East London has an important role in the suffragette story. Although the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester in 1903, the first WSPU branch in London was formed in Canning Town in 1906, and followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney. In addition to lively meetings and protests in these boroughs, working women from east London turned out in large numbers for rallies and processions in central London, often on their only day off in the week.
However, over the next few years their place in the movement gradually shifted. As the profile of the WSPU began to increase the movement started to attract wealthier and more respectable supporters, and their base soon moved away from the East End.
The East End campaign
In October 1912 the WSPU returned to east London to launch a new recruitment campaign, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline and younger sister of Christabel Pankhurst. Sylvia was a socialist as well as a women’s suffrage activist, and believed that the East End campaign could have a much bigger impact than boosting the WSPU’s membership. She wanted working women to be:
“not merely the argument of more fortunate people, but to be fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes and catch-cries, revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilisation and progress.”
The first few weeks of the campaign were challenging. The suffragettes encountered amusement, indifference and hostility, from “urchins” pelting them with small stones, to grown men and women throwing fish heads and urine-soaked paper, to outright violence. But Sylvia and a handful of other WSPU organisers quickly rebuilt their support in the East End, organising a dozen meetings a week, and local women – including Nellie Cressall, Melvina Walker, Daisy Parsons and many others - began to join in large numbers and take up leadership positions.
In the same year George Lansbury, Labour MP for Bow & Bromley, resigned from his post and stood for re-election on a Votes for Women platform. WSPU volunteers turned out in force to support his campaign, but he was defeated by 731 votes by the Conservative candidate. Following this disappointing result, word came from the WSPU headquarters, now based at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to close down the East End campaign altogether. Sylvia managed to persuade her mother and sister to allow her to continue the work she had begun, although financial aid from the WSPU was withdrawn.
Creation of the Federation
Despite this, at the start of 1913 East London WSPU branches were to be found in Bow, Bromley, Stepney, Limehouse, Bethnal Green and Poplar. On Monday 17 February, a meeting was held at ‘the obelisk’, a memorial at the junction of Devon’s Road and High Street Bromley. Sylvia and her friend Zelie Emerson addressed the crowd from a wooden cart, and Sylvia hurled a stone at the shop front of C.Selby, the undertaker, who had only recently opened his new premises on the corner. Willie Lansbury (George’s son) broke a window in the Bromley Public Hall and Zelie Emerson raced down the road and smashed the window of the Liberal Club.
They were arrested, along with three others, and were sentenced to a months’ hard labour. The arrests sparked “a tremendous flame of enthusiasm” for the movement in the East End. Supporters marched to Holloway eight times while the stone-throwers were incarcerated, and several times to Brixton, where Willie Lansbury was imprisoned.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1913 the suffragettes organised meetings and processions, and reportedly recruited 1,000 members in the North Bow district alone. The various East London branches of the WSPU agreed to group together under the banner of the East London Federation of WSPU.
Split from the WSPU
With the Federation’s growing popularity and strength, Sylvia’s increasing profile and independence and the WSPU’s increasingly autocratic leadership and focus on wealthy West London, there were tensions which came to a head at the end of 1913. After Sylvia spoke publicly in favour of Home Rule for Ireland, she received a letter from her sister Christabel summoning her to Paris, where she was currently based.
On their arrival in Paris in January 1914, Sylvia and her companion Norah Smyth found a chilly reception. They were curtly informed by Christabel that the new East London Federation of the WSPU must become a separate organization. She explained: “You have your own ideas. We do not want that; we want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!”
According to Sylvia, Christabel added that: “a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex… Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. 'Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!'” This account should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, although Christabel’s views would not have been out of step with most of her contemporaries.
Back in east London the news was met with indignation from the Federation’s committee, though they recognised there were fundamental differences. The rest of the WSPU “were working from the top down and we from the bottom up.” The committee voted to change their name and become the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. In the first issue of the Federation’s new newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, published on 8 March (International Women’s Day) 1914, their tone is defiant: “Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote. Such people have forgotten their history.”
Over the next few years the Federation did prove the power of a working women’s movement. Their influence and importance extended far beyond their impact on the struggle for Votes for Women, and they became an independent force for change in the East End.
[Quotes from The Suffragette Movement by Sylvia Pankhurst, 1931 and The Woman’s Dreadnought, 8 March 1914]