The Women's Hall: Celebrating the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

The Women’s Hall project, developed in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and ArchivesFour Corners, and Women's History Month in east London, will explore some lesser-known suffrage stories from east London through two major exhibitions, a series of events, and a participatory photography project.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes were a radical group who split from the WSPU in 1914 and fought for working women’s rights throughout the First World War. The Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow was their headquarters from 1914-1924, a women’s social centre, and the home of their leader, Sylvia Pankhurst. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes stall on Roman Road Market. Photo by Norah Smyth.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes stall on Roman Road Market. Photo by Norah Smyth.

What's on

The Women’s Hall project activities will explore and celebrate the heritage of the East London suffragettes throughout 2018 through:

  • The Women’s Hall exhibition (Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 29 May-20 October 2018) which will evoke the interior of the original Women’s Hall. Visitors will be able to learn about the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) and the First World War in the East End, view original materials, handle replicas, and attend events and workshops. A pop up community kitchen will serve hot meals for the public at set times throughout the exhibition’s run, and a crèche facility will be available one day per week.

  • East End Suffragettes: the photography of Norah Smyth (Four Corners Gallery, 26 October-26 January 2019), a unique exhibition of 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 in more depth.

  • 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.

  • Local volunteers will have the chance to gain skills in archival research and digitisation, heritage interpretation and curation, public speaking, photography and darkroom practice, events production and customer support.

Get involved

There is a drop-in event for anyone interested in finding out more at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives on Thursday 15 March, 6.00pm– 7.30pm. 

If you'd like to get involved in the project, or you have an East End suffragette in your family you'd like to tell us about, please contact us using this form.

The Cost Price Restaurant at the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road. Photo taken by Norah Smyth, probably 1915.

The Cost Price Restaurant at the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road. Photo taken by Norah Smyth, probably 1915.

About the Women's Hall

From 1914 to 1924 the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow was the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and the home of their leader Sylvia Pankhurst and her friend, fellow suffragette and amateur photographer Norah Smyth.

The Women’s Hall was a radical social centre run largely by and for local working class women, and when the First World War caused unemployment and rising food prices the Hall was at the heart of the community’s response, housing a ‘Cost Price Restaurant’ where people could get a hot meal at a very low price and free milk for their children.

Opening the Women's Hall

The Women's Hall was opened on 5 May 1914, which was Sylvia's 32nd birthday, and a celebration was held in her honour. The occasion was reported by an E. Haverfield in the ELFS weekly newspaper The Woman's Dreadnought, under the title 'Our House Warming'.

“A very pleasant evening was spent by members and friends of the ELFS on May 5th, to celebrate Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday by the opening of a large hall attached to her future residence. The pleasantest part of the whole affair to this writer was the love and esteem in which Sylvia is held by her friends in the East End, who presented her with a handsome fitted dress case, a beautiful hair brush made by Mrs Savoy, the member who gave it and innumerable others...

The hall had been painted by men supporters [and Norah!] who had given up the previous Saturday afternoon to the work. The forms had been stained by the members of the Federation. Excellent refreshments, all made by members, were served. There was much merry conversation, and informally at a late hour this pleasant evening drew to a close.”
— The Woman's Dreadnought, May 1914

As well as a house in which Sylvia, Norah Smyth, Jessie Payne and her husband were to live, the premises contained a large hall, holding about 350 people and a smaller hall which could hold about 50 or 60 people. Willie and Edgar Lansbury supplied the wood to make tables and benches from the nearby Lansbury timber yard.

Why was the Women's Hall important?

The symbolic importance of a permanent 'home' for the East London Federation of Suffragettes was matched by its practical importance for their operations and in particular for getting the word out about their campaigns. With a large hall of their own, the suffragettes were able to hold public meetings without fear of interference from the council or the police.

Other sympathetic groups could hold their meetings there too, bringing in a new audience for the Federation's messages and building solidarity with other campaigns in the East End at the time. Without having to pay hire fees, the Federation could run a much wider range of activities, including lessons and workshops, fundraising concerts, lending libraries, affordable canteens and nurseries.

It also meant that everyone in the community knew where to go to find Sylvia, and to ask for help from the suffragettes. The Dreadnought and Sylvia's memoirs record countless cases who arrived, desperate, at the door of 400 Old Ford Road. Whether in need of information, representation, employment, medical help or simply a way to feed their children, many hundreds of people turned to the suffragettes, knowing that they would find assistance without the stigma of charity.

In the years following 1914 several other women's centres were established, one in a former pub on the corner of Old Ford Road and St Stephen's Road in Bow, which was known as the Mother's Arms, another at 20 Railway Street in Poplar and another at 53 St Leonard's Street in Bromley.

The ELFS delegation to 10 Downing Street, June 1914. Photo by Norah Smyth.

The ELFS delegation to 10 Downing Street, June 1914. Photo by Norah Smyth.

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 focused on the rights of working women, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

Led by Sylvia Pankhurst and based in Bow but with branches all over the East End, the ELFS grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women’s lives.

They argued that if women had the vote the whole community would have greater leverage in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect children’s health. They saw the vote as just one aspect of the struggle for equality and adopted a broad campaigning programme.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes fought for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay, food price controls, adequate pensions for the elderly and for the widows of servicemen, among numerous other causes. They marched through East London, held huge public meetings, opened their own social centres, organised benefit concerts and parties. 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.  

In their campaigns and in their war relief work the East London suffragettes continually connected individual hardship to the bigger picture of structural inequality. Their remarkable organisation existed for 10 years, from 1914 to 1924, and in that time it was entirely transformed.

About the project

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100 years after some UK women first won the right to vote, our exciting, Heritage Lottery funded joint project in Tower Hamlets will celebrate the little-known history of the radical East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

Developed by Four Corners, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, East End Women’s Museum and Women’s History Month in East London, The Women’s Hall project will run from March to December 2018 and include two major exhibitions, a volunteering programme and public programme of talks, events and workshops.

About the project partners

Four Corners

Four Corners is a creative centre for film and photography, committed to promoting community-wide participation for over 40 years. Its programme seeks to support projects that engage with social and cultural themes, and open up perspectives for audiences, particularly in East London. http://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives covers the area of the present-day London borough of Tower Hamlets - the original East End of London which, until 1965, comprised of the boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney. http://www.ideastore.co.uk/local-history

East End Women’s Museum

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest. Find out more at www.eastendwomensmuseum.org

Women’s History Month in East London

Running 1 – 31 March, Women’s History Month 2018 will celebrate women artists, activists, writers and performers, the Suffragette movement and winning the right to vote for some women in 1918 and all women over 21 in 1928 with exhibitions and events across East London. info@alternativearts.co.uk www.alternativearts.co.uk

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