Happy International Women's Day! We hope you have a good one. When times have felt quite bleak for women's rights over the last year, we've found inspiration in east London's women, past and present.
One of the most important figures in the east London women's suffrage movement at the turn of the century was Adelaide Knight. Eliza Adelaide Knight was born in 1871 and lived with her family on Kenilworth Road in Bethnal Green.
After a childhood injury she used crutches or a stick for the rest of her life, and endured repeated poor health.
She was described as highly intelligent, with a love of poetry, music and history.
Adelaide and Donald
In 1894 Adelaide married a sailor, Donald Adolphus Brown, the son of a Royal Navy officer from Ebini, in what is now Guyana.
He shared Adelaide's political beliefs and supported her activism. They both joined the Independent Labour Party and he took Adelaide's surname and was widely known as Donald Knight.
As Adelaide found some tasks difficult and painful because of her injured hip, the couple shared domestic chores, including the weekly laundry.
Donald became well known in his own right in 1921 when he was awarded a medal after his quick thinking and bravery prevented an explosion at Woolwich Arsenal where he worked.
An early London suffragette
The first London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was opened in Canning Town in 1906, and swiftly followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse.
Adelaide was secretary of the new WSPU branch in Canning Town in 1906. In a letter from the same year her friend Dora Montefiore refers to her as the “leader” of the working women in the WSPU.
In June 1906 she was arrested alongside Annie Kenney and another woman, Mrs Sparborough, when they tried to gain an audience with Herbert Asquith.
The women were sentenced to prison for six weeks unless they agreed to be 'bound over' for one year, that is, to behave themselves and give up their campaigning.
It was a difficult decision for Adelaide as she was in poor health, and the couple had two small children to care for, the youngest just 18 months old. In her biography their daughter Winifred Langton records an exchange between Adelaide and Donald:
"'What can I do Daddy? To draw back will encourage this intimidation. Can I count on your full support? It will be agonising to be away from you and our children, but with your help I can face this.' 'My dear Mama we have supported each other for many years we must not fail now that we are to be put to the test.'"
In the end all three women chose prison. Adelaide said: "I refuse to barter my freedom to act according to my conscience, while my health permits me to fight on."
Although the prison conditions were terrible and her health suffered Adelaide maintained her resolve. She sang The Red Flag every morning and evening, and used her hair pins to scratch the lyrics on to the window sill.
After the WSPU
Despite her commitment to the cause, Adelaide resigned as branch secretary in March 1907 after becoming increasingly dismayed with the lack of democracy in the WSPU.
The following year she was elected to the West Ham Board of Guardians where she served until 1910. The family later moved to Greenwich.
Adelaide retained her socialist ideals and her friendship with Dora, in 1920 they both became founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In September we held an event with East End Sisters Uncut at St Hilda's East community centre, bringing together some fantastic speakers to talk about about the different ways east London women have challenged sexism, racism, exploitation, and injustice then and now.
Watch talks from the day online
Thanks to filmmaker Bea Moyes we have videos of all the talks on the day, take a look:
- Nadia Valman on Jewish women’s activism at Cable Street in the 1930s and beyond
- Julie Begum on how Women Unite Against Racism took on the BNP in the 1990s
- Sarah Jackson on how the East London suffragettes used the media in the 1910s
- Louise Raw on the Matchwomen’s Strike in 1888
- Janine Booth on the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921
- Two members of East End Sisters Uncut spoke about the organisation's history and approach
Around 70 people attended on the day. We've made a Storify collecting some of the tweets from the event which you can see below.
What is your activist object?
We also had some sheets of flipchart paper up on the walls asking some questions for our guests to answer about their activism:
Lend us your histories!
We planned to have some time at the end of the day for the audience to share their stories, whether about their own experience of activism or a story about their friends, family, or the wider community.
Sadly we ran out of time, but we'd still love to hear your histories. Please feel free to share them in the comments or use our contact form to tell us more.
We would especially love to hear any stories about Bengali women's housing activism in the 1970s or black women's organising in the 1980s, as we had speakers lined up to talk about these movements that had to pull out.
Raising money for East End Sisters Uncut
On the day we had donation buckets and a cake stall raising money for East End Sisters Uncut which raised £235, and around 25 people made a donation online when they registered for the event. Thank you everyone!
