The almost forgotten story of a breakaway group of suffragettes who left the movement to campaign specifically for the rights of working women in the East End of London is told in a new exhibition on Tower Hamlets.
The East London Federation of Suffragettes was created in January 1914 after Sylvia Pankhurst split from the Womans Social and Political Union led by her mother Emmeline Pankhust and sister Christabel. Her aim was to create an independent, democratic organization with focus on the rights of working women in East London.
The ELFS opened their own women’s social centres such as the since demolished Women’s Hall, in Old Ford Road in Bow, produced a newspaper ‘The Woman’s Dreadnought’, held huge public meetings and also recruited ‘People’s Army’ supporters to defend them from public brutality.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, factories across East London closed which resulted in food prices spiralling. The suffragettes helped to support those most affected by 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.
Visitors to the exhibition can see the handwritten diary of suffragette Gertrude Setchfield and see a rare ‘Ealontoys’ teddy bear made in the toy factory they established off Roman Road.
The ELFS’s ‘Cost Price’ restaurant has been recreated to provide refreshments for visitors on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis.
Speaker of the Council, Councillor Sabina Akhtar said she hoped the new exhibition will “resource and inspire present and future generations to continue to campaign for equality for all”.
She added: “The East London Federation of Suffragettes used Tower Hamlets as a base, campaigning for the rights of working women in the East End and improved conditions for the poor. Since then, numerous other women have played equally vital roles in shaping the future of our community. That’s why we are extremely delighted to bring this amazing part of our history to life.”
John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “We are proud of our rich history of campaigning for the rights of women and the less privileged. Especially in the year that marks the centenary of women’s right to vote in the UK, I am pleased that this new exhibition and accompanying public programme illustrates how important it is to continue the legacy of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.”
Sarah Jackson, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum, expressed her gratitude and “privilege to help produce The Women’s Hall exhibition”.
She added: “The ELFS were an incredible organisation that played a major role in winning the vote for women and in supporting their community in the East End during the First World War.”
The exhibition is open to the public every Tuesday 10am-5pm, Wednesday 9am-5pm, Thursday 9am-8pm and Saturday 9am-5pm until October 20, 2018.
For more information about the exhibition, visit https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/the-womens-hall/ or http://www.ideastore.co.uk/womens-hall