East End London

Sarah Chapman: Matchgirl strike leader and TUC delegate

Childhood

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
taken;
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.

Family

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.

Legacy

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!
 

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. 

 

Sources

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
Filmography
", 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

 

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!

Sources

  • 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

Media

Footnotes

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

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.

Sources

Annie Brewster, the London Hospital's 'Nurse Ophthalmic'

Annie-Brewster-photo.jpg

I recently visited the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel for the first time. It's small but well worth a visit, and it's free.

The museum contains a lot of interesting artefacts relating to the hospital and the wider story of public health in the East End.

As any fan of Call the Midwife will know, this is a story in which women have played a critical role - from the more well-known London Hospital alumnae Edith Cavell and Eva Luckes to the countless unknown nurses, midwives, and doctors who treated and cared for local patients.

The museum contains displays about Cavell and Luckes among others. One story which particularly intrigued me was that of Annie Brewster, one of the earliest identified nurses of African descent working in London. Here's what the exhibition panel says about her:

Annie Brewster, known as 'Nurse Ophthalmic', worked at the London Hospital from 1881 to 1902. She entered The London Hospital as a probationer nurse in 1881 and was appointed to the nursing staff in 1884. She worked on female medical wards before being promoted to nurse in charge of the Ophthalmic ward in 1888.

Matron Eva Luckes remarked that Annie became very skilled in treating patients with eye conditions. According to the Matron's report in the register of sisters and nurses she was known for her 'quick intelligence and kindness to old people' whom she treated.

She was one of the first Afro-Caribbean nurses to have been identified as working in Britain during this period. Her father, Phardour Chaderon Brewster, was born in Barbados in c.1836 and is listed in various Censuses as a 'merchant'. Her mother and sister were born on the island of St Vincent in the West Indies.

Annie died due to poor health in 1902, aged 43, in Mayer Ward at the London Hospital and was buried in Ilford cemetery.

If anyone has any further information about Annie we would love to know more about her! Hopefully we'll have a chance to explore the hospital's archives ourselves at some point.

I was also impressed that although the Royal London Hospital Museum has a few objects relating to the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, it seems to have resisted ghoulish Ripper tourism.

Jane Savoy, "the best woman in Old Ford"

Suffragette Deputation to 10 Downing St
Suffragette Deputation to 10 Downing St

As a young girl, I grew up hearing stories about my maternal grandmother’s great aunt, Mrs. Jane Savoy (known in the family as Aunt Jinny). A suffragette, she chained herself to the railings, but managed to avoid prison.

With an interest in family history, my curiosity has deepened concerning this lady, and it is only in recent years that I have become aware of the important part Jane played in turning around the Government’s attitude towards women and their suffrage.

Born within the sound of Bow bells

Hannah Wakefield smiling at the camera
Hannah Wakefield smiling at the camera

The East End was the birthplace of my grandmother, Connie Hargrave (née Wakefield), great grandmother, Hannah Wakefield (née Major), and Hannah’s sister, Jane Savoy (née Major).

They lived in the Old Ford Road, Roman Road, Sutherland Road and St. Stephen’s Road, Bow – Connie was always proud to say that she was a true cockney what with being born within the sound of Bow Bells.

As a child and on a Sunday afternoon, Connie (born in 1911) often used to accompany her Aunt ‘Jinny’ to have tea with Sylvia Pankhurst, who was a close family friend and neighbour.

Another close family friend and neighbour was the local MP, George Lansbury, who supported women’s suffrage, and it was his granddaughter, actress Angela Lansbury, whom Jane and her nieces often used to wheel out in her pram around the streets of the East End.

Jane Major, Jane Savoy, Jane 'Hughes'

Jane Major was born on 14 January, 1861 at 14 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, Whitechapel. She was the eldest of six children born to shoemakers, Jane Hughes and John Major. Her father later had a shop towards the top end of Romford market where he made surgical boots for Old Church Hospital. She also had a half-brother, Benjamin, who lived with his mother, Charlotte.

In 1871, Jane was still living with her parents and younger brother, John, at 7e Virginia Row, Bethnal Green. She appears to be missing from the 1881 Census, which may be the period when her interest with the suffragettes was ignited. (Many suffragettes walked the streets on census night, or later defaced 1911 census returns, in support of the fight for votes for women).

On the 1911 Census, which has only just been released regarding members of the suffragettes, it states that Jane and Alfred Savoy (a brush finisher) had been married for 30 years, although a marriage doesn’t appear to have been registered until 25 February, 1924 at Poplar Register Office.

Living in four rooms, they were recorded as having two children, one of which died. The surviving child, Thomas (born 17 August, 1885), was recorded on the 1901 Census aged 15 as a stonemason’s apprentice. He later moved to Wales, living in Cross Keys, Rhondda Valley, Mid Glamorgan. He married, but it is believed there were no children. Thomas was baptised in 1885 with Jane and Alfred as parents, though the family always thought him to have been adopted by Jane.

