I first came across Norah Smyth’s photographs of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) acting as a volunteer researcher for The Women’s Hall Exhibition at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive in 2018. Keen to make a contribution, however small, to bringing this estimable woman to the attention of a wider audience, I did some guiding at the 4 Corners Gallery, Roman Road, when they mounted the first ever exhibition of her work later that year.
Her photos are stored with the papers of Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, held in the archive of the Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, and until 2018 were unlikely to have been viewed by many people, except for those with a serious interest in Pankhurst and the part she played in the women’s suffrage movement. This selection highlights some key areas of ELFS’ activism and the role Smyth played in it during a remarkable period of her life in the years between 1913 and 1917.
Smyth was born into the family of a wealthy corn merchant in 1874. She inherited a fortune from her father and came to London, where she took a job as Emmeline Pankhurst’s driver. She formed a close friendship with Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia and moved to the East End with her in 1912, when Pankhurst decided to support George Lansbury’s campaign for election as MP for Poplar on the ‘votes for women’ ticket.
After the election, which Lansbury lost, Pankhurst stayed on in the East End to set up a branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1914 a disagreement with her sister, Christabel, over the fitness of working- class women to campaign for the right to vote led to a split from the WSPU and the formation of ELFS. The federation needed a pitch where they could recruit new members and sell their weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, and found a spot in Roman Road, where they ran a stall every Saturday. The newspaper was funded out of Smyth’s inheritance and illustrated by her photographs, which she never received a credit for. It told stories of women’s hard lives in the East End, reported on ELFS’ activism and provided an international perspective on women’s fight for the right to vote.
When the First World War broke out unemployment immediately hit the East End hard and women whose husbands had joined the armed forces were left to feed and clothe their children on a meagre separation allowance. In an attempt to alleviate the hardship, ELFS set up a toy factory on Norman Road, again funded out of Smyth’s inheritance, as part of their broader social welfare programme. There, women could work in a safe environment for a fair wage, when previously they would have been employed in appalling factory conditions or at home doing piece work at a pitiful hourly rate. ELFS’ swift and practical response to the impact of war on the lives of East Enders was in stark contrast to the WSPU’s, which reacted by disbanding their campaign for women’s suffrage and redirecting their energies to the war effort. ELFS became enthusiastic supporters of the pacifist movement.
Not only did the war bring unemployment to the East End, it also caused food shortages, exacerbated by profiteers who diverted available supplies to those willing to pay the highest price. Babies were left without milk and many came close to starvation. ELFS set up centres to distribute free milk, but it soon became apparent that malnourished infants were struggling to digest it. ELFS then set up Mother and Baby Clinics around the East End, where women were taught special feeding techniques and had access to free professional medical care for their children.
ELFS set up Cost Price restaurants for hard working, hungry adults to provide them with at least one nourishing, carbohydrate-packed meal a day. Meals cost tuppence and were served on production of a ticket. No-one was ever turned away and this system ensured that those who couldn’t pay were indistinguishable from those who could. Everyone dined together as equals. Social justice for all was one of the corner stones of ELFS beliefs, which led a number of them into local politics as part of the emerging Independent Labour Party after the war. For example, Nelly Cressall went to Holloway Prison in 1921 for her part in the Poplar rates rebellion and was made mayor of the borough in 1943. Others joined the international communist movement and sisters Nellie and Rose Cohen became so deeply committed to the cause they emigrated to Russia.
The annual procession from East India Dock gate and along the Old Ford Road would culminate in a rally in Victoria Park, Hackney. On 24th May 1914 as Sylvia Pankhurst entered the park to address the crowds, the police set about her bodyguard of twenty women and men. They had chained themselves together and were broken up with considerable force, leaving Pankhurst to be arrested, while mounted police drove them into the boating enclosure where they were locked in. Spectators were appalled by the level of police brutality and their reactions were reported in the next issue of The Woman’s Dreadnought. It was rumoured that the police had drafted in officers from outside East London, who wouldn’t hesitate to use violence against people whose community they didn’t belong to.
Many of the children in Smyth’s photo benefited from ELFS’ welfare programme. Like the diners in the Cost Price restaurants the children are neither shy about being in front of the camera, nor do they mug or play up to it and this must say something about Smyth’s ability to engage with her subjects. Her approach was very different to reporters who came to the East End in search of scenes of depravity and squalor. It’s clear that the children are poor, but this is no undifferentiated, indigent mass and certain individual characters shine through.
During this current Covid crisis, when our MPs have argued about the legitimacy of giving free meals to hungry children and women in Leicester have been found working in sweatshops with no protection against the virus, we might look at Norah Smyth’s photographs and reflect on how an earlier generation of women in the East End, who found themselves in the middle of a national emergency, banded together and did whatever it took to mitigate its impact on the people of their community.