This article explores Sylvia Pankhurst’s life in Woodford, Essex, now in the London Borough of Redbridge, where Sylvia lived between 1924 and 1956.
GERARD GREENE, REDBRIDGE MUSEUM & HERITAGE CENTRE MANAGER
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p758
Vine Cottage (later Red Cottage), 126 High Road, Woodford Wells, about 1900-10
This article is intended to provide background detail of Sylvia’s life in Woodford and highlight the sources used in biographies of her. As such it is intended to be read as a companion piece to the excellent accounts offered by David Mitchell in The Fighting Pankhursts (1967), Shirley Harrison in Sylvia Pankhurst: A Maverick Life (2003) and Rachel Holmes in Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (2020).
These authors provide various insights into Sylvia’s life in Woodford, while setting this within the wider context of her political activism. Certainly, Sylvia was anything but parochial in her concerns and described herself “a citizen of the world who own no barrier of race or nation.”1 She appears to have been somewhat removed from the daily life of Woodford but given her interests this is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is worth examining the place where she lived for over 30 years.
In summer 1923, Sylvia set up the Red Cottage tea-room in a small, ramshackle, single storey building in Woodford Wells. Originally known as Vine Cottage, it was renamed the ‘Red Cottage’ by Sylvia presumably in homage to her socialist beliefs. This at first seems a bizarre move away from her political activism in the East End but there was a logic to it.
The political and social work that kept her busy during the First World War had come to an end. Her health was poor after serving a 6 month prison sentence in 1921 when her newspaper had virtually incited a mutiny by reporting on discontent on board a Royal Navy battleship. The machinations and factional infighting of Communism coupled with the dictatorial nature of the Soviet Union had disenchanted Sylvia and she was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain that same year.
Woodford represented a fresh start and she bought the Red Cottage in December 1924, living there until 1929. Joining her was her partner, the Italian anarchist Silvio Corio and in December 1927 they had a son, Richard. As an unmarried couple with a child, Sylvia and Silvio shocked many people at the time, particularly in conservative Woodford.
Image reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst and the LSE Library from Ethiopian Observer magazine, vol. V, no.1, 1961
‘West Dene’, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford, 1956
In 1929 the family left the Red Cottage and moved to a large, rambling Victorian house called ‘West Dene’, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford. Here, Sylvia continued her political career until she moved to Ethiopia in July 1956 where she spent the remainder of her life until she died in 1960.
It’s not known exactly how well Sylvia knew Woodford before moving to the Red Cottage in 1924. At this time Woodford was changing from a collection of four rural Essex villages on the edge of Epping Forest into a desirable London suburb.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p755
Horse and Well public house, Woodford Wells, about 1910
London Transport Museum
Woodford for Epping Forest by Motor Bus, advertisement, 1921
The Red Cottage was located in Woodford Wells on the northern edge of the district. Just opposite the Cottage was the Horse and Well public house and behind this was the Monkhams estate with its middle- and upper-class Edwardian housing. The future Prime Minister Clement Atlee lived on the estate in the 1920s and by coincidence Woodford was represented by another future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who was elected MP for Epping (which included Woodford) in October 1924.
Just to the south was Woodford Green based around the huge village green fringed with pretty, white weather-boarded houses and substantial 18th and 19th century villas built by affluent business and professional men. To the east was Woodford station, close to where Sylvia was to move in 1929, while the long High Road ran down to South Woodford with its railway station, shops and lower-middle-class housing.
Sylvia’s move from the East End to this most conservative of districts may seem strange for a radical socialist, particularly when her first action was to open a quaint tea-room catering to Epping Forest day-trippers. While Woodford marked a clear break with her former life in some ways, she proceeded to continue her activism through a prolific writing career on a dizzying variety of subjects. As a new mother aged 45 years old, she raised her son, Richard, in Woodford. In 1935 she discovered what was to be her passion for the remainder of her life, namely the cause of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). As such, this period in Woodford is as important as her previous incarnations as an artist, a suffragette or a communist. All are integral aspects of Sylvia’s life and are worthy of attention.
It’s not known how she found the Red Cottage or why she moved to Woodford but there are several possibilities. In an interview with the Sunday Chronicle of 15 April 1928, Sylvia summed up the attraction of Woodford:
“After nearly twenty years of very strenuous work and agitation, some thirteen of which had been mainly spent in the East End of London, I craved for the quietude of green woods and open skies and long vistas of solitude away from the turmoil of political life. To the country I retired for a space, and the desire for simple homely affection and family life, which lies deep in all of us, grew every day more urgent…”
Sylvia’s son, Richard, noted that: ‘Like many Eastenders they settled in more or less the nearest stretch of countryside beyond it – in Woodford Green, Essex.’2 Sylvia could easily have travelled from the East End by catching an LNER train from Bow Road to Stratford and then changing onto the line that went to George Lane (South Woodford) and Woodford stations.
One biographer suggests that it was Sylvia's friend George Lansbury, the social campaigner, journalist and MP for Bow and Bromley (in the East End) who had first introduced Sylvia to Epping Forest.3 Lansbury and his family lived in Bow and supported the suffragette cause and Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes.
Interestingly by the time of the 1901 census, George Lansbury was living at Double House, Aldborough Hatch, then a very rural part of Ilford, Essex (now also in the London Borough of Redbridge). What brought George, his wife Bessie (Elizabeth) and their large family of ten children from the East End to Aldborough Hatch is unclear. He is listed as a Timber Merchant which was his business at 101-103 St Stephen’s Road, Bow. George had married into the business as his father-in-law had run a sawmill in the area. The move to Aldborough Hatch appears relatively short-lived as the Lansbury family were back in Bow by the time of the 1911 census. Presumably George wanted to be closer to his political battleground which he served as Member of Parliament from December 1910.
A strong connection to Woodford is George Lansbury’s wife’s brother, William Isaac Brine, who lived at several locations in South Woodford and Salway Hill, Woodford Green, from at least 1908 to 1917.4 It’s possible that Sylvia visited William on at least one occasion when she was on the run from the police. On 21 July 1913 Sylvia spoke at Bromley-By-Bow Town Hall. At this stage of the suffragette campaign Sylvia was wanted by the authorities. When the police tried to arrest her, Sylvia’s supporters used a water hose against them while she escaped and hid in a nearby disused stable. At 4am the next morning Sylvia hid herself in a horse-driven cart piled with wood from George Lanbury’s timber yard.
In her memoir of the suffragette campaign Sylvia recounted how George’s sons, Willie, and Edgar Lansbury, drove the cart out of East London: ‘At last, after hours it seemed, the slow jogging horses ended their journey at Woodford. The man unloaded the wood sacks, one by one, carried them into the house on his back, one by one and carried me too in my turn. I found myself in the house of the Lansburys’ cousin, Mrs Brine’.5
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p1108
High Road (close to Salway Hill), looking towards South Woodford, 1920
Fullers Avenue is the second turning on the right.
There is a puzzle here, however. There is a good possibility that the ‘Mrs Brine’ mentioned is Mrs Florence Brine, the wife of William Brine, who was the brother of George’s wife Bessie (née Brine). Sylvia was good friends with Bessie. In 1912, Bessie’s sister Florence and her husband William were living at a newly built house called ‘Brinsdale’, Fullers Avenue, Woodford Green (was ‘Brinsdale’ derived from their surname?). However, Florence would be an in-law rather than a cousin of the Lansbury’s (as Sylvia wrote) unless there is some unknown family connection.
The other option for ‘Mrs Brine’ could be George Lansbury’s mother-in-law, Mrs Sarah Brine, who at the time of the 1911 census was living in a house called ‘Carisbrooke’, Chelmsford Road, South Woodford. But as Mrs Sarah Brine was Willie and Edgar Lansburys’ grandmother rather than cousin it would seem more likely that Sylvia stayed with Florence and William Brine during her escape from the police in 1913.
There are other connections to Epping Forest. Sylvia had visited an unknown part of the Forest for an East London Federation of Suffragettes picnic on Sunday 26 July 1914 before speaking that evening to Essex agricultural labourers on strike at the village of Helions Bumpstead on the border of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.6
There is at least one poem among the many that Sylvia wrote which relates to Epping Forest and shows her love of the area. ‘A Cycle of Summer Waywardness by Epping Forest’ was written while living at The Red Cottage.7 The first poem in this sequence is entitled ‘Summer’s Pause’. The poem reflects on the melancholy of a wet summer’s day and its effects on the flora of the Forest:
Dull-hued already the horse-chestnut tree.
Their fair white blossoms scattered to the breeze
Their glossy fruit in green sheaf hidden yet.
Sad in their foliage in the summer wet.
Another poem called ‘Breath of Autumn’ extols the beauty of autumn on the natural world while another poem called ‘Out of the Town’ may perhaps sum up the joy of leaving behind the City for a visit to Woodford.8
Frithmans / Federation House, South Woodford
Redbridge Heritage Centre p19905
Frithmans, George Lane, South Woodford, 1920s
Two local history books state that Sylvia lived in a large Georgian house called Frithmans which stood on the south side of George Lane, South Woodford. Unfortunately, no evidence to substantiate this has come to light and Sylvia never mentioned the house in any of her writings. However, although it seems unlikely that she ever lived at Frithmans, there is nonetheless a very intriguing and unlikely link between Sylvia and the house.
The link to Frithmans is made by Reg Fowkes in Woodford Then & Now (1981) in which he states Sylvia lived there, while in Woodford: Village to Suburb (1982, republished 2007), Margery Smith, history teacher at Woodford County High School and Honorary Secretary of Woodford Historical Society from 1938, wrote: ‘about 1920… the house was taken by Sylvia Pankhurst for her work among refugee children, being known locally at this time as “the creche”. Later Miss Pankhurst moved to a house in Charteris Road, and then to the Red Cottage at Woodford Wells…’ In terms of where Sylvia lived, it was actually the other way around with Sylvia moving first to Red Cottage and then to Charteris Road. It is not known what information these historians based their assertions on.
Perhaps the best evidence for the history of Frithmans comes from a Woodford Times newspaper article printed on 25 November 1932, only a year after the house had been demolished.9 The article (based on information provided by the local historian Charles Hall Crouch) states that Frithmans was used to house Belgian refugees during the First World War and was then known as ‘Federation House’. Why it was called this is not explained. The next tenant was the owner of the adjacent South Woodford Cinema, before the house was demolished in two phases in about 1925 and 1931. Sylvia is not mentioned in the article which is surprising if she had lived at Frithmans.
However, while Frithmans may not have been her home, Sylvia did have a link to the house.
On 3 July 1920, the Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper10 (right) carried an advert for a ‘Garden Party and Musical At-Home at Federation House, George Lane, South Woodford – Sunday July 11th 3 to 10pm – Concert and Speeches – Tickets One Shilling – Refreshments at Moderate Prices’. Since the Woodford Times had stated that Frithmans was called Federation House we can assume that the event was held at Frithmans.
This innocuous-sounding social event was likely to have been a fund-raiser for the Communist Party - British Section of the Third International, the radical group with which Sylvia was connected. The Workers’ Dreadnought had originally been The Woman’s Dreadnought which was started by Sylvia when leading the East London Federation of Suffragettes in Bow. Sylvia changed the paper’s name in 1917 to reflect her socialist and communist views.
Frithmans / Federation House in well-to-do and conservative Woodford seems a very unlikely venue for a Communist social event. Was the house rented just for this event or a longer period of time? Did Sylvia organise it or was there a local Communist sympathiser in Woodford? The Woodford Times doesn’t mention Frithmans’ part in the Communist revolution so it remains a mystery for now.
1 Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘What would I wish to be known and thought of me when I am gone‘, about 1936, Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/158, p24
2 Richard Pankhurst, Artist and Crusader (1979), p185
3 Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Maverick Life (2004), p216, no source is cited
4 Kelly’s Directory of Woodford; 1911 Census
5 Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (1931), p483
6 Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, p589
7 Sylvia Pankhurst, Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/177
8 Sylvia Pankhurst, Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/100/page 98
9 Woodford Times, 25 November 1932, Redbridge Heritage Centre
10 The Woman’s Dreadnought and the Workers’ Dreadnought can be viewed online at the LSE Library; the Woodford Times did not appear to advertise or report the garden party
1924 - 1929
The first mention of the Red Cottage appears in the 21 July 1923 edition of the Workers’ Dreadnought, the newspaper that Sylvia edited when still living in Bow, in London’s East End. A small advertisement on the back-page stated:
Garden Party - The Red Cottage - Woodford Wells - (Opposite Horse and Well Hotel, Loughton High Road) - Sunday July 22nd, 2pm to 10pm - Tea and music in the garden 1/-
Women’s Library, LSE
Advertisement for the Red Cottage, Worker’s Dreadnought, 5 April 1924
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p758
Vine Cottage, about 1900-10
The Red Cottage was originally called Vine Cottage and consisted of a weather-boarded, detached building split into a pair of cottages. In the 1901 and 1911 census it was listed as numbers 1 and 2 Vine Cottage and located on 126 and 128 High Road, Woodford Wells (renumbered as 148-150 High Road by 1938 and later as 587 High Road). Vine Cottage stood next to large Victorian houses and a police station and was opposite The Horse and Well inn. Woodford Wells was still a quiet, semi-rural village when Sylvia moved there.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre (R. Fowkes Coll.)
Vine Cottage (right), 1902 – Sylvia lived in No.1, on the left-hand side of the cottage
According to Land Registry records, on 4 June 1920 the freehold of Vine Cottage was purchased by Demetrius Sophocles Constantinidi, William Frederick Davies and Demetrius John Cassavetti.1 Searching the 1911 census, the first man is possibly a stock broker; the second is possibly a 29 year old solicitor who was visiting to ‘The Craig’, a house on Monkhams Drive, Woodford Green although this may not be him; the third appears to be a Greek academic.
On 5 December 1924, Sylvia purchased Vine Cottage, 126 High Road, from its owners. This suggests Sylvia must first have been renting Vine Cottage, presumably from summer 1923 when the first advert for it appeared in the Workers’ Dreadnought. In the Electoral Register of 1924 Sylvia is still residing at 400 Old Ford Road, Bow, in the East End but by the 1925 Register her address is the Red Cottage. Her wealthy friend, Harry Harben, may have helped her with the purchase price.2 Accounts suggest she was to live there with Norah Smyth, her friend from the East London Federation of Suffragettes, although this appears not to have happened.3
While this is a very likely explanation, the Woodford Times newspaper of 8 October 1926 carried an advertisement for the ‘Old Red Cottage’ which has a more rustic, ‘olde worlde’ charm, perhaps something that appealed more to local Woodfordians than the promise of a socialist revolution.
Nonetheless, even this seemingly innocuous advert carried a hint of Sylvia’s radical nature: ‘Teas, Luncheons and Suppers / salads and vegetarian dishes / Cut flowers from the garden / Gladioli, Chrysathemums etc.’
Vegetarianism was rare in 1920s Britain and was mostly espoused by radical, leftward-leaning individuals who were often portrayed as cranks. The playwright George Bernard Shaw was perhaps the best-known example of the period.5
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
Advertisement for the ‘Old Red Cottage’, Woodford Times,
8 October 1926
The Red Cottage
The original name of the property was ‘Vine Cottage’ but when Sylvia rented No.1 in summer 1923, she renamed it the ‘Red Cottage’, presumably in reference to her socialist beliefs.4
The Workers’ Dreadnought on 11 August 1923 carried two advertisements for the Red Cottage which show its duel function. The first is for a conventional tea-room appealing to daytrippers visiting Epping Forest: ‘The Red Cottage / Woodford Wells / For outings and week ends.’ A separate notice indicates the more radical nature of the enterprise which is in keeping with Sylvia’s political activism: ‘Woodford Wells Discussion Circle, The Red Cottage, High Road, Woodford Wells, Sundays, 5 to 7pm.’
Although there may have been a desire to create a radical meeting place, more prosaically the tea-rooms were a source of income. Despite their middle-class origins, the Pankhurst family had run several shops (albeit unsuccessfully) when Sylvia was a child so the idea of running a business was not unknown to her.
One of the best accounts of the Red Cottage is provided by Annie Barnes and her sister Rose who both worked in the tea-room. They grew up in Stepney where Annie worked in her father’s confectioner shop. Annie was a supporter of Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes and later became a Labour councillor in the 1930s. In an interview with the historian Brian Harrison, Annie remembered how she heard about Sylvia’s move to Woodford Wells:6
“When she left 400 Old Ford Road [East London Federation of Suffragettes / Worker’ Socialist Federation headquarters] …she wrote me and said: ‘I’m in a cottage in Woodford’ and I went along. Two cottages, 300 years old. On the other side, is The Horse and Well public house inn on the edge of the Forest. It’s quite wide, all the main road and buses go through. There was a verge opposite, you get off the bus and there’s a grass verge going up and then it was flat and there were two cottages, empty – no, one had an old lady in it 300 years old, she [Sylvia] took them over. She didn’t disturb the old lady [Mrs Powter, see below], she made do with the one cottage. She decorated it as ‘Ye Olde Red Cottage – Refreshments’, tables outside, coloured shades over them – marvellous!”
Annie’s sister, Rose, went on: “It wasn’t a restaurant, no she had grounds. She had a little cottage…it was rather wild except where she had lettuces and bits and pieces. I remember roses, a proper old-fashioned garden sort of place, you see, lovely it was.
Interviewer: So, you’d sit out and have your tea in the garden?
Anne: Yes, there were table and chairs, umbrellas… [customers would be] young couples going to the Forest in the summer, beautiful it was, crowds of people go by.”
The tea-room sold shop-bought cakes, egg and salad sandwiches made from lettuces grown in the garden by Sylvia’s partner, Silvio Corio. When Anne first met Silvio she actually mistook him for the gardener!
Rose remembered that Sylvia didn’t serve in the tea-room or cook: “She either washed the lettuce or got the cake ready, she never actually came out.” She also purchased cakes and other supplies. The small front room had two or three tables and chairs for customers when it rained. Sylvia wrote in the back room, next to the kitchen and slept in the upstairs bedroom.
