Matchwomen’s Festival: The teddy that fought un-bear-able conditions
Saturday 4th July 2015
Sylvia Pankhurst is known as many things: a Suffragette, socialist, and a founder of the communist movement. PETER FROST, however, remembers her toy factory
A HUNDRED years ago, in 1915, a product was launched in a co-operative women’s factory in East London. Let me introduce you to the socialist teddy bear.
Our story starts in 1913 as war clouds are gathering. Many of the more right-wing Suffragettes are beginning to plan the suspension of their votes for women campaigning and throw their weight behind the jingoistic move towards winning the war.
Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist Suffragette, decides she will spend more of her time and efforts working for the Independent Labour Party in East London. As well as political campaigning — including the battle for equal adult suffrage — Sylvia builds a network of various projects to actually improve the lot of East End women and their families.
She opened mother and baby clinics staffed by doctors who treated patients without charge. She established a milk distribution centre for babies, many of whom were too ill to digest their food. The clinics also distributed Virol malt, eggs and barley, as well as infant health leaflets and feeding charts.
Wartime food shortages and, panic-buying causing food prices to rise rapidly. This began to hit working-class areas like the East End hard. Sylvia’s response was to open a cost price restaurant.
It aimed to serve two-penny, two-course meals to adults and penny meals to children, at midday. Each evening a pint of hot soup and a chunk of bread was available for a penny. Food could be eaten at the restaurant or taken home.
The first restaurant was built by volunteers. Local builders, tradesmen and their families not only gave their labour but also china, cutlery and money. In 1915 they served about 400 meals daily and every day Sylvia was there helping to cook and serve the meals.
Also in 1915 Sylvia realised that children’s toys were no longer being imported from Germany. Pre-war Germany had been 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. Workers were paid a generous minimum wage of 5d an hour or £1 a week. Conditions were also much better 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. The wood came from another socialist, George Lansbury, who owned a yard in Bow.
Many of the workers were skilled needlewomen. They designed and made dolls of all colours. They made a whole range of soft stuffed animals. Last but not least, they made the first ever socialist teddy bears.
German toymaker Richard Steiff had introduced a stuffed toy bear in 1903 and it had taken the world by storm. The German Steiff company had dominated the teddy bear market — they still do — 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 was generally supportive of the suffrage cause. He was a main sponsor of the Suffrage Annual and Women’s Who’s Who, published in 1913. Selfridge’s advertised on the cover and along the foot of every page.
Selfridge’s also dressed its store windows in the purple, white and green — the colours of the Suffragettes.
Sylvia’s east London toy factory at was at 45 Norman Road (now Norman Grove), just over a mile from today’s Morning Star offices in Bow.
Amy K Browning, who would become a well-known artist, and Hilda Jeffries designed and helped to produce the toys.
Edith Downing, a talented sculptor who had trained at the Slade and later been force-fed in prison, modelled sets of realistic wax dolls’ heads for the works.
Arts and crafts socialist Walter Crane designed some of the toys. Indeed the tradition of the arts and crafts movement, rather than a slavish imitation of German toys, was the work’s underlying philosophy.
The range of toys was huge. As well as socialist bears they included pigs, robins and other birds, ducks and ducklings, various dogs, squirrels, and even elephants.
Dolls included baby girls and boys, fairies and lifelike wax-headed dolls. The workshop also made dolls’ house Chippendale furniture.
Unlike many other suffrage societies, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) did not suspend its suffrage campaigning activities during WWI.
The federation was opposed to the war and openly campaigned against conscription, executions for cowardice and wartime restrictions censorship.
Alongside this campaigning Sylvia and ELFS members built an 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 Gunmaker’s 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 beautifully renamed it the Mother’s Arms.
Sylvia Pankhurst will be remembered for many things; as a militant Suffragette, a writer and painter, a socialist and a founder member of the British communist movement.
She was a brilliant organiser, a powerful orator and a talented artist 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 publications. First the Women’s Dreadnought and then the Workers’ Dreadnought.
She founded the Workers’ Socialist Federation in solidarity with the 1917 Russian revolution.
She was a great woman and a great revolutionary, but a fun-loving warm human being too. So I’ll finish by paraphrasing my favourite Suffragette and socialist slogan from the US: “Give us bread, but give us teddy bears.”
Sarah Gavron’s [film] Suffragette: What do Mrs. Pankhurst and an East End laundress have in common? Here.