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.

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