The ‘old lady’ living next door that Annie referred to in her interview is likely to be Mrs Elizabeth Powter (aged 67 in 1924) who had lived there with her family from the early 1900s. Elizabeth’s son, William, continued to live there after marrying in 1917 and had three children. His son, Leslie was born in 1921 and recalled: ‘It was an absolute slum. We had a cold water tap and bathed in a tin bath; there was no electricity and a toilet up the garden. Eventually we were given a council house’.7
Mrs Powter grew dahlias to sell to passers-by8 and perhaps inspired by this, Silvio may have planted the gladioli and chrysanthemums which were mentioned in the Woodford Times advert. In the introduction to her memoir, The Suffragette Movement (1931) which she wrote while at the Red Cottage, Sylvia describes life there in romantic detail including her son Richard (born in December 1927), the flowers grown by his father and Sylvia’s partner, Silvio Corio, and the beauty of Epping Forest:
‘As I leave the darkened bungalow where the tranquil child has dropped asleep, and gaze through the oak trees upon the setting sun and the flowers his father has planted mellowing in the soft glory of the departing light, when I muse alone under the old trees of Epping Forest, or watch my young hopeful playing in the short grass, finding the new-old treasures that we as children loved…’
Sylvia’s partner, Silvio Corio, was an Italian anarchist printer and typographer born in 1875. He fled Italy in 1900, first to France and then to London in 1901 where he carried on his political activities. Silvio met Sylvia in 1917 when he joined the editorial board of The Workers’ Dreadnought, the paper of the Workers’ Socialist Federation, edited by Sylvia.
He moved with Sylvia to the Red Cottage, Woodford Wells in 1924 where he continued his writings as well as helping with domestic duties. He was the father of Richard Pankhurst who remembers him as a loving parent. He assisted Sylvia in editing the New Times and Ethiopia News and designed its layout as well as contributing articles under various pseudonyms.9
Silvio Corio, about 1910 – 1920
Silvio was the subject of an amusing and heartfelt poem written by Sylvia about life in Woodford Wells called ‘The Busborn Ballad of the Red Cottage’.10 It is undated but must presumably have been written between 1925 and 1927 before the birth of her son Richard as one line reads: ‘We might have had a little son, we might have had a daughter’. The poem is quoted in full here:
The Busborn Ballad of the Red Cottage
Without offence and loving apologies to the onlie begotter.
To be read with a mild smile.
Red cottage, gaily girt with flowers awaits him, quaint and neat.
Yet thus I pipe my mournful eye, while Silvio roams the street.
He’s in the dark, while welcoming shines the reading lamp’s warm light.
And still I watch and wait my love and weep for him by night.
We might have had a little son, we might have had a daughter.
The only child we have is Jack, the dog who fears the water.
We may have made some grave mistakes, we may have caused some bother.
The only thing we need regret is grief we caused each other.
He grumbles like a surly bear and roars just like a lion,
And if I did not love the man, I’d hit him with an iron.
But I will stroke his scowling brow and kiss his pouting mouth.
Until his humour grows a sort as breezes from the south.
To some he is a devil black, some say the same of me,
It only matters I love him and that he will love me.
And when we’ve slain the devil pride, that only fools believe,
We shall be happier in that cot than others can conceive.
The poem seems more personal, loving, humorous and even flirtatious than anything else Sylvia wrote (of which there were many), most of which were either heavy with social commentary or inspired by nature. The poem clearly shows how much she was in love with Silvio and how happy she was with her new life in Woodford Wells.
Some observers at the time found Silvio a mysterious presence - Annie Barnes thought he was the gardener - but here Sylvia expresses her feelings for him. Perhaps it is no surprise that Richard was born in December 1927 not long after the poem was written. ‘Jack the dog’ is mentioned in a short story entitled ‘Dogland’. Since this mentions Richard (and is on Red Cottage headed notepaper), it must have been written in 1928 or 1929. Sylvia wrote several children’s stories shortly after giving birth and they show another side to Sylvia who was sometimes portrayed as lacking humour.11
Sylvia and Son
British Newspaper Archive
The Leeds Mercury, 10 April 1928 ‘Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, the famous suffragette, nursing her “eugenic” baby boy at her home in Woodford Green. Miss Pankhurst has stated that she “long wanted a child without the ties of marriage.”’
On 7 April 1928, Sylvia announced the birth of her son in a surprisingly sensational way in an interview with an American newspaper which was printed the next day in the Sunday newspapers News of the World, The People, and Reynold’s Illustrated News and appeared in the regional press over the following week.
In its usual understated manner, the News of the World headline screamed: ‘EUGENIC BABY SENSATION: Sylvia Pankhurst’s Amazing Confession’ accompanied by a large portrait of Sylvia cuddling her son Richard.
Sylvia had given birth to Richard on 3 December 1927 in a Hampstead nursing home, paid for by her friends Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Lady Sybil Smith. Although the birth had been announced previously in a more conventional manner in the Daily Herald newspaper of 23 December 1927, the decision to make a more public statement was perhaps driven by the modern feminist notion that ‘the personal is the political’, particularly in issues surrounding motherhood. It’s perhaps no surprise that only two years later Sylvia wrote one of her most impressive books, Save the Mothers, in which she argued for a national maternity service, 18 years before the NHS was conceived.
In the News of the World interview, Sylvia defends her right to be a 45-year-old unmarried mother who was making a positive choice to give birth. Although the idea of a ‘eugenic baby’ sounds alien today (the notion of selective breeding was taken to its ultimate end in the horrors of the Nazi gas chambers), the debate was framed differently in the 1920s. There was a belief among feminists and socialists that access to cheap birth control would free working-class women from the burden of involuntary reproduction and its associated poverty. A ‘eugenic baby’, Sylvia argued, was one that the parents could look after. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that many advocating eugenics were concerned about the ‘unfit’ nature of the working class or even the dilution of the white British race. This was clearly not Sylvia’s belief and the desire to control her own fertility is something that many women around the world continue to grapple with.
The journalist states in the interview: ‘Miss Pankhurst depends for a living to-day upon a little tea-room in Woodford Green, and whimsically declares that in future it will have to assist in the support of the baby as well…Miss Pankhurst talked with a journalist in the garden of the Red Cottage Tea Room. Miss Pankhurst explained that she had been conducting the little tea-room, ‘’but I have another problem now’’, she added, ‘’this boy. The little tea room will enable me to support him’’. She now intends to live in a little hut in the garden behind the tea room for the sake of the baby’s health.’
Institute of International History (IISG) A10-748
Sylvia and Richard Pankhurst, April 1928
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
Advertisement for Kate Fisher & Sibyl Vane photographic studio, Woodford UDC guidebook, 1906
Around the time of the interview, Sylvia, wearing a loose white dress, posed for a formal portrait (above) holding the infant Richard in the studio of Mrs Kate Fisher, High Road Woodford. Mrs Fisher, who signed the portrait, ran an established photographic studio which is listed in the 1915 - 1925 Kelly’s Directories for Woodford.12
In a further interview on 15 April May 1928 with the Sunday Chronicle the reporter wrote: ‘After heavy work and social involvement, Sylvia, in an interview on her lifestyle and attitudes towards relationships and marriage, states:
‘‘’I now desired leisure to study and meditate and to produce literary work of a more permanent character. Moreover, a great fatigue had overcome me. After nearly twenty years of very strenuous work and agitation, some thirteen of which had been mainly spent in the East End of London, I craved for the quietude of green woods and open skies and long vistas of solitude away from the turmoil of political life. To the country I retired for a space, and the desire for simple homely affection and family life, which lies deep in all of us, grew every day more urgent…”’13
This is clearly a romantic evocation of life in rural Woodford Wells, on the edge of Epping Forest.
Sylvia’s pregnancy led to a final irrevocable break with her mother, the former leader of the suffragette movement, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst. Mrs Pankhurst was both conservative and a Conservative and disapproved of both Sylvia’s lifestyle and her radical politics, as did Sylvia’s sister, Christabel. When a heavily pregnant Sylvia turned up at her mother’s house in an apparent attempt at reconciliation, she was rebuffed. Only a few months later, in June 1928, Emmeline was dead. She had at least seen women finally achieving the same voting rights as men in March of the same year. In 1930 a statue to Mrs Pankhurst was unveiled near Parliament and although Sylvia was in the crowd she had not been officially invited.
The Pankhursts’ biographer David Mitchell reports a story that: ‘the father of the young Welsh girl who was serving in the café, horrified at the thought that his daughter was not only working in a Red Cottage but employed by a Scarlet Woman, arrived in haste to snatch her away from such moral contagion…’14
The phrase ‘Scarlet Woman’ meaning a woman who has broken conventional sexual morality was also mentioned in an article written by the historian Brian Harrison for The Times on 25 July 1975 who indicated that this was the opinion of Sylvia’s mother, according to her foster-child Mary Gordon, interviewed by Harrison. The phrase was also used as a headline for a Liverpool Echo article in 1982 about Sylvia’s interview with the News of the World. The fact that Sylvia’s maternity still made news over 50 years later suggests the impact the interview made. The article may also have served another professional motivation. With little income coming into the household, the fee from the American press was welcome. It also helped Sylvia to ‘rebrand’ and supported a platform of new writing projects on feminist subjects.15
Writings at the Red Cottage
Sylvia wrote an eclectic range of books while living at the Red Cottage.
India and the Earthly Paradise was published in Bombay in 1926. She may have developed an interest in India from her artistic hero, Walter Crane, who had visited India in 1907 and written a travel book which featured his drawings. Sylvia’s great friend (and possible romantic partner) Keir Hardie had visited India in 1909 and made his anti-colonial views well known. Silvio Corio converted to Ahmadiyya Islam for a short time in the 1920s and Indian nationalist sentiment was on the rise at this time. Her son Richard remembered: ‘Her study in Woodford [West Dene, Charteris Road] was lined with books on all sides from floor to ceiling was, I recall, full of books on India.’16
The book is wide-ranging and examines history, politics, religion, the role of women and reflects a belief in the utopian value of village life, one which is similar to communism. While lacking personal insight as Sylvia had never been to India and perhaps naïve, it was a sincere attempt to aid the anti-imperial cause.
