diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sylvia Pankhurst isn't the most well known member of her family. Her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel both led the Suffragette movement in their time, so their place in history is assured. But Sylvia was no less a campaigner, and far more of a militant, and her story is less well known. She began her campaign work in Bow, drawn here by the poverty of the East End and a desire to help put that right. And she began her work a stone's throw from my front door, which is highly appropriate given the events of 100 years ago today.

Sylvia Pankhurst first came to Bow in October 1912 to campaign for the local MP, George Lansbury. He'd taken the unusual step of resigning to fight a by-election on the issue of votes for women, so Sylvia arrived as a representative of the Women's Social and Political Union. She rented an empty baker's shop at 198 Bow Road, and painted "VOTES FOR WOMEN" in letters of gold across the front. The only picture I can find of that shop is here, with Sylvia addressing the crowd outside atop a precarious-looking wooden tower. Her oratory did no good - Lansbury lost the election to his Conservative challenger - but it brought Sylvia to see the hardship of the locals first hand, and so she stayed.

That baker's shop is long gone, as are all the shops along Bow Road along the southern side of St Mary's Church. The London County Council demolished the lot in 1933, removing what had been the heart of the medieval village, replacing slums and alleyways with the brick apartment blocks of the Bow Bridge Estate. These have survived, but Sylvia wouldn't be pleased to hear that the tenants remain amongst the poorest in London, the very people she came to save. To find the site of 198 Bow Road walk to the tip of the churchyard, closest to the flyover, and turn to face Canterbury House. The shop would have been where the railings make way for a soundproofing wall - the latter covered with greenery and used to screen a communal garden from the roar of traffic. Nobody's ever thought to commemorate the site, even though there's a thick brick post on which a plaque could easily be erected. I've passed the site hundreds of times, but I still can't picture Sylvia's shop nor the bustling parade it sat in, so comprehensively has the former heart of Bow been erased.

Likewise Bromley High Street, the entrance to which is a hundred yards up the road, and which has been transformed beyond recognition over the years. Post-war redevelopment created Stroudley Walk, a retail piazza that never lived up to expectations, with space for a hundred market stalls where today there's usually only one. The post office is a gloomy tomb, there's usually an alcoholic or three outside the betting shop, and I'm never convinced that the fish in the chippie is genuinely cod. The only building Sylvia would recognise is the Rose and Crown pub, although that closed a few years ago and it's now a halal-friendly shop (four roosters cost £9.99, and a whole sheep sells for less than three quid a kilo). 100 years ago today she made her campaigning speech atop a cart outside the LCC school, which was located behind the dry cleaners where a tower block now stands. In 1913 this was a genuine high street, an important local centre, but it's absolutely not today.

Sylvia's hurled flint struck Selby & Sons, the undertakers on the corner of Bow Road. That's long gone too, replaced by a modern block of flats called St Mary's Court, but the business has moved into a building up the road, which ironically used to be the local police station. Nextdoor is Bromley Public Hall, now the Tower Hamlets Register Office, where I often see under-dressed wedding parties spilling out onto the street. Here Sylvia's emancipation campaign held many of its meetings, and its window was smashed by George Lansbury's son Willie on that freezing Monday afternoon a century ago. All this wanton destruction ended up with a group of five protesters locked away in the cells at Bow Road's brand new police station, a building I blogged about last month. Sylvia was sentenced to two months hard labour in Holloway and here she began a lengthy hunger strike to draw further attention to the cause.

By now Sylvia's Bow base had shifted to number 321 Roman Road, a campaign office decorated with green and white flags above the door. From here Sylvia published her own polemic newspaper called the Women's Dreadnought, initially with a print run of ten thousand, later rather less. Now ejected from the national Suffragette movement, she set up the independent East London Federation of Suffragettes and continued the battle. On her 32nd birthday she opened The Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road, now demolished, but nextdoor to the Lord Morpeth pub. Wholesome fibre-rich meals were served at the locally affordable price of tuppence, although not everyone appreciated the dried beans and (heavens) potatoes with their skins on. Meanwhile at 45 Norman Grove she opened a small toy factory to provide Bow's women with sustainable employment, and made sure there was a creche and nursery to keep them in work. Practical and forward-looking, Sylvia had created a welfare bubble where it was most required.

The world changed in 1914, and the national Suffragette movement quickly evolved into a patriotic organisation supporting the troops. Sylvia was having none of it, continuing to fight against poverty and towards universal suffrage. Her organisation edged more towards communism, straining relations with her mother, who disowned her entirely when she gave birth but refused to marry the child's father. Sylvia moved with her non-husband from Bow to Woodford, where she lived for the rest of his life. They lived first at Vine Cottage, which Sylvia renamed Red Cottage, in Woodford Wells opposite the Horse and Well pub. In 1935, deeply concerned by the legalisation of aerial warfare, she commissioned a stone carving of a bomb which she erected on a concrete plinth in her front garden and unveiled with some ceremony. Red Cottage was demolished in 1939 but this peculiar monument lives on, semi-hidden at the back of a muddy verge overshadowed by chestnut trees.

Sylvia's penultimate move was to West Dene, a larger Edwardian house on Charteris Road close to Woodford station. Again this no longer stands, having been replaced by flats, but Redbridge council have named a nearby wedge of open space Pankhurst Green in Sylvia's honour, complete with commemorative sign and mosaic. And finally in 1956 she emigrated to Ethiopia, subject of her latest political grand project, where Emperor Haile Selassie gave her a state funeral. From a chucked stone in Bow to a grave in pride of place outside Addis Ababa's cathedral, Sylvia Pankhurst's life was anything but forgettable.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream