. Later on they surrounded the statue — “we paid for it” they cried savagely — shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble paid for, in very truth, by their blood.”

Besant, A, White Slavery in London. The Link, issue 21

Eventually over the years the outstretched hand of the statue was vandalised with red paint. A more symbolic gesture but one that still remembers the controversy of the statue to this day.

198 Bow Road – The location of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign office in 1912.

It is possible to walk around to the back of Bow Church. This is the best place from which to see the former bakers shop where Sylvia Pankhurst set up the Bow branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). At the back of the churchyard facing towards Stratford. It’s approximate site is the bit of overgrown wall between where the buildings are now.

She had come into the area to campaign for her friend George Lansbury. He had resigned from parliament in order to force a by-election on the subject of votes for women. The campaign was lost but Sylvia decided to stay despite her mother wishing her to cease activities in the East End. She had wanted Sylvia to concentrate on activity in the more affluent central and west end parts of London. Her decision strained the relationship between Sylvia, Emmeline and Cristobel. This would eventually lead to a split with the WSPU as Sylvia formed the East London Federation of the Suffragettes.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaking outside of the old Baker’s shop at 198 Bow Road

At the front of Bow Church look for Fairfield Road and turn right to walk along it. Stop at the gates of the Bow Quarter which was formerly the Bryant and May factory

Stop 4 – The Bryant and May factory (now Bow Quarter) the site of the Match Women Strike of 1888

One of the forerunners for the modern trade union movement. The match women’s strike of 1888 exposed some of the brutal working practices experienced by women in the the East End. Now where the well-heeled development of Bow Quarter is now on Fairfield Road is located. This was at one point known as the Bryant and May Matchstick factory. Working in terrible conditions, the match workers would be exposed to poisonous cheap phosphorous. This would result in some very poor health conditions for the workers.

It was one person, a radical journalist called Annie Beasant, who exposed the working conditions. That was in a newspaper article which the management at the time didn’t take too kindly to.  The article called ‘White Slavery in London‘ appeared in ‘The Link’ on 23 June 1888. Using terms such as ‘prison house’, ‘white wage slaves’, ‘ undersized’, ‘helpless’ and ‘oppressed’. The management of the factory tried to try to bully the matchgirls into denying the claims from the within the factory. Actions which resulted in a walkout on 5 July 1888.

The strike caught the public imagination and a fund was set up to support the poorly paid workers. It saw 50 of the matchgirls visit parliament to talk about their working conditions. It also saw the establishment of a new union, the union of women matchmakers which lasted until 1903. Eventually it saw the management of the factory get round the table and agree to a deal. Something which finally resulted in better pay and conditions.  It also prompted William Booth, he of the Salvation Army, to start to campaign for the use of the much less dangerous red phosphorus as an alternative to the white phosphorus used on the matches.  That quest ended in 1891 when he opened an alternative factory to Bryant & May’s in Lamprell Street. It paid double the wages and used the safer red phosphorus.

The strike of the women match workers, often small, undernourished and taking huge risks. Is often seen as being a launch pad for the many other groups of unrepresented workers in terrible conditions across London. Inspiring them to come together and form trade unions. These unions would start to give them a collaborative voice with which to seek to seek a better working environments.

Continue along Fairfield Road until you come to a mini roundabout. Turn left and then take the first right along Parnell Road. Walk up Parnell until you come to the junction with Roman Road.

Stop 5 – 321 Roman Road – Where the Women’s Dreadnought was first published

After the failed attempt by George Lansbury to return to parliament on the back of a votes for women ticket. The Women’s Social and Political Union chose to come out of the East End and focus their fight in central London and in the richer suburbs. Sylvia however stayed and that meant finding a new premises to continue the fight. She was, at the time, still under the auspices of the WSPU but was no longer actually supported by them.

Her chosen location was on the corner of the Roman Road and Parnell Street. It was at the time, an old run down shop at 321 Roman Road. This is of course another building which is sadly no longer there.

