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Launch of the Women’s Hall Exhibition: The East London Federation of Suffragettes

Last night The East London Federation of Suffragettes were appropriately remembered at the launch of the newly recreated Women’s Hall at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. The lobby of the Grade II listed building, almost unrecognisable, had been transformed into a space to celebrate the home of Sylvia Pankhurst from 1914 to 1923 and tell the story of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).

Sylvia Pankhurst speaking outside the WPSU head quarters in Bow Road

Tamsin Bookey, Heritage Manager of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives and the woman who instigated the project, describes the above photo of Sylvia Pankhurst as being ‘our inspiration for all of this’. The photograph is of Sylvia outside the WSPU’s first head quarters on Bow Road, underneath the words ‘Vote For Women’ that she hand painted in gold before she separated from her mother and set up her own branch of Suffragettes. ‘We wanted to draw attention to the activities of the ELFS that Sylvia Pankhurst founded in what was then the metropolitan area of Poplar.’ Tamsin explains. ‘We want to reflect and imagine on the cost price restaurants that they set up, the free milk for babies and the jobs they created at the toy factory that helped East Enders out of poverty during the first World War. When developing our exhibition, it was very important to bring out the story of those individual residents of this area who heard what Sylvia had to say and joined in. They started the babies clinics, sold The Dreadnought, and paid membership fees and signed up new members and chained themselves to each other to try and evade arrest. Their names are not very well known so we highlighted 14 of them’. Tamsin announces the publication of ‘The Women’s Hall Dreadnought’ that includes more in-depth stories that the volunteer team of researchers uncovered and listings of events throughout the summer.

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs and Save Our Nurseries campaigners

In true ELFS spirit, a group of mothers interrupted Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs’ speech in a peaceful protest, standing in front of the platform where Mr Biggs stood holding up their banners, colourful letters spelling out ‘Save Our Nurseries’ in response to Tower Hamlets proposing to privatise the services on three specialist child day centres. The Mayor apologised for the outbreak ‘I don’t want this event event disrupted by a group of Labour Party Members who are campaigning. Very impolite of them to disrupt in this fashion’. A woman in the audience responded loudly ‘This is important, this is what it is all about, supporting women, it is what the ELFS would have been fighting for’. It seems that Mayor Biggs doesn’t know his history.

Dr Helen Pankhurst

Dr Helen Pankhurst, CARE International’s Senior Advisor and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst described the activism at the launch as ‘amazing’ and later during her speech went on to say ‘There is a discomfort on what men’s role is and that is important. Men have to feel uncomfortable in this world. Us women know that feeling so well, so it is important that as we go forward we negotiate that and men’s viability and engagement’.

Dr Pankhurst reflected on her family history ‘The story of ELFS is a link between their local story and the national one, you often don’t hear about them. Sylvia chose the East End of London because she thought it was an area where masses had an interest around women’s rights but also where they could move and demonstrate in Westminster. Sylvia as a character links to the family of the Suffragettes, and yet locally she was known as ‘our Sylvia’ and yet expelled by her mother [Emmeline] and sister [Christabel].’

Sarah Jackson joining Dr Helen Pankhurst at a Q&A session after the speeches.

Sarah Jackson, co-author of East London Suffragettes and founding member of the East End Women’s museum said she had been working to ‘try and tell the story of this group of Suffragettes for several years, building on the works of Rosemary Taylor and Stepney books amongst others. We are honouring the working class women who made up this movement. We are honoured to have some descendants of those women in the room with us. This exhibition will allow us to uncover more stories and more connections to fill in the gaps about this remarkable organisation and their story.’ Sarah was also ‘delighted that there is a protest here tonight. The ELFS tried one campaign tactic and it didn’t work, what they did was listen to their community, they changed their strategy so it was meeting the needs of working class women and recognising that the vote wasn’t everything. A key part of women’s liberation is figuring out who is holding the baby?’

Lauren Sweeney holding one of the exhibition panels during the exhibition set up

As a research volunteer on the project, I’ve been working with the Volunteer Manager, Lauren Sweeney. Last night Lauren said she was ‘overwhelmed by the women and men who have helped. It showed how much people cared about women’s history. they uncovered stories that even the experts in the room hadn’t heard of.’

Final assembly of the exhibition with Tower Hamlets Local History & Archives staff Lauren, Bridgette & Jackie

The original Women’s Hall was at 400 Old Ford Road, close to Victoria Park. Sylvia Pankhurst was looking for a suitable space to hold meetings as well as a place to live. In her autobiography, The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia describes the beginnings of the Women’s Hall in 1914:

‘I had successfully ventured out one morning of dense fog, to see an empty house in the Old Ford Road. It had been in turn a school and a factory, and had a hall capable of seating about three hundred people at the rear, connected with the house by a smaller hall with a flat roof. We decided to take it as part of the headquarters of the East London Federation, reserving a part of it as a home for Norah Smyth, myself and the Paynes. The others were already installed on my return. The landlord would give nothing for decoration, but Norah Smyth painted and papered the house, and the Rebels’ S.P.U painted the hall under the leadership of Willie Lansbury, and made the seats which our women stained, bringing them up to the flat roof, where we housed our colours on an enormous pole. It was delightful to me to be out there under the sky with them. We were able now to organise a lending library, a choir, lectures, concerts, a ‘Junior Suffragettes’ Club’ and so on. The place became a hive of activity and the first house of call for everyone in distress. When a girl in grievous trouble was found fainting in Victoria Park, it was here that the park-keeper brought her.’

ELFS Mural on the side of the Lord Morpeth pub, Old Ford Road

The site of the original hall is a patch of grass in the shadow of a 1960’s tower block and until recently the only sign of the historic work that took place there was a small blue plaque on the side of a pub that stands next to 400 Old Ford Road. Alternative Arts Director, Maggie Pinhorn commended the Lord Morpeth for commissioning artist Jerome Davenport to paint a large mural of Sylvia (photo above) to commemorate the work of the ELFS. Maggie announced ‘On the open green site where the women’s hall once stood, the public works group will be creating a herb garden following the plan of the original cost price kitchen, which took place inside the Women’s Hall.’

I’m proud to live in Bow, a small part of London but a place so rich in history. I wanted to get involved with the Women’s Hall project from the start and signed up to be a research volunteer. I spent many hours in the reading room above the newly recreated Women’s Hall with many of my fellow volunteer researchers delving into the history of the individual ELFS members. I wanted to find out more about the immediate area between Roman Road and Old Ford Road. Why did Sylvia choose this address? Who were the people she was trying to help? Why were their situations so desperate? What events took place there?

I spent hours engrossed whilst I sifted through cuttings files, searching through seemingly irrelevant photos until little nuggets of information were found; a photo of people walking the same streets as me but 104 years ago, a description of the congregation of nearby church St Paul, the exact address of the Gunmakers Arms that became the Mother’s Arms and realising that it is now a children’s playground and not where the commemorative plaque hangs upon a concrete wall. I can no longer walk along the stretch between the Hertford Union canal bridge and St Stephen’s Road without thinking that I am walking in the footsteps of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

All of us are here as we are interested in history as what it tells us about the present and what we have to continue to do.

Dr Helen Pankhurst

The most significant lesson this project has taught me is other than universal suffrage, many of the other issues the ELFS were campaigning for are still worth fighting for today.

The Women’s Hall is open from today until 20th October 2018 at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ. Thank you to all the Local History Library & Archive staff for their valuable advice and patience as I requested box after box of cuttings from the archives.

