Forgotten for decades: Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s life as a home improvement guru

She led the fight for women’s right to vote. But what’s less well-known about Emmeline Pankhurst is that she also had a second career as an interior designer. During the 1890s she worked as a newspaper advice columnist – giving housewives tips on how to decorate their homes. And as […]

She led the fight for women’s right to vote.

But what’s less well-known about Emmeline Pankhurst is that she also had a second career as an interior designer.

During the 1890s she worked as a newspaper advice columnist – giving housewives tips on how to decorate their homes.

And as you might expect from the woman who took on the British establishment, the forthright Mrs Pankhurst didn’t mince her words.

The Moss Side -born suffragette leader began writing for the Manchester-based temperance movement Alliance newspaper in the early 1890s.

At the time she was trying to establish a fabric shop in London and it’s thought she took on the newspaper gig as a way to publicise the business and boost her finances.

Entitled ‘The Temperance Home Circle’, the column dished out advice to middle and working class women planning a spot of home decor.

And her responses give a fascinating insight into Mrs Pankhurst’s character and personal tastes.

One correspondent who had sent her a sample of wallpaper to run the rule over, was sent packing with this piece of frank advice: “It is so colourless, and I so very much dislike the gold in it.

“With that paper and the hair-seated furniture you can never have an artistic room. Can you not re-cover your furniture?”

Mrs Pankhurst’s column was entitled the Temperance Home Circle

Mrs Pankhurst was also clearly dissatisfied with many aspects of modern house design, noting that ‘domestic architecture would be an excellent field for women’, because they had direct knowledge of how ‘inconvenient are the modern middle class houses’.

Architecture at this time was monopolised by men and even though the Royal Institute of British Architects did agree to admitting women in 1898,  there was only a very small number of female architects even in the interwar years.

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to George V

And when discussing decorating a worker’s cottage in Ancoats, then a very poor working class district, she asked: “I know very well that Lancashire men wear clogs, I am a Lancashire woman, but I can’t see why they can’t remove them when indoors and wear slippers.”

Mrs Pankhurst was a controversial figure who was repeatedly imprisoned for using violent tactics in her struggle for equality.

Disillusioned with the women’s political groups of the time, she founded the Women’s Political and Social Union, which became a influential force in British politics.

Her campaign eventually led – 18 days after her death aged 69 – to the Representation of the People (equal franchise) Act 1928, which gave women equal votes with men.

Mrs Pankhurst’s life has been the subject of several major biographies.

Pictured in 1910, Emmeline Pankhurst can be seen on a horse-drawn carriage

But Terry Wyke, a retired history lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, who discovered the columns while researching the temperance movement, doesn’t believe her time as a newspaper columnist has been uncovered.

And he says the articles shed new light on her personality and ‘modern’ way of thinklng.

He said: “She was very definite. That is a part of her personality that has been very much analysed by historians.

“That extends to these columns. She gives very detailed information on how homes should be decorated.

“It shows us how modern her tastes were.

“This was a time of great cultural and artistic shifts and she would have been well aware of them.

“Clearly she knew in her own mind what was right and what was correct and what she considered to be the old fashioned way was to be avoided at all costs.”

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