Sylvia Pankhurst grew increasingly unhappy about the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) decision to abandon its earlier commitment to socialism. She also rejected the WSPU attempts to gain middle class support by arguing in favour of a limited franchise. Pankhurst made the final break with the WSPU when the movement adopted a policy of widespread arson. Sylvia now concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London. (1)
In 1913, Sylvia Pankhurst, with the help of Keir Hardie, Norah Smyth, Julia Scurr, Mary Phillips, Millie Lansbury, Eveline Haverfield, Lilian Dove-Wilcox, Maud Joachim, Nellie Cressall and George Lansbury established the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF). An organisation that combined socialism with a demand for women's suffrage it worked closely with the Independent Labour Party. Pankhurst also began production of a weekly paper for working-class women called The Women's Dreadnought. (2)
As June Hannam has pointed out: "The ELF was successful in gaining support from working women and also from dock workers. The ELF organized suffrage demonstrations and its members carried out acts of militancy. Between February 1913 and August 1914 Sylvia was arrested eight times. After the passing of the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act of 1913 (known as the Cat and Mouse Act) she was frequently released for short periods to recuperate from hunger striking and was carried on a stretcher by supporters in the East End so that she could attend meetings and processions. When the police came to re-arrest her this usually led to fights with members of the community which encouraged Sylvia to organize a people's army to defend suffragettes and dock workers. She also drew on East End traditions by calling for rent strikes to support the demand for the vote." (3)
Norah Smyth, supplied most of the money for this venture. Appointed treasurer of the EFL she helped finance their weekly newspaper, The Women's Dreadnought that first appeared in March 1914. Although they printed 20,000 copies, by the third issue total sales were only listed as just over 100 copies. During processions and demonstrations, the newspaper was freely distributed as propaganda for the EFF and the wider movement for women's suffrage. (4)
Sylvia Pankhurst, who had brought an end to her romantic relationship with Keir Hardie, became extremely close to Norah during this period: "Although Norah was also from a wealthy background, she dedicated many years of her life, and almost all of her inheritance, to the suffragette cause, and lived in Bow with Sylvia for many years. Norah played a key role in all the Federation's activities (she was financial secretary, helped to drill the People's Army and even wallpapered and painted the Woman's Hall) but seemed to prefer a place out of the limelight." (5) It has been suggested Norah became a substitute sister for Sylvia. (6)
Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst objected to the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and by the end of 1913 Sylvia was on the verge of being expelled from the WSPU. Christabel, who was living in exile, should meet with her in Paris. "So insistent were the messages… I agreed to go… I was smuggled into a car and driven to Harwich. I insisted that Norah Smyth, who had become financial secretary of the Federation, should go with me to represent our members… Like me, she desired to avoid a breach. Dogged in her fidelities, and by temperament unable to express herself under emotion, she was silent… She (Christabel) urged, a working women's movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest." Christabel added: "You have your own ideas. We do not want that; we want all our women to take their instructions and walk in step like an army!". (7)
Christabel also complained about ELF's close links with the Labour Party and the trade union movement. She especially objected to her attending meetings addressed by George Lansbury and James Larkin and her friendship with Keir Hardie and Henry Harben. In view of all this, Christabel concluded, Sylvia's East London suffragettes had to become an entirely separate organization, having proven their inability to operate in compliance with WSPU policy. (8)
Norah Smyth, continued to provide the money needed to keep the ELF functioning. However, as the authors of the East London Suffragettes (2014) pointed out: "One of Nora's greatest contributions was as an observer. She had a talent for photography, and it is thanks to her that we have such a fantastic visual record of the East London suffragettes' activities, and so many images of the deep poverty which surrounded them." (9)
The British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Two days later, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies declared that the organization was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Fawcett supported the war effort, but she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) took a different view to the war. It was a spent force with very few active members. According to Martin Pugh, the WSPU were aware "that their campaign had been no more successful in winning the vote than that of the non-militants whom they so freely derided". (10)
The WSPU carried out secret negotiations with the government and on the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: "I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy." (11)
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: "What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!". (12)
Anti-war activists such as Ramsay MacDonald were attacked as being "more German than the Germans". Another article on the Union of Democratic Control carried the headline: "Norman Angell: Is He Working for Germany?" Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield were described as "Bolshevik women trade union leaders" and Arthur Henderson, who was in favour of a negotiated peace with Germany, was accused of being in the pay of the Central Powers. Her daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was now a member of the Labour Party, accused her mother of abandoning the pacifist views of Richard Pankhurst. (13)
Norah Smyth shared Sylvia's pacifist beliefs and joined her on platforms in the East End, condemning the war and calling for an early peace. Norah wrote in The Women's Dreadnought that "peace would be the overriding issue in the year to come". (14) Former WSPU members such as Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth joined them on ELFS demonstrations against the war. (15)
In 1914 Norah Smyth, and Henry Harben agreed to finance the establishment of the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow. It was large enough to hold meetings of 350 people. It became the headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). It became a social centre run largely by and for local working-class women. It housed a ‘Cost Price Restaurant' where people could get a hot meal at a very low price and free milk for their children. (16)
