East End Suffragettes: the photographs of Norah Smyth
An Exhibition at the Four Corners Gallery, Roman Road
If you can get along to Bethnal Green in the next three weeks, I highly recommend a visit to this exhibition of photographs. They document a dramatic period in the history of the East London, when Sylvia Pankhurst moved in and set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914 at 400 Old Ford Road, which also served as home to her and her companion, Norah. The exhibition follows on from the recreation of the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road staged over summer last year at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (londongrip.co.uk/2018/05/east-london-federation-of-suffragettes-event-at-tower-hamlets-local-history-library-and-archive/).
Norah’s photographs show the splendid work ELFS carried out for the people of the East End during the First World War – running Cost Price restaurants for people suffering from food shortages, milk distribution centres for hungry babies and clinics for children with no access to free health care. They even set up a toy factory to provide women with the opportunity to earn a fair wage in decent working conditions. There are processions, pageants and anti-war protests. We also see how the Russian Revolution spurred Sylvia and other members of ELFS on to a wider socialist programme after women over the age of thirty won the vote in 1918.
Her portrayals of East Enders have a warmth lacking in the images created by other photographers who came to the East End to capture a spectacle of poverty and deprivation for the appalled gaze of those who lived outside. Her subjects engage with her as one who lives among them, looking steadily at the camera, without embarrassment or any obvious desire to please.
Four Corners’ exhibition offers us the rare opportunity to view important moments in the history East London history, captured as they occurred, which can usually only be seen at the International Institute of Social History (/www.socialhistory.org/) in Holland, where they are stored.
Contemporaries reported that Norah was every bit as energetic and capable as Sylvia Pankhurst, and yet her contribution to women’s suffrage is very little known. Likewise, there is scant acknowledgment of her place in the history of English photography.
It’s hard to say why this should be, but it could be something to do with Norah’s self-effacing nature, evident in the omission of any credits for the many photographs she published in the Woman’s Dreadnought, ELFS’ official newspaper. Such reticence was not par for the course. Christina Broom, the far more famous photographer of the mainstream Women’s Social and Political Union, etched her name on every one of her photographic plates. Nor was her philanthropic contribution commemorated, unlike that of other benefactors such as William Booth and Richard Green, even though she spent the entire fortune she inherited from her father on the people of the East End.
So far, visitor numbers have exceeded the organisers’ expectations and comments in the visitors’ book are full praise for this skilfully curated assemblage of a unique collection. Originally it was intended for display until 9th February but fortunately for potential visitors it can now be seen for a further week.
Norah Smyth’s photographs are on display at Four Corners
121 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, London E2 0QN
From 2nd November – 16th February 2019
Tues – Sat: 11.00-18.00 daily. Admission free. Closed Mondays.
There is a catalogue to accompany the exhibition written by Carla Mitchell and Helen Trompeteler, which reproduces many of the images displayed and has been an invaluable source of information for this article.
Jane McChrystal © 2019.