Entrance is free as are the events that are taking place all summer. Here are a couple that I am involved in:

Saturday 2 June, 11am – 4pm

free public launch event

11am – 1pm          Drop-in, all ages toy making workshop with artist Judith Hope
12.30 – 2.30pm    Pay-what-you-can-cafe in the recreated ‘cost price restaurant’
1 – 1.30pm           Guided tour of the exhibition.
2 – 3pm                ‘Forgotten Suffragettes’ talk by Esther Freeman.
3.15 – 4pm           Research volunteers’ showcase

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

 

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 localhistory@towerhamlets.gov.uk
Saturday 7 July, 2:30 – 4:30

Lots of events are taking place over the summer, including an August takeover by the local Somali cultural organisation, Numbi Arts. Find the full listings on www.womenshall.org.uk. When you visit the hall, please take a donation for the Bow Food Bank.

The Women’s Hall is a partnership between Tower Hamelts, Idea Stores, Alternative Arts, Four Courners, East End Women’s Museum and thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Vintage Stories: 1960’s Saucer Chair

My favourite thing about running an Etsy shop is the people that I get to chat to from all over the world including vintage fabric fan and designer-maker Eileen from Brisbane in Australia. Eileen has her own Etsy store, Touch Wood Design, selling beautiful cushions that she makes in her studio. She bought some unique 1950’s barkcloth from my vintage fabric shop last year and we have been chatting on Instagram ever since. When I spotted an amazing 1960’s saucer chair that Eileen posted on her Instagram page I had find out more. Eileen shares her vintage story with us… 

‘I often use chairs as a prop in photos for my homewares business Touch Wood Design. I’m gradually adding special Mid Century pieces to my home and I’d had my eye out for a saucer chair for years, but never been able to find one that was in good condition at an affordable price. I decided to put the call out to my Instagram friends and, to my great surprise and delight, one of them found me a chair within hours!’

Eileen is now the proud owner of this striking red and white 1960’s saucer chair, also known as a satellite chair due to it’s iconic shape. I have been spotting a revival of Loom and Cane furniture recently and I love this article from a1966 edition of the Birmingham Post. Journalist Priscilla Hodgson suggests ‘Cane furniture today is very comfortable, very practical, extremely attractive and suddenly popular’, which could have been written in today’s press.

I asked Eileen why she was so intent on finding a saucer chair ‘When I was little, we had a turquoise-and-white saucer chair in the same design in our sunroom at home. It was my favourite chair – I was a real bookworm and would curl up for hours in it reading Enid Blyton books!’ that sounds like heaven! (Photo below from Cup & Saucer’s vintage shop on Etsy)

Vintage Enid Blyton book from Cup & Saucer on Etsy

‘The person I bought it from needed to clear some space in her daughter’s room as she was graduating from primary school to high school and needed to make way for a study desk. When I bought it, the chair was covered with a hideous brown cushioned cover, but hiding underneath was the beautiful red-and-white original chair. It has a tiny bit of sunburn so I assume it’s spent at least part of its life on a porch or in a sunny spot, just like the chair from my childhood.’

‘The experience reinforced for me what a wonderful and supportive community of like-minded people I’ve found on Instagram since I joined a couple of years ago. Luckily, I’ve also been able to do some spotting of vintage goodies for that insta-buddy to return the favour!’.

‘I’ve had numerous comments and requests from people to buy it, but I’ve become so fond of it I don’t think I could ever give it up!’

You can buy Eileen’s beautifully made cushions from her Etsy store, Touch Wood Design. Follow her on Instagram for vintage inspiration, Australian style. 

Cup & Saucer sell vintage books alongside kitchenalia and collectibles

You can find a wide range of vintage fabrics on Olive Road London’s Etsy shop, new lines added each week.

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Vintage Shopping in New York

Planning a shopping trip to New York? Vintage shopping fan and Journalist Victoria Briggs shares with us her favourite New York vintage shops during one of her frequent visits to the city….

Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market

Every Saturday and Sunday, behind the Lincoln Tunnel, a small army of vendors take over a block in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and set up stalls selling vintage clothes, collectables, vinyl records, jewellery and household items that your granny probably owned. How Hell’s Kitchen got its name is open to debate. One theory has it that the once tough, working class neighbourhood was so crime-ridden that the other name it goes by, Clinton, didn’t really do it justice. Another theory is that the area was once the site of several, less than sanitary abattoirs, the smell of which inspired residents to label it anew. Whatever its origins, the modern day Hell’s Kitchen is located close to the city’s theatre district, bounded by 34th Street to the south, 59th Street to the north, and west of Eighth Avenue. While gentrification has transformed the neighbourhood in recent years, the streets around the Lincoln Tunnel are among the grittiest in Midtown Manhattan. The Market occupies a block closed to traffic at the weekends. Admission is free and entry is at 39th Street and 9th Avenue—a little out of the way, but its outlying location is reflected in the prices. Go towards the end of the day (the market closes at 5pm) when vendors are more inclined to give you bargains. I bought an as-new silk shirt, a 60s psychedelic dress and an 80s tea dress, all for $20.

Beacon’s Closet

A regular in ‘top shops in NYC’ listicles, and with good reason. For vintage lovers and style-hunters alike, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of second-hand designer labels, retro prints, quirky one-offs and perennial classics. Confession time: I’ve got a low-level addiction to Beacon’s Closet stores (and there are four of them, praise be: three in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan). It’s the first place I head for in New York after checking into a hotel, pretty much. When I’m not in Beacon’s, I’m thinking about being back in Beacon’s. When I am in Beacon’s, I have to set myself a spending limit so I don’t blow the bank. Fortunately, stock sells at a reasonable price. Last visit, I bought a vintage, pure wool Bonwit Teller coat (the original Bonwit Teller store on Fifth Avenue was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower), along with a cute tee and a Paul Smith shirt for my other half: total $55. Because clothes rails are crammed and shoes come stacked high, it helps if you like to rummage. To avoid crowds, as well as the sharp elbows of New Yorkers, shop early (stores open 11am-8pm) and towards the beginning of the week—evenings and weekends are busy. Beacon’s also buys clothes. Take along vintage or seasonal pieces and receive 35% cash or 55% in-store credit on items selected (ID is required—a passport is fine).

Brooklyn Flea

Proud of it’s legendary status, it is the city’s largest flea market, selling vintage and designer wear, antiques and collectibles, with street food stalls to boot. It’s been around for a decade and moved locations as it’s grown. Every Sunday, at the time of writing, the market is held al fresco in Dumbo—a fashionable neighbourhood located between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. It’s a prime spot, with great views of Manhattan just across the East River, and prices that reflect its popularity with tourists. Don’t go to Brooklyn Flea if you’re looking for a bargain. Do go if you want a good day out and don’t mind paying a bit extra for the whole experience. According to Time Out NY, the place also ranks as one of the city’s ‘essential pick-up spots’, so if you don’t score a bargain, there may be other advantages to mingling with the crowd. Best value finds while I was there included vintage sunglasses selling at $15 a pair, and the food stalls, which are cheap, fresh and excellent. While there are some beautiful vintage pieces to be had (selling anywhere between $75-$225), the market also has its fair share of overpriced tat, so be discerning (the worst offender I found was a 70s string bag, worn-out and discoloured, and on sale for $40). Get to Brooklyn Flea from Manhattan by walking over the Brooklyn Bridge—Dumbo is the first neighbourhood you hit over on the Brooklyn side—or else take the Coney Island-bound F train to York Street. Word of warning: if you don’t want to end up on a thousand Instagram feeds, avoid the hoards of snappers as you come out of the subway. For nervous types, there are trains thundering across the Manhattan Bridge, directly over head, all the time you’re browsing, so it gets pretty loud.

Victoria will be bringing along some of her New York vintage finds to the next Olive Road vintage stall at Pop Up Vintage Fairs in East London’s Wilton’s Music Hall on 12th July 2018.