East London and Votes for Women
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East London Suffrage 1912 -1918

The Suffrage Movement

The suffrage movement for women can be traced back to the Levellers during the Commonwealth period, but it is one family, the Pankhursts, who are best remembered for their campaign for the Vote in the early 20th century.

The Pankhursts

Emmeline Pankhurst with Christabel, Sylvia and Adele began the militant suffrage campaign after the death of Richard Pankhurst, Emmeline'' husband and father to the Pankhurst daughters. A radical socialist and founder member of the Independant Labour Party (ILP), he died in 1898. A good barrister, his socialist views ensured a precarious financial situation for the family.

The children's childhood was unusual - the house was always filled with activists and socialist thinkers, and although none of them had a formal education whilst young, Christabel achieved a First Class degree in Law and Sylvia was gifted in art. On Richard's death in 1898 both girls were preparing for their studies, and it was a direct result of his death that they took up the suffrage cause so vehemently. Sylvia was asked to decorate the Pankhurst Memorial Hall built by Salford ILP as a tribute to her father. She worked on the project for three months with no pay, but at its opening it was revealed that it would be a men's club - women could not enter or use it.

The indignant Emmeline Pankhurst decided men would do nothing to help women, and with a few friends from the local ILP founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), with the slogan 'Words not Deeds'. Christabel and Sylvia also became active in the campaign. Sylvia put her artistic talents to its use, and Christabel studied law at Manchester University, although she would not be able to practice at the bar.

The arrival of the militants 1905 - the Suffragettes

In 1905 Bamford Stack's bill for women's suffrage was introduced in the House of commons. The WSPU and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) (founded in 1897 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett) lobbied MPs, drew up petitions and held rallies. The debate was held on 12th May and was talked out. The WSPU led by the Pankhursts decided that the NUWSS tactic of relying on private members bills was a waste of time and that the government should legislate - and they intended to give it no peace until it did.

Later in the year the militant tactics campaign began when Christabel with Annie Kenny were imprisoned for spitting at a policeman who was forcibly removing them from a Liberal rally. From 1906 until 1911 a familiar cycle repeated itself again and again. The franchise was held before the militants like a prize only to be snatched away at the last moment. With each failure, militancy became more extreme, and was met with brutality. Gentlemanly conduct did not apply to suffragettes, assault including rape was widely used, and during imprisonment, solitary confinement, handcuffing, frog marching, beating and force-feeding.

Sylvia Pankhurst's description of force feeding…

On the third day the two doctors sounded my heart and felt my pulse. The senior told me he had not alternative but to feed me by force. Then they left the cell. I was thrown into a state of great agitation, heart palpitating with fear, noises in my ears, hot and cold shivers down my spine. I paced the cell, crouched against the wall, knelt by the bed, paced again, longing for some means of escape, resolving impotently to fight to prevent the outrage, knowing not what to do … Presently I heard footsteps approaching, collecting outside my cell. I was strangled with fear, cold and stunned, yet alert to every sound. The door opened - not the doctors, but a crowd of wardresses filled the doorway … There were six of them, a;; much stronger and bigger than I. They flung me on my back on the bed and held me down firmly by the shoulders and wrists, hips, knees and ankles. Then the doctors came stealing in. Someone seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. My eyes were shut. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. A man's hands were trying to force open my mouth; my breath was coming so fast I felt I as though I should suffocate. His fingers were striving to pull my lips apart - getting inside. I felt them and a steel instrument pressing round my gums, feeling for gaps in my teeth … I was panting and heaving, my breath quicker and quicker, coming now with a low scream which was getting louder. 'Here is a gap' one of them said. 'No here is a better one. This long gap here!' A steel instrument pressed my gums, cutting into the flesh. I braced myself to resist that terrible pain. 'No, that won't do' - that voice again. 'Give me the pointed one!' A stab of sharp, intolerable agony. I wrenched my head free. Again they grasped me. Again the struggle. Again the steel cutting its way in, though I strained my force against it. Then something gradually forced my jaws apart as a screw was turned; the pain was like having teeth drawn. They were trying to get the tube down my throat, I was struggling madly to stiffen my muscles and close my throat. They got it down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything then save the mad revolt of struggling, for they said at last: 'That's all.' And I vomited as the tube came up. They left me on the bed exhausted, gasping for breath and sobbing convulsively.

WSPU in East London 1912

In 1912 Christabel was in exile in Paris and Sylvia took the initiative to broaden the base of the WSPU by starting a campaign for members in East London. Worried by Christabel's 'Votes for Ladies' approach, she wanted to appeal to working class women.

