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SHIRLEY HARRISON

I grew up in Parkland Road, Woodford Green. As a child I was warned by my parents always to pass Miss Pankhurst's house on the other side of the road: respectable Conservatives were fearful of mavericks like her. Reactionary Woodford in those days was still a village surrounded by forest; a picnic escape for East Enders. So it was curiosity, in later life, that led me to write her biography.

Sylvia had arrived in 1924 with Silvio Corio, her Italian revolutionary partner. They occupied a run-down timber cottage at Woodford Wells which she provocatively renamed Red Cottage and ran as a transport café and rural refuge for East Enders. It was there that she commissioned a controversial monument to peace – a stone bomb. It is still there, visible on the High Road, although the cottage has long since been demolished.

At the age of 45, Sylvia shockingly produced a baby boy and she and Corio moved to Charteris Road. Neighbours grumbled about the jungle in her garden and were hissed at by the cat. Behind the uncut hedges, in creative domestic chaos, little Richard grew up much like his mother amid a torrent of frenetic political activity.

Jomo Kenyatta, the Laskis. the Bertrand Russells, scholars and intellectuals came on the train to Woodford and remembered only too well the boiled lettuce, overcooked rice and Russian tea – served on assorted crockery. Sylvia was no cook!

Sylvia's own newspaper The Ethiopian Times was produced on the presses of London and Essex Guardian Newspapers in Walthamstow. Its aim was to raise public awareness of the plight of Ethiopia and Emperor Halle Selassie, after the invasion of Italy. It won her his enduring friendship and the hostility of the British Government.

But she was also greatly loved and I found great affection and warmth among those I met when I came to write her story. She kept her friends.

After Silvio died, Sylvia eventually accepted Haile Selassie's personal invitation to join Richard in Addis Ababa where he was to become a student. She spent the last years of her life there – still fighting for the welfare of women. Her motto? 'Wherever there is a need, there is my home'. On her death in 1960 she was the only foreigner ever to be given a State Funeral.

George Bernard Shaw, with whom she had many fierce public arguments, wrote at the time ‘There were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous. The other that she was unbearable.'

SHIRLEY HARRISON, born and brought up in Woodford, began broadcasting as a teenager in 1954 with BBC Radio's Uncle Mac on Children’s Hour before writing for various magazines and newspapers, later turning to books. She is the first author of a comprehensive biography of Sylvia Pankhurst to have had the full cooperation of the Pankhurst family, as well as access to a number of previously unpublished documents. Sylvia Pankhurst, a Crusading Life 1882–1960 was published in 2003; then again in paperback as Sylvia Pankhurst, a Maverick Life 1882–1960 in 2004. Other recent books include Jack the Ripper: the American Connection (2003).

Also in the 'Modern Perspectives' section:
Modern Perspectives: Introduction, The Very Revd Dr John Arnold, Berit Sahlström, Sylvia Ayling, Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Peter Tatchell, Linda Perham, Diana Kurakina, Shirley Harrison and Geoffrey Lusty