Sylvia Pankhurst‘s socialist teddy bear
Saturday 1st July 2017
Sylvia Pankhurst is known as many things: feminist, Suffragette, radical newspaper editor, socialist and a pioneer of the communist movement. PETER FROST, however, remembers her teddy bear
CHRISTIE’S auction house in London is selling an unusual item. Buyers are on the internet from New York and on phones from all over Britain.
The next lot is described in the catalogue as a rare 15-inch-high golden mohair Ealontoys branded teddy bear. It has glass eyes, a black stitched nose. The head swivels. It probably dates from the early 1930s.
Bidding is fierce and the hammer finally falls at £180, quite a price for an old teddy, especially one with a bald patch, a hole in one paw and a badly faded label.
That label, now barely legible, is the clue to the real and fascinating story behind this obviously interesting and collectable bear.
Ealontoys was the brand name of the East London Sufragette Federation Toy Factory established in 1913. It was part of the wide-ranging support organisation for working women founded and organised by Sylvia Pankhurst.
In 1913 war was threatening. Many of the more right-wing Suffragettes, not least Sylvia’s mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, were about to put their votes for women campaigning aside and support the jingoistic war.
Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist Suffragette, opposed the war. She decided she would work for peace and for the Independent Labour Party in east London.
As well as political campaigning — including the battle for equal adult suffrage — Sylvia built a network of support projects to improve the lot of East End women and their families.
She opened a free mother and baby clinic; a milk distribution centre for babies, many too ill to digest their food; she distributed virol malt, eggs and barley, as well as infant health leaflets and feeding charts.
As wartime food shortages pushed up food prices, Sylvia opened a cost-price restaurant that aimed to serve midday two-penny, two-course meals to adults and penny meals to children.
Each evening a pint of hot soup and a chunk of bread were available for a penny. Food could be eaten at the restaurant or taken home.
The first restaurant was built by volunteers. Local builders and their families not only gave their labour but also china, cutlery and money. By 1915 they were serving about 400 meals daily. Sylvia helped to cook and serve the meals most days.
In 1915 Sylvia realised that children’s toys were no longer being imported from Germany — the toy shop of Europe. Sylvia reckoned a new co-operative toy factory staffed by women would both fulfil the demand for toys and also provide work for many local women who had been thrown on the scrapheap by the closure of many East End sweatshops.
Sylvia’s new toy factory employed nearly 60 women and paid them a decent wage compared with the pittance many other local workshops paid.
The women were paid a generous minimum wage of £1 a week. Conditions too were good in Sylvia’s factory.
The workers turned out a whole range of products. There were wooden toys of all sorts, but no guns, warships or other such hateful products.
Many of the workers were skilled needlewomen. They designed and made rag dolls of all colours and a whole menagerie of stuffed animals. Last but not least, they made the first ever socialist teddy bears.
German toymaker Richard Steiff had produced a stuffed toy bear in 1903 and it had taken the world by storm. The German Steiff company dominated the teddy bear market — it still does — but in wartime Britain German bears were both unpatriotic and unobtainable.
Sylvia and her co-op stepped in to fill the demand. The socialist bear was born.
To market the bear, Sylvia turned to Gordon Selfridge and his famous Oxford Street store. Selfridge supported the suffrage cause and advertised on the cover and on every page of the Suffrage Annual and Women’s Who’s Who, published in 1913.
Sylvia’s east London toy factory was at 45 Norman Road (now Norman Grove), just over a mile from today’s Morning Star offices in Bow.
Arts and crafts socialist designer Walter Crane and many other socialist artists helped shape the toys. Indeed the tradition of the arts and crafts movement, rather than imitation of Germanic toys, was the underlying philosophy.
The range of toys was huge. As well as socialist bears they included all kinds of animals, even elephants. They made fairies and more lifelike wax-headed dolls.
The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (Elfs) continued its votes for women campaigning activities during WWI.
The federation also opposed the war and campaigned against conscription, executions for so-called cowardice and censorship.
Alongside this campaigning, Sylvia and Elfs members built her impressive local support network, clinics, nurseries and restaurants all centred on their Women’s Hall on Old Ford Road, and also other centres.
A disused pub, the Gunmakers Arms on Old Ford Road, was refurbished and in April 1915 reopened as a mother and baby clinic, free milk depot and day nursery. Sylvia renamed it the Mother’s Arms.
Sylvia Pankhurst will be honoured for many things; as a militant Suffragette, a writer and painter. Her paintings of working women are still among the best and most powerful of their kind.
As a journalist she founded and edited two of the best titles in the history of left-wing newspapers. First the Women’s Dreadnought which became the Workers’ Dreadnought.
She was a brilliant organiser, a powerful socialist orator who founded the Workers’ Socialist Federation in solidarity with the 1917 Russian Revolution and she was a founder member of the British communist movement.
She was truly a great woman and an outstanding revolutionary, but I like to remember her as mother of the socialist teddy bear.