First World War

In August 1914 war came. Its effect was immediate on the East End. Soldiers and Sailors wives were left without money for food and rent. Sylvia, using her political connections, lobbied government agencies on behalf of East London. On 2nd September 1914 she led a deputation to meet with Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, about the cost of living, the erratic food supply and the sweated war work done by women. With her went Charlotte Drake, Melvina Walker, Mrs Farrell, Mrs Payne and Daisy Parsons whom she described in her book The Home Front as;

‘frail Mrs Parsons, flushed and consumptive looking, showing in every line of her the evidence of an ill nourished childhood.’

The deputation gave the president evidence and examples of the ‘panic prices’ that they were paying for food. Daisy is recorded thus:

Mrs Parsons [declared] that she and her children were short of food. Sugar, which used to cost her 1½d a pound was now 3½d, beans which had been 2½d were 4d. One of the big multiple shop companies was allowing women who bought margarine to get their sugar for 2½d per pound; but if they bought butter they must pay 3½d. Why should they force poor people to give margarine to their children: miserable stuff which would not nourish them? She asked indignant, protesting that her children were delicate children; they needed good feeding!

(E.S. Pankhurst The Home Front)

Runciman’s reply was noncommittal – it would do all it could, but would not take control of the food supply.

She was co-opted onto the Distress Committee of West Ham Borough Council, and visited those who were in distress:

From the Woman’s Dreadnought 3rd October 1914

In Canning Town

Mrs Parsons the ELFS Hon. Sec. for West Ham who is appointed to visit soldiers and sailors wives for the west Ham Local Representation Committee under the Mayor, sends us the following typical cases;

Mrs G – two children with measles and one with pneumonia, no food in the house and no money since 15th August. Rerservists wife.

Mrs S – reservists wife, married 4 years and 3 months with four children gets one shilling per day

Mrs H – sailors wife, did not know which ship her husband was on, five children at school, cried when I gave her ten shillings.

Mrs C – son gone who was her sole support. Had to go for bread to the relieving officer, and says she does not want to be pauperised.

Mrs A – husband gone to the front and she gets 1/1d a day. Has a baby of three months which has to be bottle fed. Does not receive pay for it, husband forgot to register it.


The ELFS still campaigned for the vote and held frequent meetings, but much of their work was done relieving the distress caused by the war in East London. They decided to give 1 pint of milk to necessitous mothers and children each day. In order to raise money for the fund, Daisy took her daughter Marguerite to Oxford Street and begged in order to raise the £5 necessary.


From the Woman’s Dreadnought 17th and 21st October 1914

South West Ham

The campaign of meetings leading up to the Public Hall meeting has been very successful and enthusiastic. At the ‘Peacock’ the organiser [Miss Mary Phillips] was the speaker and also at Ordnance Road on Wednesday where an extra meeting was held especially to advertise the Public Hall. Large number of bills given at the Municipal concert on Saturday night.

An office has been taken at 14 Butchers Road and is open every afternoon from 3.30 to 5.30 and all who are in distress through the war will be welcomed there for advice. Members who can give a little time to canvassing the district are also welcome there and meetings will be held on Tuesday evenings beginning October 20th. As cases of distress are found it is hoped to be able to help them a little by distributing milk for babies under 12 months, but the federation has at present no funds to spare for the purpose, so we must collect all we can before a start can be ready. Boxes are ready and can be had from the secretary or the organiser.

South West Ham

Public hall very successful and enthusiastic. The resolution was carried unanimously. Collection £2 1/9d was good considering the scarcity of money just now.

The new room is proving a useful centre. At first we could only make friends with and advise those in distress, but members have set to so energetically that by the end of the week we were able to make a start giving milk in a few of the most needy cases. Let us make up our minds to collect enough to pay for all the milk we give away in this district.

Miss Lawson and Miss Brown two quite new members have been among the keenest collectors and have gone on their own initiative to picture palaces and other places. Mrs Ewers has given valuable help in canvassing and investigating cases: also Mrs Hockham and Mrs Roper. Mrs M E Davies has kindly promised to come and advise mothers about babies on Wednesday (this week) and to give what help she can after. Mrs Drake, Mrs Lawson, Mrs Millo and others have kindly lent furniture etc. for the room.

This centre was so popular that by January 1915 it had moved to larger premises.