Perhaps the most surprising book of Sylvia’s career was published in 1927. Delphos or the Future of the International Language is an introduction to Interlingua. Silvio spoke Interlingua, an international language rather like the better-known Esperanto, and Sylvia was convinced that it paved a way to better understanding between people of different nations, something which appealed to her internationalism.
In early 1928, while Sylvia was away from the Red Cottage recovering from the birth of her son, Silvio and a local handyman, Mr Ashman erected a hut in the back garden of Red Cottage. It came in sections and was erected very slowly, Silvio on the floor and the younger Mr Ashman on the roof.17 The plan was for Sylvia to use the hut for writing as she spoke about when interviewed there by the News of the World in April 1928.18 It appears Sylvia borrowed money for the hut from her friend Mrs Pethick-Lawrence but Silvio overspent the budget.19
At the same time, in January 1928 Sylvia made an application to the Corporation of London to pass cables over Epping Forest land, so that the Red Cottage could be connected to the electricity supply.20 This was presumably to make the Cottage more comfortable for the arrival of the infant Richard and possibly to light the new writing hut. The hut later housed an exhibition of anti-war photographs created as part of the second unveiling of the Anti Air War Memorial in June 1936.21
By 1928 Sylvia had a book deal to write The Suffragette Movement with Longman so may have started this when at the Red Cottage.22 In 1929, possibly after the family had moved to Charteris Road, Woodford, Sylvia wrote to her friend Norah Walshe in terms most working mothers with a young child would recognise, with or without a book deadline:
‘I am in despair about my writing. Richard wakes early and keeps me on the go until eleven or so. If I can get him to sleep from then till 1pm it is the best I can hope for frequently – today he work whenever I put him down and unless I put him to sleep in my arms he won’t sleep at all…’23
The book was published in 1931 and starts with what appears to be a romantic description of family life at the Red Cottage with Richard and Silvio and the rustic environs of Woodford Wells:
‘As I leave the darkened bungalow where the tranquil child has dropped asleep, and gaze through the oak trees upon the setting sun and the flowers his father has planted mellowing in the soft glory of the departing light when I muse alone under the old trees of Epping Forest, or watch my young hopeful playing in the short grass, finding the new-old treasures that we as children loved…’24
Sylvia’s next two books, both published in 1930, were probably written at Charteris Road and sum her restless energy at this time. The Poems of Mihail Eminescu was a volume of poems translated from the 19th century romantic Romanian national poet Eminescu. Sylvia had always had an interest in folk art and that of Romania. In 1934, she received an invitation to the unveiling of a statue to Eminescu and the family travelled across Europe, including Nazi Germany. This confirmed her opinion of the dark forces that were threatening peace.
The second book published in 1930 couldn’t have been more different. Save the Mothers was an appeal for a National Maternity Service with better antenatal care and improved training in obstetrics, all of which would reduce the death rate of women in childbirth, which at the time was extremely high. It was of course informed by the birth of her son but used a raft of statistical surveys, empirical medical data, and research to make her case. This pioneering book is in some ways her most impressive and is still relevant today and fed into the debate which eventually led to the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.
A New Red Cottage
In 1929 Sylvia rented a large Victorian house called ‘West Dene’, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford which she later bought in 1933.25 Presumably it was a much more comfortable house in which to raise a small infant.
Despite this move, in May 1929 Sylvia submitted building plans to Woodford Urban District Council for a handsome new, Jacobean-style tea-room and house on the site of Red Cottage.26 Although the plans were approved on 23 May 1929, Sylvia never proceeded with the scheme. Did she intend to have this new Red Cottage built while renting West Dene and then move back?
Apart from the building plan, there is no mention of this proposal in any of Sylvia’s archive, so it is a mystery. Certainly, the new Red Cottage would have been expensive to build and it is hard to conceive how she could have afforded it.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre BP3871
Building Plan for proposed Red Cottage Tea-Room and house, May 1929
Save Knighton Woods
In around February 1930, the nearby Knighton estate was put up for sale. Comprising 100 acres, it had been home to Edward North Buxton, a wealthy conservationist who had led the campaign to save Epping Forest and Hainaut Forest from housing development.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
Knighton, about 1900
Ordnance Survey map, about 1919, showing the location of Red Cottage (bottom) and the Knighton estate
Knighton Woods was just to the north and on the opposite side of the road to the Red Cottage and Sylvia wrote a short article in which she advocated its protection:
Save One of London’s Beauty Spots. A Practical Opportunity for George Lansbury, First Commissioner of Works, to Realise Social Homes
‘Knighton Wood, once a part of Epping Forest, and for many years in the possession of the Buxton Family is to be sold next month in building lots.
Local opinion in Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, the districts closely affected by this question is torn by contests over the destiny of this natural beauty spot. “Save it”, cry some, “as a hunt of birds and nature lovers! Do not let its verdure suffer the sacrilege of the woodman’s axe.”
“The people need houses!” other reply. “Let birds’ nests make way for human habitation. Let house, not for sale, as all most all the vacant houses in the district, but for rent at reasonable cost be erected! This is the crying need of the day!”
Some say: “Let the Council purchase it!” for a park or residential area; others call on the Government to intervene. Some point out that the estate has been open to the public for many years…whether this was merely by courtesy or whether the public really has some rights on the land and some claim to a word at least in its disposal. Was the title to its possession a good one? Or was it filched from the Forest, like so much land thereabout, by those who sold it to the Buxtons? Actually it would be a pity to transform this lovely spot into more streets of desirable villa residencies, erected to sale for retired tradesmen by building speculators. It deserves a more romantic and idealistic destiny.’27
She goes on to argue Knighton should not be sold for speculative house building but saved for Garden Schools and ‘Social Homes’ which are working-class apartments with communal kitchens and laundries.
‘How could it be done? In two ways. By an enterprising millionaire or a Company of enthusiasts, each willing to take shares. By the local authority of the area or by the Government. The sale takes place in February . There is no time to waste. Who will come forward and take the initiative? The occasion furnishes a unique opportunity for the energies of George Lansbury.’
Sylvia had been friends with George Lansbury and his wife when living in the East End. In 1929 Lansbury was in the minority Labour government cabinet as First Commissioner of Works, with responsibilities for historic buildings and monuments, and for the royal parks. In office, Lansbury proved an active minister who did much to improve public recreation facilities. Although Sylvia wasn’t involved in the public campaign, it gained traction and while 60 acres of Knighton were sold for housing development, 40 acres of woodland were returned to Epping Forest at a cost of 10,000 guineas. This was split equally between the Corporation of London and Woodford Urban District Council, the latter raising the sum by adding a farthing to the rates for 20 years, which Sylvia would have paid of course!28
The Anti Air War Memorial
On Sunday 20 October 1935 a crowd gathered outside the Red Cottage to witness the unveiling of a unique sculpture.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
First unveiling of the Anti Air War Memorial, 20 October 1935
Sylvia is shown in the inset photograph
Woodford Express & Independent, 26 October 1935
This memorial took the form of a stone sculpture of an upturned bomb on a plinth. It was ironically dedicated to those governments (Britain in particular) who had opposed the banning of aerial bombing at a League of Nations disarmament conference in 1932.
It had originally been unveiled on 20 October 1935 by R. Zaphiro from the Ethiopian Legation in London who, the Woodford Times noted with patronising approval, ‘was a young man of pleasing appearance, who spoke almost perfect English with little trace of an accent’.29 The unveiling happened to take place only two weeks after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. For this reason, in subsequent years it was often referred to as the ‘Anti-Abyssinian War Monument’, although never by Sylvia herself.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
Second unveiling of the Anti Air War Memorial, 21 June 1936
Sylvia is on the left
Woodford Times, 26 June 1936
The memorial was smeared with creosote on its very first night, and shortly afterwards it was stolen. There was a suggestion that local fascists had taken it The sculptor Eric 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 June 1936 achieved much greater interest than the first.
In a letter to the Labour Party to raise funds for the new memorial, Sylvia noted: ‘On the last occasion we had a crowd of over 500 which has never been known in this district, I believe. Next time we mean to have something really big, and to make it international. It is very much needed in this backward district. I was amazed to see Mr Ranger’s substantial vote, for I know how little is done here’.30 James Ranger was the prospective Labour candidate for the Epping division who stood (and lost) against Winston Churchill.
The Red Cottage continued as tea rooms until at least 1937 when it is last listed in Kelly’s Woodford Directory. Mrs E.J. Wright is named as ‘Proprietress’ so perhaps Sylvia had appointed someone else to run the café? For a time, it appears she rented out the Red Cottage.31 In April 1931 Sylvia had disputed a liability of payment to deal with a defective water pipe outside the Cottage.32 In March 1936 Sylvia was back in touch with the Corporation of London, this time regarding electric light cables and gas pipes.33 This was shortly before the second unveiling of the Anti Air War Memorial in June 1936.
Then in March 1938 the minutes of Wanstead & Woodford Borough Council records a report by the Sanitary Inspector regarding ‘the ruinous and dilapidated condition of the premises known as 148-150 High Road’ which is ‘seriously detrimental to the amenities of the neighbourhood’ and ‘requesting the owner to make the necessary works of repair or restoration or, if the owner so elects, to take steps by demolishing the building…and removing any rubbish’.34
This suggests the Red Cottage tea-room was in a poor state of repair and perhaps may even have closed. There is no listing for the Cottage in the 1939 Kelly’s Directory and the listed properties jump from 146 to 154 High Road which suggests that 148-150 High Road (the Red Cottage) is either vacant, derelict, or demolished.