She began by strengthening the propaganda side of WSPU work, by releasing statements on the treatment of prisoners, organising mass rallies and reactivating the local branches. Branches of the WSPU in West London funded centres in Bethnal Green and Bow. Sylvia worked with the local ILP who were delighted. Initial reaction of East Londoners ranged from curiosity to anger. Sylvia herself opened the centre in Bow Road and an intrigued crowd gathered as she perched on a ladder carefully painting 'Votes for Women' on the fascia in gold lettering.

Sweated labour and hideous living conditions stirred Sylvia's social conscience - of all Richard Pankhurst's children, she remained the most closely allied to his radical socialist ideas - for her the suffrage campaign was only part of a wider aim for a more just and equal society. Open air meetings were held and despite the heckling and assaults, women joined the campaign in great numbers.

On November 11th 1912 George Lansbury the MP for Bow and Bromley resigned his seat on the women's suffrage issue. The whole of the constituency was flooded with speakers from all points of view, and Sylvia's efforts to aid Lansbury with the WSPU propaganda machine were thwarted by Emmeline and Christabel who issued orders that the WSPU would not work alongside men. Lansbury lost by 751 votes.

After his defeat the WSPU HQ decided to pull out of East London, but Sylvia persuaded them that to leave in defeat would be bad for morale and organised a deputation of East End workers to Lloyd George. 20 working women from all over the country were chosen and they attended a meeting with Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey on 17th January 1913, the day the reform bill was to be heard. Four hours after the deputation had left the Bill was withdrawn, and the spontaneous protest meeting was dealt with violently by the police.

After the delegation, the WSPU formally withdrew from the East End, but branches had been started in Bow, Bromley, Stepney, Limehouse, Bethnal Green and Poplar, and Sylvia was determined to try and keep the movement going. She found new premises in 231 Roman Road, a lively place always full of people and ideal for her purpose. At 14 shillings and sixpence a week they obtained a shop with parlour, scullery and three small upstairs rooms full of bugs. The purple green and white banner was hung outside, and local women rallied round to help clean the premises and a few donated a table some chairs and crockery.

Zelie Emerson was honorary organiser, to keep pamphlets and papers circulating, Jessie Lansbury (George's daughter in law) a Bow working woman, was secretary. Meetings were organised at Bromley Public Hall, and outside near the Obelisk at Bow Church. An uncovered cart was used as a platform and after one meeting Sylvia, Mrs Watkins (a seamstress) Mrs Moore and Annie Lansbury smashed some windows and were given two months with hard labour in Holloway Prison. During their imprisonment torchlit processions were held from Bow to the prison, and the East London campaign had really begun.

Sylvia, Zelie and Mrs Watkin went on a hunger and thirst strike to obtain a quick release. To keep track of the days Sylvia scratched a calendar on the wall of her cell with a hairpin, and she was placed in solitary confinement several times. A variety of tasty food, unavailable to ordinary inmates was brought in to tempt her, but she stood fast, until they eventually force fed her. After three weeks and three days she started a sleep fast as well - she walked her cell for 28 hours. Zelie attempted suicide after force-feeding but was caught whilst cutting her wrists. Both were released shortly afterwards.

Cats and Mice 1913

The government's response to the headline catching hunger strikes was the Cat and Mouse Act on 31st January 1913. Properly called the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act, it enabled hunger strikers to be released and term suspended until their health recovered. They were then returned to prison. They also suppressed suffrage meetings except in the East End where popular support was strong. In North Bow alone 1000 women joined. Women canvassed the streets, held impromptu meetings standing on crates and held huge rallies in Victoria Park.

A Women's May Day was planned for 25th May in Victoria Park. There 15 platforms had been erected for speakers. There were some attempts to break up the meeting, but they failed. A few days later the East London Federation of the WSPU was formally launched. Some members from West London kept in contact and East End women were heard in West London salons.

On 4th June 1913 Derby Day, Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King's horse and died 4 days later. Her funeral took place on 14th June and a vast moving procession joined behind the cortege including a group from East London.

The East London Federation continued to flourish but Sylvia was moving further from Christabel and Emmeline's orders on how the vote should be obtained. The East London Federation co-operated with the Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage and the Free Speech Defence League in a demonstration at Trafalgar Square. Five men were arrested and Sylvia was summoned under a disturbing the peace act of Edward III and spent much of 1913 and 1914 playing hide and seek with the Metropolitan Police. Several times she was caught, hunger striked and was released. Usually she fled to Mr and Mrs Payne's home in Old Ford Road. Local people rallied round, providing food. Mrs Payne was a well known local woman who saved her many times from the police. When ever detectives arrived in the district they would be hissed at, and the cry 'the cats, the cats' would warn the fugitives. They still managed to hold large meetings and once Sylvia only escaped because the crowd turned hose pipes on the police in the Public Hall.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes 1914

In January 1914 Sylvia was summoned to Paris by Christabel and told that the East London WSPU must leave the WSPU. It was too democratic. Christabel wanted the vote for women of means and felt the working women's campaign of little consequence. The WSPU under Christabel's leadership (in exile in Paris since 1911) became increasingly anti-male and seriously suggested male chastity, while the East London branches faced the realities of low pay and mediocre housing. The break was made.

