Suffragettes100: Sylvia Pankhurst sets up battle HQ in Old Ford Road during First World War
- Credit: Sylvia Pankhurst Trust
Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst set up her ‘battle HQ’ in the East End during the First World War having seen the poverty among families whose menfolk were away to the Front.
She had earlier rented an old baker’s shop in Bow Road in 1912 for the Women’s Social & Political Union and also moved into a flat nearby in Old Ford Road.
Her first action was to paint the old shop name with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ — making a public statement right from the start.
“Her work will never be forgotten in the East End,” the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust’s Susan Homewood said. “Hers was one of many achievements in a life devoted to making a better society.”
It was the start of her campaign for the struggle against poverty when she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, holding meetings at Bromley Public Hall in the Bow Road.
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The movement published its own weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, printed locally at Arber & Co family printers in the Roman Road, taking the militant name from the new British class of warship.
The declaration of war in the summer of 1914 didn’t halt the campaign for universal suffrage, contrary to popular belief.
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Sylvia opened the Women’s Hall and the Cost Price restaurant in Old Ford Road where a simple meal could be bought for 2d (less than 1p in today’s money) and a toy factory and nursery school to give women a means to earn a living while their menfolk were art the Front.
Her political activities seen as ‘rabble rousing’ continued with public speeches in Bow Road and Bromley High Street — she once threw a stone through an undertaker’s window to get attention and was later charged at Bow Road police station with criminal damage.
She would often address crowds in the street from the window of her friend Jessie Payne’s home at 28 Ford Road, the house where she later recovered after a hunger strike in Holloway Prison.
Police responded with truncheons to Suffragette demonstrations in Victoria Park, the East London Advertiser reported at the time. A Suffragette rally at Bow public baths in Roman Road was broken up by 300 mounted officers. Sylvia had to escape and hid in timber yard in St Stephen’s Road next to MP George Lansbury’s house.
A warrant was made out for her arrest while she went on the run, when she took refuge in ‘safe’ houses until the heat was off, including the home of another M,P Will Crooks.
The suffragettes opened a second office in Roman Road in a converted second-hand clothes dealership - but found the shop infested with bedbugs!
Sylvia converted the Gunmaker’s Arms pub at 438 Old Ford Road in 1915 into mother-and-baby centre and crèche, renaming it the Mothers’ Arms.
It is not until the last year of the great European conflict in 1918 that society’s attitude turns sympathetic to the Suffragettes’ cause, after women’s contributions to the war effort, and legislation is past giving them the vote at 30.
It doesn’t quite satisfy the suffragettes, who continue campaigning from their shop in Old Ford Road until 1924 to get the vote for women at 21, seeking universal equality with men.
Sylvia Pankhurst remained in the East End until 1924 when she moved out to Woodford Green, her unstoppable campaign by then having changed society’s attitudes for ever.