Sylvia sold the Red Cottage site in February 1954 to fund the publication of her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History35 although the Anti Air War Memorial in front of the Cottage was protected by a covenant. A new bungalow was built on the site by its new owners, which can be seen in this photograph (left), taken in 1981.
In 2009 the bungalow and neighbouring houses were demolished and replaced by luxury flats. The Sylvia Pankhurst Trust (based in Woodford) worked with the new owner of the site to restore the memorial and install a new interpretation plaque which was unveiled in October 2014 (below).
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p1950
1 Land Registry information supplied by London Borough of Redbridge Conservation Officer to Susan Homewood of the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust, 2007
2 Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Maverick Life (1931), p217, no source is cited; Harben may have paid for Sylvia’s son’s school fees (Patricia Romero: E. Sylvia Pankhurst, Portrait of a Radical (1987), p262, citing taped interview with Ivy Tims, Sylvia’s secretary, 18 September 1975) and supported him at LSE (The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928)
3 Harrison p217, no source is cited
4 Romero, p164
5 For more see Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (2020), p613, citing Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution, Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (2006)
6 Women’s Library, LSE, oral history recording, 18 December 1974, 8SUF/B/028
7 See article by Leslie’s nephew, Douglas Powter in Woodford in the 1930s, Ilford Historical Society (1992), p48. Sylvia’s biographer, Shirley Harrison, spoke to Leslie Powter in the early 2000s, Harrison, p217
8 Harrison, p217
9 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences (2013), p15
10 Institute for International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/100/page 3-4
11 Institute for International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/177
12 The photograph is in the Institute for International History (IISG), BG A10/748; quoted in David Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts (1967), p160; Kelly’s Directory, Redbridge Heritage Centre
13 Sunday Chronicle, 15 April 1928, cited in Romero, p171
14 The story of the ‘Welsh girl’ seems to have come from a letter from Mrs Ashman to David Mitchell, 15 Sept 1965, Mitchell Papers, Museum of London. Mrs Ashman’s husband was a local handyman and helped to build a writing hut at the Red Cottage. Holmes in Natural Born Rebel (p639) states the ‘Welsh girl’ was Annie Barnes but this is incorrect - Annie Barnes had an Italian background, lived in Stepney not Wales and her father didn’t mind about links to Sylvia, see interview with Annie Barnes, Women’s Library, LSE, 18 December 1974, 8SUF/B/028
15 Holmes, p638
16 Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader (1979), p185
17 David Mitchell, interview with Mrs Ashman, Mitchell Papers, Museum of London. Mrs Ashman wrongly suggests a date of 1924-5 and that the hut was used for the tea rooms when it was intended for use as a writing hut
18 Harrison, p221; News of the World, 8 April 1928
19 Institute for International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH1029/11, pages 58 – 70
20 Letter from Sylvia Pankhurst, 23 January 1928, London Metropolitan Archives CLA/077/B/02/174
21 Woodford Times, 26 June 1936, Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
22 Harrison, p 223
23 Letter to Norah Walsh, David Mitchell Papers, Museum of London, quoted in Harrison, p 224, and Holmes, p654
24 Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, (1984 reprint), p3
25 Mitchell p 246; Holmes, p648 incorrectly gives this as the first date the family moved there; the first correspondence in the IISH archive featuring the West Dene address is March 1930
26 Woodford Urban District Council Building Plan 3871, Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
27 Institute for International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, ARCH01029/166, p21
28 Knighton Woods, London Gardens Trust website
29 Woodford Times, 25 October 1935, Redbridge Heritage Centre
30 People’s History Museum, Papers of William Gillies LP/WG/PCE/96-97
31 Romero, p177, citing letter from Richard Pankhurst to David Mitchell, Mitchell Papers, Museum of London
32 London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/077/B/02/188
33 London Metropolitan Archives - CLA/077/B/02/174
34 Wanstead & Woodford Borough Council Minutes, March 1938, Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
35 Mitchell, p316
West Dene, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford
Image reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst and the LSE Library from Ethiopian Observer magazine, vol. V, no.1, 1961
‘West Dene’, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford, 1956
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre (R. Fowkes Coll.)
Charteris Road, Woodford, about 1905
In 1929 Sylvia, her partner Silvio Corio and their infant son Richard moved to a large, three-storeyed detached Victorian house called ‘West Dene’, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford Green.
In an interview with Sylvia for the Evening Standard in late 1952, the journalist described the house: ‘For 23 years she and Richard have lived just up the hill behind the station at Woodford Green, Essex, in a solid, bourgeois-looking detached house, brick and double-fronted, with flaring yellow gate, hydrangeas in the front garden and a wilderness beyond.’1
There is perhaps a hint of sarcasm here with the journalist seemingly wondering what the erstwhile revolutionary is doing living in the conservative confines of suburban Woodford. The house was indeed a convenient five-minute walk from Woodford Station and just an hour by LNER steam train to the city. In 1947 the line was electrified and Woodford Station became part of the Central Line Underground network.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p407
Woodford Broadway, Woodford Green, about 1920
There is an entertaining story told about Sylvia moving to West Dene in one biography:
‘For a few precious months Sylvia, leaving Corio in charge of the Red Cottage, went to stay with friends in the Lake District. Soon after her return, she left the Red Cottage and moved to a large, old-fashioned house called West Dene, in Charteris Road, Woodford Green. It had been vacant for some time, but when she approached a local estate agent he, chary of her still lingering reputation as a wild, communist bohemian, demurred: whereupon she tackled the owner directly. He could see nothing subversive of local morals in this earnest, quiet-speaking, simply dressed woman…He agreed to rent her the property (she later bought it: and it was her home and campaign headquarters for more than twenty-five years).’2
It is not known exactly when Sylvia, Silvio and Corio moved to West Dene. A letter to Sylvia from The Irish Stateman magazine, dated 3 October 1929 is addressed to ‘126 High Road, Wells’ [sic]3 so she either must have still been living at the Red Cottage or was using it as a correspondence address. The earliest dated correspondence for West Dene is 19 March 19304 but the Red Cottage address of 126 High Road was still being used in a letter from Sylvia printed in The Clarion newspaper on 1 April 1931.5
The Bystander magazine, 30 October 1940
British Newspaper Archive
Sylvia in her study at West Dene, Charteris Road, Woodford, 1940
Sylvia’s son, Richard, recalled the character of the house where he lived as a child in the 1930s:
‘In several rooms books on history and literature lined the walls, while a room on the top floor stored an ever-increasing pile of back issues of my mother’s weekly newspaper New Times and Ethiopia News, behind which I and my friends would sometimes hide. In another room there was a mountain of pamphlets and newspapers in many languages and of every political and religious persuasion….
My parents had an extensive, largely unkempt garden, which sported a variety of apple trees on two sides, pear trees on the third and elsewhere an abundance of raspberry, blackberry, black and red currant, and gooseberry bushes. A venerable old oak tree stood at the back of the garden just beyond our fence. My father…prided himself in doing most of the cooking, as well as much of the washing-up. There was also a woman who came in from time to time to do the cleaning and clothes washing – which latter was then hung up to dry in the kitchen on long poles with the help of a pulley. At one stage there was a Danish au pair, Gurli Jensen, who came to learn English. Sundry European refugees also from time to time helped out in the house.
Getty Images/New York Daily News
Sylvia and Richard in their back garden at Charteris Road, about 1930
A third of the building was occupied by tenants, whose rent contributed significantly to meeting household expenses. A gloomy, generally locked, room on the top floor was occupied by an aged, and to me mysterious Englishwoman, Mrs Green, who made a solitary appearance every few months. The first floor was the possession of a couple from the West Indies who ran the local [Woodford] Broadway Music Saloon, and later by a family which seemed to spend most of their daylight hours listening to the entertainment offered by the so-called pirate wireless stations, Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg. Our cleaner, who much enjoyed these programmes, spent a disproportionate amount of time “working” on the first floor while listening to them. In those days before central heating much time and effort had, however, to be devoted to carrying up coal or coke and lighting fires, not to mention chimney-sweeping, which was an art or a craft in itself.’6
In October 1930, anxious that Richard should have companions of his own age, Sylvia started a Montessori group at West Dene. Three other children attended the classes, which were held three times a week under Sylvia’s supervision.7 In January 1935, aged 7, Richard joined St. Aubyns in Bunces Lane, a small, private local school about 20 minutes’ walk from West Dene and located in a large house called Pyrmont.8 By 1939 Richard was at Chigwell School but then moved to Bancroft School, Woodford High Road (close to the Anti Air War Memorial and the site of Red Cottage) where he completed his schooling just as the Second World War finished.
British Periodicals Collection
‘Getting Your Goat’ by Sylvia Pankhurst
Daily Sketch, 26 August 1933
One notable addition to the household was a pet goat which no doubt raised a few eyebrows among the neighbours.
