The centenary year is shining a new light on the UK’s only women’s Suffrage museum and it desperately needs funding.

Being at a house party in Emmeline Pankhurst’s former home is an extremely surreal experience. Prosecco is flowing at the home that hosted the first ever Women’s Social and Political Union meeting in 1903,and excited Mancunians try to avoid spillages despite being packed in like sardines. The centenary launch party at the Pankhurst Centre is a sellout, and far busier than expected.

The infamous campaign slogan “Deeds Not Words” was devised in the parlour room of 62 Nelson Street, now one of the three museum rooms, preserved fully furnished, as a compelling window into the Suffragette movement. It isn’t hard to imagine the brave women who congregated in this very room 100 years ago to hatch their plans that would revolutionise British society.

The Pankhurst Centre (60-62 Nelson Street, Manchester) was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The first ever WSPU meeting took place in the parlour room (right) and the building now serves as the headquarters to charity Manchester Women’s Aid, continuing its legacy of supporting women. Credit: The Pankhurst Centre

Shockingly, the Pankhurst Centre is the UK’s only museum dedicated to the Suffrage movement and while it is naturally a powerful space, it is in dire need of some TLC. Throngs of women have gathered here today for a party in collaboration with Girl Gang Manchester, (a collective of female artists, activists, academics and party instigators who put on events) which oversees the unveiling of a sculptured portrait of WSPU founder, Emmeline Pankhurst.

“What we want to do is put the Pankhurst Centre on the map and turn it into the internationally recognised museum that it deserves to be,” explains actress Julie Hesmondhalgh (Hayley Cropper from Cori and praised star of 2017 Broadchurch), addressing the crowd. The event is held to raise the Pankhurst Centre’s profile and is just one of the many fundraising events that operational director, Elaine De Fries puts on.

“I’m telling you, most people avoid me in supermarkets now,” De Fries laughs, adding that people have become all too aware that she will bleed them dry to support the Centre at any given chance. “Lots of us are going to run the Great Manchester Run if you want to sponsor us for that.” Well, that didn’t take long. “A couple are doing it fully dressed as suffragettes, but if I did that at my advanced age I would probably snuff it.”

Elaine De Fries, operational manager of The Pankhurst Centre

Without De Fries’ relentless fundraising initiatives and badgering, the Centre would be unable to keep running as it has no public funding.

“We have a food bank and clothing bank in the cellar which has just recently become the independent charity, Emmeline’s Pantry. We have the heritage museum, kitchen training rooms, counselling services, The Women’s Equality Party meets here, as do many other groups. And fundamentally, this is the headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid,” she continues.

The building is bursting at the seams, and continues to be dedicated to supporting women. Any funding received goes towards Manchester Women’s Aid, which helps victims of domestic abuse, and the museum relies solely on donations. All staff are volunteers. Opening hours are only between 10am and 4pm on Thursdays and for three hours every other Sunday, hardly enough time to bring in swarms of visitors.

“This is the real building where a historical event happened that defined this pivotal change in our ideas of citizenship, yet there is no other public funding for it,” explained Helen Pankhurst, writer, activist and great-granddaughter of Mrs Pankhurst, in a previous interview. “Is this again the perpetuation of women’s interests not being valued, not being given real power and visibility? I think the answer to that is a resounding yes.”

Helen Pankhurst has fought tirelessly to make people realise the symbolic significance of the building, campaignin with local groups to prevent the demolition which owners (Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS foundation trust) applied for in 1979. The authority agreed to lease the house to the Pankhurst Trust indefinitely and it was opened to the public by Pankhurst in 1987, merging with Manchester Women’s Aid in 2014.

It would take about £3.5m to transform the centre into the enhanced museum attraction that the director of the Pankhurst Trust, Gail Heath, desires. The hope is to receive the Heritage Lottery Fund to create space for school groups to learn about the suffragettes and acquire more important artefacts.

