Last night The East London Federation of Suffragettes were appropriately remembered at the launch of the newly recreated Women’s Hall at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. The lobby of the Grade II listed building, almost unrecognisable, had been transformed into a space to celebrate the home of Sylvia Pankhurst from 1914 to 1923 and tell the story of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).
Tamsin Bookey, Heritage Manager of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives and the woman who instigated the project, describes the above photo of Sylvia Pankhurst as being ‘our inspiration for all of this’. The photograph is of Sylvia outside the WSPU’s first head quarters on Bow Road, underneath the words ‘Vote For Women’ that she hand painted in gold before she separated from her mother and set up her own branch of Suffragettes. ‘We wanted to draw attention to the activities of the ELFS that Sylvia Pankhurst founded in what was then the metropolitan area of Poplar.’ Tamsin explains. ‘We want to reflect and imagine on the cost price restaurants that they set up, the free milk for babies and the jobs they created at the toy factory that helped East Enders out of poverty during the first World War. When developing our exhibition, it was very important to bring out the story of those individual residents of this area who heard what Sylvia had to say and joined in. They started the babies clinics, sold The Dreadnought, and paid membership fees and signed up new members and chained themselves to each other to try and evade arrest. Their names are not very well known so we highlighted 14 of them’. Tamsin announces the publication of ‘The Women’s Hall Dreadnought’ that includes more in-depth stories that the volunteer team of researchers uncovered and listings of events throughout the summer.
In true ELFS spirit, a group of mothers interrupted Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs’ speech in a peaceful protest, standing in front of the platform where Mr Biggs stood holding up their banners, colourful letters spelling out ‘Save Our Nurseries’ in response to Tower Hamlets proposing to privatise the services on three specialist child day centres. The Mayor apologised for the outbreak ‘I don’t want this event event disrupted by a group of Labour Party Members who are campaigning. Very impolite of them to disrupt in this fashion’. A woman in the audience responded loudly ‘This is important, this is what it is all about, supporting women, it is what the ELFS would have been fighting for’. It seems that Mayor Biggs doesn’t know his history.
Dr Helen Pankhurst, CARE International’s Senior Advisor and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst described the activism at the launch as ‘amazing’ and later during her speech went on to say ‘There is a discomfort on what men’s role is and that is important. Men have to feel uncomfortable in this world. Us women know that feeling so well, so it is important that as we go forward we negotiate that and men’s viability and engagement’.
Dr Pankhurst reflected on her family history ‘The story of ELFS is a link between their local story and the national one, you often don’t hear about them. Sylvia chose the East End of London because she thought it was an area where masses had an interest around women’s rights but also where they could move and demonstrate in Westminster. Sylvia as a character links to the family of the Suffragettes, and yet locally she was known as ‘our Sylvia’ and yet expelled by her mother [Emmeline] and sister [Christabel].’
Sarah Jackson, co-author of East London Suffragettes and founding member of the East End Women’s museum said she had been working to ‘try and tell the story of this group of Suffragettes for several years, building on the works of Rosemary Taylor and Stepney books amongst others. We are honouring the working class women who made up this movement. We are honoured to have some descendants of those women in the room with us. This exhibition will allow us to uncover more stories and more connections to fill in the gaps about this remarkable organisation and their story.’ Sarah was also ‘delighted that there is a protest here tonight. The ELFS tried one campaign tactic and it didn’t work, what they did was listen to their community, they changed their strategy so it was meeting the needs of working class women and recognising that the vote wasn’t everything. A key part of women’s liberation is figuring out who is holding the baby?’
As a research volunteer on the project, I’ve been working with the Volunteer Manager, Lauren Sweeney. Last night Lauren said she was ‘overwhelmed by the women and men who have helped. It showed how much people cared about women’s history. they uncovered stories that even the experts in the room hadn’t heard of.’