Sylvia wrote at least two stories about their goat and several articles on the benefits of keeping a goat, one of which was published in Daily Sketch on 26 August 1933 under the title ‘Getting Your Goat’. Although this sounds eccentric, Sylvia was as ever in earnest. She made clear the value of a goat to provide fresh milk for the infant Richard while at the same time being a good pet and one that also kept the grass down in her garden. Cow’s milk was often unpasteurised at this time and there were problems with tuberculosis-infected cows passing on the disease. Sylvia wrote two children’s stories and several articles about this subject, one of which, ‘Impure Milk Menaces Your Children’ (c.1935), shows how motherhood had influenced her: ‘For six years I have kept goats because I have a little son, eight years of age, whom I desire to protect from the very general danger of infected milk.’9
Another story written for Richard as a child explains how the family bought the goat:
‘Daddie’ [i.e Silvio] was having mowing the lawn at West Dene. One man had seen some goats in a field near the Woodford Castle [the large pub at Woodford Row] another man had heard of a man who kept nannie goats at Woodford Bridge but the field he could not find…At last the milk man told him of Miss Harrison of Holy Tree Farm, North Weald had a regular goat farm…’10
A further story, entitled ‘Why Not a Goat?’ follows in a similar vein and describes their adventures in the Essex countryside to track down a goat to buy. This autobiographical story features Sylvia’s partner Silvio Corio (‘Celestino’), an ‘old-fashioned house’ being her Victorian house at 3 Charteris Road while the ‘new suburban houses’ were part of the Monkhams estate which had just been completed north-east of Woodford station:
‘Ours is an old-fashioned house [West Dene] with a big lawn not reproduced in the new suburban houses, a lawn for years neglected by old fashioned tenants. What a task for weary sinews! Celestino [i.e Silvio] toiled at it for a week with the new mowing machine. Then a thought flashed to my mind. Why not some animal to crop it and serve little Richard as a new pet? “A goat then” said Celestino with memories of distant boyhood in Italy. But where to get a goat? Celestino inquired diligently. A tradesmen supplied the answer. We set out for the goat farm one glorious September Sunday…’11
‘Surroundings of London’
In another fascinating (and unpublished?) article entitled ‘Surroundings of London’ which was probably written in the mid-late 1930s, Sylvia comments on the wave of upmarket housebuilding which had recently occurred close to her home in Charteris Road. This included the Laing’s estate (1931) to the southwest and Milkwell Farm to the southeast.
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre, courtesy of R. Walker
Advertisement for the Laing’s Estate, Woodford Green, about 1930
The article also contains a fictional account of the semi-detached, suburban ennui of a Woodford housewife trapped in her new home, far from her family in east London:
‘Since I came to this house they have cut up’ [this is crossed out]. ‘Only five years ago the fields were all around us. I used to walk with my little Richard with the children from the orphanage in George Lane through the meadows…pass down the long avenues of hawthorns arching overhead and cross the plank over the little stream and take tea into the hayfield to my little son and his old friend Mrs Brimley [?] who spent long afternoons there tossing the hay.
Now all is changed. Our little stream where Richard and I from our little perch in the hollow tree sailed boats of bark with leaves for oars is gathered into a drain and covered up. A forest of houses is rising everywhere, a few weeks sees foundations laid and the roof on. Already the curtains are at the window, the miniature garden complete, with velvety green lawn no bigger than an old-fashioned tablecloth and bright flower borders fresh from the nurseryman.
Who lives in those spick and span little houses? Countless young couples. Every morning the man hurries for the London train. The woman is hidden behind those curtains. She is along waiting for him to return. She is busy; the little house in polished till it shines; but all day she is lonely. At first it was as lovely as a novel, getting settled in her with him arranging all the charming furniture procured on the hire purchase system; her mother never dreamed of such a house with everything new, everything in harmony, even to the liqueur glasses…’12
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p581
Ceremony to mark the creation of Wanstead & Woodford Borough Council, Old Rectory, High Road, South Woodford, 1937
‘The World I Want’
One of Sylvia’s few interventions in local politics is captured in an undated article, this time about electricity supply. Sylvia criticises the local authority, which depending on when the article was written, was either Woodford Urban District Council (until 1933), Wanstead & Woodford Urban District Council (formed in 1934) or Wanstead & Woodford Borough Council (formed in 1937). Woodford was run by a small, conservative council and Sylva compares it unfavourably with the nearby (Labour-run) West Ham, although the two districts were very different in both population and outlook. Woodford was different again to that of neighbouring Ilford which was far more populous and therefore had the larger tax base funded through the local rates to undertake municipal works, such as electricity supply. Clearly, Sylvia favours intervention in the free market which prefigured the increased role of government after the Second World War:
‘At present the cost of electricity in many districts is prohibitive. We are paying 6d per unit in Woodford where I live but in West Ham, not far away, the Borough-owned electricity is 1 ½ d. per unit. The Borough of Hackney uses the refuse from the street sweepings and domestic dustbins to generate electricity. In Woodford where we are charged 6 d. a unit for electricity the local Council pays a contractor to take away the refuse and the contractor tips on a piece of waste ground where it smells and the flies which breed on it are a nuisance to neighbouring householders. In that contrast lies the difference between the old method which has produced the slums and the new methods we are working to realise.’13
It was not only the cost of electricity that Sylvia struggled to pay but the water rates as well. In July 1933, the Metropolitan Water Board sent her a final reminder for an unpaid bill of £1 – 13 shillings and 7 pence.14 In March of the same year, Wallace & Wallace, building contractors of Broomhill Road, Woodford Green, had sent a final warning over an unspecified account: ‘If you do no settle this account by the end of the month, we must once again take the matter to our solicitors, with a view to asking them to issue a writ.’15 There is no doubt that Sylvia struggled for money throughout her career and often relied on generous friends to supplement the income she earned through her writing.
More local flavour was captured in a letter from Sylvia to the local newspaper in summer 1934. After a recent visit to Romania, she suggested that England should follow their example of planting flower beds outside railway stations.16
Winston Churchill, MP for Woodford
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p2087
Winston Churchill at Victory celebrations, Woodford Green, June 1946
By an intriguing coincidence Sylvia was represented in Parliament by none other than Winston Churchill, the MP for Epping, into whose constituency Woodford fell. He was elected for the safe Conservative seat in 1924, the same year that Sylvia moved to the Red Cottage. While they were clearly on the opposite sides of the political spectrum both were united in their opposition to the dangers of fascism in the 1930s, something that was not always felt by the political establishment of the time.
They had first met in December 1905 when Churchill was speaking for the Liberal Party at a meeting in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, Sylvia’s hometown. After she asked a question in the rowdy meeting, Churchill seized her, pushed her into a chair at the back of the platform and insisted that she stay there until she had heard his reply. “Nothing”, he declared, “would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise; I am not going to be henpecked.”17
In 1926-27 Churchill had expressed some admiration for Mussolini due to its perceived economic efficiency and opposition to Communism, something that Churchill detested. By October 1935, when Italy attacked Abyssinia and the threat from Nazi Germany was becoming clearer, Churchill was torn between expressions of support for the League of Nations and the desire to maintain friendly relations with Italy as a potential counterweight to Germany.18
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre
Woodford Times, 24 April 1936
Despite this, Sylvia’s correspondence with Churchill in April 1936 showed their implacable opposition to fascism and Nazism. Their letters were published in the Woodford Times, presumably after Sylvia had sent them to the newspaper.19 In the first letter published on 17 April Sylvia writes as a former suffragette and a Woodford resident:
‘Women, and some of them in this constituency, are appealing to me, as one who has been prominent in the Women’s Movement, to know whether there is not some way in which they can bring forcibly before Parliament, the Government and the League of Nations their shame and dismay that effective sanctions have not been imposed to end the Italian aggression…I ask you to make an effective protest in the House of Commons. It is expected of you by your constituents, in view of your previous declarations.’
Churchill responded forcefully that while he agreed, only British rearmament would stop this aggression: ‘Without disputing anything you say in your letter, I hope you will realise what peril we are in. The Italian and German dictators armed to the teeth and arming more every day, seem to have the Parliamentary and free nations at a great disadvantage….I do not think you ought, with your sense of realism, to overlook this ugly fact. We have got to show that free countries can defend themselves and their rights.’
As might be expected, Sylvia replied straightaway (published 24 April) with a long letter and while agreeing with Churchill could not but help noting: ‘In the days when I read, with regret, speeches favourable to the Mussolini regime from yourselves and others, I was already working strenuously to being this danger before the British public.’
Richard Pankhurst wrote about Churchill: ‘My mother had a poor opinion of her erstwhile opponent throughout her life, notably a generation or so later when he expressed strong support for Mussolini and Italian fascism which she vigorously opposed.’20
The danger to Sylvia from home-grown fascists such as supporters of Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists led her to write to Churchill again after graffiti was scrawled on her garden fence in summer 1937:
‘We all know that the Fascists have for some time been causing trouble by their attacks on the East End Jews. They have now extended their illegal conduct to this constituency and are defacing public property and are also annoying persons who are opposed to Fascism who are not Jews. The fence of my garden facing the road has now been marked across the entire length with chalk, including the words ‘Moseley will win’, and a number of circles enclosing what is supposed to represent a streak of lightening, and is, I am informed, the badge being adopted by the fascists in this country.’21
Sylvia asked Churchill as the local MP to help mobilise the police, and he duly contacts the Commissioner of Police who arranges for the patrolling officers to pay special attention to the matter.
In the July 1945 General Election, the Labour and Liberal Parties decided not to oppose the victorious wartime leader in his own constituency. Richard Pankhurst recalled: ‘My mother however felt very strongly that he should be opposed, and though not wishing to stand herself, encouraged an ex-RAF officer called Clements to do so. When he however decided not to stand to enter the electoral struggle, she earned some publicity for an alternative candidate by announcing that she was giving him her support. He was a hitherto totally unknown and somewhat crankish figure, by the name of Mr Hancock, who called himself the Man with a Plan and whose prime, almost sole claim for support was that he was standing against the Tory premier.’22
However, despite this, when Churchill retired as Prime Minister in April 1955 at the age of 80, Sylvia reflected in the New Times and Ethiopia News: ‘Ethiopia has reason to be thankful that Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and not some other more reactionary, die-hard imperialist British statesman at the time of her final great struggle to expel the Italian invaders from her soil, for Winston Churchill had certain qualities of insight and prescience which enabled him on occasion to break away from the imperialist traditions in which he was reared.’23 This gracious and somewhat surprising assessment shows Sylvia was able to set aside differences when it mattered.
