History comes home

sp2WSPU badges designed by Sylvia Pankhurst

Redbridge Museum will open a new permanent exhibition later this year exploring 200,000 years of local history. In the second of a series of articles, Museum Officer Nishat Alam looks at some of the items on show

For Women’s History Month, I want to celebrate a major event in British women’s history – winning the right to vote. From the mid-19th century, women across the country campaigned endlessly for this right. Redbridge was no exception.

Much like today, Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford each had their own distinct identities, often informed by affluence and class, and this influenced the kinds of suffrage activity that took place in each area.

In Ilford, campaigners known as ‘suffragettes’ who aligned with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were considered militant in their approach, smashing shop windows and setting fire to post boxes to bring about awareness of their cause. Women in Wanstead and Woodford tended to be more conservative. Woodford had its own branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies who believed in peaceful protest, distributing petitions and pamphlets or writing letters to their local MPs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shock factor of the WSPU’s methods drew more attention, and in 1918 some women were finally given the vote.

One woman who did not stop fighting, even when both groups suspended their campaigns during wartime, was Sylvia Pankhurst. Sylvia had been deeply involved in WSPU activities; her family had founded the organisation, she had designed flags, badges and banners, and had undergone force-feeding while on hunger strike in prison. She was also a pacifist and opposed the WSPU’s support for the war. As Sylvia’s politics became increasingly socialist, she was expelled from the organisation but continued to campaign with her own working women’s group in London’s East End.

In 1924, Sylvia moved to Woodford. From her home on Charteris Road, she campaigned in support of mothers’ rights and against racism and fascism for 30 years. She opposed the Italian colonisation of Ethiopia, and in 1956 was invited to move there by the Emperor Haile Selassie. She died and was buried in Addis Ababa in 1960.

Sylvia’s legacy in Redbridge remains and women continue to connect with her struggle for social justice. The Anti-Air War Memorial in Woodford Green, which she commissioned in 1935, became the site for events held in the 1980s by the Wanstead and Woodford Women for Peace, a local activist group that campaigned against the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

The story of Sylvia’s life is documented on a new website (sylviapankhurst.com) and will be explored through objects, photographs and film in the new Redbridge Museum.

Redbridge Museum is located on Clements Road, Ilford. Visit wnstd.com/rm

To complete a survey about what else should go on display, visit wnstd.com/rms

Author: Editor