Here’s a trick question for a pub quiz. Who is the only British woman to have received a state funeral? The answer is Sylvia Pankhurst. Not in her own country but in her adopted one of Ethiopia. 3,000 mourners lined the streets of Addis Abbaba including the Ethiopian royal family complete with weeping princesses and the entire cabinet. The aging emperor Heile Selassie stood for 2 hours as messages of condolence from around the world were read out. Sylvia had become a national herione.
The connection with Ethiopia began in the 1920s when Sylvia was one of the first to warn of the fascist activities of Hitler and Mussolini. When the latter invaded and occupied Ethiopia in 1935 as part of his plan to control access to the Suez Canal Sylvia declared that the freedom of Ethiopia was essential to the future of the world. Heile Selassie fled to England and it was Sylvia, not the king or prime minister, who met the emperor and his family at Victoria station and befriended them throughout their exile. Sylvia launched a newspaper, New Times & Ethiopia News, with a team of foreign correspondents employed to alert readers worldwide to events in Ethiopia. When the Italian occupation ceased in 1941, a street in Addis Abbaba was named after Sylvia to mark her contribution to Ethiopian independence. During World War 2 Sylvia had become a friend of the emperor’s youngest daughter Princess Tsahai who while in London had trained as a nurse and tended London’s wounded in the Blitz. Tsahai resolved to build a much needed teaching hospital in Addis Abbaba. Sadly she died in childbirth before her dream could be realised. so Sylvia set about creating a fund to to build the hospital, and when it opened in 1950 a wing was named after her. Sylvia’s beloved partner Silvio died in 1954, and when the emperor offered Sylvia a bungalow in Ethiopia she accepted. In 1956 aged 74 she upped sticks from Woodford, where she had lived for the past 30 years since leaving the East End, and moved to Ethiopia. Production of New Times & Ethiopia News moved to Addis Abbaba with her and was renamed the Ethiopia Observer. In her last years she worked in caring for mothers and babies in Ethiopia with the same energy she had done helping mothers and babies in the East End before, during and after World War 1. She travelled to remote areas to find new issues about which to write. And she carried on working till her death in 1960 aged 78.
As a great heroine of mine, who appears as an important character in my recently published novel Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring, imagine my amazement last week, the very same week my novel was published, whilst reorganising my mother-in-law’s study, I found under a pile of papers a pristine copy of the January 1958 Ethiopia Observer, price Eth $1 or 2/6d. My father in law had apparently been in Ethiopia on business at such time. It has been edited by Sylvia and includes a 15-page article by her entitled The Beginning of Modern Transport in Ethiopia; The Franco-Ethiopian Railway and its History, and a 2-page article by her about The Imperial Highway Authority. She certainly liked to keep busy!