East End Women’s Museum is looking for artist/s to design a creative participatory workshop

The East End Women’s Museum is seeking an artist/s, with a collaborative and inclusive ethos, to create a new participatory creative workshop as part of our local audience consultation project. The workshop will help us to understand our audience’s ideas and interests about our new Museum site in Barking. The workshop will be delivered independently of the artist by the museum staff and volunteers during our consultation phase. We welcome applications from artists working in any discipline, and from all backgrounds.


  • We can offer a fee of up to £1,800;

  • There is a budget of up to £1,400 for production costs (equipment, materials, print, etc)


  • Deadline for applications is 5pm on Sunday 24th March 2019;

  • Interviews with Museum staff and our local residents’ Steering Group will be on Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th April 2019;

  • Artist/s selected by Friday 3rd May;

  • Production to take place over May 2019. We anticipate this will be an iterative process, with the artist/s in discussion with Museum staff and Steering Group, to ensure the workshop meet the project’s aims;

  • Finished workshop to be delivered by Friday 31st May 2019.

For more information please download the call here.

If you have any queries please contact Fani on fani@eastendwomensmuseum.org

Join our “Making the Museum” Steering Group!

Update: we have now closed the application period for the Steering Group. However, if you would like to be involved with the development of the new museum, please get in touch! We would especially love to hear from you if you are part of a community group in East London, that would be interested in taking part in our consultation workshops over summer. You can reach us by email on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com or using the form on our website.

Are you a local resident with strong ties to your local community? Are you interested in women’s history? Do you want to see a museum representing the amazing women of east London, past and present? Then, we are looking for you!

We are starting a Steering Group made up of people from our local communities. This group will help us reach the most people of east London that we possibly can, by talking about the museum with their family, friends and neighbours. The group will help create and promote the consultation activities, working with artists and museum staff to do so. They will give their ideas about the museum’s design, and ask other locals what they think.

The role involves attending regular Steering Group meetings (approximately monthly, though this will depend on members’ availability), at which you will give your ideas and help make decisions about the consultation. Outside of these meetings, you’ll act as an ambassador for the museum in your area, spreading the word to your local community, and helping to organise collaborations and events.

In return you will get any training you might decide as a group (e.g. public speaking, engaging people) and the opportunity to be part of the exciting process of building a museum from scratch, including making your voice heard in terms of what should be in it. We will cover travel expenses and of course coffee, tea and cake will be on us!

We are looking for local residents (living or working in Barking & Dagenham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest and Havering) with close ties to their community and a passion for women’s history and representation. You must be willing to represent the museum and to speak with people about it in an engaging way. You can be any age (18+), of any gender, and do not need any specific experience, education or training to take part.

If you’re interested please fill in this form by Sunday 10th March 11pm. We will select participants based on their application and an informal interview, to be held on Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th March.

Meet the new team!

We’re very excited to let you know that we now have our new team in place, ready to embark on the next big phase for the Museum, moving to its new home in Barking in 2020. The team are raring to go, and can’t wait to meet our supporters and audiences. 

Fani (left) and Rachel (right) outside their temporary home in Upney, Eastbury Manor House

Fani (left) and Rachel (right) outside their temporary home in Upney, Eastbury Manor House

Our two Museum staff members are:

Rachel Crossley, Museum Director – Rachel comes with a wealth of experience in the museums sector. She has previously worked at the V&A Museum, Museum of London and Historic Royal Palaces, chiefly in learning and programming roles. Most recently she was at Arts Council England, supporting artists and organisations to access funding. Rachel will be responsible for managing the Museum, its strategy and finances, as we move to the new site.  

Fani Arampatzidou, Volunteer and Outreach Manager – Fani has a background in activism, education and theatre, working as an education and community engagement manager in various charities. Alongside her work at the Museum she is a member of the MayDay Rooms collective, a radical history archive and social space in the heart of London. Fani started at the Museum in March 2018, working on our Working for Equality project. She will be leading the forthcoming audience consultation project, for us to find out what local people want the Museum to be. 

Both Rachel and Fani work part-time, 2 ½ days per week. We are grateful to Eastbury Manor House, a beautiful Elizabethan house in Upney, for giving us office space, meaning we have a home in Barking and Dagenham whilst our building is a hard-hat only site..! 

We will be charting the journey of the Museum throughout this important phase, so watch out for regular updates via our blog and e-newsletter. Soon we will be doing a call out for volunteers to help us explore what the new Museum should look like and do. And from spring onwards we will be taking part in lots of local events – hopefully see you there! 

Throughout this phase, we’ll be working with partners including local community groups, artists and archives to support us to reach new audiences and to create the Museum. We will also be exploring different fundraising options. If you think you can help us at all, please do get in touch

Women, babies and bombs: How day nurseries contributed to working women’s lives during WWII

By Charlotte Elliston

In researching content for the exhibition Working for Equality: the fight for fair pay and equal rights which explores women’s struggles for equality in the workplace in Barking & Dagenham in the first part of the 20th Century, there have been many interesting stories uncovered.

One of these was the formation of Day Nurseries in WWII, which allowed women with young children to go to work in greater numbers than had been seen before in the UK. In this post, I would like to share some of what was found.

Childcare options in the early 20th century

Before the start of the Second World War, provision for childcare by the government was hardly considered. The expectation was that women would be engaged in domestic work in their homes from their marriage onwards, so that all of the duties of caring for children would lie with their mother. For mothers who, through necessity or choice, did go out to work, their main childcare options were:

  1. Day Nurseries. For children under the age of 5, the Ministry of Health provided Day Nurseries for the children of working women, but only where the work was seen as ‘necessary’ and the women was the sole adult wage-earner, for example for unmarried, separated or widowed women. But these nurseries were far from plentiful - in 1938 there were only 104 Day Nurseries in Great Britain, providing care for 4291 children.

  2. Nursery Schools. These were provided by the Local Authorities, for 2-5 year old children but governmental policy on how many places were provided was open to interpretation, meaning that the Local Authority was not obliged to provide this option. In 1938, there were 118 Nursery Schools running, but these only provided care for children between 9am until 3.30pm which did not take in to account the needs of many working women.

  3. Elementary Schools. This was the preferred choice of many working women as it meant that, for those with larger families, the elder children could be responsible for taking the younger children to and from school, assisting with the incompatibility of childcare and working hours. In 1938, 170,000 children between 3-5 years old were attending school, at that time more than either of the nursery institutions took.

  4. Child-minders. Women in full time work often paid for relatives or friends to care for their children. Although this offered them greater flexibility in terms of obtaining care for the hours needed, the care was more unreliable (with greater risk of being let down by the minder) and was often more expensive than the government-funded care options. There were also a class divide on the opinions of society on child-minding. Middle and upper-class nannies were lauded as wonderful carers for children, but for the working classes, child-minding was denigrated as resulting in juvenile delinquency.

Children at school c 1915.  ©  Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Children at school c 1915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Need For Day Nurseries

The need for an increase in Day Nurseries could partly be attributed to what was known as the ‘Phoney War’. This was a year after war was declared on Germany by England and France in 1939, in which there was very limited military action.

With many children from London and the surrounding areas, including parts of Essex such as Barking and Dagenham having been evacuated in 1939 to places such as Wales, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire, when there was no sign of a German attack many children were brought home. Women who had been released from their primary occupation as carers could have found themselves working to support the war effort, but with their children returning home would have had to make arrangements for their care.

Children being evacuated by train.  ©  RAF Museum

Children being evacuated by train. © RAF Museum

As the Second World War progressed, the need to mobilise a female workforce was acknowledged by the government. Between 1939 and 1943, 1.5 million women joined the ‘essential industries’, such as working in factories manufacturing munitions. In engineering, the number of women workers rose from 97,000 to 602,000 between 1939 and 1943. There was also change in the marital status and age of women in factory work, with a greater proportion of those aged between 35-44, and married women now working.

Woman working in a munitions factory, 1942. ©  IWM (D 8598)

Woman working in a munitions factory, 1942. © IWM (D 8598)

Many women with families felt unable to register for war work due to domestic responsibilities. There was no option to work part-time available at this time, and factories expected their workers to complete shifts of 10-12 hours. Although women with children up to the age of 14 were exempt from working, many women wanted to work, if a job could be made to fit in with their child care:

I often think I’d like to go to work if it wasn’t for the child…if there was a nursery or something”

I feel I should be doing something, it’s getting on my nerves {but} he’s too little to leave for all the time between when school ends and when I or his father would get in…”

From 1940 the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, demanded that nurseries be set up in advance of recruitment of married women. These were set up and run by Local Authorities and funded by the Ministry of Health. These, however remained few in number until pressure from the Trade Union Committee Women’s Conference in 1941, the Birmingham Day Nursery Campaign Committee and other women-led local protests.

The Ministry of Health began the process to open more Day Nurseries, for women working in government factories or having government contracts but due to demand this was swiftly expanded to include anyone engaged in war work. This was more loosely defined and would have included women working in factories to produce things like fuel, food and clothing, as well as those holding jobs in transport and communications.

Women would have paid for their children to attend a Day Nursery, but at a subsidised cost, and would often have been expected to provide their children with necessary items such as nappies and a change of clothes.

Women in Hampstead marching for the opening of more Day Nurseries. ©  Home Front Museum

Women in Hampstead marching for the opening of more Day Nurseries. © Home Front Museum

Day Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham

During the period 1941 – 1945, a series of day nurseries were opened in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, one of the first of which was Eastbury Manor.

Eastbury Manor is a large Elizabethan house, not far from Upney Station, which had been owned by private individuals and families until 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust (who still care for the property today).

In 1941, Barking & Dagenham Council first raised the idea of establishing a Day Nursery at Eastbury Manor. The property would have been deemed to be suitable due to its location – it was sufficiently far enough away from the river and other major targets and surrounded by terraced housing. The Ministry of Health had deemed the idea of factory creches unsuitable due to fact that these would be at risk of bombing, so they felt that any Day Nurseries should likewise be at a distance from women’s workplaces. However, there was at least one occasion in which a 'doodle-bug' bomb almost hit Eastbury Manor, falling in a field just behind, and there was a steel-reinforced shelter which the children would go to during air raids. 

Eastbury Manor also had a large garden suitable for children to play in. This coincided with new childcare ideas of the 1940’s which emphasised fresh air and outdoor play. The gardens were also shared with local groups such as the Scouts, and the house itself was also used as an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) station.

Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

The nursery would likely have been open from between 7-9am until 5-7pm. Factory work was usually a 10-12 hour day (not including time for travel) until the government pressured employers to use split-shift systems and part-time hours from 1943 onwards. This meant that women would still have had to struggle to drop off and pick up their children on time, especially with the transport problems the war caused, such as the petrol shortage and the blackout.

In a 1990s newspaper article stored at Valence House archives, June, a former nursery worker at Eastbury, recalled that breastfeeding mums who worked at Ford were allowed to take four-hourly breaks to go to the nursery and feed their babies.

Eastbury Manor would have cared for 40-50 children, from babies up until the age of 5 years old. At a similar day nursery in Rainham Hall one child, Janice Cunningham, attended the day nursery from the age of 9 months until she was 5 years old. Children would have been looked after by nursery nurses and would have spent their days engaged with games, toys and outdoor play.

“All the children wore clothes supplied and laundered by the nursery, which meant their hard-working mums were spared a lot of washing. We gave all the children three meals a day so you can imagine the number of bibs and feeders we got through. We also had five coppers full of nappies every day." - June, Eastbury House nursery worker

A room in Rainham Hall set up as it would have been in the 1940s Day Nursery for children to nap – Copyright with the author

A room in Rainham Hall set up as it would have been in the 1940s Day Nursery for children to nap – Copyright with the author

The Ministry of Health defined the day nurseries as ‘a cloak-room for the children of women workers’ and places were limited to those women who ‘had’ to work. This was felt by many to exclude those women working to supplement their husbands’ incomes and reflected the supposition that women’s wages made no real contribution to the family finances. This would have deterred some women from placing their children there.

An overall shortage of places available for children during the early 1940’s also led to nurseries operating unspoken selection procedures. Priority was often given to disadvantaged families, but this was still judged according to Victorian attitudes towards the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ in which only the clean, polite and well-presented were seen as ‘deserving’. At one day nursery in Wandsworth it was reported that governors had issued an instruction not to accept children who did not meet their standards of cleanliness:

We’ve instructed Matron not to take them in if they’re dirty”

Other nurseries in nearby areas of the borough, and surrounding boroughs began to open. In the immediate area were Parsloes Avenue Dagenham (opened in 1942 to care for 40 children), Goresbrook Rd Dagenham (opened in 1944 for 50 children), Rugby Rd Dagenham (caring for 38 children from 1945), and Dagenham Avenue (caring for 70 children from 1945). The increase in provision the borough saw right up until the end of the war, and ongoing provision afterwards indicates the growth in the numbers of married women working continued and was sustained even after the end of the war.

Wartime nurseries in England overall began to decline due to the withdrawal of Ministry of Health funding in 1945 and local authorities' reluctance to foot the whole bill. However, not all of the day nurseries closed, as a model had been established for a part-time nursery school which local education authorities now had a duty to provide to meet the needs of their populations.

Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham after WWII

Eastbury Manor remained as a day nursery until the end of 1956, after repeated extensions of the lease by the council due to high demand for nursey places. A letter to the National Trust from the council’s Town Clerk in 1951 states that over 400 children were waiting nursery places and the demand was expected to increase still further as more women took on work in industrial factories.

Looking through some old family photographs for the Working for Equality project, I discovered that my father had actually been at the nursery for the last few years it was in operation. He was born in Barking in 1953 and would have been there from 1955-56 when my Nan, Louise Elliston, returned to work she started during the war and continued for some years afterwards, as a conductor ‘on the buses’. Unfortunately, my father was too young at the time to remember any of his experience at Eastbury Manor and all we are left with from his time there is this rather blurry photograph of the Manor taken during the time he was there.

Eastbury Manor c1955, with climbing frames visible in the grounds - Copyright with the author

Eastbury Manor c1955, with climbing frames visible in the grounds - Copyright with the author

My Nan would have found herself in the situation of many women who had been invited, encouraged, and in some cases even pressured into working outside of the home during the 1940s, who (from stories recounted to us) enjoyed and thrived in the workplace. With the return of servicemen from the war seeking work, some women were displaced from their jobs.

Married women especially were no longer encouraged to work and some employers reverted to their ‘Marriage Bar’ in which women were prevented from working in certain roles. Ideologies of the 1950s about psychological damage to children of married women ‘leaving’ home to work, and the prevalence of images of domestic femininity circulated by the media and advertising would have also contributed to the return of many married women to their pre-war situation.

Childcare remains a problem for many women in the UK today, with children receiving 15 hours per week free childcare at a pre-school from 2 years old and 30 hours per week from 3 years old. Outside of this, childcare is often expensive and can be hard to find. Much recent discussion cites lack of childcare provision, or lack of flexible employment (including flexible/part-time hours, or opportunities for home working) as a contributing factor to the gender pay gap, issues which the women of today continue to fight against and campaign about.


Employment figures and all quotations within this post came from the text: Women Workers in the Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict by Penny Summerfield, Routledge, 2013

There is also an excellent exhibition on children’s experiences of the Day Nursery during WWII at Rainham Hall on currently, which was drawn on for this post.

Original research was completed thanks to Valence House Library and Archives http://valencehousecollections.co.uk/

Additional sources are as follows:








Huge thanks to volunteer Charlotte Elliston for researching and writing this brilliant article as part of our Heritage Lottery-funded Working For Equality project. Charlotte works at the Science Museum and is co-director of Sweet 'Art.


We're looking for new trustees

  • Voluntary position
  • 1 year term from appointment (renewable) 
  • Monthly meeting in east London plus 3 hours work per week / 12 hours per month

The East End Women's Museum is recruiting a board of trustees to help shape our vision and make it a reality. We are looking for people with practical skills and experience, a hands-on, collaborative approach, a commitment to women's rights and an interest in east London's history. 


We are currently working towards opening the East End Women's Museum in a permanent home in Barking in 2020. After a busy year in 2018 delivering exhibitions and events across three east London boroughs, our focus for 2019 – 2020 will be firmly on fundraising and business planning, consultation and outreach, developing our permanent exhibition and designing the space.

In 2016 we became a Community Interest Company with a small board of three directors. In 2018/19 we aim to secure charity status and we are recruiting a group of people who will be ready to become trustees as soon as that occurs. Our goal is to recruit enough people for a board of 7 – 8, including the three current directors.

We currently have two part-time staff, and we are seeking trustees who are willing to work closely with them and take a collaborative, hands-on approach to the project.

Knowledge, skills, and experience

Trustees must have at least one of these areas of expertise:

  • HR and personnel

  • Buildings and capital project management

  • Legal

  • Corporate planning and business/commercial development

  • Fundraising

  • Finance

History and heritage knowledge is welcomed, but not essential. We aim to develop an advisory network of expertise in east London and women's history at a later stage.

How to apply

Please submit a completed application form via email to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com by 12pm on Monday 10 September 2018.

Interviews will be held via Skype in the week commencing Monday 1 October 2018. If you know you are not available at this time please let us know when you apply.

If you have any queries about the role please contact Sarah Jackson on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com.

Seeking a Museum Coordinator

Museum Coordinator, East End Women’s Museum

  • £32,000 per annum pro rata
  • 17.5 hours per week
  • 12 month contract with extension pending funding
  • Home-based with travel in east London
  • Reports to the Board of Trustees, line manages Volunteer Coordinator

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project established in 2015 to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. We’re currently working towards opening the East End Women's Museum in a permanent home in Barking in 2020.

We are looking for someone resourceful and flexible to take on the rewarding, challenging, and varied role of Museum Coordinator as the project enters its next stage.

The Museum Coordinator will hold responsibility for fundraising, financial management, communications, and maintaining our virtual office; project manage the move to the museum’s new site; and act as an ambassador for the organisation, building strong relationships with stakeholders.

This is an exciting time to join the project, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the right person to shape not only a new museum but a new kind of museum.

Please submit a completed application form via email to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com by 12pm on Monday 30 July 2018.

Interviews will be held on Monday 13 August 2018. If you know you are not available on this date please let us know when you apply.

If you have any queries about the role please contact Sarah Jackson on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com.

New exhibition explores the untold story of Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical East End suffragettes

The Women's Hall 30 May - 20 October 2018

Opening on 30 May 2018, The Women’s Hall at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives is the first major exhibition about the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

The free exhibition and accompanying events run until 20 October 2018 and explore the ELFS campaign for the vote, their split from the WSPU and their wartime projects, which included a co-operative toy factory, a health clinic, and a nursery in a former pub. Visitors will learn about little known local working class suffragettes like Melvina Walker and Daisy Parsons, and the venues in Bow and Poplar which were taken over by the ELFS for use in their projects.

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition hall at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives will be transformed into a unique space evoking the headquarters of the ELFS, a former Baptist mission hall on Old Ford Road in Bow which the suffragettes named ‘The Women’s Hall’. The building no longer stands.

The exhibition includes a recreation of the ELFS Cost Price Restaurant, which will serve refreshments for visitors on a 'pay-what-you-can' basis using redistributed food from Fare Share. The Cost Price Restaurant will be open 12.30 - 2.30pm Wednesday - Friday and on Saturdays when the exhibition is open. There will also be a donation point for Bow Food Bank.

Objects and archive materials on display include a rare ‘Ealontoys’ teddy bear made in the toy factory started by the ELFS just behind Roman Road; and the handwritten diary of suffragette Gertrude Setchfield which describes her trips to the East End in 1914 to attend ELFS rallies, on loan from the LSE Women’s Library.

A free public programme of talks, creative workshops, film screenings and guided walks will accompany the exhibition, and a learning resource will be developed for Tower Hamlets teachers to use to explore local suffrage stories.

Local Somali cultural organisation Numbi Arts will also stage a takeover of the space in August, presenting Repair and Rebellion - a strand of free events linked to Numbi’s new mobile museum exploring histories of women of the East African diaspora, their links with London’s East End, and anti-imperialism - a cause to which Sylvia Pankhurst was dedicated.

