Local Heroes: Focus E15 Mothers and the East London Suffragettes

by Sarah Jackson

The women of Focus E15 are the latest chapter in a long story of East End women standing up for their rights, families, homes and communities against sexism and class prejudice.

First published: 28 October, 2014 | Category: Activism, Gender equality, Housing

“The shooting of pop-guns, the throwing of bags of flour, blue powder and more solid missiles began the fray. The barrier between the public and the Councillors was broken down by a rush of women. The Councillors engaged in hand-to-hand conflict to force them back. Whilst missiles still fell from the gallery, wild women dashed round the room, overturning ink-pots and tearing agenda papers, seizing the Councillors’ chairs as weapons of defence… The police were sent for, but refused to enter the building.” [1]

This meeting of Poplar Council in 1914 was so unusually exciting that it even made it into the New York Times. The reason for the fracas was the Council’s decision to ban the East London Federation of the Suffragettes from using public halls for their meetings. The account above was written by their leader, Sylvia Pankhurst. She goes on to record that the meeting was briefly adjourned, and, when it resumed, the council voted to exclude the public from council meetings for three months.

Over the last ten months I've had one foot in 2014 and the other in 1914. While researching and writing a book about the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) I have been looking on with awe and admiration as the Focus E15 campaign has gone from strength to strength. After watching a video of a rather more peaceful Focus E15 protest at an open meeting of Newham Council in February, I began to see some parallels between the groups. In Newham the protestors, including journalist Kate Belgrave, were barred from attending the supposedly public meeting, and then the Councillors walked out in response to the protest.

Suffragettes

In January 1914 the East End branches of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) broke away and formed an independent, democratic organisation focused on the rights of working women, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. Based in Bow but with branches all over the East End, the ELFS grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women's lives. They argued that if women had the vote the whole community would have greater leverage in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect children's health. They saw the vote as just one aspect of the struggle for equality and adopted a broad campaigning programme. They fought for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay, food price controls, adequate pensions for the elderly and for the widows of servicemen, among numerous other causes. They marched through East London, held huge public meetings, opened their own social centres, organised benefit concerts and parties. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters to defend them from police brutality.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, factories across East London closed and food prices spiralled. The suffragettes led community action to support those most affected by the sudden wave of unemployment, 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.

In their campaigns and in their war relief work the ELFS continually connected individual hardship to the bigger picture of structural inequality. For example, in autumn 1914, a delegation of Federation members met with Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, to argue for food price controls. The ELFS newspaper, the Woman’s Dreadnought reported the following exchange between Runciman and ELFS member Melvina Walker (who described herself as “a docker’s wife” from Limehouse):

“He answered with expressions of sympathy for our demands and our arguments; yet happily, he congratulated himself, the food had not yet reached 'panic prices'.

“Not at your salary, Mr Runciman!” Melvina Walker snapped at him, fierce as a tigress; “but to people on 25s a week, and four or five children to bring up, they are panic prices!”

“It is not a question of salary,” he retorted.

She insisted: “It is a question of salary!”” [2]

Housing

The Focus E15 campaign began with a specific situation, as 29 young single mothers were presented with the choice to move far away from their families and support networks, or to be labelled as ‘intentionally homeless’ and be denied much-needed state support. But from the very early days of the campaign, they have related their situation not only to the wider housing crisis but also to the 'social cleansing' effect of urban regeneration, which is pricing many people on low incomes out of the place they grew up in. Focus E15 mother Jasmin Stone told the Occupied Times:

“We have decided to widen the campaign for everyone. We are fighting for everybody with housing problems and offer our full support. We will fight for as long as it takes to stop the privatisation of London and stop social cleansing. We are fighting for social housing for all, a home that everyone can afford, where they feel comfortable and have the support network that we all need!”