From the Woman’s Dreadnought 19th January 1915

The South West Ham branch of the ELFS has just moved into larger premises which consist of a shop, three rooms and kitchen. Its new address will be 55 Fife Road, Tidal Basin, E. The Federation earnestly asks for gifts of furniture for these new premises, in order that the expenses of supplying it may not come out of the funds. We specially need tables, chairs, a clock, coal scuttles, fire irons, hearth rugs, and washstand and crockery.

At these larger premises they were able to offer doctor’s consultations, baby weighing and midwifery.

Another centre was opened at 124 Barking Road, Canning Town, which also offered doctor’s consultations and baby weighing every Tuesday at 4 pm.

As the war dragged on the ELFS began to campaign for peace, and changed its name to the Workers Suffrage Federation:

From the Stratford Express 8th April 1916

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes will in future be known as the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, and men will be admitted to the membership.

The inaugural meeting of the newly named organisation was held on Saturday evening as Lees Hall Canning Town. Mrs Parsons presided and speeches were delivered by Mrs Despard, Miss Sylvia Pankhurst and Mrs Drake.

Mrs Despard said they met under the auspices not of a new suffrage society but of a suffrage society which had started on a wider course and a bigger venture. … She trusted that that meeting gathered at this terribly anxious time would result in great good. … They were reading with deep sorrow of the slaughter of young men and middle aged men, and yet, while this terrible slaughter was going on thousands of unnecessary deaths were taking place among little children….The big ship, the big gun and such things were given a more important place in this country. … The war was bringing a revelation. They were beginning to see things as they are. It was right that at such a time as this they should begin to think not only of war but of the days to follow the war. … they should be so prepared to build up a world in which such things as war would be impossible. … To bring wars to an end through the feeling of brotherhood and the recognition of all alike, they must have some weapon in their hands. She did not mean a destructive weapon. …The weapon that they wanted was not the sword, the gun or any of the terrible things with which men were killing one another, but the vote. …

Miss Pankhurst said it would be specially necessary after the war that the people should be well organised industrially and also that they should have their political enfranchisement. …

On the evening of January 17th 1917 the TNT factory owned by Brunner Mond in Silvertown exploded. This factory worked around the clock manufacturing explosives and shells for the front. The area around the factories was especially busy at the time of the explosion as there was a change of shifts. Children, carrying flasks and food baskets were bringing meals to parents working overtime. Without warning one of the TNT manufacturing sheds exploded and took with it the factory, another nine factories and mills around it, and hundreds of houses in the surrounding streets. 74 People were killed, a thousand maimed or injured. Thousands were made homeless. The ELFS along with other agencies such as the Salvation Army rallied round

Worker’s Dreadnought 1917

The Scandal of Silvertown

Dear Editor

Though the dramatic name of ‘baby killers’ is appropriately enough given to the dramatic crime of enemy raiders, I am afraid it applies with equal truth to those who are authorizing the re building of Silvertown in its present unhealthy conditions. Damp unhealthy dwellings mean that it is the women and children who will suffer. Croup and rickets will take their yearly toll: mothers will watch their little ones waste and die, in spite of all the care the can give them. As this will go on from year to year and from generation to generation, I would ask whether the greater responsibility and the greater sin does not rest with the authorities who are permitting the present scandal at Silvertown? As this is probably a financial question at bottom, I would as a ratepayer make a further objection. It is on the ratepayer that the cost of this short sighted policy will fall. He will ultimately have to pay for the weakly incapacitated men and women who surviving the miseries of childhood under these conditions will later on drift to infirmaries and workhouses instead of becoming assets to the economic forces of the nation. I would further state that it is the proceedings of this sort which are the despair of the thoughtful part of the community. On the one side we have devotion and patriotism enforced on the battle field in practice, and exhorted on posters by precept. On the other we have the amazing exhibitions of weakness and stupidity which re shown in the weakening over the question of the drink traffic, and the deliberate flouting of the ordinary principles of health which are exhibited in the present instance. What is the good of child welfare exhibitions, of all the machinery now being set on foot by wise and far seeing men and women when our government tolerates and supports performances such as these? These are questions which will come home to roost.

The Workers’ Suffrage Federation held rallies and Peace marches with the Non Conscription Federation. Some of those involved with the WSF at this time were Mrs Bouvier, Clement Atlee and Mary Richardson (who had slashed the Rokeby Venus).

