Campaigner

Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned for votes for women, women’s rights, worker’s rights, peace, nursery education, maternity healthcare, anti-Fascism, anti-imperialism and Ethiopian independence. She took on both world problems and the plight of the individual.

Suffrage

Though the leadership of the Women’s Social and Political Union rested with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, Sylvia was an active campaigner, speaker and artistic contributor to the organisation for a number of years. This section looks at visual identities of women at that time, and the background to the struggle

The Suffragette

AS AN ACTIVE SUFFRAGETTE, Sylvia was imprisoned and force-fed more than any other campaigner. She organised spectacular demonstrations, rallies and marches all over Britain publicising the Women’s Social and Political Union and trying to persuade the Government to give women the vote. She designed flags, banners and gifts for sale, decorated halls and meeting rooms and spoke to huge audiences. Sometimes 16,000 women came to hear her.

By 1906 Sylvia was working full-time for the WSPU. She was arrested 15 times while campaigning for the rights of women and was aged 24 when she went to prison for the first time. Between February 1913 and July 1914 Sylvia was arrested eight times, each time being repeatedly force-fed after hunger, thirst and sleep strikes in Holloway Prison. However, as the campaign escalated Sylvia became unconvinced by the use of violence by WSPU members which included setting fire to buildings, destroying golf courses, smashing windows of shops and politicians’ homes, and destroying works of art. 

Sylvia lectured on woman’s suffrage in the United States in 1911 and 1912, in Scandinavia in 1913, and in central Europe in 1914. However, she believed in universal suffrage – wanting to do more in the world than empower women – and once that campaign was well on the way to success, felt her own duties to society should reach further. 

In January 1914 Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU by her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, after her support for the Labour movement and Home Rule for Ireland which was deemed to be at odds with the WSPU’s narrow focus. Sylvia now helped set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes, a new campaigning group in the East End of London which built on her own principles - and which men were welcome to join. 

IWM

Sylvia, about 1912. The portcullis brooch she designed herself is seen at the knot of her tie which was probably in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green 

Images of the Suffrage Movement

The suffragettes’ visual identity was key to their activities. Compare how they saw themselves with how they were perceived in the popular media

Perceptions of Women

Traditional feminine images were challenged by the possibility of women having the vote, and the fears of many men were illustrated in numerous cartoons published during and after the Edwardian era. 

London's East End

IN OCTOBER 1912 the WSPU returned to the East End of London to launch a new recruitment campaign, led by Sylvia Pankhurst. By this time Sylvia was becoming a socialist as well as a women’s suffrage activist, and believed that the East End campaign could have a much bigger impact than simply boosting the WSPU’s membership. She wanted working women to be:

‘not merely the argument of more fortunate people, but to be fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes and catch-cries, revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilisation and progress.’

The first few weeks of the campaign were challenging. The suffragettes encountered amusement, indifference and hostility, from local boys pelting them with small stones, to grown men and women throwing fish heads and urine-soaked paper, to outright violence. But Sylvia and a handful of other WSPU organisers including Norah Smyth and Zelie Emerson quickly rebuilt their support in the East End.

During 1913 Sylvia spoke out in favour of the Labour movement and Home Rule in Ireland. This brought her into conflict with her mother and sisters who tended to be more conservative in their political views but also felt it distracted from the campaign to gain the vote. Matters came to a head in January 1914 when Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU. However, she was now free to pursue an independent path with the new East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and argued that women’s suffrage was just one step in a road towards emancipation that necessarily entailed socialist transformation.

Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, many East End factories had closed. Workers had no benefits to fall back on and little chance of finding another position. At the same time, panic-buying caused food prices to rise rapidly.

As men on the Army reserves list were called up and others enlisted, many women were suddenly left alone to provide for their family, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. While separation allowances to provide for soldier’s wives and children were slowly introduced, they were not generous, were often paid late and could be suspended for weeks at a time. The queues at town halls all over the country were enormous, and marriage and birth certificates requested as proof cost money to acquire, and were frequently lost by the administration.


With only antiquated Poor Laws, the workhouse, and minimal National Insurance coverage in place of a welfare state, within weeks of war’s outbreak many families in the East End were facing starvation. People began to arrive at the at the ELFS headquarters at 400 Old Ford Row, Bow, seeking help.

Although most ELFS members were opposed to the War, they worked tirelessly to help local families that were affected by it. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote a letter to The Times calling for donations and they soon began to receive money to buy milk for starving babies, which they gave out from the ELFS headquarters (now named the Woman’s Hall), and also from centres in Canning Town, Stepney and Poplar.

Museum of London 22843

Sylvia speaking outside the WSPU shop, Bow, November 1912

The suffragettes even opened a cooperative toy factory, where local women could earn a living wage and learn a trade at the same time. 

The ELFS opened a clinic to treat the children worst affected by hunger and disease, a nursery where women could leave their children safely while they went out to work, and three canteens serving nutritious food at “cost price”, anticipating the Government’s National Kitchens by several years. Sylvia converted a disused pub, the Gunmakers’ Arms, at 438 Old Ford Road, Bow, into a mother-and-baby drop-in centre called the Mother’s Arms. 

The ELFS even opened a cooperative toy factory, where local women could earn a living wage and learn a trade at the same time. This was opened in October 1914 with the financial assistance of Norah Veronica Lyle-Smyth and known as the East London Toy Factory, at 45 Norman Road (now Norman Grove), Bow. The toy factory was Sylvia’s answer to the dozens of tiny failing workshops where women were paid a pittance. Toys were no longer being imported from Germany because of the war so Sylvia’s factory employed 59 women to fill the gap.

Amy Browning, Edith Downing, Hilda Jeffries and a Miss Acheson designed and helped to produce the toys. Edith Downing, a sculptor, modelled charming sets of dolls’ heads in wax, giving them lifelike features. The artist Walter Crane, of the Arts & Crafts movement, also designed some of the toys.

First the factory turned out wooden toys and then dolls: black, white and yellow, followed by stuffed cats, dogs and bears. One day, Sylvia took a taxi full of her wares to Selfridges new store in Oxford Street and cajoled Gordon Selfridge himself to become a stockist. The toy manufacturing industries were big in Europe but the East London Federation of Suffragettes never intended to compete with their foreign counterparts. They hoped the public would appreciate their unique handicraft, recognising it in the tradition of the Arts & Crafts movement, rather than as a slavish imitation of German goods. Sylvia felt that offering a decent wage for skilled work of this kind would help raise the national standard of living as well as motivate English workers during the difficult times of the First World War. 

In July 1918, shortly before the War ended that November, women over 30 who owned property were finally awarded the vote. Most of the women members of the ELFS (renamed the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in 1917) were on low incomes and so still excluded. At this stage, Sylvia changed the name of the organisation to the Workers’ Socialist Federation and began to focus more on worker’s rights than only women’s rights. 

The Mother’s Arms stayed open until 1921, and the whole organisation finally closed down in 1924. At this time Sylvia and her partner, Italian socialist Silvio Corio moved to Woodford, Essex (now in the London Borough of Redbridge) to begin the next chapter of her life.

With thanks to historians Sarah Jackson and Shirley Harrison

Ethiopia

AN ESSAY BY RITA PANKHURST

Introduction

Ethiopia Observer, 1961, Vol. V no.1, courtesy of the Library at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst

Sylvia with Emperor Haile Selassie in London, when in exile in England, 1936

People not acquainted with the post-suffragette part of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life are surprised that, in her seventies, she ‘suddenly went off to Ethiopia’. In fact, her move to that country was a logical conclusion to all that preceded it.

The Fascist Threat

Sylvia Pankhurst came from a politically active – and progressive – family. Visitors to the house of her parents, Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst, included socialists, anarchists, communists and free-thinkers from many parts of the country, the continent of Europe, the United States and India. Early in the 20th century, as a promising young student of art, she won a scholarship to study mosaics in Venice, where she developed a keen interest in Italy and Italian culture. On returning to Britain she was drawn into the newly established suffragette movement.

In 1919 she travelled again to Italy, by then an active international socialist. In Bologna she witnessed Mussolini’s thugs, the squadristi, beating up their political opponents and others. This turned her almost overnight into an anti-fascist. Three years afterwards, in 1922, Mussolini seized power, and two years later he ordered the assassination of the notable Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti.

Sylvia was deeply shocked. In 1928 she founded the Women’s International Matteotti Committee, which won the support of a galaxy of intellectuals of the Left, including Bertrand Russell and Harold and Frida Laski. The Committee had some similarities with her earlier East London Federation of the Suffragettes, which was concerned both with the political enfranchisement of women and with the bread-and-butter issues facing the people of the East End of London. Both organisations were organisations of women and both had a broad political purpose, as well as a practical humanitarian one. On the political level, Sylvia, through the Matteotti Committee, drew attention to the reactionary and repressive character of Italian Fascism. 

Sylvia saw Fascism as the antithesis of everything she believed in: it was chauvinist and militarist, whereas she was an internationalist, opposed to war; Mussolini had no truck with democracy, whereas she, like her father, believed in its extension; Fascism held that women’s primary duty was breeding soldiers for the Duce, whereas she had been a feminist all her life; and, as a Socialist, she deplored the suppression of the Italian Socialist and trade union movements. 

On the humanitarian level, Sylvia publicised the information that Silvio Corio, her life partner, learnt from Italy about the distressing situation of Matteotti’s widow, Velia, and the Matteotti children. Velia was not allowed to receive visitors. A searchlight was beamed on her house all night to deter them. Dr Germani, who attempted to see her, was imprisoned on the penal island of Ponza. Her two sons were forbidden to use their father’s name at school, and were obliged to salute an effigy of the Duce who had ordered their father’s death. Matteotti’s grave was frequently vandalised, and Velia was prevented from leaving the country. Sylvia, in her endeavour to draw attention to Velia’s plight, worked closely with Carlo Rosselli, editor of the Italian émigré newspaper, Giustizia e Libertà, who was later to be assassinated in Paris, not by coincidence, on the 13th anniversary of Matteotti’s death.

Sylvia found that, on the island of Ponza the prisoners did not receive adequate medical treatment, and that Dr Germani, who was a surgeon, could have helped his fellow prisoners had he had access to surgical equipment. Characteristically she tried to come to the aid of these particular detainees. By enlisting the help of the Socialist Medical Association, she succeeded in obtaining the necessary instruments. However, despite a promise from the Italian Embassy in London, Germani was not allowed to use them.

Sylvia saw Fascism as the antithesis of everything she believed in: it was chauvinist and militarist, whereas she was an internationalist, opposed to war

Invasion

In 1934, Sylvia was one of those who realised that the concentration of troops in Eritrea and Somalia, the Italian colonies bordering Ethiopia, meant that Mussolini was intent on invading Africa’s last independent state, then internationally known as Abyssinia. Sylvia proceeded to visit the Ethiopian Legation in London, where she met the Minister, Dr W.C. Martin, an Ethiopian who had been taken to Britain as a child and had studied medicine there – hence his English name and title. She and Martin became close friends, but she found the Legation hopelessly understaffed, and in no position to rebut the extensive Italian Fascist propaganda then being widely disseminated. This propaganda made great play with the existence of slavery in Ethiopia, ignoring the fact that legislation for a gradual freeing of all slaves had been already enacted prior to the invasion, and that Mussolini’s intention was, as Sylvia put it, ‘to impose on the “natives” the new slavery of Fascism’. Ethiopia was likewise presented as a country of barbarism, by the very invader, who was then producing poison-gas, later used as part of its ‘civilizing mission’.

In the months that followed, she wrote many letters to the national and international press to alert them to Italy’s intentions, and many more, when the invasion actually took place in October 1935. She denounced the use of poison gas and demanded more effective sanctions against the aggressor.

Woodford Express Independant Sat 26 Oct 1935

Unveiling of Anti Air War Monument on 20 October 1935, Woodford Express and Independent, 26 October 1935

Also in October 1935 she had erected an ‘Anti Air War Memorial’ in Woodford Green, Essex, on land in front of the former ‘Red Cottage Tea Rooms’ that Sylvia had owned since 1924. Fully visible from the road to London, it was dedicated ironically to the British delegation to the League of Nations in 1932, which had opposed the banning of aerial warfare on the ground that it was necessary to bomb the tribesmen in north-west India to keep them in order. This memorial was dedicated by a representative of the Ethiopian Legation in London at a time when Ethiopia was subjected to aerial bombardment and spraying of poison gas from the air. This memorial can still be seen today.

IISH

New Times and Ethiopia News, 3 September 1938

As interest in Ethiopia waned, Sylvia reinforced her press campaign by founding a newspaper of her own, entitled New Times and Ethiopia News which was first published on 9 May 1936. It described itself as Britain’s anti-fascist weekly and bore on its masthead Carlo Rosselli’s logo of a flaming sword of justice. The paper published news about the resistance of Ethiopian patriots, obtained from correspondents in neighbouring Jibuti, Kenya and Sudan. Several editions in Amharic, the Ethiopian national language, were smuggled into Italian-occupied Ethiopia.

New Times and Ethiopia News also featured many articles on the resistance of the Spanish Republic to the Falangist rebellion, the Japanese invasion of China, the plight of the Jews, and the general repressive conditions in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Sylvia herself wrote a weekly editorial as well as many other articles, including two long serialised pieces on how Mussolini and Hitler came to power. Not surprisingly, she was placed on the list of people to be arrested after the envisaged Nazi occupation of Britain.

War

Mussolini’s declaration of war on Britain and France, which took place in 1940, on the anniversary of the assassinations of both Matteotti and Rosselli, was a turning point in Sylvia’s involvement in Ethiopia. The British government cancelled the recognition of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, granted two years earlier, and gave the Ethiopian patriots limited (and to Sylvia’s mind inadequate) military support. At the same time the government refused to recognise Ethiopia as an independent ally or to accord it the status granted to European countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Seeing that the BBC failed to include the Ethiopian national anthem in its weekly broadcast of the anthems of the Allies, she campaigned on the issue for many months. She discovered that the ban had been imposed by the Foreign Office, but the ban was eventually lifted.

Sylvia continued her struggle for recognition of Ethiopia as a sovereign state, and opposed proposals for the annexation of some of her provinces to neighbouring British territories, or the establishment of some form of British protectorate in Ethiopia. She also agitated against the return to Italy of her former colonies – and advocated the overthrow of the Italian monarchy on the ground of its complicity in Mussolini’s seizure of power.

Ethiopia Observer, 1961, Vol. V no.1, courtesy of the Library at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst

Sylvia (second left), picketing outside Parliament about the possibility of Italian ‘trusteeship’ of Ethiopia, 1946

Liberation

Ethiopia was liberated from Italian rule in the course of 1941, and, on 5 May, Emperor Haile Selassie re-entered his capital. His youngest daughter, Princess Tsehai, who had qualified as a nurse in Britain, and had served as such during the London Blitz, returned to Ethiopia, married, and tragically died in pregnancy. Her ambition had been to establish the first teaching hospital in her country – and Sylvia dedicated herself to the realisation of that humanitarian dream. She established the Princess Tsehai Memorial Committee, serving as its Honorary Secretary, with Lord Horder, King George VI’s physician, as Honorary Treasurer. The Committee, largely due to her tireless fundraising efforts, collected almost three quarters of a million pounds – a considerable sum for those days, making it possible to open the hospital in 1950.

Though Sylvia had been interested in Ethiopia – and had been reading and writing about it since 1934 – she was unable to visit the country until 1944, first because of the Italian occupation and later because of the on-going Second World War, Although at that time Britain was still at war, she was given permission to travel to Ethiopia by boat and aeroplane, to select a site for the Tsehai Hospital. She went by way of Asmara, in Eritrea, then under British Military Occupation, where she was warmly welcomed by members of the Unionist Party, then struggling for union with Ethiopia. She also spoke from the floor at a public meeting in Asmara – where her support for the cause won considerable applause from Eritreans in the audience – but some opprobrium from members of the British administration. On finally reaching Ethiopia she met many Ethiopians whom she had known during their exile in Britain, and broadcast on Addis Ababa Radio. She also visited schools and historic sites which she later described in New Times and Ethiopia News. 

During a second visit to Ethiopia in 1950-51, she inspected many more institutions and antiquities, and collected material which she later included in Ethiopia: A Cultural History. Returning by way of Asmara she saw, and later described, the slums of its so-called ‘native quarter’, a creation of the strict Fascist policy of racial segregation. At this time she also learnt that the British administration had been dismantling many port installations – causing her to denounce this in a pamphlet entitled ‘Why are we destroying the Eritrean ports?’ This work incensed British officialdom, already nettled by her unwavering support for Ethiopian independence, and caused one prominent British Foreign Office official to recommend that she should in future be discouraged from travelling to Ethiopia by way of Eritrea – which was later federated with Ethiopia by the United Nations in 1952.

Departure for Ethiopia

By the Spring of 1956 Sylvia felt that one phase of her life had come to an end. Fascism, against which she had struggled for so long, had been overthrown. Ethiopia, for whose cause she had fought for the last two decades, was freed from both Italian, and later British, occupation – and the Princess Tsehai Hospital, for which she had been fund-raising so energetically, had at last been opened. On the personal level, Silvio Corio died in 1954. He had been her partner for forty years and had contributed extensively to New Times and Ethiopia News. He had spent much of his time researching in the British Museum Library and would not have wished to be torn away from London. Their son Richard had completed his university education – and was offered a college teaching position in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia Observer, 1961, Vol. V no.1, courtesy of the Library at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst

Sylvia at her home in Woodford, Essex, shortly before her departure to Ethiopia in July 1956

Sylvia, now 74, sold her house in Woodford Green and accepted a long-standing invitation from the Emperor to live in Ethiopia. Richard, who had acquired many Ethiopian friends in his student days and had helped his mother with New Times and Ethiopia News, was happy to fly with her to Addis Ababa, to start a new life in Africa. I had met Richard while I was teaching at Toynbee Hall in London a couple of years before and after they left in July 1956, I joined them in Ethiopia at his invitation four months later and we were married in 1957.

Life in Ethiopia

Sylvia immediately set about various projects big and small. Her main activities were editing a new publication; supporting the Tsehai Hospital and involving herself in a voluntary society initially to assist in the rehabilitation of beggars. Her new journal was a monthly, called Ethiopia Observer. She edited it for just short of five years. Each issue attempted to focus on a different topic: Ethiopian women, patriots, educational development, etc. She herself produced many of the articles, which she wrote in longhand. Copy was then air-mailed to Manchester; proofs were duly flown back to Addis Ababa, where she and Richard, who had also written a number of articles, made the lay-out, a creative process which at time produced considerable tension between them. The proofs and lay-out were then finally returned to Manchester for printing. This was the moment in the month when the relentless activity finally relaxed – only for the cycle to start again soon afterwards.

As Editor of the Observer, Sylvia travelled all over the country, visiting schools, hospitals, and development projects – which she described in her periodical in some depth. On one occasion, aged 77, and not in good health, she proposed to see one of these projects at a place called Majitte, north of Addis Ababa. It involved many hours of travel by Land Rover over rough roads and the return the following day. When we suggested that this might be somewhat too strenuous for her, as she was becoming increasingly frail, she replied: ‘Do you think I have come to the end of my active life?’ – and duly completed her self-imposed assignment.

The Social Service Society

Appalled by the number of beggars in the streets she joined a group of Ethiopian friends in establishing a voluntary organisation, the Social Service Society, aimed at rehabilitating at least some of the vagrants. It was set up under the auspices of the dynamic newly appointed Mayor of Addis Ababa, Dajazmatch Zewde Gebre Selassie, whom she had known when he was a student in Oxford immediately after the war. He designated and fenced an area in which large corrugated iron sheds were erected, to house and feed the destitute, and to provide craft training, especially in making knotted carpets with Ethiopian wool. Sylvia expressed her concern about the situation in the hastily erected sheds. The Municipality proved unable to make the conditions attractive to the beggars, who, as it turned out, preferred the lively life in the streets – and the appointment of another mayor did not help matters. The Society was more successful in other projects, in which I, too, became involved. The first was the training of women in dress-making, including the use of sewing machines, previously, and still to some extent, the preserve of men. Another project was the establishment of the first youth sports ground in the city, which duly materialised. One of the active members of the Society was Lieutenant Girma Wolde Giorgis, who later became Ethiopian Head of State.

African Affairs

Sylvia, as an anti-colonialist, and anti-racist, was keenly interested in the African struggle for independence then being waged in many parts of the continent, and had already published pro-independence articles in New Times and Ethiopia News. She visited Kenya in 1958, when the then Ethiopian Consul, Berhanu Tessema (a former Ethiopian refugee with whom she had corresponded during the Italian occupation), arranged for her to meet the African Trade Union leader, Tom Mboya and the African and Asian members of the Legislative Council. Jomo Kenyatta, who had spoken at her pro-Ethiopian meetings in London, was then in detention. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya had only recently been crushed by British forces and the Council members told her of the restrictions under which they were then labouring. She later devoted an issue of Ethiopia Observer to Kenyan affairs. Sylvia made contact with students from other parts of Africa who were studying at Ethiopian higher education institutions on special scholarships from the Emperor, and, once again combining wider political issues with consideration of the needs of individuals, on several occasions, introduced to him African refugees in difficulties.

Daily Life

On a personal note, although I had been to lunch with Sylvia at her house in Woodford Green, we had been to a concert together, and she had visited my parents in Belsize Park, London, my eruption in Addis Ababa marked an entirely new development in her life. She was not demonstrative in personal relations but I think she was pleased that Richard had found a partner. I can’t help feeling, however, that she might have preferred someone more familiar with public political affairs. If this was so, she never gave any sign of it. In a rare letter to her sister Christabel in the course of a short correspondence towards the end of their lives, Sylvia reported, apparently with pride, that her son had married a Romanian who was ‘an Oxford graduate’. She was thankful that I was willing to take over the running of the house. My only difficulty was finding food that she could tolerate, as her digestion had suffered permanent damage from the hunger strikes of suffragette days, while our cook, who remained with us for twenty years, was ever anxious to show off her culinary skills.

Sylvia was happy to see us married. The wedding was a very modest affair by Ethiopian standards. Unlike local weddings that lasted a minimum of three days, with several banquets, ours comprised only a cocktail party at a hotel, followed by a get-together of intimate friends at our house. Sylvia’s and Richard’s friend, Mengestu Lemma, commended the simplicity of the event as an example to his compatriots, but nevertheless quipped that so many of Sylvia’s friends who were government officials were present at the cocktail that a Cabinet Meeting could have been held on the spot.

Sylvia’s home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

We lived in a bungalow surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and gradually developed a garden in which she liked to walk. Although she purchased oil paints and brushes in London, and brought them to Ethiopia, she never opened the paint-box. She found relaxation in reading 19th century English poetry, and writing poems in a similar style herself. One was about Addis Ababa, and another about eucalyptus trees. Both were later published in Ethiopia Observer. Our lives were largely work-oriented. If she was not on her travels Sylvia would go to her desk when we left for work – Richard at the University College of Addis Ababa, where he taught, and I at the National Library of Ethiopia. She was usually still at her desk when we returned at lunch time, and again in the afternoon. After supper she often went back to her desk. When the historian, Brian Harrison, once asked me what we did for our holidays it came to my notice that we did not indulge in them.

At meal-times discussion centered on her current concerns or future projects. She did not, in my presence, look back on her past, and I felt she might have considered it a distraction to invite her to reminisce. When a particular project was finished, she moved to the next one. Though there was not much time for social life, Sylvia had several good friends in Ethiopia. She had got to know the Emperor’s eldest daughter, Princess Tenagne Work, when the latter was in England, waiting to return to Ethiopia, and Sylvia was struggling against the British officials who were proposing its annexation or ‘Protection’. In Addis Ababa she met, and much admired, Senedu Gabru, headmistress of the prestigious Etegue Menen Girls’ School, and one of the first two women members of the Ethiopian Parliament. Her husband, Major Assefa Lemma, had been Sylvia’s energetic guide on her first journey to the country. Visitors to our house were mainly Ethiopian professionals, many of them returnees who had studied in Britain, and foreigners of all kinds interested in Ethiopia, its culture and development.

Going to the Palace

International Institute of Social History

Sylvia with Ethiopian government ministers including Emperor Haile Selassie (far right) after she had moved to Ethiopia in 1956

Sylvia, and the two of us with her, were expected to attend at the Palace on many state occasions, which the Emperor opened punctually. Most of these were gala evening affairs, but the Opening of Parliament, and some other events took place in the morning. At first, because we were neither on the Diplomatic List nor on that of government officials, printed invitations often reached us late or not at all. Etiquette was strict, and Sylvia and I had to wear long dresses and gloves. Richard was at first unsure what dress was expected, and on one occasion, his was conspicuously different from that of the other gentlemen. Furthermore, because, unlike the diplomats, we arrived in a small FIAT car, the bodyguards might relegate our driver to a distant corner of the car park, so that we were sometimes late. All this, at first, created some anxiety before we set out.

Sylvia seldom saw the Emperor, though he made time for her on the few occasions when there was a particular issue she wished to raise with him. In several letters to him, aware of the need for further reforms, she proposed the establishment of producers’ cooperatives, and advocated free trade unions and democracy – with little success. She also had indirect contact with him through his youngest son, Prince Sahle Selassie, an artist by inclination, who had been educated in England, and with several of the Emperor’s granddaughters, all of whom had likewise attended school in Britain.

Sylvia had great admiration for the Emperor: as the country’s pre-war moderniser; as a symbol of Ethiopian resistance to the Fascist invasion; as a leader who had out-manoeuvred British attempts to dominate the country – and as a unifying force. She saw him, in a sense, as a benevolent ruler in the context of Ethiopian monarchy. She felt that Haile Selassie could carry the country forward. Though not blind to the deficiencies of his Government, she was reluctant to join in the criticism by other foreigners, having, as she said, experienced so much inefficiency in the East End, under a longer established bureaucracy.

However, it is clear with hindsight that she, like so many other observers, friendly or hostile, was unaware of changing Ethiopian realities. She had no inkling that only three months after her death there would be a coup against the Emperor, staged by his trusted bodyguard, followed fourteen or so years later, by a major famine, a Revolution, an invasion from Somalia, and civil war. It would have pained her to know that Eritrea, which she had been happy to see federated to Ethiopia, had broken off from it.

Sylvia's Funeral

Ethiopia Observer, 1961, Vol. V no.1, courtesy of the Library at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst

Emperor Haile Selassie (left) lays flowers on Sylvia’s grave at her funeral, 27 September 1960

In the Summer – the rainy season – of 1960 Sylvia had not been feeling well, but in the latter part of September, as the skies cleared, her health seemed to improve and we proposed taking her with us for a much-needed holiday week-end at one of the Rift Valley lakes. At the last moment, however, she changed her mind, as she wanted to finish some work. On the evening before our return she had a massive heart attack and lost consciousness. She was visited by Princess Tenagne and Dr Catherine Nicholson of the Princess Tsehai Hospital, and died in the afternoon of the next day, shortly before we arrived. 

The funeral took place on 27 September, the Feast of Meskel, or Finding of the True Cross – an important day in the Ethiopian Christian calendar, and the day, two years later, when her first grandchild, Alula, was born. A long cortege of cars accompanied the hearse as it slowly wound its way from our house to the country’s principal cathedral, Selassie, i.e. Holy Trinity. Although Sylvia was not a believer, she was given the Christian name of Wallata Kristos, or Daughter of Christ, and was accorded an Ethiopian Christian Orthodox burial service, perhaps through the intervention of the Emperor. She was interred in front of the Church, in the area designated for patriots of the Ethiopian resistance – the only foreigner so honoured – in the presence of the Emperor, the Patriarch and a large number of mourners. The funeral address was delivered by Princess Tenagne’s husband, Andargachew Massai, who, as Ethiopian Consul in Jibuti, had been one of her newspaper’s sources of information during the Italian occupation. The gravestone took the form of an open book below the inscription bearing her birth and death dates, with seating on either side. Shortly after the funeral Richard and I took over the editorship of Ethiopia Observer, making it a quarterly and dedicating the first issue to Sylvia’s activities and aspirations.

In her lifetime Sylvia was admired and appreciated, both by the Ethiopian Government and by many ordinary citizens. It was significant that, when it came to founding Ethiopia’s post-Liberation press, one of the foremost newspapers was named Addis Zaman – the Amharic for 'New Times' – a reference to the New Times & Ethiopia News.

Not long after the Liberation of the country in 1941, the Ethiopian Government recognised Sylvia’s services by naming a street in Addis Ababa after her. During her second visit, she was awarded the Queen of Sheba Medal, created to honour women, as well as the Ethiopian Patriots medal. Hers was noteworthy in that it embodied five palms – one for each of the five years of her struggle during the Fascist occupation.

An Ethiopian Life

In seeking to understand Sylvia Pankhurst one has, I believe, to recognise the underlying unity of her thought and action. There were threads that wove in and out of all her varied activities. Her love affair with Ethiopia, the last of her great enthusiasms and struggles, was not, as we have seen, a deviation from her previous interests and activities. Her espousal of the Ethiopian cause followed logically from her deeply-rooted opposition to Fascism. Her sympathy for the underdog, seen in her advocacy of the emancipation of women, her support for the poor of London’s East End, and for Jewish and other victims of Fascism and Nazism, found expression in her opposition to colonialism and racism. In the Ethiopian context, this meant opposition first to Mussolini’s invasion and later to British proposals to curtail Ethiopian independence.

In Ethiopia, as in the East End, and in the Women’s International Matteotti Committee, she operated in two spheres. In the political sphere she fought with her pen – her paramount weapon – for the country’s survival. In the humanitarian sphere, she mobilised supporters to improve the lot of individuals through the Hospital, the Social Service Society, and her letters to the Emperor on the plight of certain African refugees. Seeing someone suffer often impelled her also to act on her own. While most of us drove past the begging arms of the disabled, she would stop, as already mentioned, to take them to hospital.

She had absorbed in her childhood, and especially from her father, a recognition of the importance of devoting ones whole life to the public good. Many Ethiopians, like earlier beneficiaries of her work, admired her for this attitude to life. In Ethiopia, as in England, not all her endeavours succeeded, but nothing deterred her from carrying on. I leave the last word to Ethiopian students when she visited the Jimma Agricultural Secondary School. They presented her with a plaster medallion bearing the single word 'OTHERS'. 

Rita Pankhurst was an academic librarian by profession, and married to the late Dr Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia’s son. Born in Romania but educated in England, she joined Richard (and Sylvia) to live in Ethiopia from 1956. Rita was chief librarian at Haile Selassie I University until 1976, when the couple came back to London for a period. Then as chief librarian for what is now the London Metropolitan University, she helped acquire the Fawcett Library for them (which became the Women’s Library and is now with LSE) and worked there until she and Richard moved back to Ethiopia in 1987 where she remained active in the worlds of librarianship and Ethiopian studies.

Rita Pankhurst 
V. Irene Cockroft, 
Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee, London, 2010

Rita died in Addis Ababa on 30 May 2019. The funeral was held on 4 June in Holy Trinity Cathedral where Rita’s late husband also is buried and where her mother-in-law Sylvia had been accorded a state funeral attended by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1960.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Honorary Ethiopian

By Helen Pankhurst

Helen Pankhurst uncovers her grandmother Sylvia’s role in the fight for Ethiopian Independence, and reveals a lifelong love for the fascinating country that became her home.

The family lives in that same house today, and Helen is in Addis Ababa to meet some of the few locals still alive who knew Sylvia. She discovers Sylvia’s legacy in Ethiopia - she was the first non-Ethiopian to be granted a state funeral, as well as having a street and café named after her.

Helen spends time with her mother, Rita, who remembers Sylvia as an energetic woman, as committed to the causes she was fighting for in her 70s as she was to the suffragette cause and Communist activity that most people in the UK remember her for.

A Boom Shakalaka production for
BBC Radio 4
Sylvia Pankhurst: Honorary Ethiopian

The Radical and the Emperor

By Dr Richard Pankhurst

BBC World Service, broadcast 4 May 1999 and BBC R4, 13 December 2006

In this BBC Radio 4 documentary, Sylvia’s son, Dr Richard Pankhurst, who accompanied his mother to Ethiopia in 1956 and continued to live there until his death in 2017, recounts the story of his mother’s involvement with Haile Selassie, and talks about how her passion influenced his own life-long commitment to Ethiopia.
www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0376lwm

Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete 
(Master’s student in Politics and Communication at LSE)
Ethiopian Reminiscences - Rita and Richard Pankhurst

Tsehai Films, uploaded 2013

This film provides a unique view of travel within Ethiopia, seemingly ceaseless work and, most important to Rita and Richard, innumerable deep and life-long friendships.
vimeo.com/tsehaifilms

In 1958 the Duchess of Gloucester visited the Hospital as part of a Royal tour of Ethiopia. The visit was filmed by British Pathé and shows Sylvia was part of the welcoming committee. She can be seen 1 minute into the film wearing a dark outfit and immaculate white gloves as was the correct formal dress for this period.

World Peace and the Stone Bomb

Sylvia Pankhurst wrote, ‘There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars. The purpose of the monument was to create a lasting reproach to those whose morality was untouched, whose consciences were unmoved and whose emotions were unaffected.’ 

The Stone Bomb and Sculptor Eric Bedfield

BY PATRICK WRIGHT
(Originally published in the London Review of Books 23.8.2001)

Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre

The Anti Air War Memorial, 587 High Road, Woodford Green, Essex IG8 0RD

East Face

TO THOSE WHO IN 1932 / UPHELD THE RIGHT TO / USE BOMBING AEROPLANES 

South Face

THIS MONUMENT/ IS RAISED AS A / PROTEST AGAINST / WAR IN THE AIR

West Face

THE SITE OF THIS MONUMENT IS / THE PROPERTY OF / SYLVIA PANKHURST / DESIGN AND WORK BY / ERIC BENFIELD

North Face

ORIGINALLY / UNVEILED BY / R. ZAPHIRO / SECRETARY OF THE / IMPERIAL ETHIOPIAN / LEGATION LONDON / SUPPORTED BY / JAMES RANGER / E.J.A. WEBSTER / J. DAVEY. / SYLVIA PANKHURST / OCTOBER 20TH 1935.

The Anti Air War Memorial in Woodford Green was first erected by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1935 and still stands today almost hidden under trees, on a grass verge now outside the gated luxury apartments of Highbeam House.

 

Woodford Green, Essex, in the London Borough of Redbridge, is not the easiest place in which to seek out a largely forgotten work of public sculpture. Driving north-east out of London, one can hardly miss the huge bronze figure of the constituency’s most famous MP, Sir Winston Churchill. 

Half a mile further on, however, it takes an act of faith to stop your car somewhere off the roaring Woodford High Road and make your way along an ankle-breaking grass verge shaded by chestnuts and overgrown hedges. Yet a modest public monument is to be found there crowded out by shrubs, wind-gusted litter and even a red plastic bucket, presumably kept in this little visited place by a local resident who has yet to acquire a proper garden shed. Surrounded by iron railings, its plinth rises up to form a pyramid on which a stone bomb is mounted as if falling vertically from the air – the nose of the bomb set in the apex of the pyramid. The bomb is a small, harmless-looking object, no more than eighteen inches long, with weathered fins. It was, however, notorious in its time.

On 9 May 1936 the inauguration of this peculiar monument was announced in a Woodford-based publication entitled New Times and Ethiopia News. ‘In these days of ever threatening war, the necessity of effective and ceaseless opposition cannot be over-emphasised,’ wrote the Countess of Warwick (a former mistress of Edward VII): ‘The powers of Science have given aerial war a capacity of devastation and destruction without parallel in the history of mankind’. It was important, she continued, that people were ‘made more fully alive to this danger’ and, with this aim in mind, it was intended to ‘erect a model in stone of an aerial torpedo bomb’. The monument would be the first of its kind.

London School of Economics Library

A sketch for the design of Benfield’s sculpture which was slightly different from the finished result. Published by Sylvia Pankhurst in New Times & Ethiopia News, 9 May 1936

Between Epping Forest and Ethiopia

By this time, the Anti Air War Memorial had already been through the first phase of its existence. It had been raised the previous year, on 20 October 1935, as ‘a protest against war in the air’, on land owned by the socialist feminist Sylvia Pankhurst. Together with her Italian companion, Silvio Corio, she was then living on the High Road in a ramshackle building called Red Cottage, which served as her campaign headquarters and the editorial office of the New Times and Ethiopia News, while also doubling as a café and roadhouse (‘On the way to Epping Forest’) offering teas, lunches and suppers to passing travellers and excursionists.

Advertisement in the Workers’ Dreadnought, March 1924
London School of Economics Library

Red Cottage, Woodford Green - Sylvia’s cafe and home from 1924 to 1928.

During the First World War, Pankhurst had witnessed the first Zeppelin raids on London. In 1932, she had deplored Britain’s bombing of rebels in Burma and north-west India. In October 1935, she was further outraged by Mussolini’s assault on Ethiopia, the only part of Africa that remained independent and had joined the League of Nations. At the Memorial’s first unveiling in October 1935 by a group that included Pankhurst and Zaphiro, the secretary of the Imperial Ethiopian Legation, the monument stood prominently outside Red Cottage along with a carved inscription dedicating it ironically to politicians who, at the World Disarmament Conference opened in Geneva in February 1932, ‘upheld the right to use bombing planes’.

The Stone Bomb and Sculptor Eric Bedfield

The Anti Air War Memorial was sculpted by a man named Eric Benfield. In some descriptions of the stone bomb, he is identified only as a ‘Modernist’, though even that brief label is rather misleading. Benfield had actually started out as a quarrier and stone-worker at Worth Matravers, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. By the late 1920s, the stone trade was dying, squeezed by the war-sped advance of concrete, and Benfield, like other Purbeck quarries, was reduced to hacking out birdbaths or stone squirrels and owls for suburban gardens and the tourist trade. Dissatisfied, he branched out to produce less conventional works, including a little man ‘fully pleased with his masculinity’, and leering female figures that irked summer visitors who knew what a lady should look like, with or without her clothes.

