Michelle Ballard’s East End ancestor stood shoulder to shoulder with the Pankhursts to campaign for votes for women. Her story shows how much we owe to the working-class suffragettes. By Gail Dixon
“My suffragette ancestor changed history,” says Michelle Ballard
20 June 1914 hardy band of poverty-stricken women stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street. They were East End suffragettes, determined to lobby the prime minister Herbert Asquith for women’s rights. Throughout his career, Asquith had been extremely hostile to the movement. However, the women’s stories of hardship and struggle had a profound effect upon him. History was made that day.
One of the women was Jane Savoy née Major, a redoubtable matriarch in her 50s, who had worked as a brushmaker since the age of 10. Jane is the great great aunt of Michelle Ballard née Girling, who is thrilled to be related to such a remarkable woman.
“I always knew that Jane, or Aunt Jinny as she was known in the family, was a suffragette,” Michelle explains. “My nana Connie said that Jane chained herself to the railings, but managed to avoid prison. She was a close friend and neighbour of leading suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, and Connie remembered accompanying Jane to tea at Sylvia’s on Sunday afternoons. These snippets of information were all I had to begin with.”
After Michelle’s family grew up, she began researching her maternal line in earnest. “My great grandmother Hannah was born in Stratford in 1875 to a family of shoemakers. Jane was her older sister, born in Spitalfields in 1861. The family was very poor, which is why she started work at the age of 10. Hannah married Arthur Wakefield and they had eight children, including my nana Connie.”
Jane married Alfred Savoy, a brush finisher, and spent 10 hours a day feeding bristles into brush backs that he finished by sanding, staining and polishing. Alfred disapproved of her activism: “He didn’t take kindly to his name appearing in the newspapers.” So Jane often used the pseudonym ‘Mrs Hughes’, from her mother’s maiden name.
After numerous fruitless searches to find out more about Jane, Michelle discovered the website spitalfieldslife.com, which provided a tantalising lead. “It had a clip from a 1970s television drama called Shoulder to Shoulder, which was about the suffragettes. This rang a bell, because I was sure family members had said that it featured Jane.
“The clip was from episode six, and it showed a resilient East End woman called Mrs Savoy, played by the actress Maggie Flint. The character talks about a deputation to Asquith, and recounts a speech that she made to him. I viewed the episode agog with the realisation of what my relative had been a part of.
“I then discovered the book Voices from History: East London Suffragettes, by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor, which gave more details of the meeting between six suffragettes of the East End and Herbert Asquith. A photograph showed a stout, middle-aged lady staring sternly at the camera. Could this be Jane?
“I contacted Sarah, and her reply gave me my light-bulb moment. She confirmed
My great great aunt was a close friend and neighbour of Sylvia Pankhurst
that the lady in the image third from the left was Mrs Hughes, whose real name was Mrs Savoy. I jumped up from my seat in surprise and said to my daughter Alicia, ‘Do you realise what Jane was a part of? She helped to change history.’”
Hearts and minds
The women’s deputation was a landmark moment. Sylvia Pankhurst, who was the powerhouse behind the East End suffragettes, had lobbied Asquith for years to receive a deputation of working mothers. She wanted him to hear first-hand the suffering and hardship of their daily lives. Asquith refused Sylvia’s request five times, but finally relented after she lay on the steps of the House of Commons weakened after a hunger strike.
“A rally of suffragettes was organised, and Jane was one of the women elected to represent them. She must have been immensely respected.”
Sylvia Pankhurst described the “little band of poor women” and the meeting in her memoir The Suffragette Movement: “Stout old Mrs Savoy, the brush-maker, jolly and brave… In spite of her poverty, she was ever ready to share her last crust.”
As Jane’s turn to speak came, she darted forward and took something dark from her bag. Asquith and the other men thought it was a bomb, and ran for their lives. They recovered their composure when Jane exclaimed, “That’s my work! This is a brush I am making for two pence; it is sold wholesale for 10 shillings and six pence. I work from eight in the morning till six at night making brushes and four hours at housework. My hands get cut with the wire. As I have to work so hard to support myself, I think it is very unfair that I cannot have a voice in making the laws I have to uphold.”
The press reported that, “Listening to the women’s speeches, Asquith appeared to be genuinely shocked by the appalling living and working conditions that they endured.” So long an antisuffragist, he gave an “uncharacteristically sympathetic response” and stated that he would “take all these things into careful consideration”.
Sylvia remarked that it was the turning point at which Asquith began to accept the “inevitable entry of women into citizenship”.
The suffragettes ceased campaigning when war broke out in 1914. However, many women did essential war work, and they earned new respect. Finally, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Lloyd George’s government, granting the vote to women aged over 30 who met a property qualification. Ironically, Jane and Alfred did not satisfy the qualification, so she was still denied the vote. Millions of women had to wait 10 more years to gain equal voting rights to men. Sylvia’s memoirs revealed more of Jane’s character and activism: “Mrs Savoy was an enthusiastic militant, vigorous in jostling disturbers away from our platforms, and in a moment of excitement had taken off her shoe and flung it at the head of a detective who was endeavouring to drag me off to prison. Than Mrs Savoy, none was more active.”
Sylvia’s description of Jane tallies with the photographs that Michelle has found: “Despite her rusty black [clothing], there was a comely magnificence about that ample presence: the large ruddy features radiating pleasant kindness, the abundant brown hair, dressed with sober severity, yet clustering in crisp little curls about the nape.”
Jane lived at 143 St Stephen’s Road, which was just around the corner from 400 Old Ford Road, where Sylvia established the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) Women’s Hall on 5 May 1914.
Sylvia knew that it was essential to rally working-class women like Jane. Michelle says, “Many people think that the suffragettes were mostly middle class. Not enough attention goes to the working-class women of the ELFS, who took extreme risks to
campaign. Prison sentences for working mothers were devastating for families.”
Jane’s legendary role at Number 10 was one brief episode out of a lifetime of caring for poor and disadvantaged people. “One of my cousins, Kathryn, found a hoard of family memorabilia in her mother’s attic in Dagenham. She had kept photographs, documents and articles, which helped us to build a picture of Jane and Hannah’s lives.
“They were the local midwives, although they had no conventional training, and took in orphaned children left on their doorstep. Jane and Alfred couldn’t have children, so they adopted two sons, one of whom died. The other, Thomas Savoy, moved to Wales.”
Hannah and her family lived above a delicatessen, sweet and general store at 460 Old Ford Road, which she used to run, one door away from Sylvia’s crèche, the Mothers’ Arms. Hannah helped a number of her poorest customers by allowing them to run up tabs.
A life of campaigning
Campaigning for workers’ rights was something of a lifelong commitment for Jane. She spoke on the sweated industries at Victoria Park in May 1914, and supported the London Carmen’s Trade Union. “Ken Doughty, of the Society of Brushmakers’ Descendants, told me that in 1915 Sylvia wrote a letter to the United Society of Brushmakers deploring the fact that Kent’s, which employed most of the makers in the East End, paid less than the going rate for their brushes.” Ken believes that Jane would have been the force behind this letter.
Jane lived next door to George Lansbury, the Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, and an ardent social reformer. “George was grandfather to the actress Angela Lansbury, and Jane, along with Hannah’s daughters, used to wheel her around in her pram.”
George Lansbury wrote of Jane that she was “the best woman in Old Ford [and would] perform any service for a neighbour, from bringing her baby into the world to scrubbing out her room, or minding her children at need”.
Jane’s achievements are all the more remarkable considering she suffered ill health throughout her life, mainly palpitations and dropsy. She passed away on 13 January 1928, of acute kidney disease. Hundreds of people lined the route for her funeral. The procession was led by George Lansbury, and Jane’s body was carried in an ornate carriage decked with wreaths. “My only sorrow is that Jane didn’t live to see the passing of the Government’s Bill in July of that year, which allowed all women aged over 21 to vote.”
The family’s links to the Pankhursts survive to this day. “Sylvia gave Jane a necklace of hers, which had beautiful pendants set with jewels in green, pink and white. Jane distributed sections of the necklace among Hannah’s children, and Connie was given a pendant which was passed down to me. I treasure the pendant as a piece of history.”
“This year I met Sylvia’s granddaughter, Helen Pankhurst, at the opening of the suffragette exhibition in Tower Hamlets in May. Helen gave me a hug, and said that we must keep in touch. It was a lovely moment. Two families who were really close back in the day had been brought back together again.”
Michelle concludes, “My daughter and I have never been so proud to learn that we are related to such a kind, strong-willed and determined person as Jane Savoy. We owe everything to women like her.”
Jane and Hannah were the local midwives, although they had no conventional training
These six suffragettes visited 10 Downing Street in 1914, including Jane Savoy ( third from left)
This celebration of Jane Savoy’s life and campaigning, by Sylvia Pankhurst, appeared in 1933
Michelle’s great grandmother Hannah lived a door away from the Mothers’ Arms
The pub the Eleanor Arms now stands on the site of Hannah Wakefield’s general store