Sylvia adopted the position of pushing for a negotiated peace and showing tolerance towards those of German descent who lived in East London. After German air raids started their shops and homes became easy targets. But politicians and union leaders in East London took a patriotic stance:

Worker’s Dreadnought 15th April 1917

The East London Peace Demonstration, Victoria Park

The sun shone joyously on the peace procession last Sunday. ‘Spring and Peace must come together’ said the first banner. And the others followed ‘In this War there is a nation without frontiers united in anguish : it is the nation of Mothers’ ‘The Children of All Nations want their Fathers home’ ‘Half the World is Drenched in Blood’. At the rear was a black banner with a skull which said ‘5,000,000 killed : How many more?’ ‘All are Comrades’ said the banner of the Forest Gate NCF. The red flag of the Walthamstow BSP, the red purple, green and white of the Worker’s Suffrage Federation, the children riding in decorated carts, made a brave show. Fully a thousand people marched in the procession and as we always do in East London, masses of us preferred to swarm along the gutter and on the pavements beside the procession proper so that two larger processions walked on either side of those who were marshalled beside the banners. Near the head of the procession marched a young officer, and close by a soldier discharged without a pension. Another ex-soldier who was going to hospital next day, wore his trade union regalia and was busy selling miniature red flags. On every step of the four miles from Beckton Road corner to the park sympathetic crowds greeted us, clapping and waving hands.

The mounted police rode ahead, and there were some four or five constables on foot: all was in order : there was nothing for them to do. Many members of the criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard began to appear as we reached our destination. We knew them well from our pre-war days. Why had they come? We never found them affording protection to pacifists or calling to account those who despitefully use them.

As we marched over the bridge at the end of Grove Road facing the Park hostility began to show itself for the first time.

The first flag was soon torn from its bamboo pole and the pole itself was twisted, but Councillor Ben Gardner bore it on and we followed it to the meeting ground. There in the press of people we saw that the carts brought there to serve as platforms were crowded with jingoes who had no intention of making way for the authorised speakers. The platforms had been captured by the rowdies, the speakers were lost in the skirmish, so with two or three friends beside us we set our back against the wall of the tea house and began to speak. In another part of the park Mrs Despard had mounted the railings to address the crowd. ‘We don’t want German terms: we want our terms’ the Jingoes yelled at her. The aged lady answered ‘You will have neither the German terms nor your own terms : you will have God’s terms’ They were nonplussed for a moment and then shouted at her to go before she was hurt .. ‘I am not afraid of Englishmen’ she answered ‘None of you will hurt me’ Nor did they: her courage overawed them. Mrs Bouvier also addressed the crowd for a time, but one cannot keep a meeting going for long when one is perched uncomfortably upon the railing.

There were estimates that there were 50,000 people in the park and that the entire disturbance was created by 500.

On Sunday it was sad to find gangs of men and women so cowardly as to set on one or two individuals, chivvying them from point to point and beating then with fists or sticks. Mrs Hasler and Miss Beamish who went out to look for absent friends came back with faces bruised and bleeding.

Ever since, telephone messages and letters of enquiry, encouragement and congratulation have poured upon us at Old Ford Road.

Everyone who saw the procession is agreed that it was a triumph and that its reception in Canning Town and Bow clearly indicates the growth of peace feeling.

The meeting is over but the agitation continues. We shall be in the Park next Sunday

E Sylvia Pankhurst

As the war wore on Sylvia’s support and membership faded away, despite her social welfare work. The following report from Daisy hints at this :

From the Worker’s Dreadnought May 1917

South West Ham

Now members, it is the time to increase our membership and get still more energetic members into our ranks, and we wish to welcome old members back again. It is especially essential to get votes for women now that so many are out in the labour market. A splendid lantern lecture, with music, on Russia by Jaakoff Prelooker will be held in Lee’s Hall May 14th 7.30 pm. Who will have the next tea party?

This loss was exacerbated when Sylvia enthusiastically embraced the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, and turned her back on the parliamentary system.

By the end of the war Daisy had made many friends and useful political contacts including Clement Atlee, Freda Laski and George Lansbury. In 1918 all women over 30 were given the vote. But Daisy could not vote or stand as a councillor because she was 29!


Last update: 1st May 2007