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Women’s Rights and Newham

In the late nineteenth century the area now known as Newham was full of key figures in the struggle for female suffrage. This story is about those remarkable people who fought and won new rights for women.

Women’s Suffrage Society meetings had been held at Stratford Town Hall from the late 1880s, but in 1906 Sylvia Pankhurst set up a branch of the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Canning Town. She did this with the help of James Keir Hardie, Labour MP for West Ham and supporter of gender equality and women’s suffrage. Through Hardie, Pankhurst met two of his female constituents, Minnie Baldock from Canning Town and Daisy Parsons of West Ham.

Minnie Baldock was born in London in the 1860s. Like many girls, she worked from a young age in a shirt factory but later became a member of the Independent Labour Party. She joined the WSPU in 1906 and became a full-time organiser for the Union, founding a branch at Forest Gate and touring the country. She was infamous for heckling prominent political figures such as Prime Minister Henry Cambell-Bannerman and Chancellor Hebert Asquith in public hall meetings. Baldock was arrested during a demonstration outside the House of Commons in 1908 and sentenced to a month in Holloway prison. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1911 but continued to work for the Church League for Women's Suffrage after a life-saving operation.

Daisy Parsons was born in 1890. She left school aged twelve to become a maid but was interested in politics from an early age. Parsons was present at a protest outside Buckingham Palace in 1914, where women were treated viciously by the police and a crowd of young men. The police punched the protestors and threw them to the floor, while the young men tore their clothes and beat them, shouting that the woman ought to be burnt. Parsons was not intimidated into silence by the violence and published her account of the events. In 1914, Pankhurst founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as an anti-war breakaway group from the WSPU. With men serving at the front or killed, the ELFS supported woman and children and providing welfare clinics, Parsons setting up her own in West Ham. The Federation’s newspaper was called The Woman’s Dreadnought, with Pankhurst as editor and Parsons as honourable secretary.

Following the war, women over the age of 30 were granted the vote. Five years later, Susan Lawrence became as Labour MP for East Ham North. In 1928 women were finally given equal voting rights to men. In 1936, Parsons became the first woman mayor of West Ham. She was a central figure in the community and drove the first trolley bus in West Ham. She later became an Alderman of West Ham, Justice of the Peace and was awarded the MBE in 1951 for public service. She died in 1957 but her memory is celebrated in a large communal work of art at Hermit Road Park.

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