About the original 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.

As well as a house in which Sylvia, Norah Smyth, Jessie Payne and her husband Jim 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. The building no longer stands.

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 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 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.  

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.

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. 

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. Coordinated by Alternative Arts

Numbi Arts

Numbi Arts is a non-profit production org based in London that produces cross-art projects and works in partnership with artists, educators and peer organisations locally, nationally and internationally.  

Alternative Arts
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Tower Hamlets
Numbi Arts
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Women at Watney: Voices from an East End market

An exhibition capturing women's memories of Watney Market, past and present. Drawn from interviews recorded by East End Women's Museum volunteers in spring 2017. A joint project with King's College London and University College London, and funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

 
 

A MOOCH AROUND AND A BARGAIN

The market is about more than buying and selling. Sometimes women visit for fruit and vegetables; and sometimes for family and friends. For several generations the market has provided valuable social connections and networks.

 

MRS SMITH'S APPLES AND JACK'S POTATOES

Some of the most vivid memories of the market focus on food. Food is closely linked to a sense of identity for many shoppers at Watney Market, and as the communities around the market have changed so have the types of food on offer.

 

BURBERRY COATS AND PLATFORM HEELS

The market has always sold clothes and accessories, from second hand shoes to headscarves. As fashions change in the local community, so does Watney.

 

Who'd give me a pound for that?

As well as standing in front of market stalls as shoppers, women stand behind the stalls as traders. For over 100 years women have worked in the market as street sellers, stall holders, and store owners, and have played an active role in the day-to-day life of the market.

 

This market has been murdered!

Watney Street was once lined with bombsites, the remnants of WWII. In 1965 redevelopment began, and the market was temporarily relocated. But the project took a decade to complete; in 1977 the graffiti ‘this market has been murdered’ appeared on a boarded-up shop in Watney Street.

 

A pleasure and a treat

Watney Market appears in E. R. Braithwaite's novel  To Sir, With Love and in the 1967 film adaption starring Sidney Poitier. Performance artist, poet, and member of the Basement Writers Gladys McGee also wrote about Watney Market. 

 

The history of Watney Market

Since the late 19th century Watney Street Market in Shadwell has offered East Enders food, clothing, and community.

 

About the project and acknowledgements

Women at Watney: Stories from an East End Market was a collaboration between the East End Women’s Museum, Kings College London and University College London, and was funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Making her mark: 100 years of women's activism in Hackney

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JOINT EXHIBITION WITH HACKNEY MUSEUM, 6 February - 19 May 2018, Hackney Museum

In 1918 most women over 30 gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections. But the story of women’s activism in Hackney doesn’t begin or end with the suffragettes.

Over the past 100 years, local women have brought about change in their community and in wider society through political campaigns, industrial action, peaceful protest, direct action, and the arts.

Discover the inspiring stories of women who made a difference in the borough and beyond, across issues ranging from education, workers’ rights, and healthcare to domestic violence, the peace movement, and police relations.

This free exhibition tells the story of women-led activism in Hackney from 1918 to the present day. It was created by the East End Women’s Museum in collaboration with Hackney Museum.

Hackney Museum, 1 Reading Ln, London E8 1GQ.

  • 9.30am - 5.30pm Tues, Wed, Fri
  • 9.30am - 8.30pm Thu
  • 10am - 5pm Sat

Nearest station: Hackney Central