From March 1914 they became the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). With the Suffragette no longer their paper, The Woman's Dreadnought was started. The first rally was held at Trafalgar Square on 8th March, and several women were arrested. On 22nd March Sylvia led procession from Bow to Westminster Abbey it being Mothering Sunday, but was so weak from hunger she had to be carried.

The ELFS organised a lending library, choir, and a junior suffragettes club. The offices were used for lectures, concerts, and as strike headquarters by the asbestos workers. News of the Women's Hall grew and people with problems began to call there for help.

The Petition to the King 1914

On 21st May 1914 Emmeline Pankhurst organised a deputation to petition the King at Buckingham Palace for the vote. They informed the Home Secretary of their intention, and enormous crowds, sympathetic and hostile gathered. The ELFS took part in the procession from Grosvenor Square, which was halted by scores of mounted and foot police at Wellington Arch. When the police attacked, some women were prepared with life preservers and riding crops, but most were unarmed. Some managed to get through to the Victoria Memorial and could see the palace windows crowded with spectators. Some women, including Emmeline Pankhurst slipped through and reached the palace gates, but were thrown into the crowds by the police who then beat and assaulted them. Some were ridden down by the mounted police and cavalry troops. The following day 66 women and 2 men were bound over to keep the peace. Some had been beaten so badly they were carried semi conscious into the court. Mrs Pankhurst as a 'mouse' was already in Holloway on her eighth hunger strike.

Three days later the ELF's women's May Day took place at Victoria Park. They marched from Bow to the park with Sylvia in the middle of a 'chained guard', chained to her and each other. The long procession included carts carrying the children, and posters and banners. As they made their way, Sylvia became aware of some obviously disguised men coming towards the chained guard. As they neared the park gates the police cleared a space as if to make way and then fell upon the crowd with truncheons. They broke up the chained guard by smashing the locks and hitting the women in the process. Enraged, the police injured many including the children. Eventually the railings were pulled down and people poured from the park the escape the police.

By 30th May Sylvia had been released again and decided that Prime Minister Asquith should be made aware of the feelings of working women on the vote. A deputation of working women was elected by rallies throughout East London and the proposal to Asquith was that 'All women over the age of 21 years should have the vote.' Asquith refused the deputation at the first request, so the ELFS decided to march to the House of Commons. A second refusal arrived as they set out but they continued. Sylvia was arrested in Grove Road - she was being carried again, but the procession continued. The Chief Liberal Whip took a message to Asquith and the procession then went to Holloway and picketed the prison.

The Petition to Asquith June 1914

On her release on 18th June Sylvia was carried to the Houses of Parliament where she declared her intention to starve and thirst until the deputation was received. Asquith acquiesced and the waiting crowd erupted into cheers. The deputation was led by Julia Scurr, a housewife until her first involvement with the suffrage movement in 1906, and a Poor Law Guardian. The others were: Mrs Savoy, a brushmaker from Old Ford, whose husband objected to her ELFS work, Mrs Payne, Sylvia's landlady and guardian angel, Mrs Bird, who kept a family of 8 on 25 shillings a week, Mrs Parsons, and Mrs Watkins. They described to Asquith in their own words the life of women in East London, and what the vote meant to them. Asquith softened his approach and appeared to indicate that the vote was possible. The ELFS were jubilant - not if but when!

The First World War 1914-1918

But events abroad halted the progress of women's suffrage. Britain declared war on Germany at midnight on 4th August 1914. The emphasis of the work by the ELFS changed in 1914. Sylvia was a pacifist and knew what the result of war would be - more hardship for the people of East London. The first few months of the war were frantic, with furious activity, but little of it constructive. Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War and recruiting began on 5th August. Over 2000 men in Newham enlisted in September 1914.


Immediately war was declared prices rose, and there was a rush to buy food. Cash became short and two days after war was declared the Co-Ops in Stratford and East Ham announced they would no longer sell to non members, and limited the amounts that could be purchased. The ELFS gathered information on price rises which they used to petition the Board of Trade to fix the cost of essentials. A national relief fund was set up by the Prince of Wales (Later the Duke of Windsor) and this with the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association were to provide separation allowances. But families were often left with out money. A soldier could allot part of his pay for his family but bureaucracy caused delays of several months. Men were called up so quickly they had no time to make arrangements and families were left destitute. Money from the funds was difficult to obtain:

Letter to Alderman Osborn of East Ham;

'Being a soldiers wife and thinking of applying for a share of the Prince of Wales Fund, but noting that you say it must be earned by honest work, will you kindly state what class of work I ought to do in return. As I have six children to attend to and keep clean there is no doubt I could spare a few hours a day with pick and shovel. Or perhaps I could keep your property in repair, and as my husband is helping to protect it you would be able to smoke your pipe in comfort and give advice to the country in general. I for one as a soldiers wife treat your insult with contempt.'

