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Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah

“If she could make a change, then I’ve got to keep trying.”

“Sylvia was the most arrested Suffragette there was – yet, after women got the vote, many people seem to forget about her, even though she got involved in lots of other things.

In the 1930s, through her own enquiries, Sylvia realised the Italians were surrounding Ethiopia and took it on herself to alert the world to the coming invasion. But when Mussolini attacked, Britain didn’t do anything. Emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations and nobody listened to him. It wasn’t seen as our struggle – but Sylvia felt really connected to it. 

She moved to Ethiopia in her seventies but didn’t retire. She set about building a hospital there and also started a newspaper. Each edition would have a different theme – for example women dying in childbirth, or men who had been wounded in the war. Sylvia would go around the country looking for stories, which was a brave thing to do. I read that when she went out into the villages, some people were scared, thinking she was either a white devil or one of Mussolini’s fascists. But she made a real difference and when I went to Ethiopia it was interesting to see how many ordinary people knew about her. 

Sylvia felt close to the Ethiopian people and struck up an amazing relationship with the Emperor. They say Sylvia didn’t smile much: in almost all of the portraits she is quite solemn, but there are a couple of photographs with her and Haile Selassie where she is beaming. 

Sylvia came from a completely different background to me. Her father was a barrister and her mother founded a political union – whereas my father had a job sweeping at the post office and my mother was a nurse. I left school at 13 unable to read and write, so I educated myself by meeting people. Where I do connect with Sylvia is in her internationalism. She once said, ‘wherever there is a need, there is my country’ and I feel that as well. And she really cared. A lot of people from a privileged family would have done academic things to help the poor, but Sylvia got her hands dirty. She had such passion and energy. I hope that when I am in my seventies I can work as she used to.

Every now and then I find myself thinking people don’t care any more. They see something on the news, it’s gone and they carry on eating their dinner. Red Nose Day comes along; they give a pound, watch a few comedy turns and think they’re doing their bit to save the world. People like me are labelled as militants and it can get tiring. But then I look at people like Sylvia and I think, no – if she could make a change, especially at her age, then I’ve got to keep trying.”

This piece was abridged from a conversation with Rob Attar for My History Hero, BBC History Magazine, in 2008. Reproduced by permission of the Editor, BBC History Magazine 

Benjamin Zephaniah is a poet, writer, lyricist and musician. Born in Birmingham, he made his mark as a Dub poet and has won several awards and honorary doctorates. He continues to travel and perform all over the world. 

Baroness Betty Boothroyd, OM

Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament

“She continues to inspire us”

“In addition to being a militant agitator for women’s suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst was also a gifted artist. For the last 30 years I have worn a brooch I had made similar to that designed by Sylvia and presented to suffragette prisoners in 1909. Its main theme is the portcullis encased in chains. To me it is a reminder of the gates of a prison where Sylvia was taken thirteen times for her suffrage militancy. It also reminds me of the symbol of the Houses of Parliament where I am privileged to sit as a Member as a result of her foresight, her sacrifices and her legacy.

If democracy were a traded commodity on the stock exchange, it would be showing losses right now and shareholders would be wondering whether to bail out. Sylvia Pankhurst never bailed out when the going got tough. She regarded democracy as women’s heritage and right. Our forebears fought for it and we, as women, are still relatively new beneficiaries of it. That’s why we are here, in Parliament and many other walks of life – still fighting, still overcoming obstacles to our rightful place in the world.

Well done Sylvia Pankhurst! She continues to inspire us.”

Baroness Betty Boothroyd O.M. is a British politician who served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for West Bromwich and West Bromwich West from 1973 to 2000. From 1992 to 2000, she served as Speaker of the House of Commons. She is the only woman to have served as Speaker. She is one of the two living former Speakers of the House of Commons. She sits, by tradition, as a Crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

Geoffrey Lusty

“Over the Garden Wall – my family were neighbours of the Pankhursts”

“During the late 1930s my family were neighbours of the Pankhursts who lived at Charteris Road in Woodford Green. My brother was then about 10 and I was 8, and part of our garden at 83 Snakes Lane [now demolished after wartime bomb damage] was adjacent to the end of the Pankhursts’ garden. 

Conversations were often had and for some juvenile reason the relationship varied from good to not so good; I have no idea why. Children are funny creatures; we were anyway. My brother and I had an air gun and Richard once asked us to show him one of our darts. He had a climbing frame on his side of the fence and we had a First World War bell tent. We shot a dart into his climbing frame and he took it to his mother; we were rightly told off for shooting at him!
There were times of friendship and we were once asked into the house for a cup of tea, when we noticed a goat that we had seen in the garden, walking around the dining room. It seemed quite natural.

We had many a battle of throwing things at each other. My brother was once rather aggravated by Richard heaving a hunk of wet clay over the fence and it happened to hit me. Rather messy but otherwise a natural thing to do. I forget how we retaliated but with some other dastardly deed, no doubt! This relationship went on until we moved in 1940 as our house was hit by some bombs. We did not return until 1942.”

GEOFFREY LUSTY of William Lusty & Sons, was the grandson of William Lusty, who founded the company in Bromley by Bow in 1880. Originally timber merchants, the company began to manufacture the famous Lloyd Loom furniture in Great Britain in 1917. Now based in the Cotswolds, the Lloyd Loom company still flourishes. 

The Very Revd
Dr John Arnold, OBE

“My mother worked as secretary for Sylvia Pankhurst and was entranced and scandalised by the goings on in Sylvia’s house in Woodford Green”

“When my father was called up early in 1940, my mother Ivy took up again her career as a secretary, which she had dropped upon getting married. She went to work for Sylvia Pankhurst at West Dene, Charteris Road in nearby Woodford Green, and I came home from school to stories which fired my imagination.

Ours was a neat and orderly household at Waltham Road, Woodford Bridge, with a routine of housework, regular meals and a well-tended garden and allotment. We were a conventional family, with few visitors and even fewer connections with the wider world. Mum was simultaneously entranced and scandalised by the goings on in Charteris Road. She disapproved of the disorderly nature of the house, which after all was her place of work, and the unkempt garden; but she loved the work itself (if you are a typist, you might as well type something interesting). Books, articles, lectures – all these things are much more fun than business correspondence or accounts; and Sylvia’s personal correspondence in particular was fascinating.

Mum never quite knew what to make of Sylvia, to whom she reacted with a mixture of admiration and exasperation. George Bernard Shaw had said that there are only two opinions of her, that she was miraculous and that she was unbearable. Mum’s experience of working for her was that these were not alternatives, but two aspects of a single complex reaction.

She liked Sylvia’s companion, the Italian revolutionary Silvio, and found him both exotic and also vaguely disreputable. She ascribed both his charm and his passionate nature to his being foreign; and therefore made allowances, as one did then. One day, when he and Sylvia were having a more than usually heated row, she just grabbed her hat and coat and ran all the way home, gasping out a story, which has stayed in my mind, about them chasing each other round the house with knives. I have no idea whether this is true or not. Mum loved their son Richard; and I think that she wanted to mother him, feeling him to be neglected.

But then, everything was neglected in favour of the ‘Abyssinian cause’, which dominated every aspect of life. Mum was always typing letters to or on behalf of ‘His Imperial Majesty’, as he was styled. Haile Selassie became as much a feature of my infant mind as the characters in the Arabian Nights, the Heroes of Asgard or the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. We followed the Homeric story of the liberation of Abyssinia with the same partisan fascination as we did the Winter War in Finland or the Battle of Britain overhead. 

Eventually the Italians were repulsed and the Emperor could return. As soon as possible he invited Sylvia to join him. She simply assumed that Mum would go with her; and when Mum objected that she had two boys to look after, Sylvia would have none of it. ‘You foolish girl,’ she said, ‘you could have come with me to Addis Ababa and dined off gold plate.’ These words became a proverb in our family. If ever my brother David or I annoyed our mother, who was a very emotional and dramatic woman, she would say, ‘I could have gone to Addis Ababa and dined off gold plate.’

In 1956 Sylvia moved from Woodford to Ethiopia, where she died at the age of 78 in 1960 and was given a splendid funeral. I knew nothing of this; but in January 1971 I found myself working for the World Council of Churches in Addis Ababa. On Sunday 17th (my mother’s 65th birthday) I was invited by my old friend the Abba Habte Mariam to preach in Holy Trinity Cathedral. I began by saying that this was the fulfilment of a boyhood dream, my mother having been the secretary of Sylvia Pankhurst, friend of His Imperial Majesty. At this a great sigh went up from the congregation of several thousand. 

After the service, as we processed out, Habte Mariam said to me, ‘Doubtless you have come to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Walata Cristos’, the daughter of Christ, which is what the Ethiopian Church called her for lack of a word for ‘Sylvia’. I immediately realised, as one does that that was just what I had come to do. We went to the corner of the cemetery reserved for the Saints and Martyrs of Ethiopia, surrounded by a greatly increased white-robed crowd and came to a western style tomb with a plain Latin cross and an open book in marble at its foot. I sensed that some word or ritual gesture was required of me, but I did not want to disrespect the integrity of a life-long atheist. An angel came to my aid; and I knelt down and kissed the book. That seemed to suffice; and I was glad to have this opportunity to pay my respects to someone who had so greatly enriched and enlarged my childhood.

On the Tuesday it was Timkat, the feast of the Epiphany, when they read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts as their own national story, and the Emperor and the Abuna, or Patriarch, go down into a pond and splash each other with water as a preliminary to everyone joining in, in one of the last vestiges of Constantinian folk religion. The Emperor gave a banquet of barbaric splendour. A mud wall of the palace was taken down and the hall extended into the courtyard. Bands played in relays. The Imperial gold service came out; the meal lasted from mid-morning to mid-afternoon; and at about four o’clock I staggered out to the Post Office, took an aerogramme and scrawled, ‘Dear Mum, I have eaten your dinner. Love, John.’ ”

The Very Revd., Dr JOHN ARNOLD, OBE, is the former Dean of Durham. His mother was Ivy Arnold, Sylvia Pankhurst’s personal secretary during World War II; he was brought up in Woodford Bridge. John trained as an interpreter in the Intelligence Corps and then read Modern Languages and Theology at Cambridge. He has long been involved in the quest for church unity and international reconciliation, and is author of numerous reviews and articles on literary and theological topics. He wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2008, Life Conquers Death.

Shirley Harrison

Courtesy of Sapere Books

“As a child in Woodford Green, I was warned by my parents always to pass Miss Pankhurst’s house on the other side of the road!”

“I grew up in Parkland Road, Woodford Green. As a child I was warned by my parents always to pass Miss Pankhurst’s house on the other side of the road: respectable Conservatives were fearful of mavericks like her. Reactionary Woodford in those days was still a village surrounded by forest; a picnic escape for East Enders so it was curiosity, in later life, that led me to write her biography in 2003.

Sylvia had arrived in 1924 with Silvio Corio, her Italian revolutionary partner. They occupied a run-down timber cottage at Woodford Wells which she provocatively renamed Red Cottage and ran as a transport café and rural refuge for East Enders. It was there that she commissioned a controversial monument to peace – a stone bomb. It is still there, visible on the High Road, although the cottage has long since been demolished.

At the age of 45, Sylvia shockingly produced a baby boy and she and Corio moved to Charteris Road. Neighbours grumbled about the jungle in her garden and were hissed at by the cat. Behind the uncut hedges, in creative domestic chaos, little Richard grew up much like his mother amid a torrent of frenetic political activity.

Jomo Kenyatta, the Laskis. the Bertrand Russells, scholars and intellectuals came on the train to Woodford and remembered only too well the boiled lettuce, overcooked rice and Russian tea – served on assorted crockery. Sylvia was no cook!

Sylvia’s own newspaper The Ethiopian Times was produced on the presses of London and Essex Guardian Newspapers in Walthamstow. As a journalist on the local newspaper, The Walthamstow Guardian, I used to see Sylvia on her visits to check the proofs of her newspaper ‘The Ethiopian Times’ which operated in the same office. 

My adult interest was stirred when my daughter, a senior lecturer at Sussex University, worked with Sylvia’s grandson, Alula, and I then made contact with the whole family. Its aim was to raise public awareness of the plight of Ethiopia and Emperor Halle Selassie, after the invasion of Italy. It won her his enduring friendship and the hostility of the British Government. But she was also greatly loved and I found great affection and warmth among those I met when I came to write her story. She kept her friends.

After Silvio died, Sylvia eventually accepted Haile Selassie’s personal invitation to join Richard in Addis Ababa where he was to become a student. She spent the last years of her life there – still fighting for the welfare of women. Her motto? ‘Wherever there is a need, there is my home’. On her death in 1960 she was the only foreigner ever to be given a State Funeral.

George Bernard Shaw, with whom she had many fierce public arguments, wrote at the time “There were only two opinions about Sylvia Pankhurst. One was that she was miraculous. The other that she was unbearable.”

