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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

“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 spi­tal­field­, 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

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