The ELFS organised a League of Rights for soldiers and sailors wives and families which had branches throughout East London. They also saw the need for centres and opened several small shops where women could go for advice and help. By September 1914 the number of destitute families had risen to such proportions that the ELFS started giving free milk at the centres and this extended to include post natal care for mother and child. Centres were based at Fife Road Canning Town, Old Ford Road Bow, Railway Street Poplar, St Leonards Street Bromley.

They also ran three cost price restaurants in Bow, Bromley and Poplar - a two course meal for 2d (children 1d) soup at a penny a pint with a piece of bread. There was more control over day to day lives. In October an Army Council memo and Home Office letter placed all women in the receipt of a separation allowance under police surveillance. Any reports of alleged unchastity, drunkenness and neglect would be punished by removal of allowance.

Anti German Riots 1915

The Defence of the Realm Act was introduced in august 1914, effectively placing Britain under martial law. Newspapers were censored, and there was strict control of information which fed the flood of rumours and alarm. Atrocity stories and spy fever led to the suspicion of anyone with a foreign sounding name, and this is reflected in the local newspapers:

'….Schwartz is of course purely German, and we feel sorry for the Russian or Pole who has to bear the appellation of the Hun. He should be rid of it as it is allied to the Latin 'sordidus' meaning filthy which all Huns are body and soul.'

There were a considerable number of people living in London who were of German. Polish and Russian background - many had been born here but all were affected by the anti German reaction. Shopkeepers in particular put adverts in newspapers declaring their nationality to be Russian, Polish or British. Others sold up and moved or changed their names. Those who were German citizens (even after many years domicile) had to register at Limehouse Aliens Office, and many were interned at the Undesirable Aliens Camp at Alexandra Palace. The worst outbursts of anti German feeling came after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. West Ham alone suffered £100,000 of damage after rioting. Suspected Germans were beaten up and their premises looted. The ELFS centres were used as refuges by those caught in the violence.

From February 1915 London came under attack from the air. Attacks were made by Zeppelin and aircraft, and after a short period of sightseeing most Londoners resorted to shelters. Public buildings were made available for shelter and a blackout was enforced. Children were kept in school during daylight raids and parents were ensured special precautions had been taken for their safety - most sat the children away from the windows and sang songs until the raid had passed.

Women at War Work

With men at the front, women came forward to take their place. In direct contrast to Sylvia's pacifist stand, Emmeline and Christabel were welcomed with open arms by the government to aid in recruiting for the front, and for women's war work. At first activities were concerned with peripheral tasks such as lift attendants. But as the men left so other tasks became free. Locally women worked on the trams, drove lorries, and stoked the burners at Beckton Gas Works. Many went into 'direct' war work - munitions. Lloyd George whilst Minister for Munitions promised fair rates and equal piece work pay with men, but this was opposed by the male dominated trade unions. Munitions work was dangerous - TNT poisoned the girls' bodies causing toxic jaundice, earning them the nickname canaries. The special precautions - regular medical checks, respirators, free milk - were rarely followed. The dangerous nature of TNT manufacture was demonstrated when Brunner Monds Works at Silvertown exploded on 19th January 1917 killing 73, injuring hundreds and devastating the area.

As the war progressed, so the numbers of men diminished and in 1916 conscription was introduced. Persecution faced those who would not fight. As some men signed on, so others joined the Non Conscription Fellowship and waited. Sylvia represented the ELFS on the National council Against Conscription and the federation campaigned for negotiation and an end to the war. On April 15th 1917 a Peace procession with a Mass meeting at Victoria Park was held. The meeting was cut short by their opponents who smashed up the platforms and threw the speakers to the ground. Several people were injured in the melee.

Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1916 and the government introduced more restrictions. There were increased shortages of coal, sugar, potatoes and margarine, and in 1918 rationing was introduced in the Home Counties. School children were kept at home to care for younger brother and sisters while their mothers queued for food.

The end of the conflict was signalled by the Woolwich maroons at 11 a.m. on 11th November 1918. In a moment streets were alive with people dancing and waving flags. Work ceased and people streamed out of offices and workshops, laughing, talking some weeping for joy unable to believe that it was over.

On 11th January 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all women over 30, who were householders, wives of householders or occupiers of land over a certain value, and university graduates. For Christabel and Emmeline this was enough.

It was not until 14th June 1928 that equal voting rights for men and women were achieved.

This page updated 21st July 2007