Earlier this year I joined a team of researchers with one task, find the untold stories of East London’s suffragettes, the women who stood shoulder to shoulder with Sylvia Pankhurst but whose names are no longer familiar, or perhaps were never known outside of the local area. The wonderful and scary bit of the project was the blank page aspect, Tower Hamlets Archive is a fabulous rich resource and plays an important role in the suffragette story. To pick out their stories involved the team reading minutes from meetings, checking police records, reading the press locally and nationally and piecing together the story. What unfolded was riveting.
Sylvia Pankhurst the most widely known suffragette perhaps aside from Emily Davidson who was knocked over and killed by the King’s horse was Manchester-born, educated and privileged, moved to the very heart of where lack of privilege and access was felt most, the East End of London.
From the 1880s onwards a high level of emigration was filling the East End, creating a place where a multitude of different ethnicities all found themselves living close to each other, cheek by jowl. Some were running away from turmoil (the Jewish community were suffering as a result of poverty and pogroms in the Russian empire) or others such as the Irish community were trying to escape the Irish potato famine, joining other family members who had come to England in earlier generations. Immigration continued through the turn of the century, up until WW1, slowed down somewhat by the Aliens Act which made it more difficult to just arrive on a boat.
This mix of different views, culture, religions, factories, people living in very close proximity and more made the area a hotbed for ideas some of which were radical, the East End was one of the best places for new ideas to ferment and the most robust and powerful to rise to the surface. It was also poverty-stricken in large part, and nowhere was it more abundantly clear how women’s inequality and inability to determine their path in life, played out on a day to day basis.
Sylvia Pankhurst decided that the best place for her movement to succeed was in the midst of all this. She made Bow her HQ for the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Not only did she and her fellow activists march and protest, they also opened the Cost Price Restaurant to feed people a decent meal and a toy factory run on socialist principles.
She frequently spoke and was arrested in East London, she spoke up for working-class women and fully committed by living in their midst, though it has to be said she did not form very close friendships with the locals, by today’s standards her relationship was maternal and removed somewhat by class. The suffragette movement’s news paper Woman’s Dreadnought was widely sold across London and locally. During her time in the East End she and her fellow activists were imprisoned, force-fed, subject to the Cat and Mouse laws and treated horrifically, their physical treatment impacted on their long-term health in later life.
The research also threw a spotlight on the wider views and wishes of the suffragettes and the world they wanted to shape. Many saw the vote as an essential first step in getting equality (something which at time still feels beyond our grasp today), they all had other causes, desires and ambitions, but let us be clear ‘get the vote’ was always top of their list – I like to think of it as them seeing it as the gateway. Their activism continued post the change in the law allowing some women the vote, some becoming founding members of the Communist movement in England, Sylvia was btw a Marxist, others focused on a women’s right to decide on birth control (one suffragette who brought into England Margaret Sanger’s famous book was arrested).
I focused on the Cohen Sisters whose tragic story reads like Doctor Zhivago, and learnt a lot about the incredible Minnie Lansbury who is remembered to this day by a clock in Mile End. Each character played their part in making something we take for granted happen, they demanded, exhausting themselves in the process so we today can decide our fate. They stood tall and embraced the rallying call of the suffragette movement ‘Deeds not Words’
The research we did uncover some truly incredible women and until October there is a small, fascinating exhibition telling their individual stories in Tower Hamlets Archive in Stepney, it’s called the Women’s Hall in remembrance of a hall which was a centre of activism in East London. The exhibition has some terrific events including Riverside Cares rosette and banner making event on August 21st. The Cost Price restaurant has also been recreated in spirit.