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

The Women’s Hall project, developed in partnership by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and ArchivesFour Corners, Alternative Arts, the East End Women's Museum, and Numbi Arts 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.

What's on

The Women's Hall exhibition and events 

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 30 May - 20 October 2018

This free exhibition and accompanying events 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. 

Who were the East End Suffragettes?.jpg

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition hall at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ 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.

Cost Price Restaurant

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. See below for opening times. There will also be a donation point for Bow Food Bank.

Exhibition content

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.

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. 

Our project volunteers have also produced a newspaper inspired by the ELFS own weekly newspaper, The Woman's Dreadnought, full of event listings, articles drawn from their research, plus extracts from the original Dreadnought and even the ELFS minute books. Pick up your free copy of The Women's Hall Dreadnought when you visit!

Events and workshops at The Women's Hall

Local Somali cultural organisation Numbi Arts will 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.

Workshop: Sew an ELFS Posy with Sarah Richards
Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes were known to use their creativity to highlight their campaigns. Come along to our free drop-in workshop at The Women’s Hall led by Sarah Richards ( and learn how to make a posy in ELFS colours using upcycled fabrics. No sewing experience necessary and all materials provided.
Thursday 28 June, 6:00 - 7:30, drop-in

Talk: From East End Suffragettes to World Revolutionaries: The Radical Lives of May O’Callaghan and the Cohen sisters, with Maurice Casey
In 1916, a Scotland Yard detective informed his superiors that three members of the East London Federation of Suffragettes had moved into a flat together: May O’Callaghan, an Irish intellectual, Nellie Cohen, Sylvia Pankhurst’s secretary and the daughter of Jewish refugees from Poland, and her sister Rose. The detective had unwittingly documented the beginning of a friendship that reflected the vibrant world of the East End, where an Irish and Jewish migrant community came together to fight for the causes of the day; votes for all, revolutionary socialism and an end to the war then raging across Europe. These three women maintained a remarkable friendship across decades and places, from the tumult of East London during the suffrage struggle, through the experimental society of revolutionary Moscow and beyond. Using documents from attics and archives in the US, UK and Russia, this talk reveals the untold story of these women and their shared journey through personal and political revolutions.
Thursday 5 July, 6:30 - 7:30pm

Walk: Battling Belles of Bow with Rachel Kolsky
Led by Sylvia Pankhurst who chose east London as the starting point for her campaign for women’s suffrage, East End women were key to the success of the Suffragette movement. Seeing the plight of the working women and mothers, she also established a nursery, a series of restaurants and a toy factory in Bow. Join Rachel Kolsky, prizewinning tour guide and author of Women’s London and follow in Sylvia’s footsteps.
Booking essential - please email
Saturday 7 July, 2:30 - 4:30

Poetry reading and talk: Writ on Cold Slate - Sylvia Pankhurst’s Holloway Prison Poems, with Chris Searle
Join poet and author Chris Searle to discover another side of Sylvia Pankhurst: her poems. Chris will read from Writ on Cold Slate, a document of life inside Holloway prison during the period of suffragette militancy, and place them within the wider struggles she was involved in.
Thursday 12 July, 6:30 - 7:30pm

Workshop: Suffragette Sources at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives
Discover some of the suffragette sources from the collections at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. Read the real Woman’s Dreadnought, see our first edition copy of The Suffragette signed by its author Sylvia Pankhurst, and browse our unique collection of pamphlets, news cuttings and photographs. With an introduction from Robert Jones, Heritage Officer (Library), and then a chance to explore the material.
Saturday 21 July, 11:00am - 1:00pm, drop-in

Workshop: East End History Club Suffragette Special
A special edition of Tower Hamlets Archives regular East End History Club, exploring women’s lives in Tower Hamlets throughout the twentieth century. These sessions are ideal for those who are curious about local history and want to find out more. There’s no need to book, just drop in. Tea, coffee and biscuits provided.
Saturday 21 July, 2:00 - 4:00, drop-in

Talk: Indian Suffragettes, Female Identities and Transnational Networks, with Sumita Mukherje

Dr Sumita Mukherjee looks at the activities of Indian campaigners for the female vote in Asia, Europe, USA, Britain and other parts of the British Empire, and how they had an impact on campaigns in the Indian subcontinent.

In the context of her new book, she discusses the experiences of the Indian suffragettes who travelled around the world to lobby the British parliament, attend international women’s conferences, and conduct speaking tours to gather support for Indian women. Dr Mukherjee will demonstrate the ways in which the suffrage movement was a truly global enterprise, not solely confined to Britain or America, that involved and affected women from a range of diverse backgrounds.

Thursday 13 September, 6.30pm - 7.30pm

Guided tours of the exhibition
First Saturday of every month, 1:00 - 1:30pm

Tower Hamlets Archives are also offering booked tours for community groups. If you would like to book one, please email


Other activities

Other upcoming activities throughout the year include:

  • 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.

  • 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.

Visit our Pay-What-You-Can Café @ The Women's Hall

One of the East London Federation of Suffragettes' most successful projects were their Cost-Price Restaurants, where local people could eat nutritious meals either for free or at very low cost throughout the First World War. We have recreated one today in their honour.

Please pay what you can in the donation box, and if that's nothing, that's ok - take what you need. Our Pay-What-You-Can Café will be serving hot and cold drinks, snacks, sandwiches and salads on: 

Summer pudding
  • Wednesday & Thursday lunch times 12:30 – 14:30
  • Thursday dinner time 17:30 – 19:00
  • First and third Saturdays of the month lunch times 12:30 – 14:30

You'll find the café inside The Women's Hall exhibition at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ. 

Menus will change each week as we receive food deliveries from Fare Share, a food redistribution project that donates surplus food to communities and stops good food from going to waste. We would like to thank Fare Share for their valuable involvement in this project.

Donations will go towards the continued running of the café, such as delivery van fees. 

Volunteers needed!

Volunteers needed to help prepare and serve light meals and snacks to visitors to our Pay-What-You-Can Cafe on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and certain Saturdays. Training provided and Food Hygiene Certificate available. Lots of fun and great catering work experience in a unique setting! Please contact Lauren Sweeney at or on 020 7364 1290 if you'd like to know more.

Volunteers needed to help bring suffragette stories to life

We're looking for local volunteers to get involved in the Women's Hall project in lots of different ways. Travel and lunch expenses will be paid, and you'll have the chance to gain some new skills, learn about the suffragettes, and have fun!  

Volunteers needed to help prepare and serve light meals and snacks to visitors to our Pay-What-You-Can Cafe on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and certain Saturdays. Training provided and Food Hygiene Certificate available. Lots of fun and great catering work experience in a unique setting! Please contact Lauren Sweeney at or on 020 7364 1290 if you'd like to know more.

Help prepare and serve food in our Pay-What-You-Can Cafe

Welcome visitors to the Women's Hall

This role is based the exhibition hall, chatting to visitors about how it came about, what’s on, and answering any questions. You'll also help to serve food and drink at special events. A core part of the team, this is as hands-on as it gets! 

  • May-October
  • Weekdays (half day or day shifts),  Thursday evenings, or Saturdays
  • If you're interested in this role please call 020 7364 1290 or email with 'Women's Hall Volunteer: Visitors' in the subject line


Crèche playworker

We're looking for experienced playworkers to help run a crèche (DBS check required, safeguarding training provided).

  • May-October
  • Half day per week
  • If you're interested in this role please call 020 7364 1290 or email with 'Women's Hall Volunteer: Creche' in the subject line

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.  

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