In Benfield’s account, the stone bomb was a response to the fact that, in 1934, the year after Hitler’s accession to power, a section of the press was ‘making much of certain politicians who seemed to be boasting that they, and they alone, had prevented the abolition of bombing planes’, proposed by Germany at the League of Nations Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932. 

The monument was treated as a provocation by fascist sympathisers. It was smeared with creosote on its very first night, and shortly afterwards it was stolen (Woodford Times, 1 November 1935). Benfield promptly set about making a new one, and the publicity caused by the despoilers ensured that the second unveiling, which took place on Sunday 21 1936 June achieved much greater interest than the first. Ethiopia was represented once again, but this time there were also representatives from Germany, France, Hungary, Austria and British Guyana.

Respected during the post-war decades by local Quakers who recognised it as ‘an ironic point of light’ (in the poet W.H. Auden’s phrase), the monument rallied anti-nuclear interest in the 1980s led by the local group Wanstead and Woodford Women for Peace (WWWP). An annual Peace Picnic was held there, evoking the spirit of Greenham Common and ornamented by the white poppies of the Peace Pledge Union. Thanks to the initiative of Sylvia Ayling, a local resident and secretary of the WWWP, it was declared an immovable Grade II listed structure. It has survived at least one subsequent attack.

During its lifetime the sculpture has been known variously as a monument or a memorial and has been called the ‘Stone Bomb’, the ‘Anti-Air Warfare Monument’, the ‘Anti-Abyssinian War Monument’ or the ‘Sylvia Pankhurst Peace Monument’. After Sylvia sold the Red Cottage in 1954, the monument was incorporated into the front garden of the new bungalow that was built on the site.

In November 1996 a vandal, who is considered more likely to have emanated from the pub opposite than from the dens of Essex fascism, carried it off and lobbed it into Epping Forest, whence it was recovered, sandblasted (perhaps a little vigorously), and restored (thanks to contributions by Redbridge Council, Heritage of London Trust and Sylvia’s son, Dr Richard Pankhurst), this time as ‘heritage’, to its shady recess in a suburb now more threatened by acid rain. In October 2014, the monument was officially renamed the Anti Air War Memorial and now features a new interpretation plaque added by a local group, the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust. The Trust organised the third unveiling of the memorial which now finds itself outside a complex of luxurious flats called Highbeam House.

Eric Benfield is almost completely forgotten. Convinced that ‘there is a field of endeavour to be worked in political sculpture which no one else yet seemed to have thought out,’ he continued ‘protesting in stone’ intermittently throughout the 1930s. Recalling his monument during the Second World War, he wrote:

'(T)here was a strong Pacifist flavour about the unveilings; it was Anti-War, Anti-Bombing, Pacifist or what you will. Yet I knew that there had not been one such urge in its first stirrings in my mind or in its execution. According to a dictionary, to pacify means to soothe, to calm – anything rather than to fight. But I had no intention of soothing or calming anyone; it was my way to fight.'

Prof. PATRICK WRIGHT is a writer and broadcaster with a particular interest in Eric Benfield, sculptor of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Anti Air War Monument’ of 1936. Patrick is author of a number of books including Tank: the Progress of a Monstrous War Machine, and Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War. Patrick Wright is a Professor of Literature and Visual & Material Culture at King’s College London.

The Unveiling of the Stone Bomb 1935

INTERVIEW WITH COUNCILLOR
GEORGE MILES

This is an excerpt from an interview with the late Cllr George Miles, who was present at the original unveiling of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Anti Air War Memorial in Woodford on 20 October 1935. The interview was recorded in 1990 and is reproduced here courtesy of the Essex Record Office Sound Archive. 

George Miles was born in Woolwich in 1909, and died in Essex in the 1990s. Having started out as a young Conservative in his youth in the 1920s when Churchill was elected to the Woodford constituency, George Miles had converted to Communism before the Second World War. After a busy career as a party activist (including a jail sentence in May 1937 for insulting the Royal Family), Miles left the Communists in 1956 and joined the Labour Party, eventually becoming a County Councillor for Essex. 

“[At the time I was in Woodford], Sylvia Pankhurst lived there, in this big house on the corner of a road off Snakes Lane. She lived with her common-law husband, an Italian anti-fascist [Silvio Corrio]. He was on the run from Mussolini. In the same way that Mussolini had put Gramsci in prison and killed Matteotti, he would have done this bloke in, undoubtedly!

Sylvia Pankhurst was interested in the League of Nations. When I started canvassing for that, I got to know her and she was interested and prepared to do something.

In addition to that house [West Dene, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford], she had a cottage at Woodford Wells, right opposite the Horse and Well. In the garden there, facing the bus stop on a very prominent site, she had somebody make a concrete plinth with a bomb on the top of it. She dedicated this to Lord Londonderry, because at that time he was, I think, the Minister for Air. He had made a speech in the House of Commons, where he said he had had great difficulty in preserving the bombing plane for posterity – almost apologising for it. 

Of course she took this up, and had this carved on it. There was going to be a great opening. She had some clerics down; I think she had a bloke from Thaxted but I can’t remember exactly. [This may well have been the person known as the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted: the Christian Socialist, Conrad Noel. – Ed] 

Among the people who came to jeer was one of the daughters of Lord Londonderry. She had with her a girl named Lettie who I managed to talk to for about five or ten minutes. She was quite easy to talk to. That was the girl who I eventually married in 1945, when I came out of the Army. By that time Lettie had changed her politics! Her brother, Major Hicks-Beech, was the Conservative MP for Cheltenham. Her name was Lettie Hicks-Beech; they were a Gloucestershire family who married in and out of the aristocracy. She was working, if you please, as a shop steward in an electrical factory, on behalf of the Communist Party, and she was decorated with the Communist Party's badge for 'party build-up' because she'd recruited more than 50 people. So I met her again after the War. 

To get back to Sylvia: she had an inauguration event there for her new monument, and made a demonstration, and I got to know her a bit more. I used to go round to her house. She had this little boy who was her son by the Italian anti-fascist. That little boy is now a professor in Addis Ababa University: his name is Dr Richard Pankhurst. 