SHIRLEY HARRISON, born and brought up in Woodford, began broadcasting as a teenager in 1954 with BBC Radio’s Uncle Mac on Children’s Hour before writing for various magazines and newspapers, later turning to books. She is the first author of a comprehensive biography of Sylvia Pankhurst to have had the full cooperation of the Pankhurst family, as well as access to a number of previously unpublished documents. Sylvia Pankhurst, a Crusading Life 1882–1960 was published in 2003; then again in paperback as Sylvia Pankhurst, a Maverick Life 1882–1960 in 2004; and as Sylvia Pankhurst The Rebellious Suffragette in 2012. 

Great Lives:
Sylvia Pankhurst

BBC Radio 4; broadcast September 2001

Barbara Castle, Labour MP from 1945-1979, and biographer Mary Davis discuss the life of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst with presenter Joan Bakewell.

This programme was part of the BBC Radio 4 biographical series in which a distinguished guest chooses someone who has inspired their life. Will their hero stand up to intensive scrutiny and merit the description of having led a great life?

Great Lives: Sylvia Pankhurst

Peter Tatchell

Photograph by Colin

“My favourite Londoner”

“I first heard about Sylvia Pankhurst in my British History lessons at school in my home town of Melbourne in 1968. I was 16. My teacher said that as well as campaigning for women’s votes she was a left-wing firebrand. That increased my interest. I like the way Sylvia combined feminism and socialism, and love her feisty attitude and irreverent style of protest. She is much more inspiring to me than her better-known mother and sister, the other suffragette leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

In the latter years of her life she watered down her revolutionary fervour and adopted some less than wholly progressive ideas. Nevertheless, when looking at her political activism in its totality, it is clear that Sylvia undoubtedly helped advance the cause of human liberation. One of her most important achievements was contributing to women gaining the vote. She was repeatedly jailed and went on hunger strike 10 times in 1913 and 1914 alone. Sylvia also campaigned for equal pay, mother and baby clinics, widow’s pensions, and for worker’s rights and against unemployment. She was founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. After urging a socialist revolution in Britain, she was convicted of sedition and imprisoned for five months. A fiery anti-fascist, Sylvia campaigned to defend Spanish democracy against Franco’s fascists, aided Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and backed the Ethiopian people’s struggle to liberate their country from occupation by Mussolini’s army. Horrified by Stalin’s purges and the show trials of leading Bolsheviks, she broke with Soviet-style ‘barbed wire’ communism. 

There are several similarities between Sylvia and myself. We both started out life pursuing artistic careers. Sylvia studied at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. My family was too poor to send me to art school, so I learned on the job, in the display and design section of a big department store. Sylvia fell out with her politically conservative mother and sister, and I also had strong disagreements with my right-wing family. I loathe marriage. It is a patriarchal institution. Sylvia took the same view; scandalising her family by refusing to marry her Italian socialist lover, Silvio Corio. 

Sylvia saw the many different struggles for social justice as part of a single process of human liberation. It’s an idea that has influenced my thinking too. We both share revolutionary, anti-establishment ideals and believe in the necessity of direct action and civil disobedience to overturn unjust laws. Indeed, because I based some of my political ideas and campaign tactics on Sylvia and the suffragettes, my OutRage! colleagues used to nick-name me ‘Peggy (Peter) Pankhurst’. 

There are no contemporary women rights campaigners who come anywhere near her radicalism and social impact. The women’s movement seems to have done a Rip Van Winkle. Sylvia would berate their complacency. We’ve got more women MPs nowadays but what do they do for the liberation of the female sex? Not much. Many of ‘Blair’s Babes’ seem to be mostly voting fodder for the male-dominated Labour leadership. 

If Sylvia were alive now, she’d be leading a left-wing feminist movement, probably called something like WomenRage! They’d be occupying business headquarters and government offices to demand equal pay for women (it is still only four-fifths of men’s income), free nursery places for every child, and equal representation for women in all leadership positions. She would, I expect, call for electoral reform to ensure more women MPs; perhaps urging the creation of two-member constituencies, where every electorate would be required to vote for a male MP and a female MP. It is probably the only way to end women’s under-representation in parliament. 

Because of her commitment to internationalism, it is also likely that Sylvia would be prominent in the green, anti-war, human rights and anti-globalisation movements, and the campaign to cancel Third World debt. The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee has begun a campaign to erect a bronze statue of Sylvia on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Designed by the late Ian Walters, it depicts Sylvia walking over ground strewn with placards – an appropriate, emblematic depiction of a woman whose many protests helped advance the causes of women’s equality, social justice, anti-colonialism and human rights.”

This article originally appeared in Time Out magazine, 28 January 2005

Peter Tachell is a British human rights campaigner, originally from Australia, best known for his work with LGBT social movements from the 1980s onwards. 

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