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'People in Sylvia's Life'; a live exhibit by performing arts students at the Redbridge Museum in April 2008

Red Cottage West Dene, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford West Dene, 3 Charteris Road, WoodfordWest Dene, 3 Charteris Road, WoodfordWest Dene, 3 Charteris Road, WoodfordWest Dene, 3 Charteris Road, Woodford

Drama and Performing Arts students from West Hatch High School, Chigwell, created a live and interactive exhibit at the opening of the Redbridge Museum Exhibition 'Celebrating Sylvia Pankhurst' in April 2008.

The idea for the live exhibit had been that of the school's Head of Performing Arts, Sue Pavelkova. Visitors to the exhibition found themselves challenged by campaigning Suffragettes, Edwardian prison officers, Sylvia's wartime secretary Ivy Arnold, Winston Churchill and various others in character to represent people in Sylvia Pankhurst's life. Many said afterwards that this had been the highlight of a fascinating evening.

THE STUDENTS

The students, all from Year 10, were privileged to have theatre director Kelly Wilkinson from Hampstead Theatre led six half-day workshops in which they explored key characters in Sylvia Pankhurst’s life – real or imagined. Kelly was assisted by Mel Cook, also from the Hampstead Theatre, and by Sue Pavelkova herself.

First, however, the students and teachers spent a day with Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, Shirley Harrison, who brought the characters to life with her vivid descriptions – then worked with the groups to help their understanding of Sylvia herself, her friends and enemies, and to answer questions. Shirley also wrote snippets of dialogue for each character for the students to learn or improvise on.

From the Redbridge Local Studies Archive, students obtained copies of an open correspondence between Sylvia Pankhurst and Winston Churchill published in the Woodford Times in 1936 and used this to aid their understanding of Sylvia’s relationship with Churchill who was not only Prime Minister at the time but also MP for Woodford, the constituency in which Sylvia lived.

CHARACTERS EXAMINED

Students who were at the Royal College of Art with Sylvia, Keir Hardie, Sylvia herself, workers in Scottish cotton factories whom Sylvia visited to paint, staff at Holloway prison, East Enders whom Sylvia and her friends had helped, Winston Churchill and his Private Secretary, Sylvia’s wartime secretary Ivy Arnold and her twin sons, and Sylvia’s disapproving neighbours in Woodford.

KEY LEARNING EXPERIENCES

  • Using sources and doing their own research in order to create a character. Students made the most of Shirley Harrison’s knowledge and asked searching questions, using the knowledge gained to help interpret their characters convincingly
  • Learning about the background to Sylvia’s life and times, as well as about her, who she was and what she did
  • Understanding the transition from one historical era to another as they examined Sylvia’s whole life from 1882 to 1960
  • Examining why things were the way they were during those times – how men felt about the empowerment of women at the start of the 20th century, what it was like to be a young mother in the poverty-stricken East End of London during World War I, why in the late 1920s the illegitimacy of Sylvia’s child was shocking to Sylvia’s neighbours, and so on
  • Developing an understanding of the differences in how people spoke earlier in the 20th century from how they do now, and their use of  language
  • Getting an idea of how people in Britain dressed during the early and mid 20th century
  • Working with professionals in the theatre and coping with a work ethic different from that in a school environment whereby commitment, teamwork and reliability are crucial to the final product. Effectively this exercise was ‘work experience’

WHAT THE STUDENTS MOST ENJOYED

  • Learning about things they had never thought about before: the Suffragettes’ struggle, for example
  • Feeling their understanding develop as they got into character
  • The opportunity to work with experts in their professional fields: experienced theatre directors and a historian
  • The final performance in front of an audience

THE PROJECT

This was part of the UK Heritage Lottery Funded project, ‘Celebrating Sylvia Pankhurst', to promote interest in her as a figure important to local and national heritage. Sylvia lived in Woodford (now part of the London Borough of Redbridge) from 1924 until 1956. Project activities included an exhibition at Redbridge Museum, various workshops for schools and archive trips to important collections, the publication of a new schools’ 20c history book and the creation of this website.