In October 1914, a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) opened their first nursery at 45 Norman Grove in Bow. The nursery is described in their newspaper The Woman’s Dreadnought:
“It is delightfully fresh and bright. There are gay-coloured pictures on the white walls from which the marks made by little fingers can be washed off every day… There is a shop, a doll’s perambulator and there are numbers of dolls, teddy bears, brick and tile boxes, and all sorts of other toys. The charge for a child’s day in the nursery from 8am to 7pm, including meals, is 3d.”
Originally intended as a creche attached to the suffragettes’ cooperative toy factory (also based at 45 Norman Grove), the nursery was so popular that the suffragettes opened a second, larger nursery the following year on the corner of Old Ford Road and St Stephen’s Road.
The building they bought had previously been a pub called the Gunmakers’ Arms, as it lay opposite a munitions factory. Sylvia Pankhurst and her ELFS colleagues set to work refurbishing the place, and in April 1915, it was opened as a mother and baby clinic, free milk depot, and day nursery.
The letters ELFS were painted in gold on the outside, surrounded by red caps of liberty, and the building was symbolically renamed the Mother’s Arms. Bessie Lansbury, a local activist and wife of former local MP George Lansbury, took on the role of Director.
In July 1915 ‘A. Visitor’ recorded their impressions of the nursery in The Woman’s Dreadnought:
“A bright, fresh coloured young nurse, brought me to more cheerful surroundings. The children who are brought in the morning to stay have a grand spacious, light and airy nursery, everything scrupulously clean. Dainty little cots where the babies were sleeping, others were lying on stretchers, all apparently tired after their morning airing in the park.”
The Mother’s Arms was a huge success, attracting support from the local community and even drawing praise from the government and the mainstream press. However, Sylvia Pankhurst grew concerned about the often destructive behaviour of the children that came to them. One of the suffragettes’ supporters donated a beautiful wooden rocking horse for the nursery, but according to Pankhurst:
“within a month, it was no more. Every hair of the tail and mane had gone; the eyes were gouged out, every joint in the wood severed; the remnants had been torn from their stand. To me it was amazing that young children under five years of age could have done it. To the busy staff at the nursery it was all a matter of course…”
One day in 1916 she read in the newspaper that Australian journalist, actress, educator, and suffragette Muriel Matters had returned from a year in Barcelona studying with Maria Montessori.
Montessori had flouted social convention to study medicine and education, becoming the first female doctor in Italy. She studied child development and pioneered a controversial new educational approach which aimed to build children’s independence rather than their obedience.
Montessori believed that a learning environment in which children were encouraged to explore ideas independently at their own pace and treated as autonomous individuals would increase their motivation to learn and help them to fulfil their potential. The ‘Montessori Method’ emphasized the development of initiative and natural abilities, in particular through practical play, and it is still used throughout the world today.
Pankhurst contacted Muriel Matters, who agreed to begin the Montessori Method with the older children. A few weeks after their telephone conversation, Matters arrived in Bow and one of the first Montessori nursery schools in Britain was opened at the Mother’s Arms.
Matters ordered that no physical discipline was to be used on the children. Instead, when they were disorderly they were sent from the classroom to the nursery to spend an hour or two with the babies as they were evidently ‘not yet old enough’ to take part. At times there was just one or two children left in the classroom, but within a few days apparently all the children had been won over. Pankhurst wrote that soon the children were serving each other tea from dainty china cups, where before the cups would quickly have been smashed to smithereens.
The Mother’s Arms was one of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes’ most successful projects, and it finally closed its doors in 1921.