If you would like to support the brilliant work of East End Sisters Uncut you can donate via Paypal on their website.
[<a href="//storify.com/EEWomensMuseum/east-end-women-take-action-1888-2016" target="_blank">View the story "East End Women Take Action 1888 - 2016" on Storify</a>]
At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 two members of East End Sisters Uncut - Sarah and Saskia - spoke about the history of the organisation and the importance of intersectionality in feminist organising. Watch the video of their talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.
At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 I gave a talk about the East End Federation of the Suffragette, founded by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914, and how they used the media to support their activism. You can watch a video of my talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.
Find out more
- East London Suffragettes
- East End Suffragette Map
- Local Heroes: Focus E15 Mothers And The East London Suffragettes
It’s the East End Women’s Museum’s first birthday today! We'd like to say a huge thank you to all our friends, followers, community partners, mentors and fellow museum nerds: we couldn’t have got this far without you.
Our journey started (as the timestamps remind me) over lunch in July 2015. The Ripper Museum had just been unveiled that day; part of a ghoulish bait-and-switch that had led locals at Cable Street to believe that a women’s museum was about to be opened on their doorstep. I sent this email, from Cardiff, to Sarah J, who would become my partner-in-not-another-crime-museum:
Within the hour, Sarah had passed this message on to twitter: in a matter of days we’d received offers of support, practical help, donations and advice. People’s generosity, warmth and encouragement has been overwhelming. Mostly in a good way. When something starts with a tweet, and gathers momentum so quickly, it’s enough just to trot alongside the snowball for a while.
Where we are today
A year later, we’ve steadied our course, and are well along the way to making the missing museum a reality. We’ve had our first exhibition (in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage) and our next, with Hackney Museum, is in the pipeline. We were proud to take part in the East End Women’s Collective’s ‘Real Story’ exhibition, too, as well as learning from women who are making history right now.
We’re also a bit more of an official entity as of this week - at least, I just signed some very serious-looking paperwork so I hope so. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to plan for the long-term future of this project - and as soon as we’re able to, we’ll let you know more about that.
A huge thanks to the East End (and the Internet)
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, I’m proud to be part of a growing chorus who want to amplify the voices and stories of East End women, past and present. It’s thanks to the this chorus, the communities we work with, and our online supporters' thirst for stories about awesome women, that we’ve got this far.
When the whole thing starts feeling a bit unreal, unachievable or unbelievable; I take refuge in history. Even when things feel hopelessly broken, as they might have for you, too, in the last few weeks. I look at what our sisters achieved, what they made, what they left behind, and honour what they couldn't - those lost stories we will never hear.
And every now and again I revisit what I wrote, on the day the Ripper Museum opened, this time last year:
“I would love to build something, physical or otherwise, that will keep and share these stories, long after this sideshow is gone.”
Here’s to another year. I can't wait to see what we make together.
Nellie Cressall was born in Stepney in 1882, and worked in a Whitechapel laundry from her teens. She married George Joseph, and together they had six children.
In 1907 Nellie joined the Independent Labour Party, and remained active in the Party all her life.
Suffragette and Rates Rebel
After meeting Sylvia Pankhurst in 1912 Nellie joined the east London suffragettes, saying:
I had been thinking for some time of the unequal rights of men and women. I could not agree that men should be the sole parent, that a mother could not even say whether her child should be vaccinated or not – or that women should receive half pay and many other things as well. I thought that here is something I can dedicate myself to to help in some way to put things right.
Like many of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes Nellie was a pacifist and opposed the First World War. And like her fellow suffragettes Minnie Lansbury, Julia Scurr, and Jennie Mackay Nellie was one of the Poplar Rates Rebels of 1921.
Mayor and Labour Party activist
After the Poplar rebellion Nellie Cressall continued her work as a Labour Party activist, becoming Mayor of Poplar in 1943.
In 1951, when Nellie was 69 years old (with 26 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren!) she delivered a speech at the annual Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, defending the great strides in living conditions which Labour had brought about since the First World War:
Years ago after the First World War many, many people in my constituency sat in the dark because they had not got a penny to put in the gas. Today what do I find? People come to me creating about the heavy electricity bills they have to pay!... I have young people coming worrying me for houses.... We have got some houses where six families lived once upon a time.... Whereas in the old days people would get married, as I did, and be contented in two nice little rooms, today our young people want a home of their own.
