A woman who created and recorded history

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Norah.jpg

Sylvia Pankhurst. Pic: Norah Smyth

A fascinating new exhibition in east London shows the work of suffragette and photographer Norah Smyth. The images, mostly taken from 1914 to 1916, record the work of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. They are on loan from the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam and are displayed together for the first time.

Smyth’s involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) began when she became the unpaid chauffeur to the organisation’s founder Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU focused on suffrage reform for middle class, property-owning women. Emmeline’s daughter Christabel Pankhurst argued that working class women were unsuited to the vote as their lives were too hard and they were uneducated.

Christabel’s younger sister Sylvia Pankhurst argued the opposite, that it was working class women who had the most to gain from having the vote.

Sylvia initially set up the East London Federation as a branch of the WSPU, but when she was expelled from the WSPU for backing the workers involved in the Dublin Lockout of 1913 she founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as an independent organisation.

Its focus was on organising among working class women and men. Smyth played an active role in the ELFS from its inception.

The ELFS organised demonstrations and public events in the campaign for the vote. But it was also closely involved in the struggles of working class women and men. This included support for strikes in local factories, including Morton’s jam factory at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs and at Back’s asbestos factory, where the strike was led by 14 year old Rose Pengelly.

East London’s suffragettes faced regular violence from the police resulting on occasions in serious injuries and arrests. In response they established a short-lived People’s Army inspired by James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army.

In February 1914 Smyth was arrested while drilling eight ranks of recruits, accused of kicking a policeman in the ankle. The People’s Army was also involved in protecting Sylvia Pankhurst when police tried to arrest her during the Women’s Day March in 1914.

When the First World War started in August 1914 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the WSPU stopped their campaign for the vote and threw themselves into supporting the war effort.

In contrast, Sylvia and the ELFS continued and extended their work.

The East End was badly affected by factory closures and price increases. Although soldiers’ wives were entitled to a state allowance these often took months to arrive. People were desperate for food. The ELFS marched to the House of Commons demanding nationalisation of food supplies, work for the unemployed and an adequate allowance for soldiers’ dependents.

They set up welfare schemes which were mainly run by local women themselves. Their headquarters became a milk distribution centre with others set up in Bow, Canning Town, Stepney and Poplar, providing milk, eggs and barley.

They also set up weekly mother and baby clinics across east London and cost-price restaurants — communal kitchens providing cheap meals for working class women and their families, free to people who could not afford to pay.

A toy factory was opened to give work to unemployed people. Men and women worked together and received equal pay based on a living wage.

It is these activities — and many more — that are the subject of Smyth’s photographs. The images bring to life the activities of and the work of the ELFS. Smyth was groundbreaking in her photography. As an active member, she was well known to the people she was photographing. She wasn’t an outsider coming in to take photographs of “the poor”. She was part of the movement and she portrayed people with compassion.

Smyth’s photography was groundbreaking in other ways. Alongside Zelie Emerson, Smyth set up the Women’s Dreadnought — the ELFS weekly newspaper — the first issue being published on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1914. Smyth came from a privileged background and used her inheritance to partly fund the newspaper and other political activities.

Smyth was the main photojournalist for the paper, and several photographs were printed in each edition. This was at a time when few photographs were used in the press; the Women’s Dreadnought was at the forefront of this development.

Smyth’s photographs play an important role in bringing to life these working class women — and men — and their struggles for a decent life for themselves and their families as well as for the vote.

The script accompanying the exhibition is well written and very informative.

I found the exhibition enlightening and engaging — and it’s free. Anyone visiting or living in London should see it.

East End Suffragettes: the photographs of Norah Smyth is at Four Corners, 121 Roman Road, London, until 9 February 2019. fourcornersfilm.co.uk