It was when Jane became an active member of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) that she went under the pseudonym of ‘Mrs. Hughes’, being her mother’s maiden name, as Alfred wasn’t keen on Jane’s suffragette involvement and did not take kindly to his name appearing in the papers.

Jane lobbies the Prime Minister

As a young lady, I remember a television programme being aired about the suffragettes in the early 1970s and my family saying that Jane was depicted in this (‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ episode six, actress Maggie Flint). This historical moment evolved from Jane being elected as one of the six women who formed a deputation to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in June 1914.

She was a short and stout woman with a very good heart, but as she reached into a bag to take out a specimen brush she had worked on so as to explain to Prime Minister Asquith the process of what her work involved, it sent him and others running for the door, as they apparently believed Jane was reaching for a bomb!

Coming across Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor’s book Voices from History: East London Suffragettes in 2015 allowed me, for the first time, to see a picture of Jane, as my family do not have one. [Sarah: and we learnt for the first time that Mrs Savoy's first name was Jane!]

The ELFS newspaper The Woman's Dreadnought records Jane's speech to Asquith:

“I am a brush maker, and I work from eight in the morning till six at night making brushes ten hours a day, and while I work I have to cut my hands with wire, as the bristles are very soft to get in. I have brought brushes to show to you. This is a brush I have to make for 2d, and it is worth 10s 6d.

As I have to work so hard to support myself I think it is very wrong that I cannot have a voice in the making of the laws that I have to uphold. I do not like having to work 14 hours a day without having a voice on it, and I think when a woman works 14 hours a day she has a right to a vote, as her husband has. We want votes for women.”

Asquith was apparently moved by the stories of the deputation, and indicated that he would consider their demands.

Suffragette neighbourhood

I am told by my first cousins once removed that the whole of our East End family were involved in the suffragette movement and attended many rallies.

Arthur Wakefield, holding a baby.
Arthur Wakefield, holding a baby.

Hannah and Connie lived above their shop - on the corner of Ranwell Close and Old Ford Road - with the rest of their family.

A short distance away from Hannah’s shop at was the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road which acted as ELFS headquarters from 1914 to 1924. It was known as Elizabeth’s House.

At the time there was a pub called the Eleanor Arms located opposite to Hannah’s shop at 460 Old Ford Road which she apparently swapped positions with, and one building away was where Sylvia Pankhurst opened a mother and baby clinic in an old pub called the Gunmaker’s Arms, which ELFS renamed the Mother’s Arms located on the corner of Old Ford Road and St. Stephen’s Road.

At the junction of Alice Lane and St Stephen’s Road was where Jane Savoy lived at both 141 and 143, her neighbour was George Lansbury and his family at 101-3, being his home and timber business. The Lansburys were good friends with Hannah and Jane, George Lansbury even said that Jane was:

“the best woman in Old Ford... ever ready to share her last crust, or perform any service for a neighbour, from bringing her baby into the world to scrubbing out her room, or minding her children at need.”

Among other things, Jane organised a Peace Party in Norman Road in 1919 to celebrate the end of the First World War.

Jane and Hannah both took in children left both on the doorsteps of the Women's Hall and Hannah’s shop by unmarried mothers. They were also both the local midwives and helped many people in need. Hannah allowed quite a number of customer tabs at her delicatessen/sweet/general store shop in an effort to assist the poor community.

It can and will be done

Unfortunately, Jane did not enjoy good health as she suffered from dropsy and palpitations and died on Friday 13 January 1928 aged 67 (a day before her 68th birthday) from acute kidney disease. My only sorrow is that she never got to see the passing of the Government’s bill in June 1928 allowing all women over 21 to vote.

Jane’s funeral procession passed through the streets of the East End with many an onlooker (her carriage was taken all round the roads of the East End) and George Lansbury led the way. In his 1935 book Looking Backwards and Forwards he paid tribute to Jane as "a woman of the people", and wrote that:

“One day the women of England will lead us out of the misery and degradation of slumdom and poverty, and will do so because millions of Mrs Savoys have shown by their lives that it can and will be done.”

Jane was buried in Woodgrange Park Cemetery. My daughter and I have never been so proud to learn that we are related to such a kind, strong willed and determined woman as Jane Savoy, who has become such a prominent part in changing English history.

Jane's funeral carriage, 1928
Jane's funeral carriage, 1928

By Michelle Ballard (neé Girling), mother Jean Hargrave, grandmother Constance Wakefield, great grandmother Hannah Major, sister to Jane Savoy.

Thank you Michelle!

Phillis Wheatley: the first published black woman poet

Etching of Phillis Wheatley posed with pen and paper book frontispiece
Etching of Phillis Wheatley posed with pen and paper book frontispiece

Although Phillis Wheatley never lived in east London, and may only have visited it once, the area is associated with her groundbreaking literary achievement.

When her book of poems was published in Aldgate in 1773, Phillis became the first known African American woman to see her book in print. (The earliest known African American woman poet is Lucy Terry, but her work was published later.)

The girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, most likely in modern day Gambia or Ghana. She was enslaved, and when she was seven or eight transported from Africa to America on the torturous journey known as the 'Middle Passage'. She arrived in Boston in 1761 and was bought by merchants John and Susanna Wheatley. She was given their surname, and for her first name they chose the name of the ship she was brought on: the Phillis.

Phillis was taught by the Wheatley's children, Mary and Nathaniel, and by the age of 12 she was reading Latin as well as English. She wrote her first poem aged 14. The family recognised her talent and encouraged her to write. Her first published poem 'On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin' appeared in the Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767.

Most of Phillis' poetry is concerned with Christian themes, but she makes repeated references to her African identity, and subtly reminds readers about what she had endured. For example in 'To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.' she refers to her story to explain why she strives for the "common good":

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song, Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung, Whence flow these wishes for the common good, By feeling hearts alone best understood, I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat... Such, such my case. And can I then but pray Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

After the Wheatleys failed to find a publisher for Phillis' work in Boston they looked across the Atlantic to London, and approached Archibald Bell, a bookseller based at "No. 8 Aldgate-Street". Bell agreed to publish her book, with Phillis receiving half of the sales. He also helped her gain the patronage of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, who had supported other black writers to publish their work, including Olaudah Equiano.

Phillis (now 20) and Nathaniel Wheatley travelled to London, arriving on 17 June 1773, just as the publicity campaign for Poems on various subjects, religious and moral was getting underway in the London press. During her six week stay Phillis met many individuals from high society, including Benjamin Franklin and the Lord Mayor of London. In a letter to David Wooster sent in October when she had returned to America she listed some of the sights she had seen:

Westminster Abbey, British Museum, Coxe's Museum, Saddler's wells, Greenwich Hospital, Park and Chapel, The royal Observatory at Greenwich, &c. &c. too many things & Places to trouble you with in a Letter.

She also wrote that:

Grenville Sharp Esqr... attended me to the Tower & Show'd the Lions, Panthers, Tigers, &c. the Horse Armoury, small Armoury, the Crowns, Sceptres, Diadems, the Font for christening the Royal Family.

This was a significant meeting, as Granville Sharp was an abolitionist campaigner who had been instrumental in the success of the Somersett case just the previous year. The Lord Chief Justice ruled in June 1772 that James Somersett, an enslaved African man brought to England from Boston by his master, could not legally be forced to return to the colonies.

It's likely that Phillis knew about this ruling, and was aware of the opportunity she had in England to secure her freedom. We have no record of their conversation at the Tower, but in his introduction to her Complete Works Vincent Carretta argues that Sharp would almost certainly have advised her:

It is very difficult to imagine Wheatley and Sharp looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, without the subject coming up of Sharp's recent judicial triumph in extending British liberty to American slaves. Not to have encouraged Wheatley to seek her freedom would have been completely out of character for Sharp... A slave owner could not have thought of a more dangerous tour guide than Granville Sharp for a slave newly arrived from the colonies.

Certainly, Phillis did seek and secure her freedom. In the letter to Wooster she writes:

...Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom. The Instrument is drawn, so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the Executrs. adminstrators, &c. of my master, & secure whatsoever should be given me as my Own...

She urges him to promote her book to his circle, "as I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine, & it is the Chief I have to depend upon."  However it wasn't until 1778 that Phillis was legally freed from slavery following her master's death.

In the intervening years she stayed with the Wheatleys and continued to write and publish her poetry in various newspapers, becoming more outspoken about her opposition to slavery. In 1775 she sent a copy of a poem entitled, 'To His Excellency, George Washington' to George Washington, who invited her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she did in March 1776.

Shortly after she was freed Phillis married John Peters, a free African American man. Her last years were characterised by struggle and loss as the couple fell into poverty and endured the loss of two infants. Phillis wrote another book of poetry but couldn't afford to publish it and was unable to find patrons to support her.

When her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784 Phillis was left without resources, caring for their new baby alone. She found work as a scullery maid, but died in December that year, followed by her son just a few hours later.

It's impossible not to wonder what works Phillis would have created if her life hadn't been cut short so tragically, and whether as a free woman she would have been able to speak more about and more openly against the "tyrannic sway" of slavery.

Sources

Setting out their Stall: researching women’s work at London’s markets

roman-road-market-western-entrance A new project from University College London and King's College London, funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, seeks to introduce doctoral students to the creative opportunities and challenges of public history and community heritage and contribute to the East End Women's Museum.

Who should apply

Students in the first or second years of their doctoral programmes are eligible to participate. Sessions will be held fortnightly on Monday evenings during semesters two and three and fieldwork will also be required on two Saturdays in May/June 2017.

Targeted at historians of gender and modern London, as well as those wishing to work with oral history or in archival and heritage management as well as cultural institutions, this intensely practical and outcome driven initiative will provide demonstrable methodological and employability skills as well as the opportunity to work with local volunteers and feminists activists.

What's involved

Following an introduction to academic literatures and methodologies surrounding community-based archives, heritage and the practice of oral history, students will participate in a ‘pop up reminiscence project’ examining the history of market stalls in East London.

They will undertake archival research on the economic, social and political dimensions of women’s work at East London markets - such as Chrisp Street, Roman Road or Rathbone Market - then conduct oral history interviews with East End residents who operated or shopped at these markets.

The group will then produce a series of outputs (encompassing blogs/microsites, poster displays and potential exhibitions) to feed these findings back to participants and residents as well as producing a lasting legacy for the intended museum.

How to apply

Please see this document for more information. Applicants for one of the 15 available places should forward their CV and a one page covering letter outlining their interest in the project and its contribution to their career development to alana.harris@kcl.ac.uk by Friday 25 November 2016.

Josie Woods, dancer and strike leader

Josie Woods, dancing in later years
Josie Woods, dancing in later years

Josephine Lucy Wood was born in Canning Town in 1912 to Charles, a Dominican merchant navy quartermaster on the local docks, and Emily, who described herself as a "gypsy girl".

Sailortown and Draughtboard Alley

In the early 20th century Canning Town - known as 'Sailortown' - had the largest black population in London. Crown Street became known locally as 'Draughtboard Alley' because both black and white people lived there.

Although on the whole there were good relations between different ethnic groups, during and after the First World War tensions erupted into violence, and Josie recalled race riots during her childhood.

Sewing in Aldgate to dancing in Paris

At 14 Josie was working for a Jewish tailor in Aldgate. She got her break into show business when music hall star Belle Davis chose Josie and her brother Charlie to train with the Eight Lancashire Lads, a popular clog and tap dancing group with which Charlie Chaplin also started his career.

Later Charlie, Josie, and three other girls went with Davis to Paris as a tap dancing group called the Magnolia Blossoms. They joined La Revue Negre, the show which had made Josephine Baker a star a few years earlier.

In 1932 Josie and her brother joined a group called the Eight Black Streaks and came back to London. The Streaks were the first established black British dance troupe, described as "the world's fastest dancers". Josie toured with them for eight years, appearing at the London Palladium and in two films: Night Club Queen and Kentucky Minstrels, both 1934.

In 1933 Josie escaped an abusive marriage and made a vow never to allow a man to control her again. She formed several successful personal and professional partnerships with male performers, including singer Eddie Williams and Nigerian actor Willie Payne.

Jitterbug jamboree

She also performed several times with comedian and musician Cyril Lagey demonstrating the latest dance crazes from Harlem to British audiences. In 1940 they launched a new dance called the 'jitterbug' in London, in a show called Jitterbug Jamboree at the Astoria Old Kent Road.

Josie told dance historian Terry Monaghan that she was so captivated by the jitterbug sequence in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races that she stayed in the cinema and watched the film several times in a row.

"She learnt it from the screen," Monaghan said. "She featured it in her act, entered jitterbug competitions, and in dance halls she would teach it to anyone who was interested."

Film extra and strike leader

As the popularity of music halls waned in the 1940s and 50s Josie found work in television variety shows and in films. She guest starred in Nitwits on Parade (1949) and appeared as an extra in Old Mother Riley's Jungle Treasure (1951).

When the latter was being filmed she organised a strike for the black extras over late payment, and confronted the film's producer, saying: "Either you pay us what we are owed, or you can kiss my black ass!"

Later years

Josie continued working into the mid 1960s as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In 1956 she had a son, Ralph, who went on to become a successful saxophonist.

In 1997, at 85 years old, her story was covered by the BBC documentary Black Britain.  Josie moved to the USA in 2001 to be near her son, where she died in 2008.

Sources

Adelaide Knight, leader of the first east London suffragettes

Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown
Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown

One of the most important figures in the east London women's suffrage movement at the turn of the century was Adelaide Knight. Eliza Adelaide Knight was born in 1871 and lived with her family on Kenilworth Road in Bethnal Green.

After a childhood injury she used crutches or a stick for the rest of her life, and endured repeated poor health.

She was described as highly intelligent, with a love of poetry, music and history.

Adelaide and Donald

In 1894 Adelaide married a sailor, Donald Adolphus Brown, the son of a Royal Navy officer from Ebini, in what is now Guyana.

He shared Adelaide's political beliefs and supported her activism. They both joined the Independent Labour Party and he took Adelaide's surname and was widely known as Donald Knight.

As Adelaide found some tasks difficult and painful because of her injured hip, the couple shared domestic chores, including the weekly laundry.

Donald became well known in his own right in 1921 when he was awarded a medal after his quick thinking and bravery prevented an explosion at Woolwich Arsenal where he worked.

An early London suffragette

The first London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was opened in Canning Town in 1906, and swiftly followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse.

Adelaide was secretary of the new WSPU branch in Canning Town in 1906. In a letter from the same year her friend Dora Montefiore refers to her as the “leader” of the working women in the WSPU.

In June 1906 she was arrested alongside Annie Kenney and another woman, Mrs Sparborough, when they tried to gain an audience with Herbert Asquith.

The women were sentenced to prison for six weeks unless they agreed to be 'bound over' for one year, that is, to behave themselves and give up their campaigning.

