New exhibition explores the untold story of Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical East End suffragettes

The Women's Hall 30 May - 20 October 2018

Opening on 30 May 2018, The Women’s Hall at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives is the first major exhibition about the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

The free exhibition and accompanying events run until 20 October 2018 and explore the ELFS campaign for the vote, their split from the WSPU and their wartime projects, which included a co-operative toy factory, a health clinic, and a nursery in a former pub. Visitors will learn about little known local working class suffragettes like Melvina Walker and Daisy Parsons, and the venues in Bow and Poplar which were taken over by the ELFS for use in their projects.

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition hall at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives will be transformed into a unique space evoking the headquarters of the ELFS, a former Baptist mission hall on Old Ford Road in Bow which the suffragettes named ‘The Women’s Hall’. The building no longer stands.

The exhibition includes a recreation of the ELFS Cost Price Restaurant, which will serve refreshments for visitors on a 'pay-what-you-can' basis using redistributed food from Fare Share. The Cost Price Restaurant will be open 12.30 - 2.30pm Wednesday - Friday and on Saturdays when the exhibition is open. There will also be a donation point for Bow Food Bank.

Objects and archive materials on display include a rare ‘Ealontoys’ teddy bear made in the toy factory started by the ELFS just behind Roman Road; and the handwritten diary of suffragette Gertrude Setchfield which describes her trips to the East End in 1914 to attend ELFS rallies, on loan from the LSE Women’s Library.

A free public programme of talks, creative workshops, film screenings and guided walks will accompany the exhibition, and a learning resource will be developed for Tower Hamlets teachers to use to explore local suffrage stories.

Local Somali cultural organisation Numbi Arts will also stage a takeover of the space in August, presenting Repair and Rebellion - a strand of free events linked to Numbi’s new mobile museum exploring histories of women of the East African diaspora, their links with London’s East End, and anti-imperialism - a cause to which Sylvia Pankhurst was dedicated.

Speaker of the Council, Cllr Sabina Akhtar said: “Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes used Tower Hamlets as a base, campaigning for the rights of working women in the East End and improved conditions for the poor.

Since then, numerous other women have played equally vital roles in shaping the future of our community. That’s why we are extremely delighted to bring this amazing part of our history to life with this major new exhibition which will hopefully resource and inspire present and future generations to continue to campaign for equality for all.”  

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets said: “We are proud of our rich history of campaigning for the rights of women and the less privileged.  Especially in the year that marks the centenary of women’s right to vote in the UK, I am pleased that this new exhibition and accompanying public programme illustrates how important it is  to continue the legacy of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.” 

A public launch event will take place 11am – 4pm on Saturday 2 June, including:

  • Pay-what-you-can-cafe in the recreated 'cost price restaurant' - 12.30 to 14:30

  • Drop-in toy making workshop with artist Judith Hope. No experience needed and all materials provided – 11.00 to 13.00

  • Guided tour of the exhibition – 13.00 to 13.30

  • ‘Forgotten Suffragettes’ talk by Esther Freeman – 14.00 to 15.00

  • Research volunteers showcase - hear about some of the fascinating things we couldn't fit in the exhibition! – 15.15 – 16.00



Press preview Tuesday 29 May

Members of the press are invited to attend a preview of the exhibition on Tuesday 29 May, 3.00 - 5.30pm at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ.  Please RSVP by email to with ‘Press preview’ in the subject line.

Images, further information and interviews

For further information, images and interviews please contact Sarah Jackson at

About the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

In January 1914 the East End branches of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) broke away and formed an independent, democratic organisation called the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) which focused on the rights of working women in east London. It was led by Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and sister of Christabel Pankhurst, leaders of the WSPU.

The ELFS marched through East London, held huge public meetings, opened their own women’s social centres like the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road, organised benefit concerts and parties, and produced a weekly newspaper called The Woman’s Dreadnought. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters to defend them from police brutality.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, factories across East London closed and food prices spiralled. The suffragettes led community action to support those most affected by the sudden wave of unemployment, organising the distribution of milk for starving infants and opening a volunteer-run children’s health clinic, a nursery school and a series of canteens serving nutritious food at “cost price”. They even opened their own cooperative toy factory, which paid a living wage and included a crèche.

The organisation changed its name and focus over the years but didn’t close down until 1924.

About women’s suffrage

In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women over 30, subject to a small property qualification, extending the right to vote to 8.4 million women in the UK. However, this only represented around 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. In July 1928 the Equal Franchise Act finally gave equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21.

About the Women’s Hall project

The Women’s Hall exhibition is part of a larger partnership project with the East End Women’s Museum, Four Corners, and Alternative Arts, which has been made possible through a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Other activities include:

  • East End Suffragettes: the photography of Norah Smyth (Four Corners Gallery, 26 October-26 January 2019), a unique exhibition of forgotten photographer Norah Smyth’s photographs which provide an intimate documentation of the ELFS’ activities, accompanied by gallery talks and local history walks that explore Norah’s story and the work of the East End suffragettes.

  • The regular East London Federation of the Suffragettes stall at Roman Road Market will be recreated on Saturday 16 June 2018, sharing local suffragette stories with shoppers.

  • A new ‘Suffrage in the East End’ Education Pack will be created for all Tower Hamlets schools, and newly digitized archive materials will be made available to the public at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

  • A photography workshop for mothers will run at Four Corners in summer 2018, leading to a final exhibition in autumn 2018.

More information about the project partners can be found at:

Four Corners

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

East End Women’s Museum

Alternative Arts

Numbi Arts

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund