At age 14, Rose Pengelly led her fellow workers at the Backs Asbestos Pipe Factory in a strike. Her red hair at the head of the procession, she blazed the trail all the way to the Women’s Hall. Conditions at the factory were unacceptable. Men and women were expected to haul equally heavy loads, though women were paid a third of the wage the men received. In addition, women were expected to perform domestic duties for the boss, tasks that were never assigned to the men despite their greater pay.
Even with the wage advantage the job was hardly a joyful one for the men. All the employees of Backs Asbestos Pipe Factory worked in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. When two men attempted to form a union, they were immediately fired. It was in protest and solidarity with these men that young Rose Pengelly—a member of the Junior Suffragettes Club of the East London Federation since age 12—led the march to the Women’s Hall. The next day, Rose, too, was fired.
With her bravery, youth, and activism, she earned the nickname “Little Sylvia” after notable suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst. Rose devoted her time and talents to the suffragette cause. She often danced and played the pan flute at fund-raising picnics.
Little is known about Rose beyond her teenage years. Writer Deb Scott-Lovric, in a story accompanying a sketch of “Little Sylvia” at the Bancroft Road Library, tells of a workplace injury Rose experienced in 1916. A blade for box-making sliced Rose’s flute-playing fingers. When she awoke from the shock and blood loss, 16-year-old Rose was given a sip of brandy and fired from the job. The factory had no first aid and no obligation to its injured employees, regardless of the dangerous machinery. Rose had to make her way to the hospital alone; none of her coworkers could afford to take half-day wages or lose their job altogether to escort her.
After this, Rose’s story is seemingly lost to history. Considering her spirit, it’s likely she stayed involved in the call for unions at London’s factories. It is equally likely, however, that the necessity of making a living demanded more and more of her time. At age 16 with a physical disability, Rose may have slipped even lower in the working social class she’d been fighting so hard to help. Though she did not see personal success in her efforts, what she did was not wasted. In 1914, with her green eyes and red hair, Rose Pengelly was one of the youngest at the head of a line, a line of strong activists and committed workers that continues today, fighting for equal pay and ethical workplaces.