In January 1916, Rose Pengelly is as old as the century. She may just be a factory hand but on this particular Saturday morning she is revelling in her triumph as the Spirit of the Woods in the ELFS Spring Pageant. Sylvia Pankhurst herself had congratulated Rose and called her a vision of loveliness.
Her workmates had another name for her…Little Sylvia. It was a compliment. Already politicised by her aunts, who worked in the match making industry, she’d joined the Junior Suffragettes 2 years earlier and had joined a strike almost as soon as she had. Factory conditions at Backs asbestos pipe works (cement sewage pipes, not the smoking kind) were bad. Women were expected to haul loads almost as heavy as those of the men, as well as to do domestic duties for the boss at a third of the men’s wages. Yet it was two of the men who, amid the ferment of revolution at the start of the century, had tried to form a union and whose sacking provoked a mass walk out of their colleagues . Rose marched with them straight to 400 Old Ford Road, and gave an account of her work to Sylvia and the assembled suffragists. She’d also been sacked for her pains. From then on, she’d promoted the suffragette cause amongst her neighbours in Ranwell Street, collected for the milk fund and been active in the young suffragettes club. They had had picnics and talks and parades and political meetings but her highlight had been dancing and playing pan pipes for the kids party that week. Later that Saturday evening, she would be reprising her performance for the adults at Bow Baths Hall.
She is picturing herself now, not in a dirty smock, at the handle of the box making guillotine, amid the throb of machines and the smell of grease, but draped in muslin, wreathed in ivy, clouded in the smell of grease paint, skipping to the trill of the pipes. On auto-pilot, she feeds the cardboard into the mouth of the machine and pulls the handle, thump. Pain sears through her hand. She lifts the blade and staggers back in horror. She hears screams but sees only red as she faints.
Rose Pengelly comes to, shocked awake by the sharp stink of smelling salts and the burn of brandy on her lips. A policeman is standing over her. Her boss is not. Instead of her cab fair, she’s been given her notice. There’s nothing her workmates can do. There is no first aid in the factory. They even had to send for the policeman to get permission to give her a quart of brandy. Rose must go to the London hospital alone, no one wants to risk the sack or losing half a day’s wage.
Rose Pengelly is sitting on a bus, her hand bandaged, still bloody. She feels sick and faint. She has to tell her mother that the household will be short of cash for a few months. She mourns the loss of two pan pipe playing fingers.
Rose Pengelly is as old as the century.
Rose Pengelly is featured in the exhibition about the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) at Bancroft Road Library, June 2018