Sylvia: suffragette, socialist & sometime Woodford resident

memorial©Geoff Wilkinson

South Woodford resident Debbie Pearson is a tour guide for the City of London and the City of Westminster. During lockdown, she took the opportunity to learn more about the local area, including former resident Sylvia Pankhurst. Anti–Air War Memorial photo by Geoff Wilkinson

Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester in 1882 but lived in the Woodford area for many years. She was a writer, artist, activist and peace campaigner.

According to the book, Woodford Then and Now by Reginald Fowkes, Sylvia lived in a house called Frithmans on George Lane. The parade of shops including the International Supermarket is near the site.

The Pankhurst family, particularly her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel, are best known for their Votes for Women campaigns. They formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for women’s suffrage, earning the nickname Suffragettes. Sylvia supported this cause, but their opinions differed, and she followed her own path.

Sylvia studied at the Royal College of Art in Kensington. She gave up her studies to spend more time campaigning, although she designed logos, leaflets and banners for the WSPU. She was imprisoned several times and went on a hunger strike.

She formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, originally as part of the WSPU, but later independent. She wanted to support working women, especially those from the East End. In Bow, she set up a nursery, cost-price restaurant and toy factory.

During World War One, Emmeline and Christabel supported the war effort, but Sylvia campaigned for peace and they became estranged. She became more involved in socialism, founding a newspaper, The Women’s Dreadnought, later The Workers’ Dreadnought.

Towards the end of the war, she met Silvio Corio, an Italian exile with similar political views. They were lifelong partners, but she chose not to marry him and take his name. In 1924, they moved to Vine Cottage, Woodford Green, renamed Red Cottage because of their socialist views. Their son, Richard, was born in 1927. In 1933, they moved to 3 Charteris Road in Woodford.

Sylvia wrote many books, including The Suffragette (1911), The Suffragette Movement (1931) and The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst (1935).  These were part history, part autobiography.

In the mid-1930s, Italian fascists invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Sylvia founded a journal to raise awareness and raised funds to build a hospital. She also commissioned the Anti–Air War Memorial (pictured here), which stands near the site of Red Cottage at 581 High Road, Woodford Green. The stone memorial, sculpted by Eric Benfield, is the shape of an upturned bomb on a plinth and was Britain’s first anti-war memorial. In the 1980s, it received a Grade II listing as an important part of the national heritage.

After the death of Silvio, Sylvia and her son, Richard, were invited to Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie. She lived there until 1960. She died in Addis Ababa and was given a state funeral.

In 2012, a memorial bench commemorating Sylvia was installed on the High Road, over the North Circular. And in 2016, following a public vote, one of the meeting rooms in the Woodford Memorial Hall was named after Sylvia Pankhurst.

For more information, follow Debbie on Twitter @debbieguide

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