It was a difficult decision for Adelaide as she was in poor health, and the couple had two small children to care for, the youngest just 18 months old. In her biography their daughter Winifred Langton records an exchange between Adelaide and Donald:

"'What can I do Daddy? To draw back will encourage this intimidation. Can I count on your full support? It will be agonising to be away from you and our children, but with your help I can face this.' 'My dear Mama we have supported each other for many years we must not fail now that we are to be put to the test.'"

In the end all three women chose prison. Adelaide said: "I refuse to barter my freedom to act according to my conscience, while my health permits me to fight on."

Although the prison conditions were terrible and her health suffered Adelaide maintained her resolve. She sang The Red Flag every morning and evening, and used her hair pins to scratch the lyrics on to the window sill.

After the WSPU

Despite her commitment to the cause, Adelaide resigned as branch secretary in March 1907 after becoming increasingly dismayed with the lack of democracy in the WSPU.

The following year she was elected to the West Ham Board of Guardians where she served until 1910. The family later moved to Greenwich.

Adelaide retained her socialist ideals and her friendship with Dora, in 1920 they both became founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Sources

East End women take action: 1888 to 2016

EEWact-activism-objects.jpg

In September we held an event with East End Sisters Uncut at St Hilda's East community centre, bringing together some fantastic speakers to talk about about the different ways east London women have challenged sexism, racism, exploitation, and injustice then and now.

Watch talks from the day online

Thanks to filmmaker Bea Moyes we have videos of all the talks on the day, take a look:

Around 70 people attended on the day. We've made a Storify collecting some of the tweets from the event which you can see below.

What is your activist object?

We also had some sheets of flipchart paper up on the walls asking some questions for our guests to answer about their activism:

What object is essential for your activism? answers on post it notes include pen, bike, phone, friends, tea
What object is essential for your activism? answers on post it notes include pen, bike, phone, friends, tea
How does activism make you feel? answers on post its include powerful, tired, happy
How does activism make you feel? answers on post its include powerful, tired, happy

Lend us your histories!

We planned to have some time at the end of the day for the audience to share their stories, whether about their own experience of activism or a story about their friends, family, or the wider community.

Sadly we ran out of time, but we'd still love to hear your histories. Please feel free to share them in the comments or use our contact form to tell us more.

We would especially love to hear any stories about Bengali women's housing activism in the 1970s or black women's organising in the 1980s, as we had speakers lined up to talk about these movements that had to pull out.

Raising money for East End Sisters Uncut

On the day we had donation buckets and a cake stall raising money for East End Sisters Uncut which raised £235, and around 25 people made a donation online when they registered for the event.  Thank you everyone!

If you would like to support the brilliant work of East End Sisters Uncut you can donate via Paypal on their website.

[<a href="//storify.com/EEWomensMuseum/east-end-women-take-action-1888-2016" target="_blank">View the story "East End Women Take Action 1888 - 2016" on Storify</a>]

A personal history of East End Sisters Uncut

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 two members of East End Sisters Uncut - Sarah and Saskia - spoke about the history of the organisation and the importance of intersectionality in feminist organising. Watch the video of their talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: East End Sisters Uncut.

Louise Raw on the Matchwomen's Strike

Janine Booth on the Poplar Rates Rebellion

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 Janine Booth gave a talk about the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921 and the women who took part. Watch a video of the talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Janine Booth.

Find out more

Sarah Jackson on how the East London suffragettes used the media

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 I gave a talk about the East End Federation of the Suffragette, founded by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914, and how they used the media to support their activism. You can watch a video of my talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Sarah Jackson.

Find out more

 

Julie Begum on how Women Unite Against Racism took on the BNP

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 Julie Begum spoke about her experiences setting up Women Unite Against Racism after Derek Beackon of the British National Party was elected as councillor in Millwall by just eight votes in 1993. You can watch a video of her talk, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Julie Begum.

Find out more

Nadia Valman on Jewish women's activism at Cable Street and beyond

Ripper tourism and violence against sex workers

Eye-Popping Days Out poster featuring a top-hatted figure reading a newspaper with the headline 'Ripper Strikes Again' I've written before about my beef with Jack the Ripper tourism, and I recently revisited the subject at an event at Oxford House.*

We talked about why the Ripper myth has such a hold on people, about the other stories it overshadows, and about the breathtakingly insensitive marketing decisions made by the Ripper tourist trade, from cocktails and cupcakes to burgers and selfies with 'Jack'.

The latest of these sidled into my browser a few days ago: an interactive performance from Apocalypse Events. As you can see from the screencap below they initially used a picture of the Bow Matchwomen with their faces scrubbed out to illustrate their event page. Below this was a picture of Annie Chapman, one of the women killed by 'Jack', also with her face scrubbed out. Women's history literally being erased by Ripper tourism.

Thanks to historian Louise Raw the company have now changed the images and copy on their website for this event, but this is far from the only example.

Apocalypse UK screencap

Violence against women and failed justice

The obsession with the Whitechapel murders means that the story most people associate with east London is one of violence against women and failed justice.

Violence against women hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats. It is incredibly common and frequently lethal, and Ripper tourism helps to trivialise it.

The never ending fascination with 'Jack' is especially galling for many women working in the sex industry, as the five women killed in the Whitechapel Murders - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly - were all working as prostitutes at the time they were murdered.

In 2015 Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told the Guardian that:

“We object to the Jack the Ripper tours because they present the gruesome murder of five women as an exciting, tantalising event, glorifying the man whilst invisibilising the women... What a distortion and abuse of our humanity that five women who were tortured to death are of less interest than the monster who killed them.”

Women working in the sex industry, particularly those selling sex on the street, are some of the most vulnerable to violence:

  • In a 2001 study of three British cities, it was found that 81 percent of street workers had experienced violence (Church et al 2001).
  • A 1999 study of 193 street workers found that 68 per cent had experienced physical assault (Ward et al 1999).
  • In 2004, a study of 125 street workers in five cities found that three-quarters had experienced physical violence (Hester and Westmarland 2004).
  • A 2004 study of 71 street workers in Bristol (Jeal and Salisbury 2004a) found that rape and physical violence using weapons such as guns, machetes and chainsaws had been experienced by 73 percent.
  • Between the early 1990s and early 2000s, at least 60 sex workers were known to have been murdered in the UK, most working on the street (Penfold et al 2004, p.366).
  • It has been estimated that street sex workers are twelve times more likely to die from violence at work than other women (Sanders and Campbell 2007, p.2).

Red umbrella with slogan: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers December 17th'[Source: Phipps, A (2013) 'Violence against sex workers', in Lesley McMillan and Nancy Lombard, eds., Violence Against Women (Research Highlights in Social Work Series), pp87-102. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers]

Alia, a sex worker working in Mile End was quoted in the same Guardian article saying that:

“Rape and torture, let alone the murder of women, shouldn’t be fetishised into an intriguing murder mystery... I know about violence. I’ve been raped and robbed – and when I reported it the police did nothing, and then threatened me with prosecution for prostitution.”

Stigma and whorephobia

The practical vulnerability of street workers is compounded by stigma, 'whorephobia', and police harassment which prevents many women from seeking help or reporting violence.

One of the most famous examples of whorephobia comes from a statement by the Attorney General at 'Yorkshire Ripper' Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” **

Attitudes like this, whether conscious or unconscious, are common and insidious. The silent distinction between 'prostitutes' and 'innocent victims' has surely contributed to the widespread acceptance of the Ripper story as entertainment, and as the defining moment in east London's history.***

The single story

Violence is part of women's history as it is part of women's present, and it's a story that needs to be told. But it must be done with sensitivity, respect, and context, otherwise we're just feeding the problem by reinscribing misogyny.

And there are so many other stories we could tell about east London. It's on a rather different scale of course, but author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken brilliantly about the danger of the single story with reference to the story of Africa.

If the single story of our community is about the brutal, unsolved murders of five working class women, how does that shape the way people see us? How does it shape the way we see ourselves?

The aim of our museum is to present an alternative, to amplify some of the stories you haven’t heard before, to show how and where more might be found. By shifting the focus away from 'Jack' we can start to tell a richer story.

 

*Also on the panel was historian Fern Riddell, who live tweeted her visit to the Ripper Museum which you should read if you haven't already.

**Joan Smith wrote a fantastic essay about the coverage of the 'Yorkshire Ripper' case in her 1989 book Misogynies. You can read most of it on Google Books but it's worth getting hold of a copy if you can.

***If you'd like to read more around this I can't recommend City of Dreadful Delight by Judith Walkowitz highly enough.

Women at the Battle of Cable Street

Cable Street Mural Today is the 80th anniversary of the 'Battle of Cable Street', one of the East End's proudest moments.

The Battle of Cable Street

On 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts attempted to march from Tower Hill, through Aldgate and Shadwell, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood at that time.

When they arrived at Gardiner's Corner, a huge crowd (estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000) gathered to block their path, roaring “They Shall Not Pass!” After 6,000 police failed to clear the area, the march was diverted via Cable Street.

However, three sets of barricades, including an overturned lorry, had already been set up there. Broken glass and marbles had been strewn across the street, and thousands of local people massed behind each barricade, chanting anti-fascist slogans and fighting back fiercely against the police.

Eventually the Police Commissioner instructed Mosley to march his troops west and out of the area, in a humiliating defeat. Thousands of the anti-fascist protestors gathered in Victoria Park to celebrate their victory.

Milk bottles and other weapons

Local communist activist Phil Piratin recalled:

“It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.”

Although the image of housewives throwing rubbish down at the police and the fascists has become an important part of Cable Street mythology, women were also in the street, fighting alongside the men.

Joyce Goodman (née Rosenthal) said: "the police... were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses hooves.”

Out of the 79 anti-fascist protestors arrested on the day, 8 were women.

Sarah Wesker

Mick Mindel was a union leader who was there on the day, and in an interview years later he commented:

“women leaders like Sarah Wesker set an example and at the time of the Cable Street battle she was a real inspiration to all of us.”

Sarah Wesker has been all but forgotten now, but in the 1920s she gained a high profile in London as a formidable union organiser, leading famous strikes at the Goodman's, Poliakoff's, Simpson and Rego textile factories. In 1932 she was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 12th Congress.

Fluent in Yiddish and English, she had a reputation as a fiery speaker, “as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers” (she was less than five feet tall).

'I am not afraid of you'

Jack Shaw, another Cable Street battler interviewed in later life makes a compelling reference to a young woman he saw in the police charge room after they had both been arrested.

“While he was there, he saw a huge policeman drag in a young woman, rip off her blouse and hold his truncheon as if to strike her in the face.

She stared straight at him and, with defiance in her voice, said: "I am not afraid of you". As the room went quiet, the policeman called her a Jewish bitch and put her in a cell.

Jack says she typified the courage and spirit of the women in the anti-fascist struggle.”

Love on a lamp post

Charlie Goodman was just 16 when he was arrested and savagely beaten by the police after climbing a lamp post and shouting to the crowd: "Don't be yellow bellies, forward, we are winning!"

Later he married a woman who was also there on the day. Joyce Rosenthal was only 12 in 1936 but was nonetheless in the front line - they met four years later and she asked him if “he was the nutcase up the lamp post. When he said he was, she knew he was just her type.”

The spirit of Cable Street today

The best way to keep the spirit of Cable Street alive is to keep fighting fascism, racism, and intolerance wherever we find it. Next time the EDL come to East London, join the counter protest and show them that our community is prepared to stand against them, then as now.

This weekend there are a whole host of events taking place to celebrate the 80th anniversary. Here are two we're really excited about:

Saturday 8 October - Women's voices

Author Kate Thompson interviews women veterans of the Battle of Cable Street Come along and listen to Mari Butwell, Marie Joseph, Millie Finger, Beattie Orwell, and Sally Flood.

Idea Store Watney Market, 2.30pm-4.30pm

Sunday 9 October - March and rally

The march will assemble at Altab Ali Park at 12 noon and proceed to the Cable Street Mural for a rally in St George Gardens on Cable Street.

There will be speeches from national and local organisations including Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Frances O'Grady General Secretary TUC, music from marching bands along the route, and stalls at the rally. Here's the main Facebook event.

Join the women's history bloc and march with our museum banner! Meet us beside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1DY at 11.45 am and we'll walk down to the park together.

East End Women's Museum Banner (work in progress)

For more information about the Battle of Cable Street and the women who fought there take a look at the In Her Footsteps projectEast End Walks, and this great article by Nadia Valman.

 

Amelia Harris

Amelia Harris (centre) in the 1920s with her sisters Ray (left) and Rose (Right) My grandmother Amelia (Millie) Harris was born on January 23, 1906 at City of London Lying-In Hospital at 228 Old Street, the daughter of Russian immigrants.

From Vilna and Riga to London

Her father, my great-grandfather Meir Shapiro, left Vilna in Lithuania and arrived in England in about 1903, and was followed two years later by his wife, Rivka (nee Jankelson, from Riga, Latvia) who came with their two daughters, Rose and Rachel (Ray.) Another sister, Gittel or Gertie, died en route to England.

My grandmother Amelia was born after her parents reunited; another London-born child, her younger brother David, died of the measles at the age of six months. A week after his death, my grandmother fell into an open fire, almost losing her sight, and her mother, saying “this house is evil,” demanded that they move from their home at 28 Hare Street, Bethnal Green.

The Hoxton seaside

Their new home was at 89 Bridport Place, Hoxton. Though Hoxton today is a gentrified mélange of art galleries, bars and chic boutiques, it was far from that in my grandmother’s day.

Homes were overcrowded—one house could accommodate five families—while prostitution and crime were common. Its one saving grace, my grandmother said, was a canal at the end of their road that her mother’s friends called “the seaside.”

A queenly storyteller

I know these stories because my grandmother told them to me many, many times over the course of her long life. She was the most marvellous storyteller I have ever known. She never wrote her stories down—she simply declaimed them, with the drama and flourish of a queen (her Hebrew name, Malka, or queen, fit her perfectly.)

Fortunately I had recorded many of her tales in the summer of 1993, a decade before she died on January 17, 2004 – her 98th birthday, according to the Hebrew lunar calendar.

Anti 'alien' sentiment

My Shapiro great-grandparents were fortunate enough to arrive in England before the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment, then as now, was rife: in 1904, the Daily News decried “these unwashed, cringing, lying and wage-cutting aliens, who have elbowed thousands of Englishmen out of their homes and out of their employment.”

Even so, my great-grandparents proved resourceful. In Hoxton, the family opened a shop that sold old boots, rubber soles and heels, leather, gaiters, knives, nails, tin tacks and screws, and they lived behind it in a room called a shop parlour.

