Standing at 62 Nelson Street, nestled in the grounds of Manchester Royal Infirmary, The Pankhurst Centre serves as a permanent reminder of the Suffragette movement. Not only is it where Emmeline Pankhurst and her family lived, but this is the place where the Women’s Social and Political Union – or the Suffragettes as they came to be known – was founded.
It is bitterly cold when I alight from the bus on Oxford Road, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going in the right direction. As I wrap my scarf around me and consult the blue dot on Google maps, it feels strange that I’m heading into the hospital grounds. But as I pass the barrier, I spy the redbrick building on my left which, juxtaposed with the hospital, makes me feel like I’ve stepped off a time machine rather than the 197 to Piccadilly.
The Pankhurst Centre is a hidden gem in Manchester’s cultural crown. It’s a significant – and fascinating – piece of heritage and yet it’s not a well-known space; its funding certainly does not match its importance.
But 2018 is set to be a massive year for The Pankhurst Trust, which is based at the centre. As I sit in one of the cosy office spaces, clutching a warm brew in my hands, operational manager Elaine de Fries chats excitedly about a number of events planned for the new year. Her optimism is palatable and it’s clear from our conversation that her dedicated team work incredibly hard to keep the centre afloat.
“Next year is the centenary of when some women, those women over 30 who had a household, gained the vote,” says de Fries. “So we want to have a huge celebration. It’s a cause to celebrate, we’ve got lots of plans.”
She’s not exaggerating. Helen Pankhurst, one of the Trust’s patrons and the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, is holding her book launch at the centre and there’s talk of a screening of the Suffragette movie at the Whitworth Art Gallery. De Fries says: “We’ve got a drink sponsor, so it will be quite a civilised little evening where we talk about women and equality and gender issues generally.”
There’s also a competition with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in the pipeline where students will recreate and reimagine some of the art works destroyed by Suffragettes at Manchester Art Gallery early in the 20th century. “It’s been designed by MMU especially for us. We’re very excited about next year.”
But it’s easy to look at the celebrations and forget the vital work behind the scenes. The Trust’s prime responsibility is to those whom it helps and who depend on the services on offer. The centre is home to a charity which provides housing and practical assistance for women fleeing abuse, Manchester Women’s Aid. The building also houses a small heritage museum.
“We can’t just be gadding about having a load of fun,” de Fries half-jokes. “We’ve also got to be raising money. We’re a very well-used centre. The rooms are full most of the time and we’re sat in the grounds of the hospital.”
At the back of number 62, there’s a patch of outdoor space described as ‘a vital green lung in the heart of the Manchester Royal Infirmary’, but it’s bare and untended. So the Trust had the brilliant idea of turning it into a sanctuary for women and children, many of whom have experienced trauma.
“Patients and staff use our garden and our garden is an unpleasant place to be. It’s not nice, it’s not holistic, it’s not therapeutic and it just doesn’t increase mental well-being. And it should do.”
The team at The Pankhurst Centre have created a crowdfunding campaign – Plant a Seed for Gender Equality – to raise £20,000 and make the garden a reality. As well as being a therapeutic space, a garden is significant to the plight, struggle and sacrifice of the Suffragettes who used flowers and the language of flowers to send messages.
“The first thing is that we need to raise money to make the garden a lovely place to be that would be a healing space, here, in the centre of Manchester, on the Oxford Road corridor. It would be marvellous. If we can crowdfund the £20,000 – it’s a big ask for a garden, I know, and people ask why we’re asking for so much. The ambition is because we’ve been told we’ve got a very good chance at getting a garden at Tatton Park for The Royal Horticulture Show.”
The National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society are keen to showcase the garden at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in July 2018 where it is expected to be seen by around 80,000 people before being replanted at 62 Nelson Street.
“If we can get a garden to Tatton Park, we can do two things,” says de Fries. “We can raise awareness massively for our organisation, both its heritage and campaigning, and we can raise money there. But to get the garden there, we have to raise money. We’ve got an excellent firm of landscape architects who are doing all the planning and project management pro bono, but we need plants.
“And on top of the fundraising, the children in our refuge have never been to Tatton Park. We’re going to take every single woman and every single child, which is 30 women and possibly 70 children, to Tatton Park to have a lovely day out.”
The Pankhurst Centre campaigns tirelessly to end domestic violence against women and young girls, alongside issues surrounding gender. De Fries tells me that she attended the recent March of the Mummies rally, a protest which sought to highlight the negative or discriminatory treatment in the workplace of 77 per cent of working mums.
“The statistics on domestic violence are skewed. But I’d say one in three women experience it personally. Almost every woman, man and child have been touched by it and it is the sort of experience that can stay with you for a long, long time, if not forever. Many people who experience domestic violence never report it, we see just the tip of the iceberg. I want it to be as unacceptable as drink-driving or smoking in the living room with a baby present. We do a lot more than we’re funded for. There isn’t a single member of staff that works their hours. We all work and volunteer. We live and breathe the Pankhurst Trust. The staff here are driven, and they have vision and hard work because they believe in what they do.”
As a newbie to the crowdfunding, what does de Fries think of its surge in popularity? Is it a helpful tool for smaller charities in need of funding?
“We’ve never crowdfunded before,” admits de Fries. “I’ve not slept a wink since we started the campaign. I am addicted to refreshing the crowdfunding page. I woke up at 2.30 this morning to check it. It’s about sharing. The crowdfunding just really gets the word out there. We’ve got just under 50 per cent of the money now and we’ve got loads of supporters. It’s massively raised our awareness. It’s very exciting, crowdfunding, it does feel like a celebration.”
And the Trust is giving something back to those who have dipped hands in their pockets. A £10 donation – or anything really – gets you a thank you; £50 and you’re an honorary friend of the Pankhurst with a plant named after you. For £1,000, you’ll get your name cemented into the garden where it will remain for generations (as well as a host of other goodies).
The Trust is made up of approximately 45 paid staff and 60 volunteers. “We couldn’t run the heritage site without the volunteers. The gardeners volunteer. The people who run the museum volunteer. On our therapeutic group work, we have one paid member of staff and a volunteer. We have volunteers at the drop-in. The counselling is run by volunteers. You can see yourself making a difference here.”
It would be remiss of me not to mention the poignancy of the votes for women centenary in our current climate. Despite being 100 years on, social injustices are still faced by women every single day. We only need look at the surge in reports of sexual assault and harassment within the workplace and patriarchal institutions to see that, as a society, we’ve got a long way to go before we’re anywhere near equality.
“We believe in the equality of women and that everyone should have the same value within society,” de Fries agrees as we chat about topics from Trump and Brexit to the recent Hollywood scandals. “It’s not so long ago. It’s only 100 years ago. I was born in the 60s. I mean, look at the revelations that are going on now. Women, and men, have worked very, very hard for the cause. We’re campaigning for equality because a diverse, equal society is fairer and better. There’s no doubt about it.”
For more information about the Plant a Seed for Gender Equality campaign, or to donate, click here.