Woodford at War
Redbridge Museum & Heritage Centre p1768
Bomb damage, George Lane (South Woodford) station, October 1940
Mussolini’s declaration of war on the Allies on 19 June 1940 meant Sylvia was suddenly was on ‘the right side’ of the argument after many years of warning against Italian Fascism. During the 1930s, West Dene had been a home to various refugees from Italy, Germany and Austria, as well as those fleeing the Spanish civil war which broke out in July 1936.24
One particular incident at this time stood out for Sylvia’s son, Richard, who was 12 at the time: ‘On hearing the news [about Italy’s entry into the war] our next-door neighbour, a retired pro-fascist British army officer who had visited Italy and been received by the Duce and the Pope, changed his views overnight. He crossed our road in Woodford, to tell my father that he (the officer) had previously thought that my mother had been “barking up the wrong tree”, but was now convinced that she had been right after all.’25
Unlike many children from the area, Richard was not evacuated when the Second World War broke out in September 1939. He had been attending Chigwell School which necessitated a long and sometimes unpredictable LNER steam-train journey so in anticipation of wartime disruption he was moved to Bancroft’s School, Woodford Wells. By coincidence Richard’s 30-minute walk to Bancroft’s took him past the Red Cottage and the Anti Air War Memorial.
During the war, the family had to change their diet: ‘We had until then been Vegetarians – I firmly so….However, in view of wartime difficulties, and the need for simplicity, my parents decided when necessary to eat meat…However, we continued to eat Allinson’s wholemeal brown bread.’ Despite sweet rationing he ‘was scarcely deprived, the more so as a kindly old proprietor of a nearby sweetshop [possibly Charles Vale, aged 61, who ran a tobacconist and sweetshop at No. 8 The Broadway, Woodford – 1939 Register] declared himself a supporter of ‘the movement’ – whatever that was I no longer remember – and never allowed us to leave his premises empty-handed.’ According to the 1939 Register, this is likely to have been Charles Vale, aged 61, who ran a tobacconist and sweetshop at 8, The Broadway, Woodford. Obviously, Sylvia did have some local support.
Wartime bombing had an impact on the on the Pankhurst family: ‘After some months it became apparent that Woodford lay directly on the German Luftwaffe’s flight to London. We were conscious of this one Sunday, when I went with my parents to spend the day in the centre of London – and saw an unprecedented display of the German air force flying over the town. That night, heavy bombing began in earnest. Taking our old steam-train from Liverpool Street to Woodford…we were forced to spend the night at the next station, Bethnal Green. There I was put to bed on an immense and dusty pile of railway records [i.e archive files], four or more feet high dating back many decades…We later learnt that the friendly Italian anti-fascist restauranteur in Charing Cross Road in whose premises we had dined, was killed that night in enemy bombing.’26
It Happened Here – The Story of Civil Defence in Wanstead and Woodford, 1948
Map showing bomb damage in Woodford
Woodford Station is in the centre and Charteris Road is just below this, running parallel to the railway line
Like much of east London and metropolitan Essex, Woodford was damaged by bombing and several landed very close to Sylvia’s house. On 22 September 1940 at the start of the Blitz, high explosive bombs landed on Snakes Lane/ Glengall Road/Woodford Broadway. On 27 October 1940 an oil bomb landed on the railway line at Grosvenor Gardens and a high explosive bomb damaged Broadmead Bridge. Fortunately, no one was injured in these attacks but during the war 250 people were killed and 1340 injured in the Borough of Wanstead & Woodford. Around 509 houses were destroyed and nearly 15,000 were damaged.27
Some protection was given by air raid shelters: ‘At home in our garden in Woodford, we had two corrugated iron Anderson air-raid shelters, covered with unusually thick turf….People normally had only one such shelter, but we had been allocated a second for our tenants, who subsequently left, and no one had the energy to dig it up. In the next few years it became our practice, at nightfall, for me to go to bed in one shelter, while my parents wrote in the house until the bombing became heavy, whereupon they would rush to the second shelter for the night…By day we youngsters would look out for newly bombed buildings, collect shrapnel, and admire a fellow schoolboy who, I am sad to say, was the proud owner of an unexploded German incendiary bomb – so bright and shiny. I also helped to ensure that the black-out regulations were strictly followed, and befriended our local Air Riad Warden, Monsieur Lek, a Belgian refugee. Later in the war, we saw the small engine-operated V1s, popularly known as Doodle-Bugs, or Hitler’s Secret Weapons, flying over us, and emitting smoke, on their route towards London.’28
In fact, a V1 flying bomb landed close-by to Charteris Road on St. Barnabas County Secondary School on 27 July 1944. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
Sylvia’s initial work for the war effort was captured in a photographic article in The Bystander magazine, 30 October 1940. Stirringly titled ‘Still Fighting: Indomitable Champion of Freedom’, the magazine noted in a kind of grudging respect for Sylvia’s boundless energy:
‘Since war began, she has devoted most time to the Women’s War Emergency Council, which she stated with the object of getting war separation allowances increased. Women’s employments, food questions, quick payment of compensations are other matters about which leaflets have been issues, deputations to Government Departments organised, meetings addressed in House of Commons committee-rooms.’
British Newspaper Archive
Article about Sylvia’s war work, The Bystander, 30 October 1940
Sylvia Pankhurst (standing) and the Women’s War Emergency Council, about 1940
Black Lives Matter
Getty Images / Hulton Deutsch
Sylvia meets Jomo Kenyatta, the future first President of Kenya, at the ‘Abyssinia and Justice’ conference, London, 9 September 1937
“The great work of Sylvia Pankhurst was to introduce black Ethiopia to white England…and to make the British people realise that black folks had more and more to be recognised as human beings with the rights to women and men.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, Ethiopia Observer, 1961 (commemorative issue after Sylvia’s death)
Sylvia had grown up in Manchester, the centre of Britain’s cotton trade. During the American Civil War, workers had refused to work with cotton grown by black slave labour in the southern Confederate states, despite the threat to their own livelihoods. Before this, Sylvia’s own grandfather had been a prominent member of the anti-slavery movement and her mother’s favourite childhood book had been the hugely popular anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Sylvia’s position as an anti-racist had been established after her second lecture tour of the U.S.A in 1912. While there she had witnessed first-hand the discrimination faced by poor immigrant Italian and Jewish workers (especially women), African-Americans and native Americans. However, she was also inspired by how different ethnic groups could work together to further labour rights. Sylvia broke racist protocols by taking the initiative to speak at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, the prestigious college for black students.
Back in London, Sylvia had employed Claude McKay, the Jamaican poet and communist, for her newspaper the Worker’s Dreadnought, in 1920. He was perhaps the first black journalist to be employed full-time on the staff of a modern British newspaper and wrote numerous articles on a wide range of issues, including Marcus Garvey and black nationalism in the USA, racism in the British press, revolutionary coal miners in the Rhondda Valley and TUC conferences.
It was one article in the Worker’s Dreadnought by McKay about unrest in the Royal Navy that led Sylvia (as editor) to be arrested on the charge of inciting mutiny. For this she was imprisoned in Holloway for 6 months in 1920. During her appeal, she defended another ‘offensive’ article by McKay (who wrote under a pseudonym), explaining it was an appeal to workers not to turn on migrant labour. She had seen first-hand how in the economic slump after the First World War, black and South Asian sailors had been physically attacked in the London Docks by unemployed workers and how the trade union had objected to the employment of ‘coloured’ men. In this moment, Sylvia was making it plain that the fight against racism was at the heart of the labour, socialist and feminist movement.
Her greatest cause, however, was her campaign for Ethiopian independence from Italian and then British colonialism. Sylvia had first become interested in the cause of Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) in winter 1934 when she and her Italian partner Silvio Corio became convinced Mussolini would invade the country. As anti-fascists and anti-colonialists, they rushed to the defence of Africa’s last independent state at a time when the rest of the continent was controlled by European powers.29
In October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia and by coincidence that was also the month when Sylvia’s Anti Air War Memorial was unveiled on land outside the Red Cottage. Although the memorial was often seen as a protest against the Italian invasion, it was actually a condemnation of the failure of the League of Nations at the 1932 Disarmament Conference to outlaw bombing from aeroplanes. Britain opposed this policy as the RAF was used to impose Imperial control in parts of Iraq, Aden and the north-west frontier of India. Nonetheless, Sylvia’s ‘stone bomb’ did help to raise the profile of the Ethiopian cause.
The next stage of Sylvia’s campaign was the publication in May 1936 of the New Times and Ethiopia News, which described itself as ‘Britain’s anti-fascist weekly’. 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.
The newspaper was published from Sylvia’s home, typeset by Silvio and printed by the Walthamstow Press.
Institute for International History (IISG)
New Times and Ethiopia News 3 September 1938
The first edition of the newspaper coincided with the arrival of the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie in London, who had escaped the Italian invasion after his Ethiopian forces had been defeated. The New Times published news about the resistance of Ethiopian patriots, obtained from correspondents in neighbouring Jibuti, Kenya and Sudan, as well as 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.
