A free exhibition about Sylvia Pankhurst and Silvio Corio, frontrunners in the campaign for women’s vote and against fascism, opened at Charing Cross Library on Friday. Over to Aitor, the library’s manager to tell us about the opening night –
With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 being in the news and Sylvia Pankhurst’s name in the exhibition title, a good number of people were expected to attend the opening of Sylvia and Silvio but as nearly 100 came, packing the newly refurbished basement room, one wonders how many came to find out a bit more about “Silvio”. Who was the mysterious man who met the famous suffragette in 1917 – the start of an intriguing relationship that lasted till he died in 1954?
Alfio Bernabei, author, historian and journalist curated the exhibition and talked us through the turbulent years at the turn of the last century when about 300 Italian political refugees arrived in London seeking primarily freedom of speech. Some became involved in launching journals, setting up study centres and cultural associations. One of them, Silvio Corio, a talented anarchist typographer from Turin, soon mastered the language and started to work as a journalist and commentator writing about human rights, utopian ideas, social and political issues.
When he met Sylvia Pankhurst, already well-known for her militancy as a suffragette, she was the Editor of Workers’ Dreadnought. It was a meeting of minds that led them, two years later, to travel to Italy to meet Antonio Gramsci who was at the head of a workers movement called Ordine Nuovo. An Italian Sylvia was born. Back in London, always in the company of Silvio’s Italian friends, she was the first well known person in Britain to ring the alarm about Mussolini’s blackshirts. It was the start of an anti-fascist campaign that lasted throughout her life, always with Silvio as an active ally and contributor at her side.
Bernabei surprised many in the audience when he told them they were sitting in what used to be the billiard room of the building bought by the Italian fascist party in London in 1936 and how the exhibition in what is today a place of learning felt like an act of symbolical cultural re-appropriation. He then introduced “a special guest”. There was an audible gasp in the audience when Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia and Silvio, rose to speak. Then it was Megan Dobney’s turn to give an update on the statue of Sylvia Pankhurst due to be installed later this year in Clerkenwell Green.
The exhibition covering the anti-fascist campaigns carried out by Pankhurst and Corio in the 1920s and 1930s will run until 13 May. Caroline Moorehead, the author of the recent book A Bold and Dangerous Family covering the same period as lived by the family that lost two of its members – the Rosselli brothers – killed by the fascists, will give a talk on 26 April at 6.30pm. More info about that on our website
Aitor, Charing Cross Library