Speaker of the Council, Cllr Sabina Akhtar said: “Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes used Tower Hamlets as a base, campaigning for the rights of working women in the East End and improved conditions for the poor.

Since then, numerous other women have played equally vital roles in shaping the future of our community. That’s why we are extremely delighted to bring this amazing part of our history to life with this major new exhibition which will hopefully resource and inspire present and future generations to continue to campaign for equality for all.”  

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets said: “We are proud of our rich history of campaigning for the rights of women and the less privileged.  Especially in the year that marks the centenary of women’s right to vote in the UK, I am pleased that this new exhibition and accompanying public programme illustrates how important it is  to continue the legacy of the East London Federation of Suffragettes.” 

A public launch event will take place 11am – 4pm on Saturday 2 June, including:

  • Pay-what-you-can-cafe in the recreated 'cost price restaurant' - 12.30 to 14:30

  • Drop-in toy making workshop with artist Judith Hope. No experience needed and all materials provided – 11.00 to 13.00

  • Guided tour of the exhibition – 13.00 to 13.30

  • ‘Forgotten Suffragettes’ talk by Esther Freeman – 14.00 to 15.00

  • Research volunteers showcase - hear about some of the fascinating things we couldn't fit in the exhibition! – 15.15 – 16.00



Press preview Tuesday 29 May

Members of the press are invited to attend a preview of the exhibition on Tuesday 29 May, 3.00 - 5.30pm at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ.  Please RSVP by email to localhistory@towerhamlets.gov.uk with ‘Press preview’ in the subject line.

Images, further information and interviews

For further information, images and interviews please contact Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com

About the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

In January 1914 the East End branches of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) broke away and formed an independent, democratic organisation called the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) which focused on the rights of working women in east London. It was led by Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and sister of Christabel Pankhurst, leaders of the WSPU.

The ELFS marched through East London, held huge public meetings, opened their own women’s social centres like the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road, organised benefit concerts and parties, and produced a weekly newspaper called The Woman’s Dreadnought. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters to defend them from police brutality.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, factories across East London closed and food prices spiralled. The suffragettes led community action to support those most affected by the sudden wave of unemployment, organising the distribution of milk for starving infants and opening a volunteer-run children’s health clinic, a nursery school and a series of canteens serving nutritious food at “cost price”. They even opened their own cooperative toy factory, which paid a living wage and included a crèche.

The organisation changed its name and focus over the years but didn’t close down until 1924.

About women’s suffrage

In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women over 30, subject to a small property qualification, extending the right to vote to 8.4 million women in the UK. However, this only represented around 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. In July 1928 the Equal Franchise Act finally gave equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21.

About the Women’s Hall project

The Women’s Hall exhibition is part of a larger partnership project with the East End Women’s Museum, Four Corners, and Alternative Arts, which has been made possible through a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Other activities include:

  • East End Suffragettes: the photography of Norah Smyth (Four Corners Gallery, 26 October-26 January 2019), a unique exhibition of forgotten photographer Norah Smyth’s photographs which provide an intimate documentation of the ELFS’ activities, accompanied by gallery talks and local history walks that explore Norah’s story and the work of the East End suffragettes.

  • The regular East London Federation of the Suffragettes stall at Roman Road Market will be recreated on Saturday 16 June 2018, sharing local suffragette stories with shoppers.

  • A new ‘Suffrage in the East End’ Education Pack will be created for all Tower Hamlets schools, and newly digitized archive materials will be made available to the public at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

  • A photography workshop for mothers will run at Four Corners in summer 2018, leading to a final exhibition in autumn 2018.

More information about the project partners can be found at:

Four Corners http://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives http://www.ideastore.co.uk/local-history

East End Women’s Museum http://www.eastendwomensmuseum.org

Alternative Arts http://www.alternativearts.co.uk

Numbi Arts http://numbi.org/

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund https://www.hlf.org.uk/


A forgotten WW1 disaster: the Barking factory explosion of 1917

The Ajax Chemical Works explosion occurred in what is now the borough of Barking, but most of the victims were working-class residents of Newham. In brief, on 9 August 1917, there was a catastrophic incident at the factory, which seems to have been making some kind of explosive – no doubt part of the “war effort” – in which 13 women workers were killed, 11 of them from Newham.

There is not much history of the event other than contemporary press reports. The Victoria County History of Barking does not mention it. The website of the Imperial War Museum provides some access to the press of the time, and more can be read through the British Newspaper Archive. I have assembled some of it below, hopefully enough to tell the story.

As far as I know, there has never been any memorial to these women workers, and the centenary of the explosion went unmarked in 2017.

I assume that the Ajax Chemical Works was on the marshy area banking the Thames – it is described in one press report as being in “open country”.

The coroner’s inquest seems to have been sympathetic to the victims and their families, but neither the coroner nor his jury seem to have taken any pains to probe the causes of the incident.

A young worker gave evidence that the mixture he had been preparing earlier in the day, and which he had delivered to the room where the fire or explosion started, had caught fire, and that the chemist in charge had told him not to advise the workers that there might be any danger from it. The same chemist was said to have been unable to give an explanation for the incident. The chemist was not examined by the coroner.

The owner of the works asked the coroner not to use the word “explosion” unless it could be proven that an explosion had taken place, The inquest jury concluded that the deaths of the 13 women workers was caused by suffocation caused by “a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown.”


An article in the Birmingham Daily Post on Saturday 11 August 1917 reads:

"Thirteen women lost their lives and three were injured the result of an explosion which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. A small fire broke out in two-storeyed building fifty yards away from the main premises, and was followed by an explosion on the top floor. Sixteen women were working at the benches, and thirteen were immediately overcome by smoke, and their bodies were burned before any rescue could be attempted.

Fire engines, together with, doctors and ambulances, were quickly the spot, which lies in open country, and the outbreak of fire did not last very long. The names of the victims are:

Mrs. Maskell, Caulfield Road. East Ham;

Mrs. Abbott, her sister;

Mrs. England, Washington Road, Upton Park;

Mrs. E. Smith, Bartle Avenue, East Ham;

Mrs. Foley, Hockley Road, Barking Road;

Mrs. Curry, Talbot Road, East Ham;

Mrs. Stevens, Napier Road, East Ham;

Mrs. King, Arthur Road, East Ham;

Miss Knight, Walton Read. Manor Park;

Miss Clark, Parkhurst Road, Manor Park;

Miss Alice Cole, Howards Road, Barking;

Mrs. Webb, Talbot Road, East Ham; and

Miss Rainbow, Hardwick Street. Barking.

The dead sisters were found together in one room. The families of the dead women were attended to yesterday by the firm. There were about 100 women at work when the explosion took place, and it seems that the women on the upper storey ran to the stairs where a jam occurred through one girl falling and the others, due to the volume of smoke, tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes. Most of the girls were working overtime, and several owe their safety to the fact that they had left in order to get water for tea. Although identification has not been definitely established, one of the bodies is believed to be that of Mrs. Stevens, of Napier Road, East Ham. Further enquiries show that two women one of them Mrs. Wales—and a boy named Terry were injured. All three are in hospital. The total casualties were 13 killed and 3 injured.

Little Noise From Explosion.

The noise of the explosion was not very loud, and some people in the vicinity thought that it was merely gunfire, and were unaware that anything serious had occurred until they saw the fire-engines. Work in the main building was not interfered with by the explosion, the premises remaining undamaged. The detached brick building in which the explosion occurred was burnt out, leaving the wails standing. The explosion caused practically no damage to the fabric, and, curiously enough, the glass in the main buildings was not broken.

It stated that this is the third fire that has occurred during the past eight weeks, Mr. A. Rymer, an official at the works, in an interview, said: A fire occurred which caused an explosion in one of the rooms. The girls working at the benches were immediately overcome by the smoke, and before they could be rescued they were burned to death.” Mr. Rymer said in another interview: A fire occurred in one of the rooms, and then there was a dull explosion. A huge volume of smoke was emitted, and gave hardly any time for the girls get out. Thirteen were afterwards found suffocated and three injured. Altogether the works employs 150 persons, 90% of them women and girls. Most the women who lost their lives have families. There were many attempts at rescue. I was not here myself; it was the first day I have been away for twelve months. Everybody was splendid in their attempts bring some of the women down, but really the smoke and the flames were so intense that nothing more could be done. We had a fire here a little time ago, but not in the same room, and knew the cause it. So far I cannot say what was the cause of this fire."

A Woman’s Story.

Mrs- Carr, who worked in the building where the explosion occurred, said in the course of an interview, My daughter, who worked in the same place, had just called me to her. I had gone downstairs to tell her I intended to work overtime, so that luckily I was outside the door when the explosion occurred. After the explosion the doors immediately shut with bang, and I screamed ‘Fire.’ Mr. Cox, one of the staff, came running up with Mr. Reed, the chemist, and Mr. Cox went inside. As he got through the door there was another explosion, and the door slammed on him, leaving him inside. I afterwards heard he got out all right. I shall never forget what I saw. Four women rushed to the windows and jumped through to the ground. The others had no chance. They must have been suffocated straight away. I saw a little girl brought out in flames, and they rolled her on the grass to extinguish her blazing clothing. As soon as I heard the bang the place seemed to fill with dense smoke, which came streaming out of the windows, where the glass was all shattered”

Another woman said that other girls were brought out with their clothing on fire. It seemed to be all over in a minute,” said a workman. “We heard the explosion and saw the flames, and the brigade had the outbreak in hand in no time.” An allotment holder said that, hearing an explosion he looked across to the works, and saw one building amass of flames, which came from every window- “We ran across to render what assistance we could, and the fire was promptly got under by the brigade.”

There was a pathetic incident yesterday, when Mr. King, the husband of one of the victims, went to the factory and learnt that his wife was dead. He had just arrived home after being discharged from the army."

"Many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue"

This article is from the Yorkshire Evening Post on  Saturday 11 August 1917:

"Further details of the explosion and fire at the Ajax Chemical Company's factory at Barking on Thursday night reveal many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue.

As reported in yesterday's Yorkshire Evening Post, thirteen women and girls lost their lives, and their bodies have been recovered from the ruins, while two women and a boy were seriously injured and are in hospital.

The works are owned by Mr. H. Rymer and gave employment to about 150 women and girls. Every precaution had been taken to avoid accidents, and the escape stairways are unusually wide. About 6 o'clock, just as the women were getting ready to leave for the day, a small fire broke out in one of the filling rooms.

A dull explosion immediately followed, a bluish, suffocating smoke arose, being followed instantly by a fierce blaze which shot outwards through the open windows. Women in the yard screamed an alarm, and Mr. Cox, an official of the works, ran into the burning building. Two girls and a boy jumped from windows, one of the girls injuring herself so badly by the fall that she had to be taken to the emergency hospital. Women from the upper floor escaped by a fire ladder.

Those on the ground floor were all out in a minute or two. The Barking Fire Brigade and members of the St. John Ambulance Association came quickly, but the fire was so intense that it was three-quarters of an hour before they could get inside the building.

The bodies were badly burned. Few could be identified except by chance, such as the recognition of a ring or piece of dentist's work. As all except one who were killed were employed in the room where the explosion occurred, and as the windows were opened and only twelve feet from the ground, it is assumed that they were overcome by fumes before the flames touched them. A pathetic incident is that among the victims were some soldiers' wives.

One man returned home yesterday on leave. When he reached his house, with the trench mud still thick upon him, it was only to be informed that, half an hour previously, his wife's body had been recovered from the ruined building. The husband of another victim left for the front on Wednesday. Another soldier husband came home yesterday, just discharged from hospital, and it was not until he reached home that he heard of the tragedy. A third soldier husband, father of nine children, is expected home Monday.

Two of the victims, Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Maskell, were sisters. "I happened to be in the yard at the time," said a woman worker. "I heard a sort of soft noise, more like a sudden burst of air than an explosion. I saw the smoke pouring out and then the flames. I shouted 'Fire!' And then I saw two girls and a boy jump from a window. One of the girls was picked up and handed to me. Her back seemed to be hurt from the fall. Mr Cox was grand. He went in when the place was blazing, and we heard that he had been closed in. It was a relief to hear afterwards that he was safe. All the people in the first shop must have been made senseless by the fumes or they would have jumped out. Some of the windows on the ground floor were neither broken nor burnt."

Firemen made gallant attempts to rescue the women and girls who had been cut off, and tried to dash up the staircases, but the fumes from the chemicals drove them back again and again, choking and half suffocated. In the end they were forced to give up attempts at rescue in despair. ... The dead sisters were found together in one room. It seems that the women on the upper story ran to the stairs, and then a jam occurred through one girl falling, and the others in the volume of smoke tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes."

"It had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight."

This account of the inquest comes from the Birmingham Daily Post on Tuesday 14 August 1917:

"Dr. F. Collins opened the inquest yesterday on thirteen victims of the explosion and fire which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. Dr. Collins said that he only proposed to take evidence of identification before an adjournment. One body, which had hitherto been unrecognised, had now been identified. The evidence as to how the calamity occurred, what resulted from the first flash, and the rest of the horrible details he would take after the adjournment. He would also have something to say about the heroic conduct of the people who had tried do their best to save life in face of insuperable difficulty.

Mrs. Maskell, of Caulfield Road, East Ham, was identified by the false teeth she was wearing. There was considerable difficulty in recognising other victims. Miss Clark was recognised by part of her dress and Miss Cole and Miss Gurry by their teeth. Others were identified by marks on the bodies. When Mr. King gave evidence to his wife the Coroner said that it was a particularly sad case, inasmuch as the unfortunate husband was discharged from the army the day the tragedy happened. King identified his wife by her ring. "l last saw her alive June 25,” said, “when she bid me good-bye at Waterloo Station, when I was going back to camp.” The Coroner said that all their sympathy went out to King. When Mrs. Knight was speaking about her daughter she broke down and had to be led out of court. "I identify her,” she said, "by the way her hair was done. She had the habit of doing it a particular way.” In every case the witness gave some special means by which identification was alone possible. A doctor, who was on the scene within three minutes, said it was impossible to carry out effective rescue work because of the flames.

The Coroner; Was the whole building alight?—lt had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight. It was impossible to enter the building in consequence of the smoke and heat. At the earliest possible moment Superintendent Abbott went inside and soon recovered the first body. Were these unfortunate women killed by the flames, or were the bodies calcined after death?—l believe that they were all suffocated, and that the bodies were then burned and charred. And suffocation would practically instantaneous ? —Very rapid indeed.

The density of the smoke in the building was extraordinary, and it would render them quite unconscious. I saw all the thirteen bodies taken out, and they were all suffocated end then burned. There was evidence of struggles in two cases only. The inquest was adjourned until Wednesday. Mr. Du Parcq expressed the sympathy of the company with the relatives. He said that there would be no doubt that all concerned behaved with the utmost resource under the terrible circumstances. Steps had already been taken in cases of necessity to give relief, and in other cases it was only necessary for application, to be made. The Coroner said that the calamity marked an epoch in disasters. He was pretty hardened, but this was one the worst cases had ever seen. He would do all he could to ease and spare the feelings of the relatives, but they would have to see whether anything could done to prevent similar occurrences."


The Birmingham Daily Post speculated on the source of the explosion, on Thursday 16 August 1917:

"A verdict of “Accidental death from suffocation caused a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown,” was returned at the resumed inquest at Barking yesterday, on the 15 victims of the fire at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday last. The jury also recommended that the searching of the employees be more thorough, that the materials completed be- removed as soon as finished and not stored in the workroom, that work of this nature should if possible, be carried out on the ground floor and that the front door on the ground floor should open outwards.

At the commencement yesterday Mr. Walter Lloyd (for the company) asked the Coroner if he would refrain from using the word “explosion” until it was definitely known if there had been an explosion.

The assistant-manager said there had been a fire on the premises previously, and every possible precaution was taken. It was customary to search the employees and nobody was allowed to take in matches. As he was coming from the office he saw a dense volume of smoke issuing from the first floor. He heard no cry and no explosion—only a dull sound similar to a box of matches going off. He got out the building but was overcome by smoke. When he recovered he gave what assistance he could.

When the front door was opened women ran out. There were 80 at work. There was considerable alarm and commotion. He saw a fire on the first floor. The glass had gone from the windows but nobody appeared at them. Two people jumped from windows about 10ft. high.

The Coroner: The place was like a rabbit warren as far doors were concerned—doors all over the place ?—Yes.

Had the occupants been given time they could have escaped?—Yes. They were overcome so quickly by the smoke

Mrs. Ada Walters, a finisher, who was sitting in the room by one of the victims, said she noticed smoke and a slight bang from behind where she was. The noise, witness agreed, was more like matches than a gun. There was dull thud and a lot of smoke, and she was blown downstairs, her clothes catching fire.

A Mixer’s Story.

Charles Panons (15) said he carried chemical from one place to another. He helped to mix the stuff according to directions in a shed away from the main building. About 20lbs. was mixed at time. On the day of the fire a piece caught alight. This was the only occasion had had a piece catch alight. Mr. Pawley, who was present, remarked. “You see how dangerous it is!” When he had finished mixing it, witness took it up into the room where the fire occurred later. He asked Mr. Pawley if he should tell the women it was dangerous, and Mr. Pawlev replied “No, Charlie, that is all right.” He understood that Mr Pawley had put in it something that made it dangerous. Thursday was the first day he had mixed up this particular stuff.

John Pawley, employed as a mixer, said he worked under the direction of the chemist. He did not know what the stuff was made of. The piece which caught alight burned like a match-head. He reported what had happened to the chemist, who reassured him. The chemist said; You mix as I tell you, and it will be all right.” He had not mixed any of that kind of stuff before the day of the tragedy or since.

Captain Abbott, Chief Officer of the Barking Fire Brigade, said that as soon as possible he penetrated beyond the ground floor and recovered three bodies Having got his smoke helmet, he recovered five or six more. Then he was overcome. Water seemed to have little effect the flames.

The Coroner: You consider it to have been chemical fire?— Yes.

Captain Abbott said thought the means of escape were adequate but the women were suffocated, and had no chance from the first. Eight or nine bodies were huddled together near the staircase.

The Coroner asked Mr. Lloyd if the company’s chemist could say how the fire arose.

Mr. Lloyd: No, sir; he says it is impossible- he can only give supposition.

The Coroner warmly commended the conduct of Captain Abbott."


Huge thanks to J.J. Plant for giving us permission to reproduce his article about the tragedy here, which was originally posted in the Newham History Society Facebook group on 3 April 2018. 

A few details of the life of one of the victims of the fire have been uncovered and recorded as part of the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War project: find out more about Mary Ann Foley

As part of our Working For Equality project we're hoping to speak to women - or relatives who remember them - who worked in a factory in Barking and Dagenham between 1918 and 1968. If you have memories or family stories to share, please call Fani on 020 8553 3116 or email fani@eastendwomensmuseum.org.

Sarah Chapman: Matchgirl strike leader and TUC delegate


Sarah Chapman was born on 31 October in 1862 to Samuel Chapman and Sarah Ann Mackenzie; Samuel was a Brewer’s Servant at the time of her birth but was also known to have worked at the docks in his time.

The fifth of seven children, Sarah’s early life was spent at number 26 Alfred Terrace in Mile End but by the time she was 9, the family had moved to 2 Swan Court (now the back of the American Snooker Hall on Mile End Road), where they would stay for at least 17 years.

For a working-class family to stay in one place for such a long time was uncommon. Other evidence of the seemingly unusual stability of the Chapman family is that Sarah and her siblings received some form of education as they were listed as Scholars in census returns and could all read and write.

Bryant and May

By the time she was 19, Sarah was working, alongside her mother and her older sister, Mary, as a Matchmaking Machinist, so by 1888 she was an established member of the workforce at the Bryant and May factory.

At the time of the Strike, Sarah is listed as working in the Patent area of the business, as a Booker, and was on relatively good wages, which perhaps placed her in a position of esteem with the other workers. Her wages just before the Strike certainly suggest she was paid more than most. This may have been because of her position as a Booker, or because she just managed to avoid the liberal fines.

There was undoubtedly a high degree of unrest in the factory due to the low wages, long hours, appalling working conditions and the unfair fines system, which caused the women and girls at the factory to become increasingly frustrated with their bosses. External influences, particularly the Fabian Society, also provided an impetus for the Strike.

Ultimately, 1400 girls and women marched out of the factory, en masse, on 5th July 1888. The next day some 200 girls marched from Mile End down to Bouverie Street to see Annie Besant, one of the Fabians. A deputation of three (Sarah Chapman, Mrs Mary Cummings and Mrs Naulls) went into her office to ask for her support. While Annie wasn’t an advocate of strike action, she did agree to help them organise a Strike Committee.

"We’d ‘ave come out before only we wasn't agreed"
"You stood up for us and we wasn't going back on you"

The first meeting of the striking Matchgirls was held on Mile End Waste on 8th July and both the Pall Mall Gazette and The Star provided positive publicity. This was followed by meetings with Members of Parliament at the House of Commons.

The Strike Committee was formed and the following Matchgirls were named as members: Mrs Naulls, Mrs Mary Cummings, Sarah Chapman, Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.

Following further intervention by Toynbee Hall and the London Trades Council, the Strike Committee was given the chance to make their case. They met with the Bryant and May Directors. By 17th July, their demands were met and terms agreed in principle. It was agreed that:

1. all fines should be abolished;
2. all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, etc., should be put an end to;
3. the 3d. should be restored to the packers;
4. the “pennies” should be restored, or an equivalent advantage given in the system of
payment of the boys who do the racking;
5. all grievances should be laid directly before the firm, ere any hostile action was
6. all the girls to be taken back.

It was also agreed that a Union should be formed, that Bryant and May would provide a room for meals away from the room the work was done and that barrows would be provided to carry boxes, rather than the previous practice of young girls having to carry them on their heads.

The Strike Committee put the proposals to the rest of the workforce and they enthusiastically approved.

The inaugural meeting of the new Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall on 27th July and 12 women were elected, including Sarah Chapman (ringed in red below).

Sarah Chapman and Matchwomen's Strike committee


The Union of Women Match Makers

An indication of the belief her fellow workers had in her ability, was Sarah’s election as the first TUC representative of the Match Makers’ Union. Sarah was one of 77 delegates to attend the 1888 International TUC in London and may well have attended other conferences. At the 1890 TUC she is recorded as having seconded a motion.

On the night of the 1891 census, Sarah was still a Booker at the match factory and living with only her Mum in Blackthorn Street in Bromley by Bow. By the end of that same year, in December, Sarah married Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker. By this time Sarah had ceased working at Bryant and May.


Sarah and Charles had their first child, Sarah Elsie in 1892. They had five more children, one was my Grandad, William Frederick, born in 1898. By this time they had moved to Bethnal Green.

Sarah’s husband, Charles, and their daughter, Elizabeth Rose, were buried at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. Both graves have since been mounded over and the land reclaimed for reuse so it is not possible to visit them apart from knowing the general area where they were buried.

Sarah’s two youngest sons, William and Frederick lived with her, on and off, into the 1930s. Sarah continued to live in the Bethnal Green area until her death, of lung cancer, in Bethnal Green hospital on 27th November 1945 aged 83.

For reasons that are not clear Sarah was buried along with 5 other elderly people in a pauper's plot at Manor Park Cemetery, perhaps due to lack of money following WWII and trying to make ends meet in a bomb blasted area of London. She was survived by three of her six children, Sarah, William and Fred. A sad end to a life filled with challenges, not least a leading role in a Strike that was the vanguard of the New Labour Movement and helped establish Trade Unionism.


It is thanks to Anna Robinson, Poet and Lecturer at the University of East London, who in 2004 chose Sarah Chapman as the topic of her MA thesis, ‘Neither Hidden Nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman’, that I discovered the story of my Great Grandmother.

I contacted Anna in late 2016, having discovered her post on a family history forum dated 2003, in which she had appealed for information. Until then, I had no idea about Sarah’s past. Anna had also discovered Sarah's grave and was able to provide enough information for me rediscover it in early 2017.

Sarah is buried in plot 147/D/114 in Manor Park Cemetery. Regrettably, due to lack of burial spaces in London, there are plans to mound over her grave. Please sign our petition to help preserve the memory of this courageous woman.

To mark the 130th anniversary of the Matchgirls Strike in 2018, I am planning a commemorative walk to re-enact the steps taken by the Matchgirls on 6th July 1888, from Mile End to Bouverie Street where Annie Besant’s office was.

Please sign up, don your Victorian garb and join us to remember this momentous event – contact samdearman0411@gmail.com for further details.

Thank you to Samantha Johnson for this post!

Support the East End Women's Museum this Women's History Month

It's hard to believe how much has changed for us over the last year. At the start of Women's History Month 2017 we didn't have a bank account, the banner we were using at events was paint on an old curtain, and we were running out of flyers. Our Women at Watney project was just getting started, and our exhibition with Hackney Museum still seemed very distant. We had some big ideas for 2018, but no firm plans. 

Today Women at Watney: Voices from an East End market is complete. We've got new, professional banners for events, plenty of flyers, and a new logo to boot. Our Making Her Mark exhibition is on display at Hackney Museum right now, and we have a whole programme of events and exhibitions on the way this summer in Barking & Dagenham and Tower Hamlets. And, incredibly, we are working towards opening our doors in late 2019 or early 2020.

Help us reach our Women's History Month target

Donate now

Last year we ran a crowdfunding campaign during Women's History Month. Your contributions made a huge difference to us. You gave us the security, the independence, and the confidence to take a leap into our future. Thank you. 

We're asking people to think of us again this Women's History Month and make a small donation if you can.

Donate now

Although we've secured some grant funding, it has been very, very helpful to have a pot of our own to spend on needs as they arise.

As well as some of the same ongoing costs like transport and printing, we hope to offer payment for speakers and performers at our events this year and childcare facilities to help ensure that parents and carers can attend. These aren't fully covered by our grants. 

If you'd like to make a donation to help renew our fund to cover items like this and any other unexpected costs along the way we would be very grateful.

Thank you so much for your support. Everything that we have achieved so far has been made possible by individuals like you who have supported us and cheered us on along the way. There's still a long way to go before we open our doors, but with your help we will make the East End Women's Museum a reality.

Press release: Women’s Hall project celebrating East End suffragettes receives Heritage Lottery Fund support


100 years after UK women first won the right to vote, an exciting project in Tower Hamlets supported by a £100,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund will celebrate the little-known history of the radical East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

Developed by Four Corners, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, East End Women’s Museum and Women’s History Month in East London, The Women’s Hall project will run from March to December 2018 and include two major exhibitions, a volunteering programme and public programme of talks, events and workshops.

The project’s name is inspired by the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow, the headquarters of the ELFS from 1914 to 1924, and home of their leader Sylvia Pankhurst and her friend, suffragette and photographer Norah Smyth. Run largely by and for local working class women, the Hall was at the heart of the community’s response to sudden unemployment and rising food prices caused by the outbreak of the First World War, housing a ‘Cost Price Restaurant’ where people could get a hot meal at a very low price and free milk for their children.

The project launches through Women’s History Month in East London in March 2018, inviting local organisations, libraries, venues and women’s groups to explore and celebrate the heritage. There is a drop-in event for anyone interested in finding out more at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives on Thursday 15 March, 6.00pm– 7.30pm.

Carla Mitchell, Development Director at Four Corners said:

“The East London Federation of the Suffragettes were a remarkable group of women, but their story is little known. As the centenary of women’s right to vote is celebrated nationally we aim to help East End communities discover the amazing suffrage stories on their doorstep.”

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: 

“We can rightly be very proud of the role Tower Hamlets and the wider East End played in the suffragette movement. I look forward to joining visitors from across the borough and beyond at these fantastic events. I am particularly proud that the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives team will be bringing history to life with their community kitchen and crèche initiatives – it is the sort of activity that I’m sure the East London Federation of the Suffragettes would have been fully supportive of.  I am also clear that as a council and community we need to restate, revisit and refresh our commitment to gender equality. This centenary will offer a clear opportunity not only for us to look backwards, but to look forwards too.”

Stuart Hobley, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said:

“We’re delighted to support this timely project, which will reveal a significant but untold dimension of suffragette history. Thanks to National Lottery players, the legacy of these extraordinary and community-spirited women will be celebrated through a programme of activities, so we can all learn this both locally and important heritage for the first time.”

Notes to editors

Women’s Hall project activities will explore and celebrate the heritage of the East London suffragettes throughout 2018 through:

  • The Women’s Hall exhibition (Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 29 May-20 October 2018) will evoke the interior of the original Women’s Hall. Visitors will be able to learn about the ELFS and the First World War in the East End, view original materials, handle replicas, and attend events and workshops. A pop up community kitchen will serve hot meals for the public at set times throughout the exhibition’s run, and a crèche facility will be available one day per week.

  • East End Suffragettes: the photography of Norah Smyth (Four Corners Gallery, 26 October-26 January 2019), a unique exhibition of Norah Smyth’s photographs which provide an intimate documentation of the ELFS’ activities, accompanied by gallery talks and local history walks that explore Norah’s story and the work of the East End suffragettes in more depth.

  • The regular ELFS stall at Roman Road Market will be recreated on Saturday 16 June 2018, sharing local suffragette stories with shoppers.

  • A new ‘Suffrage in the East End’ Education Pack will be created for all Tower Hamlets schools, and newly digitized archive materials will be made available to the public at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

  • A Photography workshop for mothers will run at Four Corners in Summer 2018, leading to a final exhibition in autumn 2018.

  • 20+ local volunteers will gain skills in archival research and digitisation, heritage interpretation and curation, public speaking, photography and darkroom practice, events production and customer support.

About the project partners

Four Corners

Four Corners is a creative centre for film and photography, committed to promoting community-wide participation for over 40 years. Its programme seeks to support projects that engage with social and cultural themes, and open up perspectives for audiences, particularly in East London. http://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives covers the area of the present-day London borough of Tower Hamlets - the original East End of London which, until 1965, comprised of the boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney. http://www.ideastore.co.uk/local-history

East End Women’s Museum

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest. Find out more at www.eastendwomensmuseum.org

Women’s History Month in East London

Running 1 – 31 March, Women’s History Month 2018 will celebrate women artists, activists, writers and performers, the Suffragette movement and winning the right to vote for some women in 1918 and all women over 21 in 1928 with exhibitions and events across East London. info@alternativearts.co.uk www.alternativearts.co.uk

Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #HLFsupported.

About women’s suffrage

In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women over 30, subject to a small property qualification, extending the right to vote to 8.4 million women in the UK. However, this only represented around 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. In July 1928 the Equal Franchise Act finally gave equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21.

Further information

For further information, images and interviews please contact Sarah Jackson

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Press release: New women’s museum finds home in Barking and Dagenham

A new museum of women’s history is set to open in a permanent home as part of the new Barking Wharf development at the end of 2019.

The East End Women’s Museum was established in 2015 in response to the Ripper Museum which opened on Cable Street, but has since operated without a building, organising events, workshops, and pop up exhibitions with local partners.

As well as highlighting pioneering women with links to east London such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mala Sen, Annie Brewster, Mary Driscoll, and Hannah Billig, the new museum will explore everyday local history from women’s perspectives. The museum aims to challenge gender stereotypes and offer new local role models for girls and young women, creating a resource for schools, community groups, and historians.

The venue for the museum has been made available through the support of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and housing developer Be Living. The East End Women’s Museum will work with experienced local partner Eastside Community Heritage to open the museum in the new space and local women and girls will be invited to help shape the museum’s collection.

Sara Huws, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum said:

“Women make history too. But without their voices and experiences the history books are only telling half the story. We want to put women back in the picture, and share new perspectives on east London’s rich history.
“We believe Barking and Dagenham is the right base for the museum and we’re excited to start working in the borough this year. Everyone we've spoken to has had a story to share: about a woman from their family, their street, or their community, and we know there are many more still to be told.”

Judith Garfield, Executive Director of Eastside Community Heritage said:

“For far too long female voices have been overlooked. Women’s stories may be very different to men’s, and it’s not just about what is told but how. A history of local women, their struggles, their rights and their victories is a history of Barking and Dagenham.
“At Eastside Community Heritage the social and cultural ties between the past and the present are at the heart of our work and we’re delighted to be a part of the East End Women’s Museum development.”

Councillor Sade Bright, Barking and Dagenham Council’s Cabinet Member for Equalities and Cohesion said:

“Here in Barking and Dagenham we are proud of our history while celebrating our present and future aspirations.
“From Mary Wollstonecraft to the women of the suffragette movement who used to meet at the Three Lamps to the Ford machinists in “Made in Dagenham” who fought for equal pay, our borough has always been at the forefront in the struggle for equal rights. Today is another landmark for our borough.”

Vinny Bhanderi, managing director at Be Living, said:

“We are delighted to support the creation of the East End Women’s Museum at our development. It’s a brilliant idea and will become another landmark at Barking and Dagenham that recognises its role in making our society a better place.
“We’re also looking forward to our part in marking the borough a better place through the homes we’ll be creating that attract a new generation to live in Barking and Dagenham.”

Throughout 2018 the East End Women’s Museum will be in residence in Barking and Dagenham, delivering a Heritage Lottery-funded project, ‘Working for Equality’, in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage. A mobile exhibition, series of events, and volunteering programme will explore women’s fight for equal rights in the workplace, from suffragette equal pay campaigns to the strike at Ford Dagenham which took place 50 years ago this year and inspired the Equal Pay Act.

The East End Women’s Museum’s 2018 programme will also include an exhibition at Hackney Museum celebrating 100 years of women’s activism in the borough, and a programme of exhibitions and events exploring the women’s suffrage movement and the First World War in Tower Hamlets.

Notes to editors

About the East End Women’s Museum 

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest, and delivers events and exhibitions about women's history across east London. https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/

About Eastside Community Heritage

Eastside Community Heritage was established in 1993 as part of the Stratford City Challenge community history project and became an independent charity in 1997. Over the years, Eastside have worked with over 900 community groups, produced over 100 exhibitions, and created the East London Peoples Archive which contains over 3500 oral histories. http://www.hidden-histories.org.uk/wordpress/

About Working For Equality

Working For Equality is a joint project developed by the East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage and funded by National Lottery Players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Taking place in multiple venues around Barking and Dagenham between April and November 2018 it explores 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights, from suffragette equal pay campaigns in 1918 to the Ford Dagenham strike in 1968. Women factory workers in Barking and Dagenham are at the heart of the story.

Local volunteers will be trained to collect oral histories and carry out archive research which will be used to create a mobile exhibition touring summer festivals in the borough and several events making up the Working For Equality programme, including (dates and venues TBC):

  • July: Votes for Women Garden Party. Marking 90 years since women won the vote at the age of 21, this free event will celebrate the ‘munitionettes’ who missed out on the vote in 1918 and the ‘flappers’ who voted for the first time in 1929. Visitors will be able to enjoy some refreshments, try dancing the Charleston, make a suffragette sash, and visit the Working For Equality exhibition.

  • September: Strong Women Family Day. In 1926 boxer Annie Newton challenged people who said women shouldn’t box by asking if it was “half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than in a munitions factory?” An event celebrating strong women and girls past and present with exhibitions, games, activities, and sports demonstrations.

  • October: Girls Do Science Family Day. Inspired by women engineers and scientists during the First World War this family event celebrates women’s contribution to science, technology, and engineering, highlighting role models and exciting innovations along the way. Visitors can enjoy inspiring talks, games, activities and demonstrations, find out about studying and working in STEM, and visit the Working for Equality exhibition.

  • October: Women of colour in labour history. Screening of a documentary about the Grunwick Strike in 1976/77 and panel discussion about the often overlooked contribution of black and Asian women in labour history.

  • Throughout the project: A series of free film screenings about women who challenged discrimination and exploitation in the workplace, including Made In Dagenham, Hidden Figures, and Norma Rae.

What to expect in our 2018 programme

This year marks several important anniversaries, including 100 years some women won the vote and 90 years since all women did. It’s also 50 years since the Ford Dagenham strike that inspired the Equal Pay Act.

We’re delighted that the suffragettes are taking their place in history 100 years on, but we also want to use the anniversary to talk about what happened next. Not only about the women who didn’t get the vote in 1918, but the story of women’s struggle for equality in the decades that followed, and today.

Our programme links 1918 and 2018, and focuses on the experiences of working class women in east London.

Making Her Mark, Hackney Museum

6 February – 19 May 2018

Our Making Her Mark exhibition was created in collaboration with Hackney Museum and takes 1918 as the starting point in a look back at 100 years of women-led activism in the borough, on issues ranging from education, workers’ rights, and healthcare to domestic violence, the peace movement, and police relations.

Making Her Mark explores how local women have brought about change in their community and in wider society through political campaigns, industrial action, peaceful protest, direct action, and the arts.

Working For Equality, Barking & Dagenham

April – November 2018

Our Working For Equality project with Eastside Community Heritage takes 1918 as the starting point in the story of 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights, and connects the dots between the suffragettes’ equal pay campaigns during WWI and the Ford Dagenham strikers.

Women factory workers in Barking & Dagenham are at the heart of the story. We’ll be collecting their histories and sharing them through a mobile exhibition and a series of free, fun events. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Votes for Women Garden Party, July

Join us for a garden party marking 90 years since women won the vote at the age of 21. We’ll be celebrating the ‘flappers’ who voted for the first time in 1929 and the young women who followed them by dancing down the decades: watch demonstrations of the charleston, the jitterbug, rock n roll, and the twist, and maybe try some steps yourself! Enjoy some refreshments, make a suffragette sash, and visit our exhibition about women’s fight for equality in the workplace from the suffragettes to the Ford Dagenham strikers.

Strong Women Family Day, September

In 1926 boxer Annie Newton challenged people who said women shouldn’t box by asking if it was “half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than working in a munitions factory?” Our family event celebrates strong women and girls past and present: from Annie Newton to Nicola Adams, the courage of the suffragettes and the ‘munitionettes’, and every woman who has ever scrubbed a floor. Visit our exhibition and enjoy games and activities, fascinating stories, and demonstrations by sports clubs.

Girls Do Science Family Day, October

You might have heard of the ‘munitionettes’ who worked on the assembly line in factories during the First World War, but did you know women worked as scientists too? Our family event celebrates women’s contribution to science, technology, engineering, maths and manufacturing then and now, highlighting role models and exciting innovations along the way. Join us for inspiring talks, games, activities and demonstrations, find out about studying and working in STEM, and visit our mobile exhibition.

Women of colour in UK labour history: film screening and panel discussion, October

Join us for a documentary screening about the 1976 Grunwick Strike, which was led largely by migrant women workers of South Asian origin. The film will be followed by a panel discussion about the often overlooked contribution of WOC in labour history, as well as interactions of race, class, and gender in industrial action and activism.

The Women’s Hall, Tower Hamlets

May – December 2018

The Women’s Hall project, developed in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Four Corners, and Women's History Month in east London, will explore some lesser-known suffrage stories from east London through two major exhibitions, a series of events, and a participatory photography project.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes were a radical group who split from the WSPU in 1914 and fought for working women’s rights throughout the First World War. The Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow was their headquarters from 1914-1924, a women’s social centre, and the home of their leader, Sylvia Pankhurst. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Belle Davis, music hall star and choreographer

In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.

One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star. 

Belle Davis, 1919

Belle Davis, 1919

I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis' life are scant, it's likely that she was born in born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married  comedian Eddie Whaley. 

According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis "was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful..." Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to "darken down", presumably to fit the stereotype of an 'exotic' African-American singer.

In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as 'piccaninnies' in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different. 

Davis' act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.

Less is known about Davis' movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, and was responsible for the annual revues. It's at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie. 

Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history. 



Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, Jayna Brown

Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, Jeffrey Green

Black women in Britain 1850-1897, Jeffrey Green

"Belle Davis and Her Piccaninnies: a Preliminary Bio-, Disco-, and
", Rainer E. Lotz, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal  Vol.25, No. 2, Fall 1994

The Music Hall and Theatre History Site, Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904, Matthew Lloyd


Could you be our Treasurer?


  • 3-5 year term (with 3 month trial period)
  • Unpaid company director

We're looking for someone with substantial bookkeeping experience, an interest in history and community heritage, and a commitment to women’s rights and gender equality to join our board of directors in an unpaid role as our Treasurer.

The East End Women’s Museum is an exciting public history project established in 2015 to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. We put on events, exhibitions, and make resources for schools and researchers to use.

In 2016 we became a Community Interest Company and currently have a board of three company directors. We are seeking to expand by recruiting another director who will act as our Treasurer, taking the lead in overseeing the financial affairs of the organisation and assisting with day to day financial management.

The role requires attendance at directors’ meetings in person or via Skype once a month and at least 8 hours available per month to carry out tasks in between meetings.

Treasurer role description (PDF)

To apply, please submit your CV, details of two referees, and a short personal statement saying why you would like the role and showing how your skills and experience match the role description.

Send to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com with ‘Treasurer’ in the subject line.

Deadline: Wednesday 10 January

If you have any questions about the role please contact Sarah on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com

We're hiring! Volunteer Coordinator, Working for Equality Project

Volunteer Coordinator, Working for Equality Project

  • 17.5 hours per week
  • £17,300
  • Fixed term contract for 14 months
  • Based in Barking & Dagenham and Ilford

In 2018 the East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage will develop Working for Equality, a Heritage Lottery Funded exhibition and programme of events focusing on working women’s activism, in particular the contribution of women factory workers in Barking and Dagenham from the suffragettes to the Ford Dagenham strikers.

As part of the project 20 volunteers from the local area will be trained by Eastside Community Heritage in oral history, archive research, learning facilitation or heritage interpretation skills. Volunteers will conduct oral history interviews, contribute to a mobile exhibition, and work with a videographer to make a short film.

We’re looking for an enthusiastic individual with experience of working with community groups and volunteers to recruit volunteer participants and manage their participation and training throughout the project.

Project Volunteer Coordinator job description and person specification (PDF)

To apply, please submit your CV, details of two referees, and a personal statement of fewer than 1,000 words saying why you would like the role and showing how your skills and experience match the person specification.

Send to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com with ‘Volunteer Coordinator’ in the subject line.

  • Application deadline: Wednesday 10 January 2018
  • Interview date: Thursday 25 January 2018

If you have any questions about the role please contact Sarah on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com.

East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage win National Lottery support for women’s workplace rights project in Barking & Dagenham

Eastside Community Heritage logo.jpg
HLF logo.jpg

The East End Women’s Museum in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage has received £80,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an exciting new project, Working For Equality, which will run in Barking & Dagenham from April to November 2018.

Made possible by money raised by National Lottery players, the project focuses on 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights in Britain, 1918 to 1968.

Beginning with suffragette equal pay campaigns during the First World War and ending with the Ford Dagenham sewing machinist’s strike that inspired the Equal Pay Act, women factory workers are at the heart of the story.

Embed from Getty Images

A woman’s place

In 1918 many wartime ‘munitionettes’ found themselves pushed out of ‘men’s jobs’ when the War ended. There is a pattern in this 50 year window: women factory workers were hailed as heroic in wartime, but in peacetime met intense pressure from politicians, employers, and union leaders to go ‘back to the home’.

Women workers routinely faced sexual harassment and discrimination, were expected to resign or were dismissed when they got married or became pregnant, and were paid half a man’s wages to boot. Women of colour often faced additional challenges and discrimination, whether through a formal ‘colour bar’ or casual racism.

Despite this, factory work offered successive generations of young working class women freedom and camaraderie, as well as opportunities to organise for better pay and conditions.

About our project

Our project will explore changing ideas about the ‘proper place’ for a woman and celebrate the economic, cultural, and political contribution of women factory workers.

With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund we will create a mobile exhibition, put on a range of accessible public events, run workshops with local schools, and collect oral histories from women in the area. Volunteers from the local area will help to shape the exhibition and receive training in oral history, archive research, or heritage interpretation skills.

About us

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest.

Eastside Community Heritage was established in 1993 as part of the Stratford City Challenge community history project and became an independent charity in 1997. Over the years, Eastside have worked with over 900 community groups, produced over 100 exhibitions, and created the East London Peoples Archive which contains over 3500 oral histories.

Thanks to National Lottery players, the Heritage Lottery Fund invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. Follow HLF on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #HLFsupported.

For further information about the project please contact Sarah Jackson at the East End Women’s Museum.

Edith Cavell: Nursing in London and Belgium

“Someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful...something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”1

Edith Cavell is probably best remembered for her death during the First World War, executed by the Germans for suspected espionage activities in Belgium where she helped many Allied soldiers to cross back home.

Celebrated as a martyr, used as an example of patriotism for the War propaganda and, more recently, revalued as an intelligence agent, Cavell had a great impact as a nurse both in London and in Brussels before the War broke out, implementing new practices and working in close contact with local communities. Her work, particularly in the East End, is exemplary of the role women had in reforming nursing in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Early life

Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, near Norwich, in 1865, the first of four children born to the local vicar, Reverend Fredrick Cavell and his wife Louisa Sophia. Life at the vicarage of St Mary the Virgin was frugal and simple, but the family deeply cared for their parishioners, sharing Sunday lunches with the poorest ones. As a young girl, Edith enjoyed ice skating and painting, often choosing nature as her favourite subject and putting her art to good use to raise funds for the Sunday school.2

After completing her education, Edith worked as a governess in various households, both in England and in Brussels, where she worked for the François family between 1890-95, although she had already developed an interest in nursing by visiting a free hospital managed by Dr. Wolfenberg in Bavaria.3

Training in London

“I have no hospital training nor any nursing engagements whatever”4

Her interest in nursing was reawakened in 1895, when she went back home to care for her ailing father. She then decided to train as a nurse. Both her younger sisters, Florence and Lilian, were nurses. The latter had trained at St Thomas's under Florence Nightingale, one of the main innovators during the Victorian period. Before Nightingale, nurses were usually older women who had had smallpox, typhus or other contagious diseases so that they were immune to them.5 This profession was not highly regarded in society and poorly paid.6

Nightingale managed to reform nursing practices through her efforts during the Crimean War and then through the nursing school she founded at St Thomas' in 1860, guaranteeing a better care for patients and stricter hygienic measures on the ward, where trainees followed more experienced colleagues to learn.7

In December 1895, aged 30, Cavell started to work at the Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, South London, which had been built two years prior to deal with a burst of scarlet fever. Edith worked there for 7 months, living in the nurses' quarters and carrying on mostly unskilled tasks on the ward.8 She then applied at the Royal London Hospital to formally train as a nurse.

Opened in 1740 as an infirmary and later converted in a hospital in 1748, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel mainly catered to the population of sailors and factory workers of the East End.9 The institution's nursing school, inspired by Nightingale, opened in 1873, initially offering a 3-years course to probationers (the students), who had a chance to work in many different departments and learn alongside other students.

The training programme was reduced to 2 years under Eva Lückes, who was the matron there between 1880 and 1919. Lückes went on to redesign the syllabus, introduce exams, and reform nursing practices similarly to what her friend Nightingale had done at St Thomas'.10 Probationers had long hours, working from early morning to late at night, caring for patients, praying with them, making sure that the ward was always clean, and attending lessons during breaks.11 Edith made good friends with some of the other trainees like Eveline Dickinson, who later published an article on how to cure lupus based on her experience in Copenhagen.12

When a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone in 1897, Lückes chose Cavell and other 5 nurses to help in an effort to contain the disease that had affected about 1700 people.13 Edith mostly worked with children and frequently during night shifts for 8 weeks. The epidemic was successfully dealt with and Edith was awarded a silver medal for her services. She then returned to the Royal London Hospital to complete her training. In her final report in 1898, Lückes criticised some traits of Edith's personality while recognising her strengths:

"Edith Cavell has plenty of capability when she choose to exert herself, but she is not much in earnest, not at all punctual […] She did good work during the typhoid epidemic in Maidstone, and had sufficient ability to become a fairly good nurse by the end of her training. Her theoretical work was superior to her practical work."14

The matron recommended Edith for work as a private nurse, something that disappointed Cavell, even though she still looked up to Lückes and often confided in her about her career in the following years.

St Pancras and the Shoreditch Infirmaries

In 1901, Cavell started to work at St Pancras Infirmary, an institution that welcomed the poor from the borough, guaranteeing a bed to everyone and cleaner conditions than workhouses, even though still very crowded with more than 1000 paupers to take care of, particularly pregnant women, and those suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory diseases.15 Edith was night superintendent with Emma Berridge there.

She went back to the East End in 1903, when she started as Assistant Matron to Miss Inglis at the Shoreditch Infirmary (St Leonard's Hospital in Hackney now). Cavell began to visit patients at home in follow-up visits after discharge, an innovative practice, and introduced a 4-years course in maternity nursing.16 Miss Inglis, despite a quite cold relationship between the two, praised her qualities as a nurse, writing: “I admired her unswerving sense of duty.”17

Innovating nursing in Belgium

Cavell moved to different institutions in other parts of the country in the following years, until she moved back to Brussels in 1907 upon a request by Dr Antoine Depage. In Belgium, Edith opened a pioneering nursing school, L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, working alongside Marie Depage, Antoine's wife. Up to that moment, nursing in Belgium was mostly done by nuns, while now Edith offered a chance to young women to enter the profession through a curriculum she designed and a diploma, drawing from her previous experiences, especially in Manchester.18

At first, qualified nurses from London taught the trainees, who went on to work in 3 local hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. It was a great improvement, as Cavell noticed:

“The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still think they lose caste by earning their own living.”19

In 1910, Edith founded a nursing journal, L'infiermière, and by 1914 a new building had been built for the school, where she gave lectures to doctors and nurses alike.

Death and commemorations

When the First World War broke out, Cavell was back in Norfolk to visit her mother, but instantly decided to go back to Brussels, remaining even after the Germans occupied the city and caring for soldiers regardless of their nationality.20 She soon began to hide British and allied soldiers and civilians, providing means for a safe return home. Growing suspicions from the Germans led to searches and ultimately her arrest for treason in August 1915. The court martial sentenced her to death. A firing squad executed her on 12th October 1915.

Cavell's death caused an immediate outcry and celebration of her patriotism. A memorial service took place at St Paul on 30th October 1915. As reported by The Guardian, the church was crowded, with nurses from all of London sharing the pews with dignitaries and politicians like the Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Robert Cecil, the Lord Mayor, and foreign representatives:

Often before has the glorious elegiac ritual of St. Paul’s expressed a national emotion, but never has there been a memorial service so touched with strangeness in tragedy as the nation’s tribute of pity and indignation to Miss Cavell’s memory this morning.21

Her body was then transported and buried at Norwich Cathedral. On that same day, an article in the Cologne Gazette reported the German response to her death in the words of the undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Alfred Zimmermann:

“Miss Cavell in her actions displayed a thoroughly masculine force of mind and decision. It was therefore only her just due if she were treated no differently than a man.”22

Her legacy

To this day, Cavell is still remembered through many memorials all over the world. Just in London, among others, her statue in St Martin's Place, the street named after her running along the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, a plaque at St Leonard's Hospital.

Her image was also widely used during the rest of the War for propaganda as in leaflets and postcards.23 Many films and plays immortalised her patriotism. While some silent features are now lost, Dawn, a 1928 film with Lady Sybil Thorndike playing Cavell is still available as well as the later 1939 movie Nurse Edith Cavell with Anna Neagle.

Perhaps more significantly, it is her work as a nurse before the War that is still highly valued both at home and abroad with associations like the Edith Cavell Trust, founded in 1917 to help nurses in their financial struggles, that carry on her legacy.

Thank you Eleonora Sammartino for contributing this article!


  • Butcher, Catherine. Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad. Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015.
  • “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”. The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528
  • “Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”. The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service 
  • “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”. https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/
  • London Royal Hospital Museum
  • Heggie, Vanessa. “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”. The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy
  • Pickles, Katie. Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  • Souhami, Diana. Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine. London: Hachette, 2011.
  • “World War I Postcards”. https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/edith-cavell.php



1 As quoted in “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”, in The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528

2 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/

3 Ibid.

4 As quoted in Catherine Butcher, Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 72.

5 London Royal Hospital Museum

6 Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine (London: Hachette, 2011). GoogleBooks. https://books.google.it/books?id=_qphBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=it#v=onepage&q&f=false

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 London Royal Hospital Museum

10 Ibid.

11 Butcher, 79.

12 Souhami.

13 Butcher, 80.

14 Ibid., 81.

15 Souhami.

16 Katie Pickles, Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 96.

17 As quoted in Butcher, 86.

18 Vanessa Heggie, “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”, in The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy

19 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/

20 Ibid.

21“Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”, in The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service

22 Ibid.

23 https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/edith-cavell.php

Help us put women’s history on the map

Have you seen our women's history map of east London? We've been adding women's histories from the Middle Ages to the modern day.

We know women make history, and yet just 2.7% of UK public statues feature historical women who weren't royalty. In fact there's just one statue of a named black woman in the entire country. And only 13% of English Heritage blue plaques in London honour women.

We want to balance the history books, starting with east London. By marking women's stories on a map we can show in a simple, visual way the rich history which is yet to be discovered. It also gives us lots of leads for our own research!

Send us your suggestions for stars on the map

Our map is a work in progress. We want to add even more East End women's stories and we need your help. Please send us your suggestions using the form below.

We just need a name, rough birth and death dates, a street or building they are associated with, and a link to a webpage for more information if there is one.



Help us tell a woman's story

If there isn't a page about this person on the web, why not write one? We would LOVE to have a profile on our blog for each star on the map.

Just write 300 - 800 words in an email or a Word doc and send it to us at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com. You don't need to be a historian, everyone can join in!

And/or you can add an entry for that person on Wikipedia. It's free and easy to create an account and then add a new page.

Mary East (aka James How) and Mrs How of the White Horse, Poplar

Pub Interior by Léonard Defrance (1735–1805) Wikimedia Commons.

Pub Interior by Léonard Defrance (1735–1805) Wikimedia Commons.

One of the challenges of uncovering LGBTQ+ histories is that we can’t go back and ask the individuals in question how they would define or describe their identities. Concepts of gender and sexuality have changed throughout history, and the labels we use today would probably make little sense to someone from the past.

However, what is clear from the glimpses that have reached us - from Princess Seraphina, who was assigned male at birth but lived as a woman, to Mary Frith, who dressed in men's clothing but retained her female identity - is that then as now, gender was not a simple binary.

Dressing in men's clothing

Many, many stories of crossdressing women were reported in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There was even a craze for ballads, chapbooks, and plays about 'warrior women'.

Phoebe Hessel and Hannah Snell apparently disguised themselves as men to follow their lovers into the army, several 'female husbands' were reported to have married women for either money or love, and many people who lived and worked as men were only discovered after death to have been assigned female at birth.

Whether they lived as men purely to access opportunities for work, travel, pleasure, love, civic participation, or personal safety which were denied to women, or as a form of gender expression, or a mixture of both, in most cases we'll never truly know.

Mary East to James How

The story of 'Mary East, the Female Husband' was reported in the London Chronicle in August 1766 and retold by Bram Stoker in 1910.

The White Horse, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street

The White Horse, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street

The Chronicle begins by explaining that in the early 1730s Mary East (aged 16) and her sadly unnamed female friend (aged 17) decided to throw their lot in together after unhappy love affairs with men. They devised a plan:

being intimate, they communicated their minds to each other, and determined to live together ever after; after consulting on the best method of proceeding, they agreed that one should put on man’s apparel, and that they would live as man and wife in some part where they were not known; the difficulty now was who was to be the man, which was soon decided by the toss up of a halfpenny, and the lot fell on Mary East... Mary, after purchasing a man’s habit, assumed the name of James How...

Who knows how much of this is true. The love affairs with men, the coin toss... It may be completely accurate, but it also conveniently frames the following story in a non-threatening heteronormative and cisnormative way, in line with the dominant ideas of the time. It is perfectly possible that the two women were lovers, and that Mary took on a male identity because she wanted to.

The White Horse pub on Poplar High Street

However they got started, Mr and Mrs How lived together for over three decades, and ran a succession of taverns at Epping, then Limehouse, and finally the White Horse on Poplar High Street, where "James Howes" is recorded as the landlord in 1745.

An archaeological dig in 2004 revealed that a tavern existed on the site in Poplar from at least 1690. It was rebuilt in 1870 and 1928 (here is a photograph from the 1930s) before finally closing for good in 2003 when it was demolished.

On the site of the pub, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street, there is a block of flats and a post with the white horse from the pub sign which you can see in the picture above gazing towards Canary Wharf.

Mr and Mrs How

Apart from a quarrel with a young gentleman at Epping which left James with an injured hand and £500 in damages, Mr and Mrs How's lives were largely peaceful and prosperous. As Bram Stoker puts it they "throve exceedingly", managing to save money and buy more properties, and winning the respect of their community:

James lived with his supposed wife in good credit, and had served all the parish offices in Poplar, excepting constable and churchwarden, from the former of which she was excused by a lameness in her hand, occasioned by the quarrel I have mentioned; the other she was to have been next year, if this discovery had not happened; she had been several times foreman of juries; though her effeminacy indeed was remarked by most.

(Although women did hold parish offices in the 18th century, they were not permitted to sit on juries in England until 1919.)

Despite their good standing and friendly relations with their neighbours, for many years Mr and Mrs How lived a quiet, private life:

It is remarkable that it has never been observed that they ever drest a joint of meat in their whole lives, nor ever had any meetings or the like at their house. They never kept either maid or boy, but Mary East, the late James How, always used to draw beer, serve, fetch in and carry out pots always herself, so peculiar were they in each particular.

Extortion and exposure

In addition to the mysterious quarrel in Epping, there were other troubling incidents which disturbed their peace, as the couple were blackmailed by confidantes and old acquaintances.

According to the Chronicle, in 1766 Mrs How became gravely ill while staying in the country, and on her deathbed confided in her friend the truth about her relationship with James. The friend promptly visited the (presumably grieving) James How, and "insisted not only on their share of the whole effects, but more."

Shortly after his wife's death, James How was targeted by a Mrs B. who had been blackmailing the couple on and off over the years for sums like £10 and £5. This time Mrs B. hired two male accomplices who pretended to be heavies working for Justice John Fielding.

The pair accosted James at the pub and pretended to take him into custody for a (fictional) robbery committed decades before, making it clear that they knew James was really a woman, and demanding £100 or else he would be hanged.

Terrified, James turned to one of his neighbours for help:

an intimate acquaintance, one Mr. Williams, a Pawnbroker, happened to be passing by, she called to him, and told him the business those two men came about, and withal added this declaration to Mr. Williams, 'I am really a woman, but innocent of their charge': on this sincere confession he told her she should not be carried to Fielding, but go before her own bench of Justices, that he would just step home, put on a clean shirt, and be back in five minutes

While Mr Williams was gone the heavies dragged James back to Mrs B., who forced him to write out a bank draft for £100, to be collected from Mr Williams. However, when Mrs B. and one of her accomplices went to Mr Williams to collect the money shortly afterwards, they found that they had walked into a trap and were taken into custody themselves by a real constable.

James How to Mary East

The extortionists appeared before Justices of the Peace in Whitechapel and after "the strongest proof of their extortion and assault" were denied bail and detained in Clerkenwell Bridewell prison to await trial. Bram Stoker records that the male accomplice at least was imprisoned for four years.

James How attended the hearing (with Mr Williams) as Mary East, dressed in women's clothing, which apparently caused a stir among the crowd:

the alteration of her dress from that of a man to that of a woman appeared so great, that together with her awkward behaviour in her new assumed habit, caused great diversion to all...

After the hearing Mary East apparently lived the rest of her life as a woman. She died on 8 June 1780,  leaving money to relatives, friends, and the poor of Poplar, and was buried in the churchyard of St Matthias'.

Although all that survives of the White Horse is the sign, and there are no remnants of the pub as Mr and Mrs How knew it, their bittersweet story still fascinates and inspires.

Songs From The Howling Sea, a musical project by R.M. Anderson drawing on east London's history, includes a song about the couple. An imagined portrait of the couple  also appears in Ria Brodell's fantastic Butch Heroes series of paintings. They look peaceful, fat, and contented, which is how I like to think of them too.