The original Women’s Hall was at 400 Old Ford Road, close to Victoria Park. Sylvia Pankhurst was looking for a suitable space to hold meetings as well as a place to live. In her autobiography, The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia describes the beginnings of the Women’s Hall in 1914:
‘I had successfully ventured out one morning of dense fog, to see an empty house in the Old Ford Road. It had been in turn a school and a factory, and had a hall capable of seating about three hundred people at the rear, connected with the house by a smaller hall with a flat roof. We decided to take it as part of the headquarters of the East London Federation, reserving a part of it as a home for Norah Smyth, myself and the Paynes. The others were already installed on my return. The landlord would give nothing for decoration, but Norah Smyth painted and papered the house, and the Rebels’ S.P.U painted the hall under the leadership of Willie Lansbury, and made the seats which our women stained, bringing them up to the flat roof, where we housed our colours on an enormous pole. It was delightful to me to be out there under the sky with them. We were able now to organise a lending library, a choir, lectures, concerts, a ‘Junior Suffragettes’ Club’ and so on. The place became a hive of activity and the first house of call for everyone in distress. When a girl in grievous trouble was found fainting in Victoria Park, it was here that the park-keeper brought her.’
The site of the original hall is a patch of grass in the shadow of a 1960’s tower block and until recently the only sign of the historic work that took place there was a small blue plaque on the side of a pub that stands next to 400 Old Ford Road. Alternative Arts Director, Maggie Pinhorn commended the Lord Morpeth for commissioning artist Jerome Davenport to paint a large mural of Sylvia (photo above) to commemorate the work of the ELFS. Maggie announced ‘On the open green site where the women’s hall once stood, the public works group will be creating a herb garden following the plan of the original cost price kitchen, which took place inside the Women’s Hall.’
I’m proud to live in Bow, a small part of London but a place so rich in history. I wanted to get involved with the Women’s Hall project from the start and signed up to be a research volunteer. I spent many hours in the reading room above the newly recreated Women’s Hall with many of my fellow volunteer researchers delving into the history of the individual ELFS members. I wanted to find out more about the immediate area between Roman Road and Old Ford Road. Why did Sylvia choose this address? Who were the people she was trying to help? Why were their situations so desperate? What events took place there?
I spent hours engrossed whilst I sifted through cuttings files, searching through seemingly irrelevant photos until little nuggets of information were found; a photo of people walking the same streets as me but 104 years ago, a description of the congregation of nearby church St Paul, the exact address of the Gunmakers Arms that became the Mother’s Arms and realising that it is now a children’s playground and not where the commemorative plaque hangs upon a concrete wall. I can no longer walk along the stretch between the Hertford Union canal bridge and St Stephen’s Road without thinking that I am walking in the footsteps of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.
All of us are here as we are interested in history as what it tells us about the present and what we have to continue to do.
Dr Helen Pankhurst
The most significant lesson this project has taught me is other than universal suffrage, many of the other issues the ELFS were campaigning for are still worth fighting for today.
The Women’s Hall is open from today until 20th October 2018 at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ. Thank you to all the Local History Library & Archive staff for their valuable advice and patience as I requested box after box of cuttings from the archives.
Entrance is free as are the events that are taking place all summer. Here are a couple that I am involved in:
Saturday 2 June, 11am – 4pm
11am – 1pm Drop-in, all ages toy making workshop with artist Judith Hope
12.30 – 2.30pm Pay-what-you-can-cafe in the recreated ‘cost price restaurant’
1 – 1.30pm Guided tour of the exhibition.
2 – 3pm ‘Forgotten Suffragettes’ talk by Esther Freeman.
3.15 – 4pm Research volunteers’ showcase
Workshop: Sew an ELFS Posy with Sarah Richards
Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes were known to use their creativity to highlight their campaigns. Come along to our free drop-in workshop at The Women’s Hall led by Sarah Richards and learn how to make a posy in ELFS colours using upcycled fabrics. No sewing experience necessary and all materials provided.
Thursday 28 June, 6:00 – 7:30, drop-in
Walk: Battling Belles of Bow with Rachel Kolsky
Led by Sylvia Pankhurst who chose East London as the starting point for her campaign for women’s suffrage, East End women were key to the success of the Suffragette movement. Seeing the plight of the working women and mothers, she also established a nursery, a series of restaurants and a toy factory in Bow. Join Rachel Kolsky, prizewinning tour guide and author of Women’s London and follow in Sylvia’s footsteps.
Booking essential – please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday 7 July, 2:30 – 4:30
Lots of events are taking place over the summer, including an August takeover by the local Somali cultural organisation, Numbi Arts. Find the full listings on www.womenshall.org.uk. When you visit the hall, please take a donation for the Bow Food Bank.
The Women’s Hall is a partnership between Tower Hamelts, Idea Stores, Alternative Arts, Four Courners, East End Women’s Museum and thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund.