Suffragette Suburbs - an International Women's Day nod at our neighbours

Sunday 6 March 2016

Last year, to commemorate International Women's Day, we featured the story of Minnie Baldock, the organiser of Forest Gate's Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) - popularly known as The Suffragettes - between 1906 and 1911 (see here).
Minnie Baldock c 1908

This year we focus on a number of local addresses of significance to the WSPU, in Forest Gate, neighbouring Canning Town and the adjacent district of Bow - all within four miles of Forest Gate. We are deeply indebted to Vicky Stewart and Spitalfields Life for the research behind the identification of the Bow addresses and for sourcing some of the photos (see footnote).

Forest Gate

Among local addresses of significance to the suffragette movement are:

Earlham Hall, Earlham Grove (now the Cherabim and Seraphim church)

Location of a WSPU meeting in October 1908. The illustrations below show a near contemporary drawing of the exterior of this, then important, public building and a Stratford Express report of that meeting.
Stratford Express
 account of Earlham
 Hall meeting

Sketch of Earlham Hall,
shortly before WSPU meeting

102 Clova Road

This was the location of a meeting of the WSPU in Forest Gate, in January 1908 (see Stratford Express cutting). The speaker was the national treasurer of the Suffragettes, Emily Pethwick-Lawrence.

102 Clova Road, today

Stratford Express, reporting
 Clova Road meeting

Emily Pethwick-Lawrence

Upton Park station

An outdoor Suffragette meeting, addressed by Emily Pethwick-Lawrence (see above) was interrupted, and probably sabotaged by, a travelling Punch and Judy show, featuring a Mr Punch beating a Judy in September 1906 (see press cutting).

Upton Park outdoor meeting,
 disrupted by Punch and Judy show

Canning Town

Minnie Baldock , Forest Gate Suffragette organiser and subject of our profile last year, was an activist in this area, particularly from 1905 - 1911. Before becoming the Forest Gate organiser, she had been instrumental in establishing the Canning Town branch of the WSPU, at a meeting on 29 January 1906.

Unlike many high profile Suffragettes, she was a working class woman, very much in tune with her local community. She was arrested and imprisoned for a month, for demonstrating outside Parliament, in 1908.

Minnie gave a room in her house in Eclipse St, Canning Town (subsequently demolished) to fellow working class activist and prominent Suffragette , Annie Kenney, when she travelled from Lancashire to fight the cause in London.

Annie Kenney

The pair campaigned together in the East End and more widely elsewhere in England, offering some working class authenticity to the Suffragette cause in many communities, which were sometimes difficult to penetrate by the very middle class Pankhursts and some of their sisters.

Oak Crescent, Canning Town (near Bow Flyover)

Currently a green space, but in 1891 home of Minnie Baldock and her trade union and socialist councillor activist husband, Henry Baldock. See census extract, verifying the residence.

Oak Crescent, today

1891 census, showing
 Baldocks in Oak Crescent

490 Barking Road

Home of Minnie Baldock at the time of the 1911 census in April.  Minnie was diagnosed with cancer four months after this census and treated at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital, near Euston.

On recovery, she effectively retired from political activism and retired to Poole, in Dorset, where she was to live for more than 40 further years.

490 Barking Road, today

1911 census entry

Beckton Road

Route of Women's May Day Rally to Victoria Park, 23 May 1914 - see press cutting from Woman's Dreadnought:

Woman's Dreadnought May 1914

Bow - across the water

Bow, as part of the then borough of Poplar, was a hotbed of left wing politics in the first quarter of the twentieth century.  It was an area dominated by casual employment - mainly dockers (men) and seasonal factory work (women). As such, the area was desperately poor. It had already played an important part in the birth and growth of the Dockers' Union, which was to form the basis of what later became the Transport and General Workers' Union T&GWU).

Casual work meant frequent periods of unemployment and reliance on Poor Law payments for men, women and families. The structure of this early form of public assistance required that the entire cost of the benefits distributed  in any one Poor Law district to be met by the other, local people, within the same district.
So, people living in the poorest parts of the country paid much higher council rates than those in wealthier areas, because of the larger number of destitute neighbours they were required to support.

This ludicrous position was challenged by Poplar's Labour Council in the 1920's, led by George Lansbury, via a civil disobedience campaign. The councillors' actions in defending the living conditions of their fellow citizens, resulted in their imprisonment - but was ultimately instrumental in ensuring that there was a nation-wide levelling out of support for the poorest areas.

Lansbury, a decade or so later, briefly became leader of the Labour Party, nationally.

Prior to this, however, Lansbury had been very much influenced by the Suffragette movement, which inspired him to resign as the MP for Poplar in 1912. He did so in order to provoke a by-election in which he stood, and focused it exclusively on the issue of Votes for Women.

George Lansbury (Poplar MP and future Labour Party
 leader) in Bow: His 1912 "Votes for Women"
by-election attracted Sylvia Pankhurst to
 the East End, and to the establishment of the
militant East London Federation of Suffragettes. Their
 civil disobedience tactics inspired post WW1 Poplar
councillors to break the law, which in turn,
transformed the welfare state.

Unfortunately, he was defeated in the election, but it proved to be the springboard for longer-lasting and more significant  local and national developments, some of which have been alluded to, above.

Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the formidable family of Suffragettes, came to Bow to assist with the by-election campaign and stayed afterwards to organise within the area. She opened up the first local WSPU headquarters on Bow Road in 1912 (soon after Forest Gate's Minnie Baldock had effectively stepped down in the West Ham area, due to ill-health).

Unlike the rest of her family, Sylvia was deeply committed to actively organising local working class women, not simply around the issue of votes for women, but on a wider range of social issues related to their social and economic conditions and poverty.

As such, she became politically divorced from the rest of her family. In recognition of this, the Bow/Poplar organisation changed its name in 1914 to the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Their activities were inspirational and paved the way for the post World War 1 civil disobedience undertaken by the Poplar councillors, referred to above.

The remainder of this blog centres around three almost parallel roads, running West to East into Newham from Poplar.  By coincidence, the WSPU's headquarters was, over a relatively short period of time, located successively on each of them.  The roads were: Old Ford Road, Roman Road and Bow Road.

Buildings on them played a significant role in the history of Votes for Women.

Below we provide details of some of the more significant locations and photographs of most of those which survive, today.

Bow Road

Contemporary photo of Bow Road

Number 198 - First headquarters of WSPU in Bow in 1912. It was an empty baker's shop on which Sylvia Pankhurst painted "Votes For Women" in gold paint, and addressed crowds from its doorstep.

Bromley Public Hall - Sylvia Pankhurst in her memoirs: 

On February 14th 1913 we held a meeting at the Bromley Public Hall, Bow Road, and from it lead a demonstration round the district. To make sure of imprisonment, I broke a window in the police station ... and went to prison and began the hunger and thirst strike.

Bromley Public Hall

Bow Palace of Varieties, 156 Bow Road - Built on the rear of the Three Cups pub, it was a public hall, with a capacity of 2,000. Sylvia Pankhurst in her memoirs wrote: 
While I was in prison after my arrest at Shoreditch ... a meeting ... was held in Bow Palace on Sunday afternoon December 14th. After the meeting it was arranged to go in procession around the district and to hoot outside the homes of hostile borough councillors.

Bow Road Police station - The police were brutal to the Suffragettes. Daisy Parsons, who later became a West Ham councillor for Beckton Ward and mayor described part of what she told to Prime Minister, Asquith, as a member of a deputation on 20 June 1914: 
Suddenly, without a word of warning, we are pounced on by detectives and bludgeoned and women were called names by cowardly detectives. When nobody is about ... these men are not fit to help rule the country, while we have no say in it.

Bow Road police station around the time
 Suffragettes were assaulted there

Minnie Lansbury clock - near junction with Alfred Street - Minnie was George's daughter-in-law who was active in local politics. She was imprisoned in Holloway for her Suffragette activities and died age 32.

Minnie Lansbury clock

George Lansbury Memorial - near junction with Harley Grove - Memorial commemorating Suffragette supporter, who lived locally and worked at his father-in-law's timber merchants, nearby.

George Lansbury memorial

Old Ford Road

Near contemporary photo of Roman Road

400 - Third headquarters of local Suffragettes (initially WSPU, later ELFS), in 1914. A women's hall was built on land at the rear, which was used as a cost-price restaurant, providing nutritious meals to women suffering huge increases in food prices in the early months of World War 1.

438, The Mothers' Arms - The East London Federation of Suffragettes set up a creche and baby clinic here, staffed by Montessori-trained nurses.  It was converted from a pub previous called the Gunmakers' Arms.

Roman Road

Public baths and library at about
 the time the Suffragettes' HQ
was were located on Roman Road

Contemporary photo of Roman Road
Roman Road Market - The East London Federation of Suffragettes ran a stall in the market, decorated with posters, selling their newspaper The Woman's Dreadnought.

159 (subsequently renumbered 459)  - Location of WF Arber and Co, a firm of printers that produced free-of-charge handbills for the WSPU.

Photo of Arber's before closure,
but after street renumbering
321 - Second headquarters of Bow WSPU.  Sylvia Pankhurst described it, in her memoirs: 
We decided to take a shop and house at 321 Roman Road at a weekly rent of 14s 6d (73p) a week. It was the only shop to let in the road. The shop window was broken across and only held together by putty. The landlord would not put in new glass, nor would he repair the many holes in the shop and passage flooring because he thought we would only stay a short time.
We would be delighted to hear, and include details of any other local sites of significance, which we will be happy to add to the above account. 

Footnote: Fuller details of the Bow addresses and Spitalfields Life can be found here. An excellent, accessible, publication: East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor provides further details and gives a great account of the suffragette movement in, well, East London.  Priced £9.99, it can be purchased at the Newham Bookshop, and other outlets.

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