Katherine Connelly tells of how the radical Suffragette gave East End kids a glimmer of hope in the depths of World War I
There was little to celebrate at Christmas in 1915. The war that was supposed to have ended the Christmas before had turned into mass slaughter in the trenches which seemed destined to go on for many years more.
Sylvia Pankhurst, the socialist militant Suffragette and leader of the working-class East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), witnessed the devastation that this second year of war inflicted on the East End.
After German U-boats sank the US passenger ship Lusitania in early May 1915, newspaper front pages shrieked for revenge.
There were anti-German riots in the East End, two ELFS members who had married German men found their homes under attack, while another member was hurt in her efforts to stop the rioting.
The first bombing raid on the overcrowded East End came in the night at the end of May. The next morning Sylvia Pankhurst found her roof covered in shrapnel.
As the people grew increasingly disillusioned, critical and angry with the war, it became clear that the government was planning to introduce military conscription.
And yet when this dark year had drawn to a close, Sylvia Pankhurst organised huge children’s parties in the East End of London.
Over 900 children came to the party in Bow Baths. Two days later a party was held for their parents and there were more parties held close by in Poplar and Canning Town.
Support for the parties poured in from anti-war socialists, Suffragettes and pacifists.
George Lansbury, editor of the socialist newspaper the Daily Herald and formerly an east London Labour MP, performed a puppet show for the children.
The radical playwright George Bernard Shaw judged the essays the children wrote about the party, sending each one a witty appraisal of their work in which he pretended to fine them for making him undertake such work as “counting 22 kisses for Miss Pankhurst” — in fact every child who entered won a shilling and sixpence.
Norah Smyth, who had once drilled the “People’s Army,” a band of east London men and women who armed themselves to defend Suffragettes from the police, dressed up as Father Christmas and delivered the presents.
The scale and success of the parties were testament to years of radical campaigning in east London.
They reflected the local community’s mounting anger at the war and its determination to build a fundamentally different society for their children.
In 1912 Sylvia Pankhurst decided to organise a Suffragette campaign in impoverished east London.
In contrast with her mother and elder sister, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia believed that if the Suffragette campaign was to be successful it had to involve the vast majority of women, not just a small elite.
From the birth of New Unionism with the matchwomen’s strike of 1888 to the dock strike of 1912, the East End had proved the immense power that organised workers could have.
The new ELFS drew great strength from uniting their demands for political representation with the social and economic struggles of workers.
Soon striking women workers were joining the east London Suffragettes, while local trade union branches and large sections of the community were defending the Suffragettes from police attacks and joining their demonstrations.
With the outbreak of the first world war, the British government demanded that everyone make sacrifices for the sake of national unity. But it was the poorest in society who were forced to sacrifice the most.
The ELFS campaigned against the way in which the prosecution of the war was particularly devastating the lives of working-class women.
In response to the poverty caused by wartime unemployment, the rocketing cost of food and rent, and the unequal pay and dangerous conditions for women workers in the new munitions industry, the ELFS organised demonstrations, deputations and a range of schemes including affordable restaurants, clinics, nurseries, legal advice and even their own toy-making factory.
In part, the children’s parties that Sylvia Pankhurst organised at the beginning of 1916 were an extension of these acts of community solidarity which particularly focused on alleviating the suffering that war was inflicting on working women and their children.
This suffering was soon cruelly brought home in the midst of the celebrations.
A highlight of the children’s party at Bow had been a pageant in which the free-spirited role of “the Spirit of the Woods” had been given to 16-year-old Rose Pengelly who entertained the children by dancing and playing the panpipes.
Rose had met Sylvia two years before when she joined the Junior Suffragettes Club and led her workmates out on strike.
Back at work after the pageant, and looking forward to dancing at the upcoming party, her hand was crushed under the machine she worked at.
Her boss would not pay for a taxi and so she had to walk to the station and take a train to the hospital where, after waiting for hours to be seen, her thumb and two fingers were amputated.
If the parties were a short-lived moment of joy amidst these bitter experiences, they also expressed the east London Suffragettes’ hopes for the new year. In doing so they captured a significant changing attitude to the war.
In August 1914 not all the ELFS members had opposed the war. Some supported the war aims, believing the government’s claims that the war was just and would soon be over. Now, after 16 months of war, the pageant at the ELFS party called for an end to the war.
At the front of the pageant two toddlers held banners calling for “Peace” and “Plenty.”
The pageant included a “Spirit of Peace” who was played by Joan Beauchamp, soon to become the editor of the conscientious objectors’ journal Tribunal and who was to suffer imprisonment for her anti-war activities.
The new year saw the ELFS turn to explicit anti-war campaigning which increasingly reflected a growing popular mood. By December 1916 they were holding peace demonstrations at the gates of the east London docks and Victoria Park.
At Christmas 1914 groups of working-class British and German soldiers defied their military superiors to play football with each other in no-man’s land.
A year later working-class Suffragettes organised huge Christmas parties that called for peace.
Amid the horror of the first world war, Christmas became a moment when ordinary people dared to imagine a different world without poverty and without war.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
More articles from this author
- ‘And seem a saint, when most I play the devil’: Johnson’s dangerously misleading Covid broadcast
- Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel - book review
- Is revolution possible in the twenty-first century? – explainer
- Small Island - theatre review
- 'Are there no food banks?' The Poor Laws and Charles Dickens at 150
- Strikes, walkouts, and sickouts: how working-class Americans are organising in the time of Covid-19
- Jolly George, 1920: when British workers stood up for revolutionary Russia