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

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.”

It would be during their time at 321 Roman Road that the Women’s Dreadnought would first be published. A newspaper aimed squarely at the East End. It caused another split from Emmeline and Cristobel who didn’t agree with what Sylvia was doing. Eventually Sylvia would formerly breakaway from the WSPU and form the East London Federation of the Suffragettes.

Walk along the Roman Road and stop once you get to the library. Opposite would have been the approximate location of the Bow Baths

Stop 6 – Bow Baths – At the heart of the Roman Road, a meeting hall and where Pankhurst escaped from the police

Another building which is no longer there. It 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.  Whilst speaking at the baths, the police had snuck in the back and would have caught Sylvia Pankhurst had the crowd not noticed. She ended up jumping into the crowd of supporters and was disguised in an old hat and coat and smuggled out. The venue was a popular location for gatherings and would often hold rallies.

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.”

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

Still going strong, the Roman Road was one of the locations where a stall would be set up during the Saturday market. The stall would be used to recruit people to the cause and learn about the stories of the real women of the East End. It was here that the Women’s Dreadnought, the official paper of the East London Federation of Suffragettes was first sold in 1914,

Selling the Women’s Dreadnought on the Roman Road

At the junction of Roman Road and St. Stephen’s Road, turn right and walk along St. Stephen’s Road until you get to St. Stephen’s Green.

Stop 7 – 28 Ford Road – Home of the Jessie Payne 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. 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.”

Purvis.J, Emmeline Pankhust: A biography, Routledge 2003
Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from force feeding at Jessie Payne’s house. The photograph was taken by her friend Norah Smyth

She lived at 28 Ford Road for a year and it was here, in a two bedroom tenement, where Jessie Payne and Dr. Flora Murray nursed her back to health. 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 like the Clarion, the Merthyr Pioneer and the Glasgow Herald.

St. Stephens Green is now 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.

Keep walking to the top of St. Stephen’s Road to the junction with Old Ford Road. You are looking for the block of flats immediately to your right which is marked by a blue plaque.

Stop 8 – 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

Head west towards Bethnal Green along Old Ford Road and stop once you reach the Lord Morpeth pub which is only a short walk away.

Stop 9 – 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 East London Federation of Suffragettes. 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 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“.

The Lord Morpeth pub. The Womens Hall would have adjoined the building on the right.

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 after all.

Head back towards Roman Road along Daling Way which is a path circumventing the area of green land next to the pub. Carry on until you reach Roman Road and look for ‘Dane Place’ on the opposite side. Walk down Dane Place and turn right onto ‘Rosemount Gardens North’. At the corner with ‘Norman Grove’ is the Toy Factory.

Stop 10 – 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 bureaucracy. 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 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.

Keep walking south along Norman Grove. It will blend into Selwyn Road and then Coborn Road. Keep walking along Coborn Road until you reach Bow Road. Once there turn left and head to Harley Grove where you should see the memorial to George Lansbury.

Stop 11 – George Lansbury Memorial – The site of 39 Bow Road where he once lived

George was an MP elected to parliament in 1910. He was a major supporter of women’s suffrage. In 1912 he resigned his seat in order to stand as a ‘votes for women‘ candidate. Sylvia Pankhurst originally came to the East End in the same year 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 to continue her fight to to champion the cause of suffrage.

Lansbury was also the Mayor of Poplar twice. He gained notoriety for in 1921 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.

The George Lansbury memorial stands on the site of his former home now demolished on the Bow Road

Stop 12 – 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 after 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.

A famous picture of Minnie Lansbury being congratulated whilst on her way to the Poplar Town Hall. From there she would be sent to Holloway. After being released she died of pneumonia.

Carry on Bow Road until you see the Bow Road Underground Station just opposite. If you like this article have a look here for a series of other articles featuring Suffragette History.

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