KEEPING THE FLAME GOING: The Stone Bomb in Recent Years
During the Cold War years, fraught with anxiety for those who feared the ever-escalating threat of nuclear attacks, the stone torpedo bomb atop Sylvia Pankhurst’s anti-aerial bombing monument symbolised the likely fate of civilian populations everywhere. Yet it had never attracted media attention, even at its original unveiling in 1935.
To those who took the possibility of annihilation of life on earth seriously, Sylvia's monument deserved more than passing attention. So in the 1980's I applied to get it listed first of all by the London Borough of Redbridge as part of its Heritage Trail leaflet, and then by the Imperial War Museum. Both aims were achieved, and it was also included in the Imperial War Museum’s National Inventory along with other war memorials.
I then set about organising a number of public events in the 1980's and 1990's to celebrate the monument and draw public attention to it. Speakers and participants included Sylvia's son Dr Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia's daughter-in-law Rita Pankhurst. To draw attention to Sylvia’s work for Peace before and after the Great War I gave talks, arranged a small exhibition and organised a series of walks, highlighting that the possibility of nuclear warfare threatened to undermine democracy.
For the monument’s fiftieth anniversary in 1985, a street march, with a brass band, was led from the front by a large patchwork Peace banner made for display at Greenham Common. A Greenham woman, Maggie Freake, unveiled the monument for a third time, children festooning it with paper cranes in remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jennifer Taylor, who painted the portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst that hangs in Ilford Town Hall, made a black and white banner, which has since been taken to the monument annually in memory of the victims of the atomic bombs dropped in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. The grand finale included the New Esperance morris dancers (the original team had danced for the suffragettes), and a choir singing the March of the Women, which its composer, Ethel Smyth, had conducted from her Holloway cell with a toothbrush.
While in the meantime more innocent lives have been lost as a result of air bombs in the Gulf and elsewhere, this monument remains what W.H. Auden, in his poem 'September, 1939', has called one of those ‘ironic points of light, that flash out, wherever the just exchange their messages.’
In Carlton TV’s four-minute programme 'Your Shout', I told the nation about the monument's existence, and pointed out that although Woodford boasts a bronze statue to Winston Churchill, all we have to mark Sylvia Pankhurst's residency of 32 years is the anti-airwarfare monument. But thanks to Linda Perham, we now have a wooden sign marking Pankhurst Green near Sylvia’s house in Charteris Road, and Dr Pankhurst funded a small plaque on Tamar Square flats which marks where her house, West Dene, once stood. The Library and the Reference Library hold a Book of Remembrance that I presented at the Monument on Miss Pankhurst’s birthdate, 5th May; previously marked for some years by a birthday party to celebrate her life and work. It is good to know now that there are other carriers of the flame, that shows no sign of losing its eternal glow.
As for the monument: it has survived kidnap by vandals, who removed it from its plinth and threw it into Epping Forest near the Woodford New Road, from whence it was rescued by police, stored in the cellar of Ilford Town Hall, and restored by having its broken fins reconstructed, returned to its plinth, and the whole sandblasted, costs borne by Heritage of London Trust, Dr Richard Pankhurst, and the London Borough of Redbridge. In July 2007, the monument entered the public domain again when Patrick Wright, cultural historian, spoke about it and about the sculptor who made it, Eric Benfield, in Bancroft’s School, as part of an event celebrating her work as crusader, artist and suffragette. The latest episode in its saga is the demolition of the row of houses that stand behind it, in favour of a new block of flats.
Sheltered as it is by an avenue of increasingly luxuriant chestnut trees, its confrontational stand has been largely consigned to oblivion. Its obscure setting, in an increasingly over-built suburb, has attracted little public attention, despite the fame either of its only begetter or because of its own unique character.
SYLVIA AYLING is a peace campaigner who over the past twenty years has taken measures to see Sylvia Pankhurst appropriately remembered in Woodford, Essex, which had been Sylvia Pankhurst's home and the hub of her campaigning activity from 1924 until 1956 when she emigrated to Ethiopia. As well as arranging various other tributes to Sylvia Pankhurst over the years, Sylvia Ayling, together with former MP Linda Perham, was influential in naming an area adjoining Charteris Road and Woodford Broadway 'Pankhurst Green', and in having a memorial plaque erected on a building which stands on the site of West Dene. In 2007 Sylvia Ayling compiled a video on DVD, showing footage of all these events. For more information, contact us at Sylviapankhurst.com.
The Stone Bomb: Introduction; The Unveiling of the Stone Bomb, by Cllr George Miles; The Stone Bomb and sculptor Eric Benfield, by Patrick Wright; The Stone Bomb: the story since, by Sylvia Ayling