In October 1914 Norah agreed to finance the establishment of a toy factory at the rear of the Women's Hall. The first toys were wooden and flat, easily made and quickly marketable. The socialist artist Walter Crane provided free designs. Since the Germans had cornered most of the toy market before the war, especially the production of dolls, it seemed to be a good idea. Eventually the factory produced stuffed dolls that they sold to Selfridge's in the West End. When the factory started making profits, Norah turned it into a cooperative and hired Regina Hercbegova as manager. (17)
The factory was supposed to be run collectively, guided by a definite constitution and a workers' committee. Unbeknown to Norah Smyth, Hercbegova set up her own business management system. "Regina swiftly grasped the most effective capitalist methods – cost cutting, increasing her own wages and decreasing those of the staff – while running roughshod over the co-operative, socialist ethos on which the factory was supposed to run." (18)
Regina Hercbegova ran the factory very badly and it was soon heavily in debt. By the end of the war had sold jewels, cashed bonds and sold antique furniture to keep the venture going. In all, Norah lent the factory £750. Norah also financed other ventures. Indeed, between February 1915 and July 1916, Norah lent the ELF a total of £1839 10s 4d. (19)
Despite the problems with the factory, the Women's Hall was a great success: "With a large hall of their own, the suffragettes were able to hold public meetings without fear of interference from the council or the police. Other sympathetic groups could hold their meetings there too, bringing in a new audience for the Federation's messages and building solidarity with other campaigns in the East End at the time. Without having to pay hire fees, the Federation could run a much wider range of activities, including lessons and workshops, fundraising concerts, lending libraries, affordable canteens and nurseries." (20)
Norah Smyth and Sylvia Pankhurst formed a branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in the East End. In a continuing attempt to maintain a balance between suffrage and peace agitation the East London Federation of Suffragettes changed its name in March 1916 to the Workers Suffrage Federation (WSF), symbolically acknowledging its long-held goal of universal suffrage. (21)
Norah and Sylvia, although critical of those who supported Britain's entry into the First World War, they admired those who attempted to reduce the suffering in the conflict. This included Henry Harben who had financed a hospital treating wounded soldiers in France that was being run by another former WSPU member, Dr. Flora Murray. They showed their approval by visiting the hospital in Paris. (22)
The women's hostility to the war resulted in people resigning from the WSF. As Sylvia Pankhurst admitted later: "I felt sorrow in having to tell parents whose sons were at the front that war was wrong and its ideals false… It required an effort to bring myself to do it… I lost old friends and subscribers to our movement." (23)
Another name which occurs again and again at Sylvia's side is Norah Smyth. Although Norah was also from a wealthy background, she dedicated many years of her life, and almost all of her inheritance, to the suffragette cause, and lived in Bow with Sylvia for many years. Norah played a key role in all the Federation's activities (she was financial secretary, helped to drill the People's Army and even wallpapered and painted the Woman's Hall) but seemed to prefer a place out of the limelight…. Perhaps fittingly then, one of Nora's greatest contributions was as an observer. She had a talent for photography, and it is thanks to her that we have such a fantastic visual record of the East London suffragettes' activities, and so many images of the deep poverty which surrounded them.
The life of Norah Smyth after 1924 is a fascinating example of what can happen to an activist, once her cause has been won, lost or faded into history.
Smyth, suffragette, socialist and pioneering woman photographer was a founding member of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and right-hand woman to Sylvia Pankhurst, who set up the federation in 1914.
Her years of activism included a spell as a prominent member of the Communist Workers' Party (CWP) during the 1920's. Her active participation in the international socialist movement came to an end with the dissolution of the CWP. After twelve years in the East End of London, it was time to move on. Smyth decided to join brother Maxwell in Florence, where she took up a post at the British Institute.
Smyth's great nephew, Paul Isolani Smyth, knew her when he was a young boy in the late 1950's, and has photographs of her with Maxwell and her friends taken during her sojourn in Italy. He explained what influenced her decision to leave England.
Aged 36, Smyth inherited a fortune from her father, a wealthy Cheshire grain dealer, which enabled her to come to London, become Emmeline Pankhurst's driver and meet her daughter Sylvia, who introduced her to the East End. Like Rosaline McCheyne, Smyth was a less visible but essential cog in the movement.
Once Smyth committed to ELFS, she didn't hesitate to pour money into their enterprises. She financed the publication of their weekly newspaper, the Woman's Dreadnought, at the same time as acting as its photographer. In 1920 she bailed out the toy factory on Norman Road, when it ran into financial difficulties, to ensure that the women it employed could continue to work there for a fair wage on safe conditions.
In short, she spent her father's inheritance on funding ELFS, needed to earn a living and realised she could live more cheaply in Italy. Florence had been the choice of home for generations of genteel English people who could no longer afford to maintain their way of life in their homeland.
This chapter in her life closed when it became clear that Britain would be going to war with Italy. An invitation to live and work in Malta arrived from her friend Mabel Strickland and she accepted. The job offered was with the Times of Malta whose proprietor was Strickland, also a leading figure in the Progressive Constitutionalist Party, who used her position to oppose independence from Britain, when elected to parliament in 1963.
As an anti-colonialist, Smyth's choice of employer, then, might seem a curious one. Maybe she was happy to be drawn into the orbit of another indomitable woman, whose autocratic style earned her the nickname "Queen of Malta".
Smyth made her home eight miles from Valetta in Mdina, an ancient walled enclave filled with a rich mix of Norman and Baroque architecture. In a different era, Mdina's inaccessibility and reputation as, "the silent city", might have offered her the kind of tranquility she had enjoyed in Italy, but the Second World War changed everything.