Sylvia Pankhurst’s militant streak led to the foundation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, harnessing the radical energy of East London’s working women.
It is well-known that just over a century ago, Sylvia Pankhurst was a familiar face along the Roman. Head of the East End chapter of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), she was ‘stirring up working women’ in their fight for the vote.
Founded in 1903 together with Christabel, Sylvia Pankhurst’s sister, and their mother Emmeline, the WSPU was a movement campaigning for women’s rights.
But the violent battles Sylvia Pankhurst organised along Roman Road proved too radical for Christabel and Emmeline. Following a family rift, Sylvia was ejected from the movement she had helped create. Soon after, she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), marking the dawn of a more militant era for women’s rights.
The story begins in 1913, when Pankhurst secured 321 Roman Road as headquarters of the East End branch of the WSPU.
‘The Roman, as they call it, was crowded with busy, kindly people,’ Pankhurst later wrote, remembering the day she took on the premises. ‘I had always liked Bow. That morning my heart warmed to it forever’.
The following year was a busy one for Pankhurst. In May 1913, she organised a march on Victoria Park. A platform was erected in the park from which George Lansbury, the former Labour MP and supporter of the women’s vote, gave a speech. The police arrived soon after, swiftly breaking up the crowds.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics had taken on a distinctly militant bent. Unlike her mother and sister, she was deeply concerned by the plight of working class women.
Disillusioned with peaceful protest, Pankhurst was convinced that violence was the only way to win women a voice. These views unnerved Emmaline and Christabel, who, in the words of one suffragette, ‘had most faith in what could be done for the vote by people of means of influence’.
In the wake of the Victoria Park protest, Christabel ejected Sylvia from the WSPU. Thereafter, Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End branch took on a new name: the East London Federation of Suffragettes. The ELFS’s strategy was to ‘combine large-scale public demonstrations with public militancy, that is, window-smashing that attracted immediate arrest’.
She even headed up a female-led paramilitary movement, The People’s Army, which assembled for gun drills on Victoria Park. Pankhurst had unleashed a new, revolutionary energy in the women of East London. In the coming years, this energy would prove vital in gaining women the vote.
Before long Sylvia had to find a larger headquarters. On her 32nd birthday, the 5th May 1914, Pankhurst and her suffragettes waved goodbye to their premises on the Roman, transferring operations to 400 Old Ford Road.
If you’re wondering, the original building at 321 Roman Road no longer stands. It may have been pulled down, but its legacy lives on in the freedoms enjoyed by every woman and girl across the country.
If you enjoyed this, you might want to know about Arber’s, the Suffragettes’ printing press.
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