Manchester: The Pankhurst Centre

It’d been a few years since Marcus and I had managed to go somewhere on our anniversary, so I thought it would be nice if we could swing a short break somewhere this year. I initially wanted to go somewhere picturesque, but then thought about the reality of England in late November: terrible weather + loads of places that close for the season, and decided it would be best to do a city break instead. Manchester seemed a likely candidate, since I’d never been, and in addition to Christmas markets (which I can often be Grinchy about, but I secretly enjoy them if they’re not too crowded), it also had a lot of museums that sounded really interesting. Inspired by Joy’s post, one of the museums I wanted to make sure to visit was the Pankhurst Centre, which I thought might be tricky due to their limited opening hours, but fortunately, they are open from 1-4 on the fourth Sunday of each month, which just happened to be when we’d arrive, so we were able to head straight there on our way into Manchester, and arrived just as they were opening.

Because the Pankhurst Centre is right next to a hospital, we were able to find parking in their car park and headed swiftly over to the museum in the midst of horrible windy sleety weather (that would plague us throughout our stay, but I’ve come to understand that that’s just what Manchester weather is like). We were the first people to arrive that day, so the woman working there gave us a nice little introduction to the house, and turned on the film for us in the middle room of the museum (the whole thing is only three rooms, but it is free). This was a 13 minute film about the suffragette movement, including an initially rather amusing anti-suffragette filmstrip from the 1910s about all the evils of the suffragette movement and the kinds of punishments that the husband of a suffragette thought they deserved.  However, it did get a lot less hilarious when the film moved on to the perils that befell the actual suffragette movement, including force-feeding, because of course the “punishments” in the amusing filmstrip weren’t so amusing when you consider that even worse punishments than the ones depicted in the propaganda filmstrip happened in real life (the ones in the anti-suffragette film were mostly about public shaming, rather than torture, because including the ways that suffragettes were actually treated might have generated public sympathy for them).

This room also contained a lot of signage about the history of women’s suffrage, and though it was pretty wordy, I stuck with it, because it was interesting stuff. I learned a lot about the Pankhurst family (maybe I’m just being dumb, but for some reason I always thought that Emmeline and Christabel were sisters, and Sylvia was Emmeline’s daughter. So it was nice to finally get the relationships straight – Emmeline was the mother, and Christabel, Sylvia, and the lesser known Adela were all her children, as well as two boys that died fairly young), and the history of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU (from putting together an audio tour of Wimbledon, I knew that we had a WSPU shop, and that during WWI, they decided to focus on the war effort and temporarily put suffrage on the back burner, but I didn’t know much else about it. Turns out that they sold all manner of amazing suffragette merchandise including a board game, these rad Christmas cards, and of course those “Votes for Women” sashes, plus other goods, like soap, to finance their activities).  There was a whole informational poster devoted just to Sylvia, and her typewriter was there too.

Emmeline and her family lived in the house in the early 1900s, and in 1903, the WSPU was founded here. The house was nearly demolished in 1979, but was fortunately saved by protests from women’s groups, and turned into a museum and women’s centre. The back room of the museum is the only one decorated to look as it would have when the Pankhursts lived here – this is meant to be the parlour where the WSPU began (though there was a women’s suffrage movement active in Manchester since 1867 (supported by Emmeline’s husband, Richard) and suffrage groups active nationwide, most groups were more concerned with getting the vote for working class men. It was the WSPU that turned the focus exclusively to women, and started using more radical tactics, such as destruction of property, arson, and hunger strikes).

I was so charmed by this suffragette doll when I saw her in Joy’s post that I had to be sure to grab a photo of her when I was there, and I can report that she is just as delightful in person. The parlour also contains a really neat suffragette handkerchief, and a sign explaining that they have traditionally been able to pay rent on the house using a suffragette sash, so there were a few handmade examples of those in here too.

Naturally, I was hoping there’d be a “Votes for Women” sash available for purchase, because I’d love to have one to wear around the house so I can occasionally break into a Mary Poppins-inspired “Votes for Women, Step in Time” song and dance routine (plus who wouldn’t want a sash? Sashes are great!), but though they had a range of “Votes for Women” merchandise, including aprons and tea towels, alas, there was no sash, so I settled for an enamel pin, which I look forward to wearing. This house, though small, was really nice and informative, and I’m so glad it’s here, both for its history as the birthplace of the WSPU, and the work it does for modern women by serving as a women’s centre. It’s only open for a few hours on Thursdays, and the second and fourth Sundays of each month, but I would definitely recommend stopping by if you can, because I learned a lot about the Pankhursts and the WSPU, and the museum is clearly run by lovely people. I hope they eventually have the resources to expand it a bit, and perhaps acquire more modern signage, but it’s still a delight as is. 3.5/5.

7 comments

  1. Happy belated anniversary!
    It looks like such a lovely museum and so cheery – especially in contrast with the nasty weather you described – that I’d probably have tried to hang out in that parlour all day.
    And I’m really taken with that amazing Emmeline Pankhurst mosaic (?) I’d take a print of that, the Christmas cards and a sash, if they were on offer. I laughed at your wanting to wear the sash around the house and breaking out in song – I’d definitely do the same.
    Also, thank you for setting their relationships straight. I don’t think I’ve ever had a handle on that.

    1. Thank you! The Emmeline Pankhurst mural is a composite of loads of women’s faces – I forget the artist’s name, and unfortunately the picture of the label is too small to make it out. I don’t think there were any prints though, sadly, or suffragette Christmas cards, because I would definitely have bought some of those too!
      Glad I wasn’t the only one confused about their relationship to each other. I felt kind of dumb when I realised that Emmeline and Christabel weren’t sisters, since I’d always thought they were.

  2. I have a huge list of places I want to go in Manchester and the only one I have done is the People’s History Museum. The Pankhurst Centre is top of the list. We have sashes at Glasgow Women’s Library – not to swan around the library though (singing or not), they are for special events. Making your own sash or rosette is supposed to be part of the fun, but with my 10 thumbs I prefer to let someone else do it.

    1. I did the People’s History Museum too – that post is coming in a couple of weeks. Also John Rylands Library, the Hat Works in Stockport, and a few other places, but there’s still some museums we didn’t have time to see, so I’d like to go back! And yes, I am terrible at crafts too, so I would much rather buy a pre-made sash and let someone else have the fun of making it!

    1. I keep meaning to see if they’re for sale anywhere online – we’re doing a small suffragette exhibition at the museum where I work, so I could probably justify ordering a handful of sashes if I can find somewhere that sells them! I know the whole point is that they’re supposed to be handmade, but I suspect I lack sash-making skills.

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