The Bystander, 30 October 1940
British Newspaper Archive
Workers at the New Times and Ethiopia News, West Dene, Charteris Road, Woodford, 1940
Sylvia employed a small team of local women as secretaries. Mrs Manning was one of them. She answered an advert in a local newspaper and worked at West Dene for nine weeks in 1944. Mrs Manning was ‘horrified’ by the volume of papers on Sylvia’s desk and lack of home comforts: “It was quite a large house but the impression I have is that there was no comfort whatsoever, just an electric stove; the main thing I remember was when her or her son fused the electricity and we were all cold.”30 Other visitors to the house remarked on the spartan living conditions which were so different from the bourgeois respectability of her Woodford neighbours.
There were three shorthand typists and two filing clerks squeezed into the front room. Mrs Manning typed out letters to potential donors for the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital although when she started: “I got the most horrible typewriter, I spent an hour or so just cleaning it up before I could possibly use it, you’d try to make use of it but the keys kept sticking!” In Mrs Manning’s estimation, Sylvia was a clever woman and very exact but had the impression that Sylvia “was disappointed, in a kind of backwater, in slum conditions in her house and upset after all her work for voting that people don’t vote”. This may be at odds with how Sylvia saw herself, however, with Charteris Road serving as the nerve-centre of an international campaign.
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 wrote eight books about Ethiopia between 1945 and 1955, one of them funded by the sale of the Red Cottage site in February 1954. The last two books feature the imprint of ‘Lalibela House, Woodford Green’, named after the famous holy site of Ethiopian Christianity.
The Emperor Haile Selassie’s youngest daughter, Princess Tsehai, who had qualified as a nurse in Britain and had served as such during the London Blitz in the Second World War, 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 1950.31
Due to her support of Ethiopia and anti-colonial stance, many African political activists visited Sylvia at Charteris Road, perhaps the most famous being the future first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who lived in London during the 1930s and rallied to Ethiopia’s cause. The Ethiopian ambassador in London, Hakim Werkineh, became a close family friend at the time of Haile Selassie’s exile.32 Pan-Africanist visitors included included G.T.N Griffiths from British Guiana (now Guyana) who adopted an Ethiopian name T.R. Makonnen in support of their cause; the renowned Trinidadian journalist George Padmore; and the former wife of Marcus Garvey, Amy Garvey, who had been active in the Society of African Friends of Ethiopia, founded by the historian C.L.R James.33
In the 1940s and 1950s Sylvia also corresponded with the American academic and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, a veteran member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and Chairman of the 5th (and most important) Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester in 1945.34 This Congress was led by a younger generation of African nationalists fighting for independence from European empires and included the future first Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who lived in London between 1945-47. He must have met Sylvia when he was in London, as years later when on a state visit to Ethiopia in June 1958, he asked her how things were at ‘the Village’ (i.e Woodford).35
Other visitors to Woodford included Ethiopian students who were friends with Richard when he was taking his degree at the London School of Economics between 1945-8. One such visitor was Afewerk Tekle, the future Official Artist Laureate of Ethiopia, who wrote in his diary:
Friday 24 August 1951
After lunch I cycled to Woodford. They live in a fairly large detached house…I should think last decorated inside and out in the 1920s. Most of the rooms had bookshelves packed with books from floor to ceiling on two walls or three…The furniture was all old fashioned…The garden…was a tangled thicket of tall weeds…all about 2-3 foot high! Sylvia Pankhurst was as usual very charming and quietly courteous…we had tea in the kitchen, off assorted crockery.36
Afewerk Tekle in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1965
In April 1953, after rushing to get book proofs to the Post Office on Snakes Lane East, overlooking Woodford Green, Sylvia collapsed outside her house with a heart attack.37 In January 1954 she was left grief-stricken when her partner Silvio died and further loss ensued in March when her great friend and benefactor, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, died.
Meanwhile, two of Sylvia’s great campaigns had finished. The Princess Tshhai Memorial Hospital had opened in 1950 while in 1955, the British had left the Ogaden region of Ethiopia (which they had taken over after defeating Mussolini’s Italy in 1941), something Sylvia had long campaigned for. At the same time Richard had completed his PhD and had received an offer of a post in the University of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, while the Emperor Haile Selassie had extended an invitation to Sylvia to move to Ethiopia. It therefore made sense when she closed The New Times and Ethiopia News on 5 May 1956 in preparation for her final move to Ethiopia in July, where she was to live until her death on 27 September 1960.
Image reproduced by permission of Dr Richard Pankhurst and the LSE Library from Ethiopian Observer magazine, vol. V, no.1, 1961
Sylvia in her study at West Dene, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford, shortly before leaving for Ethiopia in July 1956
Remembering Sylvia Pankhurst
A few days after her death in September 1960, the Woodford Guardian newspaper printed a small tribute to Sylvia, entitled ‘She Lived in Woodford’. The article summed up her quiet standing in the neighbourhood:
‘Like her famous mother, Miss Sylvia Pankhurst…was a woman apart. Yet, although she lived in Woodford for a large number of years, her passing will occasion no great commotion. Seldom did she project herself upon the local scene. Always were her sights trained upon bigger and wider issues…Although her passing may go unnoticed in Woodford and the local districts to-day, historians will find a place for Sylvia Pankhurst and her works. And, in years to come, it is not unlikely that greater interest and pride than is apparent to-day will focus upon a certain house in Charteris Road.’38
This proved to be prophetic. A local peace campaigner, Sylvia Ayling did much to revive Sylvia’s memory by leading ‘Peace Picnics’ to the Memorial between 1984-88 at the height of the Cold War. She also researched and lectured about Sylvia’s life in Woodford; helped Sylvia’s son Richard to install a plaque marking the site of West Dene, Charteris Road, in 1995; and was responsible for the campaign to restore the Anti Air War Memorial after it was stolen and then recovered in 1996.
In May 1995, Sylvia Ayling again brought her namesake to the fore during the 50th anniversary of VE Day. She was joined in her interest by the then Mayor of Redbridge, Cllr Linda Perham, who commissioned a new portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst for the Mayor’s parlour in Redbridge Town Hall and unveiled a new open space called ‘Pankhurst Green’ close to Charteris Road, Woodford.
In 2000, the new Redbridge Museum was opened, and it featured a permanent display about Sylvia Pankhurst.
In 2006, the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust was formed by a small group of Woodford residents led by Susan Homewood, in partnership with Redbridge Museum. After successfully applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Susan led an ambitious programme which included a talks seminar (headlined by Germaine Greer), schools programme, publications, a new website, and a major exhibition by Redbridge Museum.
In 2012, a ‘history bench’ was installed as part of streetscape improvements to the South Woodford High Road bridge over the A406.
In 2014, the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust, again led by Susan Homewood, worked with Galliard Homes to clean the Anti Air War Memorial and unveil a new interpretation plaque.
After the Sylvia Pankhurst Trust disbanded in 2019, Redbridge Museum took on the task of redesigning and updating sylviapankhurst.com. This was part of Redbridge Museum’s ‘Wonder Women’ project to celebrate the 2018 centenary of the right of (some) women to vote. The project was delivered in partnership with Woodford County High School and supported through a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is hoped this website will secure the memory of Sylvia’s work in Woodford for many years to come.
1 Syndicated to the Liverpool Echo, 8 January 1953
2 David Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts (1967), p246
3 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/12, p21
4 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/, letter from Arthur Henderson, Labour Party
5 British Newspaper Archive; The Clarion was a socialist weekly newspaper
6 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences (2013), p2-3
7 Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, A Maverick Life (2003), p225; the source is a letter to Mrs Norah Walshe, July 1930; by October 1930 the school is open. Sylvia also wrote Mrs Montessori’s methods of how to raise children, see Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029
8 Harrison p228; Margery Smith, Woodford Village to Suburb (Woodford Historical Society 2007), p19
9 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/139
10 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/100, 76-77
11 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/139, p3 ‘Why not a Goat?’
12 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/81, p41; it is not clear where the orphanage on George Lane was as it doesn’t seem to appear in Kelly’s Directory
13 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/166
14 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/10
15 Institute of International History (IISG), E. Sylvia Pankhurst Papers ARCH 1029/10
16 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p11
17 Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader (1979), p56-7
18 Dictionary of National Biography
19 Redbridge Heritage Centre
20 Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader, p57; Richard’s source for this is G. Salvemini, Prelude to World War II, London 1953, p108
21 Letter from Sylvia Pankhurst to Winston Churchill, 2 July 1937, Churchill Archives, CHAR 7/40 (with thanks to Allen Packwood, Director of Churchill Archives and Susan Homewood of the former Sylvia Pankhurst Trust)
22 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p29 and Sylvia Pankhurst Artist and Crusader, p57
23 Quoted in Harrison, p266
24 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p16
25 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p24
26 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p22-24
27 Stanley Tiquet, It Happened Here: The Story of Civil Defence in Wanstead & Woodford 1939-1945 (1948, republished 1994, Redbridge Libraries)
28 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p23-24
29 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p13
30 Interview with Mrs Manning by Woodford local historian Sylvia Ayling, 19 December 1984; Redbridge Heritage Centre
31 Rita Pankhurst, www.sylviapankhurst.com/campaigns
32 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p15
33 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p68-70
34 Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst Natural Born Rebel (2020), p775. Correspondence with W.E.B Du Bois 1942 – 1960 https://credo.library.umass.edu/search?q=sylvia%20pankhurst&page=1&facets=
35 Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopian Reminiscences, p201
36 Harrison, p260
37 Harrison, p262
38 Woodford Guardian, 30 September 1960