Her speech “roused the audience to prolonged applause and cheering” and drew praise from Aneurin Bevan, who said her speech was the finest at the conference.
Julia O'Sullivan was born in Limehouse in 1873 to Irish parents. In 1899 she married local Social Democratic Federation activist John Scurr. Sharing the same radical politics and a determination to improve the lives of working people in the East End, they made a formidable partnership.
Women march to Westminster
In July 1905 Julia worked with other socialist activists Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and Dora Montefiore to organise a march of 1,000 women from the East End to Westminster to lobby for jobs and welfare for the unemployed.
Poplar Board of Guardians
In 1907 Julia was elected to the Poplar Board of Guardians, and would remain a Guardian until she died. In June 1912 she presented a report criticising the lack of Day Rooms and recreational space at The Bow Infirmary (later St Clement's Hospital), stating that the residents had no choice but to stand around in unheated corridors. One man was refused discharge because he had no clothes. Julia reminded the governors that it was an infirmary, not a place of detention. Her male colleagues dismissed the report as being exaggerated.
Strikes and suffragettes
Julia became well known and respected throughout east London after organising food for the children of strikers during the 1912 dock strike. She also worked to improve the rights of the working class Irish community and became heavily involved with the women's suffrage movement and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). She was one of the women elected to the deputation who met Prime Minister Asquith in June 1914, and opened the meeting with a speech:
We women of East London are much concerned in regard to social conditions in our district. There is very great poverty around us and the rents are terribly high. There is much unemployment amongst the men and a very large proportion of the women are the principal breadwinners, although they are both the childbearers and the keepers of the home. We want to say to you that, in our view, a woman attending to her home is as much a wage earner as if she went out into a factory.
Poplar Rates Rebellion
On 1 September 1921 Julia was one of the 38 Poplar councillors and aldermen who were arrested and imprisoned for refusing to pass on unfair city rates to their constituents. Following widespread support for their act from the people of Poplar, the press, and other local councils London County Council backed down and the Poplar Rates Rebels were freed.
Julia Scurr was elected to the London County Council herself in 1925, but died in 1927 aged just 57. She was admitted to Bromley Infirmary in the last years of her life due to her deteriorating health. Her fellow councillor George Lansbury believed that the treatment she received while in prison was directly responsible for her early death.
- The Home Front, Sylvia Pankhurst
- The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst
- Guilty and Proud of it!, Janine Booth
- Voices from History: East London Suffragettes, Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor
- Letters of Gold, Rosemary Taylor
- East End Talking (PDF)
- Workers Liberty - Julia Scurr: A fighter for every poor woman
- Wikipedia - Julia Scurr
- Spartacus Educational - Julia Scurr
We're Not Finished is a free exhibition about women's activism in East London created by Eastside Community Heritage in partnership with the East End Women's Museum, on display at Whitechapel Idea Store from 21 March until 21 April.
The exhibition includes fascinating oral histories drawn from interviews and workshops which illuminate the experiences of women fighting for change in East London. The aim of the project is to help establish a history of women campaigners in the East End.
East London Federation of the Suffragettes
One of the main groups featured is the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a radical group founded by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914 in Bow. Sylvia separated from the work of her mother and sister in the WSPU as she believed that working class women had as much power as middle and upper class women in the fight for suffrage; Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst did not agree.
The ELFS membership was made up of and focused on issues relevant to working class women; they built a mass movement for equality and campaigned on many issues beyond the vote.
Women's working rights
But we’re not finished. Over the last century and today there are still issues of inequality, often in the workplace. Another area which the exhibition focuses on is women's fight to secure working rights - equal pay, maternity rights, better conditions, challenging sexist discrimination - and participation in the trade union movement.
Exhibition launch event
The exhibition will launch with an event on Monday 21 March at 5.30pm with speakers, refreshments, and activities related to the themes of the exhibition. More details coming soon!
We're working with a fantastic local charity called Eastside Community Heritage to record and share the stories of East End women who have been involved with protests to advance and protect the rights of workers.
Did you have a suffragette or a match woman in the family? Have you taken part in actions for equal pay or fair wages? Have you walked out on strike?
ECH are looking to interview people about their memories, and excerpts from these interviews will be shared online and at a small public exhibition in March as part of Women's History Month.
If you'd like to find out more please contact Kirsty on email@example.com or 0208 553 3116