Norah Smyth, Suffragette Photographer

by Carla Mitchell

Written for Spitalfieldslife

Carla Mitchell, Director of Four Corners, celebrates the photography of Norah Smyth as her work returns to the East End for the first time in over a century for a new exhibition

Sylvia Pankhurt paints ‘Votes For Women’ at 198 Bow Rd, 1912

Sylvia Pankhurt paints ‘Votes For Women’ at 198 Bow Rd, 1912

At dawn on 13th July 1912, two women crouched by the wall of Nuneham House, Oxfordshire. They had arrived up the Thames by hired rowboat, aiming to set fire to the eighteenth century home of the vehemently anti-suffrage Lewis ‘Lulu’ Harcourt MP. Helen Craggs was arrested but the other woman escaped over the fields, her identity unknown. Years later, in the early sixties, Norah Smyth confided the truth to her nephew, former diplomat Kenneth Isolani Smyth. He expressed surprise, knowing her love of old paintings and antiques, but Smyth explained that she knew the east wing of the house was uninhabited. It was the only violent action that she undertook as a suffragette.

It is to this remarkable woman that we owe a debt of gratitude for her striking photographs of East London suffragettes, documenting an extraordinary moment in women’s social history. A unique exhibition of her work opens at Four Corners gallery this week, bringing these images back to East End for the first time in a hundred years, generously loaned from the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam.

Born Norah Veronica Lyle-Smyth in 1874, she was the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool grain merchant, one of eleven children. Her father was kind but overbearing and she did not leave home until after his death. Instead, she developed a talent as a sculptor, carving panels behind the altar in her local church and cutting her own gravestone, with the date left blank.  She sometimes smoked a clay pipe and owned a pet monkey called Gnome. In 1911, she moved to London and joined Edith Craig’s Pioneer Players, known for its plays on the subject of women’s suffrage.  She also worked as an unpaid chauffeur to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leading figure of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Here she met her daughter Sylvia Pankhurst and they shared a residence in Notting Hill, beginning a friendship that lasted over ten years.

In 1912 Pankhurst, Smyth and supporters set up an East London branch of the WSPU at a baker’s shop at 198 Bow Rd.  Smyth took evocative photographs of Pankhurst painting ‘Votes for Women’ in gold letters on the shopfront. Another early photograph shows Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike at the house of Mr & Mrs Payne at 28 Ford Rd in Bow. Pankhurst was regularly imprisoned under the ‘Cat & Mouse’ Act, which allowed the authorities to release hunger striking suffragettes from prison and then re-arrest them once their health had recovered.

The suffragettes found a ready activism among East End women, which had existed since the Bryant & May Match Women’s strike of 1888. They supported George Lansbury, MP for Poplar & Bow, who staged a by-election on women’s suffrage and lost his seat as a result. Pankhurst argued that working-class women had the most to gain from winning the vote as part of the struggle for social reform. Alongside the vote, members called for better housing and working conditions and equal pay. This growing East End movement led to a break with the mainstream WSPU in 1914 and the formation of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

Smyth’s photographs date from then, suggesting an active decision to promote the work of the new organisation. In particular she used her photographs for the ELFS weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought.  The name was ‘symbolic of the fact that the women who are fighting for freedom must fear nothing’. Newspapers were publishing photography for the first time and Smyth exploited this to great effect. She also used the hugely popular picture postcard format to disseminate her photographs, sent out through frequent daily postal services.

Pre-First World War photographs show the Women’s May Day procession from East India Dock Gates to Victoria Park, ‘Self Denial’ fundraising week, the weekly stall in Roman Rd and the deputation of East End women to meet Prime Minster Asquith in June 1914.  An active ELFS organiser, Smyth was evidently self-effacing and rarely took part in public speeches or debates. Sylvia Pankhurst describes her preparing a march on a rainy day:

‘ “Of course we shall march!” she said, and bustled about fitting up banners, impetuously lifting and wrenching; doing more than any half-dozen men in the crowd.. In grey-black costume, short-skirted for those days, a small, black shovel hat surmounting her long pale face and tight-drawn hair, she dashed about, a slight, thick-shouldered, thin-legged figure, with a trace of elegance.’

The ELFS’ headquarters was the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Rd, also home to Smyth, Pankhurst, and Mr & Mrs Payne. Here they hosted meetings, Sunday socials and a Junior Suffragette’s Club for girls aged fourteen to eighteen. Evidently the roof was the place for socialising in warm weather. Several photographs also show the Lansbury family helping to hoist the Suffragette flag and celebrate Sylvia’s thirty-second birthday.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 threw the East End into turmoil. Factories closed, unemployment and the inflation of food prices caused widespread distress. Desperate women called at The Women’s Hall, begging for help. The ELFS responded by setting up cheap restaurants, free mother and baby clinics, nurseries and a cooperative toy factory with crèche attached. 400 Old Ford Rd became a milk distribution centre for hungry babies, followed by others in Bow, Poplar, Canning Town and Stepney. A disused pub, the ‘Gunmaker’s Arms’, was reopened as a nursery, ‘The Mother’s Arms’, with an innovative Montessori school. Deeply affected by the poverty in East London that was made even worse by the war, Smyth spent her entire inheritance supporting this work.