Housing was a critical issue for the ELFS and its members. In the cramped terraces and overcrowded slums where most of the East London suffragettes and their supporters lived, families were housed in one or two rooms, with only a single outside lavatory and a water pump often shared with several households. Many of the buildings were falling into disrepair, with broken stairs, peeling wallpaper, or chunks of plaster pulling away from the ceiling. The houses were also full of vermin – black beetles, bed bugs and rats. Despite this, rents were high and pay was low (especially for women). Many families lived permanently in the shadow of eviction, and the workhouse beyond it.

In the present day, 24,000 households in Newham are on the waiting list for housing. Others are packing themselves into single squalid rooms, or inhabiting barely converted sheds and garages. In 2012 the Mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, told the Guardian that the council had found people paying rent to live in a walk-in freezer, and one house containing 38 people, 16 of whom were children. Much of this unsafe, illegal, exploitative housing is occupied by migrant workers on low incomes who are supporting families abroad or people with irregular migration status, who don’t feel able to complain or report their landlords for fear of being deported.

Even in purpose-built housing, the eye-watering rent is no guarantee of quality. Another of the Focus E15 mothers, Sam Middleton, described vermin, leaks, and gaps in the floor in the flat she pays nearly £1000 a month to rent for herself and her baby. Like many, she is afraid to complain in case she is evicted - according to Shelter there were 200,000 ‘revenge evictions’ in the UK last year, something which is shockingly still legal.

There is a housing shortage in London, but it’s man-made. The last council housing estates are being sold off to developers and replaced by luxury flats with a quota of ‘affordable’ housing. Affordable, in this case, means up to 80% of local market rent [3], which is beyond the reach of people working full-time on an average wage, let alone those on the lowest incomes. As the cost of living and renting spirals, benefits are capped, and wages stagnate, it should come as no surprise that we are seeing a return of slum conditions in some of the poorest areas of the country. With the advent of workfare and cuts to vital benefits for people with disabilities or chronic illness, perhaps the workhouses aren't far behind.

Faced with this impossible situation, the Focus E15 mothers are taking a stand. Their direct action in occupying a block of flats on the boarded up Carpenters Estate near Stratford made national headlines and successfully pressured Newham Council to start using the empty flats to house people waiting for homes. In 1914, the East London Federation of Suffragettes hit upon a similar high profile action to put pressure on landlords to improve housing and pressure on the government to give women the vote: a 'No Vote, No Rent' strike.

Then, as now, mothers were often held solely responsible for the health and wellbeing of their children. Many of the factors which influenced the health and happiness of their family were in fact well beyond their control, including poor housing. Among those who had the power to improve the situation were national and local government representatives, and by extension those who voted for them. The suffragettes argued: “If we hold women responsible for the results, must we not, in simple justice, let them have something to say as to what these conditions shall be?... Let them vote.” [4] Through their public meetings, their weekly stall in Roman Road market and their newspaper, the Woman’s Dreadnought, the ELFS collected over a hundred pledges from members and supporters to join the strike before the plan was curtailed by the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The suffragettes continued to organise, support and unite local housing campaigns – like the 516 families housed in the Grosvenor Buildings in Poplar, who faced a sudden rent hike in the winter of 1915. The fightback was led by women, as the wording of their petition to government officials shows: “This meeting of soldiers' wives and other working women and housewives, protests against the raising of the rents of working class dwellings”. [5] The ELFS publicised their case in the Dreadnought, arranged public meetings, investigated the landlord and lobbied the local MP to intervene.

Representation

Working women’s self-representation was a cornerstone for the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. In 1912, Melvina Walker and others challenged Sylvia Pankhurst to ensure that every WSPU platform in the East End included at least one local woman as a speaker, not just the ‘stars’ of the movement from central London. ELFS members were encouraged to speak wherever they could on behalf of the movement, with lessons in public speaking offered for those that wanted them. The Woman’s Dreadnought published letters and articles by its members, and so features many rare firsthand accounts from women of factory work, union activism and daily life at home in this period.

