Young Suffragettes re-enacting Bow's riotous past © Oliver Lynton

East London Suffragettes centenary festival

‘Sylvia Pankhurst was a really incredible woman, and I wanted to see her story told,’ says Sarah Jackson, so she organised the East London Suffragettes Festival, which takes place from 1-10 August. It will celebrate 100 years since Sylvia split from the national Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and created her own independent group in Bow, called the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

East London Federation of Suffragettes

‘There’s a tendency to think about the suffragettes as posh women with big hats who locked themselves to things and shouted a lot. But it was much more diverse than that. The suffragettes are bigger than the stereotype,’ Sarah says.

The WSPU was founded in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, before moving to Canning Town in East London, and then onto West London. Emmeline’s other daughter, Sylvia, was also involved, but lost faith in the group as its ambitions turned ‘snobbish.’ Her decision to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes caused a family rift, saw her disowned by her mother and, Sarah says, ‘side-lined’ by history.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes are the ‘forgotten rebels of the East End.’ In and out of prison, force-fed through their hunger strikes, they fought the law and won an audience with the Prime Minister and change for the nation.

From an office located first in Bow Road, and then at 321 Roman Road, the ELFS campaigned on a range of issues that mattered to, and benefited, the people of the East End. As well as helping to secure the vote for women, and working men, they fought for child benefit, old age pensions, equal pay, a living wage and better housing. They also ran a newspaper, a nursery, a cooperative toy factory, a mother and baby clinic and cost-price eateries.

‘People just don’t know the full story,’ Sarah says, admitting that she too used to be one of those people.

‘When I was at school we were taught that they were (just) a group of hysterical women,’ Sarah explains. It wasn’t until she moved to East London from Cornwall nine years ago and picked up local historian Rosemary Taylor’s book Walks Through History that she realised the extent of the suffragette activity that had gone on in East London.

Suffragettes Festival

Sarah’s idea for the festival coalesced around last year’s anniversary of the June 1913 death of Emily Wilding Davison. Davison was trampled to death by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby when she ran onto the track during a race in protest at the continuing struggle faced by women in their fight for the right to vote.

‘I woke up one morning and heard some conversations on the radio about Emily and it got me thinking about how much people might be interested in the story of the suffragettes. I thought, we could do this, we could make (a festival) happen,’ Sarah says.

A year later, with the support of The Feminist Review Trust and the East End Community Foundation, and the backing of the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust, the centenary celebration of the pioneering work of the East London Federation of Suffragettes will culminate on Saturday 9 August with a day of talks, workshops and entertainment exploring the group’s grassroots community work and courageous political protest.

Having initially contacted Rosemary Taylor to be part of the festival, Sarah went on to work with her on a book, ‘Voices from History: East London Suffragettes’, which will be released on 4 August to coincide with the festival.

‘Sylvia has been side-lined. She is missing from the story, historically, because what she did was very radical. I want to see her come out of the shadows, and I’m just really happy that other people seem to be interested in that too.’

Listen to Gary Arber from the original Suffragettes’ printers on Roman Road
Suffragettes trail at the Opening Sunday of Roman Road Festival
Home birth pioneer Claire Davis on breastfeeding and living in the Sylvia Pankhurst house 

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Amy Freeborn

Writer, website editor and keen photographer. Wears a lot of amethyst.

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