Of course, Sylvia was a smasher, she was. She was a real one-hundred-per-cent woman who knew everything and knew what she wanted to do – and who could be relied upon, one hundred per cent!”

Keeping the
Flame Going: 
The Stone Bomb In Recent Years

BY SYLVIA AYLING, LOCAL HISTORIAN IN WOODFORD, ESSEX

Courtesy of Sylvia Ayling / Redbridge Heritage Centre

Sylvia Ayling (left) and Linda Perham, Mayor of Redbridge, at an event at the Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of VE Day (and Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday), 5 May 1995

During the Cold War years, fraught with anxiety for those who feared the ever-escalating threat of nuclear attacks, the stone torpedo bomb atop Sylvia Pankhurst’s Anti Air War Memorial symbolised the likely fate of civilian populations everywhere. Yet this monument had never attracted significant national media attention, even at its original unveiling in 1935.

To those who took the possibility of annihilation of life on earth seriously, Sylvia’s monument deserved more than passing attention. So in the 1980’s I applied to get it listed first of all by the London Borough of Redbridge as part of its Heritage Trail leaflet, and then by the Imperial War Museum. Both aims were achieved, and it was also included in the Imperial War Museum’s National Inventory along with other war memorials. 

I then set about organising a number of public events in the 1980’s and 1990’s to celebrate the monument and draw public attention to it. Speakers and participants included Sylvia’s son Dr Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia’s daughter-in-law Rita Pankhurst. To draw attention to Sylvia’s work for Peace before and after the Great War I gave talks, arranged a small exhibition and organised a series of walks, highlighting that the possibility of nuclear warfare threatened to undermine democracy. This was part of the activities of the group Wanstead and Woodford Women for Peace whose archive is now at Redbridge Heritage Centre.

For the monument’s fiftieth anniversary in 1985, a street march, with a brass band, was led from the front by a large patchwork Peace banner made for display at the woman’s peace camp at Greenham Common, the airbase where nuclear missiles were sited. A Greenham woman, Maggie Freake, unveiled the monument for a third time, children festooning it with paper cranes in remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jennifer Taylor, the local artist who painted the portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst that hangs in the Mayor’s Parlour of Redbridge Town Hall, made a black and white banner, which was taken to the monument in memory of the victims of the atomic bombs dropped in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. The grand finale included the New Esperance morris dancers (the original team had danced for the suffragettes), and a choir singing the suffragette anthem, March of the Women, which its composer, Ethel Smyth, had conducted from her Holloway jail cell with a toothbrush. 

While in the meantime more innocent lives have been lost as a result of air bombs in the Gulf and elsewhere, this monument remains what W.H. Auden, in his poem ‘September, 1939’, has called one of those ‘ironic points of light, that flash out, wherever the just exchange their messages.’

In Carlton TV’s four-minute programme ‘Your Shout’ in 1995, I explained about the monument’s existence, and pointed out that although Woodford boasts a bronze statue to Winston Churchill, all we have to mark Sylvia Pankhurst’s residency of 32 years is the Anti Air War Memorial. But thanks to Linda Perham, then Mayor of the London Borough of Redbridge, we now have a wooden sign marking Pankhurst Green near Sylvia’s house in Charteris Road (unveiled in May 1995), and Dr Pankhurst funded a small plaque a year later on Tamar Square flats which marks where her house, West Dene, once stood. Redbridge Heritage Centre hold a Book of Remembrance that I presented at the Monument on Miss Pankhurst’s birthdate, 5th May 1995, previously marked for some years by a birthday party to celebrate her life and work. With the more recent wonderful work by Susan Homewood of the (Woodford-based) Sylvia Pankhurst Trust from 2007 to 2019, it is good to know now that there are other carriers of the flame that shows no sign of losing its eternal glow.
 
As for the monument: it has survived kidnap by vandals in November 1996, who removed it from its plinth and threw it into Epping Forest near the Woodford New Road, from whence it was rescued by police, stored in the cellar of Redbridge Town Hall, and restored by having its broken fins reconstructed, returned to its plinth with a new metal name plaque, and the whole sandblasted, costs borne by Heritage of London Trust, Dr Richard Pankhurst, and the London Borough of Redbridge. 

The latest episode in its saga was the demolition of the row of houses that stand behind it, in favour of a new block of flats. However, after a campaign led by Susan Homewood of the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust, the memorial was protected with the support of Galliard Homes, officially renamed as the Anti Air War Memorial and a new interpretation plaque was added for its’ unveiling on World Disarmament Day, 24 October 2014, in the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Although sheltered as it is by an avenue of increasingly luxuriant chestnut trees and its confrontational stand perhaps overlooked in an obscure setting, its unique character is a reminder of the fame of its only begetter.

SYLVIA AYLING is a peace campaigner who over the past thirty years has taken measures to see Sylvia Pankhurst appropriately remembered in Woodford, Essex, which had been Sylvia Pankhurst’s home and the hub of her campaigning activity from 1924 until 1956. 

Unveiling of the Anti War Memorial, 24 October 2014 

Courtesy of Grant Silverman

Guests of honour at the unveiling of the Anti Air War Memorial, 24 October 2014 
(L-R) Iain Duncan Smith MP, Susan Homewood (Sylvia Pankhurst Trust), Sylvia Ayling (local historian), Linda Perham (former Mayor of Redbridge), Bruce Kent (CND peace campaigner)

Around 1939, Sylvia Pankhurst’s former residence Red Cottage was pulled down and in 1953 Sylvia sold the site although the Anti Air Warfare Memorial in front of the Cottage was protected by a covenant. A new bungalow was erected in 1954 but these and neighbouring houses were in turn demolished in 2009 and replaced by luxury flats.

Thanks to the hard work of Susan Homewood of the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust and working with the new owner of the site, Galliard Homes and with the blessing of Sylvia’s son, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, the memorial was refurbished and officially renamed as ‘The Anti Air War Memorial’. A new interpretation plaque was unveiled on World Disarmament Day, 24 October 2014 in the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. 

In front of many guests, the official unveiling was performed by Bruce Kent, CND peace campaigner and Iain Duncan Smith the local Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green who noted that “In a sense, all war memorials are peace memorials as they remind us of the immense human cost of war”. The historian Katherine Connelly who wrote one of the latest biographies of Sylvia Pankhurst gave a talk while Redbridge Museum held a display.

It is hoped Sylvia’s unique memorial will be protected for many years to come continue to inspire future generations to work for international peace.

Interview with Councillor George Miles

Essex Record Office

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