Delegations of ELFS members elected at branch meetings met with government ministers several times, including the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. On one such occasion journalist Henry Nevison accompanied the deputation into the Lobby of the House of Commons, which was “filled with Members and strangers who had come expecting to see savages and were taken aback when they saw intelligent human beings.” [6]

On top of sexism, surveillance and state oppression, the East London suffragettes had to contend with intense class prejudice, sometimes from within their own movement. According to Sylvia, after demanding that the East London branches separate from the WSPU, her sister Christabel explained that “a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex… Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest.” [7] In the first issue of the Woman’s Dreadnought, the East End suffragettes responded defiantly: “Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote. Such people have forgotten their history.” [8]

Focus E15 have faced some of the same prejudice, with an extra helping of the vitriol reserved for single mothers. The stereotype of single parents, 92% of whom are women [9], as ‘scroungers’ is pervasive and powerful. The devastating stigma surrounding unmarried mothers and 'fallen women' of the suffragettes' day has echoed down the century, as Jasmin Stone reports that the Focus E15 mothers have been called “sluts” and told to “shut their legs”.  Mayor Robin Wales’ angry complaint when Focus E15 held a peaceful protest with their children at the Newham Show that they were spoiling “a family day” is illuminating. The subtext seems clear: you're the wrong kind of family.

Like the Focus E15 mothers, especially Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton who have emerged as the main spokespeople, the East London suffragettes’ self-representation helped to challenge the prejudice they faced. By insisting that many voices were heard, not only Sylvia's or those of the journalists and politicians who supported them (Nevison, Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, most notably) they demonstrated that they were intelligent, aware, and in control of their own campaign.

This commitment to amplifying the voices of working women allowed the members of the ELFS to position themselves as experience experts, with access to the true extent and impact of poverty, and valuable insight to offer policy makers. During meetings with ministers or when giving speeches, the East End suffragettes would share details of their lives: how they started work in a cigarette factory aged 12, how they worked 14 hours a day making brushes to be sold for ten shillings and were paid two pence per brush. How a neighbour’s rotten ceiling had collapsed while she was in labour on the bed below. This testimony made people listen, and gave the women an authority denied them by their gender and class.

Similarly, when the Focus E15 campaigners speak or write about terrible living conditions or of the indifference of their local authorities it is from direct experience. Without a journalist, MP, advocate, union officer or charity worker as an intermediary, this gives them an apparently troubling power. For example, in what seemed to be an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the campaign, Newham Councillor Andrew Baikie claimed that the Carpenters Estate block was occupied by "agitators and hangers on". As a group, young working class single mothers are endlessly spoken about - in the press, in political forums, in articles like this - but god forbid they should pick up a megaphone and speak for themselves.

History

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes existed until 1924, although it underwent two name changes, becoming the Workers Suffrage Federation in 1916 and then the Workers Socialist Federation in 1918. The focus shifted away from women workers to all workers, and the ELFS / WSF ultimately became a feminist socialist organisation rather than the other way around.

Focus E15 mothers are the latest chapter in a long story of East End women standing up for their rights, for their families, their homes and their community. It's a story which features the suffragettes, the Bow Matchwomen, the Stepney Tenants Defence League, the Bengali Housing Action Group and many more. Recording and sharing the history of radical movements, especially those led by marginalised groups, is vital. Not just to preserve both sides of the story but as a source of strength, whether that comes from seeing how far we’ve come, or by drawing inspiration from those who came before you in the struggle. Focus E15 have already inspired people to take a stand against injustice, and I hope that, in a hundred years from now, they still will.

 

 

[1] Sylvia Pankhurst. The Suffragette Movement. London: Virago, 1988

[2] Sylvia Pankhurst. The Home Front. London: The Cressett Library, 1987

[3] Policy: Improving the rented housing sector

[4] The Woman’s Dreadnought, July 1914

[5] The Woman’s Dreadnought, November 1915

[6] The Woman’s Dreadnought, June 1914

[7] Sylvia Pankhurst. The Suffragette Movement. London: Virago, 1988

[8] The Woman’s Dreadnought, March 1914

[9] ONS, Lone parents with dependant children, 2011

 

Sarah Jackson is co-author of Voices From History: East London Suffragettes with Rosemary Taylor and tweets as @sajarina.

Header photo credit: Norah Smyth, used with permission.

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