‘Women Like You’ by Charlotte Newson was the first contemporary artwork to celebrate Emmeline Pankhurst. It is made up of 10,000 individual images of inspiring women sent in by members of the public from all corners of the globe and it celebrates the extraordinary lives of ordinary women. It took Charlotte two years to complete, stands 3 metres high and 2.5 metres wide and is regarded as one of the most iconic images of Emmeline Pankhurst today. A life-size replica can be found in The Pankhurst Centre.

If there’s a year that could bring the change of fortunes that the museum needs, then it’s going to be this one. In December 2017, the Pankhurst Trust received £144,594 from the government’s Centenary Cities fund to run two separate educational projects, inspired by the Representation of the People Act. A few days later, it was announced that the government would help to fund a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the city, appallingly making her the only other female statue other than Queen Victoria, which was erected in 1901. This is a step in the right direction for addressing the underrepresentation of women in the city of Manchester, and brings hope that attention on her former home could be next.

Last year, the museum welcomed 2,700 visitors from across the world, who came to view the various suffragette memorabilia and hear the stories from the extremely knowledgeable volunteers.

“People come here because it is almost an act of pilgrimage, and even though our exhibit is a little bit tired and old and needs investment, they all feel the power of being in that room,” said Heath. With more funding, The Pankhurst Centre would be able to accept more donations of key artefacts in the suffragette story, which at the moment they have to refuse, due to an inability to afford the insurance required.

Galchester: Amidst celebrations of the centenary year, many have outrageously branded both Mrs Pankhurst and the entire suffragette movement as only serving the white middle classes. Is there any truth to this?

Elaine De Fries: Well the example I always use that is my name is Elaine De Fries, I’m from Sunderland and I come from a long line of fishwives - and I’ll come back to why that’s relevant shortly. When the suffragettes had rallies, up to 20,000 people attended. They weren’t 20,000 white middle-class women, they were families and largely families that were working class, like those that were killed at the Peterloo Massacre.

Obviously, and this is true today, if you have more money you possibly have more time. My fish wife grandmother did not have time to go about political campaigning, but it didn’t mean that she wasn’t in full support, she would have wanted equality. Mrs Pankhurst from childhood was involved in the anti-slavery movement. Yes, she happened to be white and I was just talking to her great nephew last night – as you do – and he told me about the Pankhurst’s family life.

Mrs Pankhurst was an older child and so she benefitted from luxuries like going to a finishing school, but they had been a working-class family who had eventually made good. When Mrs Pankhurst’s father lost his job, her younger siblings didn’t get her benefits of education and myths that she was racist or excluding of the working class perhaps only surfaced as towards the end, when she stood as a Conservative candidate. Mrs Pankhurst fell out with her daughters over her personal politics but her belief in equality and that women should have the same rights to vote as men is undoubted.

They may have had their differences, but what she did do for her daughters was create amazingly independent, opinionated, political women. Is that not what we want?

The WSPU wasn’t deliberately excluding working-class women and Annie Kenney, who was Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel’s good friend, came here to meetings. She was a workingclass girl from Saddleworth. It’s simply about how much time have you got to campaign when you’ve got to put bread on the table, and that is true today.

Sixteen out of the city’s 17 civic monuments are of men, do you think this is representative of Manchester’s attitude towards women and the lack of value in their achievements?

This issue isn’t unique to Manchester, it’s the same globally. The areas in which women worked in the past was often not valued, and they weren’t allowed to do those things that would reach such recognition.

Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel, had a first-class degree in Law and wasn’t allowed to practice. Florence Nightingale may have been honoured with a statue in London in 1915, but that was extremely unusual and she had to fight hard to do what she did.

It is worthy to note that for a woman to receive a statue, she must be a true heroine. The majority of women braveries were never recorded, or have been trivialised, men had the money – it’s a patriarchy!

Tell me about some of the recent project the Pankhurst Centre hosted that attempted to address the balance of words in Manchester Library.

There was a recent story on Women’s Hour – so it must be true – where they did an experiment of submitting the same stories to publishers under both male and female names. Every time a male submission was rejected, they received a much longer, apologetic letter explaining why, even when it was submitted to female editors! Having a man’s name seems to still immediately entitle you to more, even in 2018.