Smyth’s photographs can be seen within a tradition of Victorian street photography that portrays East London through the eyes of outsiders. Crowds of children in Bow streets stare at the photographer with curious glances, reminiscent of images by John Thomson or John Galt. Yet other depictions differ, girls and boys in the cost price restaurant look at the photographer with an assertive immediacy. Groups of working mothers and their babies pose informally for the camera.  Even the shockingly malnourished infant held by Nurse Hebbes or the sleeping child left alone at home are shown without drama or spectacle. Smyth’s intimate, familiar photographs reveal an everyday world of which she was a participant rather than an external observer.

The photographs vary in technique. Some are snapshots, taken perhaps with the Kodak Brownie camera available since 1900. Others suggest the use of older technology: faces blurred by long exposures impart a different quality of time and movement.  There are numerous photographs of mothers and children, reflecting their importance within the ELFS’ activities. ‘The hope of the world lies with the children. Help to save the babies’, the Dreadnought’s July 31st 1915 edition headline read. During the war the East London suffragettes sustained their collective spirit, organising children’s festivals such as the New Year’s Pageant at Bow Baths Hall in January 1916.  Smyth’s photograph shows a procession of young suffragettes dressed to personify Peace, Liberty and the Spirit of Spring, led by children wearing ‘red caps of liberty’.

In Spring 1916 a million soldiers were conscripted, many of whom did not have the right to vote. This changed the suffrage debate, and the ELFS began calling for universal adult suffrage and campaigning openly against the war.  Smyth’s photographs cease around this time. It is possible that later images did not survive.  Equally, it seems likely that the efforts of keeping the cost price restaurants, Mother’s Arms, Toy Factory and baby clinics going alongside the growing anti-war campaign meant that photography was put aside.

By the time some women finally gained the vote in 1918, the Russian Revolution had changed everything. The East London suffragettes were calling for international Socialism and trying to keep their vision of East End militancy alive. Yet political debates alongside financial hardships led to a dispersal of its members and the closure of the Dreadnought in 1924.

Smyth left for Florence where she worked for the British Institute, then joined the Times of Malta. In 1945, she went to live with her sister Una in County Donegal, leading a quiet rural life until her death in 1963. Her papers are lost, so we do not know whether she continued to take photographs later in life. One picture taken a few years before her death shows her with a box brownie camera.

The East End suffragettes fought not only for the right to vote but also for a radical transformation of British society. Through self-organised, community action across East London, working class women battled for social justice during the hardships of the First World War.  Norah Smyth’s remarkable photography celebrates their history.

Norah Smyth in uniform as Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeur, 1913

Norah Smyth in uniform as Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeur, 1913

‘Enjoying our Christmas number’- suffragettes selling The Woman’s Dreadnought, 1915

‘Enjoying our Christmas number’- suffragettes selling The Woman’s Dreadnought, 1915

ELFS stall on Roman Rd, announcing a forthcoming demonstration in Canning Town, July 1914

‘The home they fought for’ – children come to play with Sylvia Pankhurst’s dog Jim c 1915

‘The home they fought for’ – children come to play with Sylvia Pankhurst’s dog Jim c 1915

Hoisting the flag at 400 Old Ford Rd for Sylvia Pankhurst’s 32nd birthday. She is pointing at the camera. The little boy is the grandson of George Lansbury, MP for Poplar & Bow. May 1914

Hoisting the flag at 400 Old Ford Rd for Sylvia Pankhurst’s 32nd birthday. She is pointing at the camera. The little boy is the grandson of George Lansbury, MP for Poplar & Bow. May 1914

Gathering on the roof of 400 Old Ford Rd, 1914

Gathering on the roof of 400 Old Ford Rd, 1914

Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike at the home of Mr & Mrs Payne at 28 Ford Rd, Bow. 1913

Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike at the home of Mr & Mrs Payne at 28 Ford Rd, Bow. 1913

ELFS demonstration on Women’s May day on the Old Ford Road, Bow, 30th May 1915

Outside the war relief clinic at 53 St Leonard’s St, Bromley

Outside the war relief clinic at 53 St Leonard’s St, Bromley

Mrs Schlette holding a cat outside the war relief clinic at 53 St Leonard’s St, Bromley

Nurse Hebbes with one of her ‘war sufferers’ at the Mother’s Arms, c1915

Nurse Hebbes with one of her ‘war sufferers’ at the Mother’s Arms, c1915

Children eating at the cost price restaurant at 20 Railway St, Poplar, 1914

Procession of children at New Year’s Pageant., January 1916

Procession of children at New Year’s Pageant., January 1916

Ranwell St, Bow, c 1914

Ranwell St, Bow, c 1914

Children in Bow, c 1914

Children in Bow, c 1914

Children in Bow. c 1914

Children in Bow. c 1914

Photographs courtesy International Institute for Social History

Written for Spitalfieldslife


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