Scholarships and boot polish

But they were so poor that my grandmother had to leave school in 1920, at the age of 14, as she told me:

“I had already won two scholarships but my mother couldn’t afford the uniform. She said, ‘You don’t need it. You’ll get married, what do you want all that for?’ But it would have been lovely to have had a good education. I left at 14 and there was no work to be found at all.

In the end, my mother put a big box of Cherry Blossom boot polish—little tins—and she said, ‘Go in the market and sell the polish. You’re good, you can talk, you can sell anything.’ So I went to the market. I stood in the street, and I held out my hands, with two tins of polish, like a peddler, shouting out, “Two for tuppence ha’penny!” In the end, I sold 144 tins of boot polish.

I went home with my pockets laden, and my mother and father were so thrilled. And the next day, my mother said, “Go again. You’ll sell another.”

Too insolent

My grandmother peddled boot polish for three months, at which point my great-grandmother consulted "The Ladies", most likely the Ladies’ Conjoint Visiting Committee established in 1884 by the Jewish Board of Guardians, which provided advice and financial assistance to poor Jews.

With their assistance, my grandmother began an apprenticeship at a court dressmakers in Sloane Square for a salary of six shillings a week. But the job didn’t last long.

“So I had this job,” my grandmother said, laughing, “that I hated. The shop was beautiful, court dress making, royalty used to come there, beautifully crafted, lovely sofas and easy chairs. But the back was like Dickens.

The floor was wooden boards, wooden stools to sit on, lit by gas jets, and [the forewoman] constantly sent me for errands, ‘get me a pint of milk, get me a loaf of bread, pick up the pins.’ I had to scrabble about on the bare boards, all in the creases of the boards, the pins, [and she would say] ‘there’s plenty of pins there that you haven’t picked up.’

I said 'I’ve come to learn the trade, but I’m not learning anything.' Anyway, after a week, she said, ‘I’m not keeping you. You’re too insolent.’"

Sixteen shillings a week

After my outspoken grandmother lost her first job, her mother told her to look for another, saying that she was now an 'improver' with experience to her name. So, my grandmother said,

“I had to do as I was told. We never disobeyed our parents. I went to the West End, and I saw a ticket in a big window, “Improvers For Dress-Making Wanted.”

So I went in, and the forelady said to me, ‘Where have you been working before?’ I said, ‘Oh, in Sloane Square, court dress-making.’ ‘You have?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ She said, ‘When would you like to start?’ So I said, ‘You mean I’ve got the job?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You can start on Monday at sixteen shillings a week.’ A fortune! Sixteen shillings a week.”

My grandmother spent many years as a seamstress, working her way up to 'first-hand' (making the garment from start to finish) and then as a cutter and designer.

In 1929, the year in which both she and her older sister Ray got married (within eleven weeks of each other) she sewed her sister’s wedding gown; her sister Ray, who was also a dressmaker, sewed my grandmother’s wedding dress.

The woman from the Pru

During the Second World War, my grandmother found a coveted job as an insurance agent with the Prudential—a job that before the war would have been reserved for men, my mother Irene Glausiusz notes. “Previously they did not employ women agents, but with the call-up of the men, they had to change the rules,” she says.

For a weekly fee, paid in cash, the company paid out sickness and unemployment benefits, and my grandmother collected the subscriptions and paid out benefits.

“I used to trail about in all weathers, paying sick money,” my grandmother said. “The National Health [Service] hadn’t started yet. It started in 1948. And if somebody was sick, all they got was nine shillings a week.”

She added, “I liked it very much. Very much indeed. I liked meeting people. They were full of humour. Nobody had a bell or a knocker; there was always a hole in the door with a piece of string, and you pulled the string and you went in and they used to say, “Come in, cock.” Anyway, I sold more policies than an experienced agent."

My mother Irene confirms this: “Grandma was good at the job and I do remember the huge ledgers in which all the details were written.  She was always good with figures.” But, she added, “When the war finished, they said, ‘well, tough, we have to give the jobs back to the men.’”

Indeed, the Prudential’s own timeline of history proudly notes that in 1949, “The 'Man from the Pru' a household phrase since the turn of the century, was launched as an advertising image to re-establish the identity of the agent in the post-war world.”

The Sussex seaside

My grandmother weathered this setback and many others. Following World War II, she started her own dressmaking business with my grandfather in Virginia Road, Bethnal Green, which they ran until 1965. In that year they left London to buy a home in Hove on the Sussex coast, which for many years my grandparents ran as a boarding house.

Resilience and resourcefulness

My grandmother was a living testimony to the resilience and resourcefulness of immigrants and the children of immigrants.

In her nearly century long life she lived through two world wars, the Depression, the introduction of indoor plumbing, the creation of the National Health Service, the invention of television and nuclear bombs and much else besides. She survived breast cancer and many illnesses of old age for which she received excellent care from the NHS.

Throughout her life she was strong, almost indomitable; outspoken, independent, stubborn, warm, loving, and a lover of life, invariably friendly and gregarious, and with an impressive command of the English language. When she spoke, people listened. So did I.

 

A huge thank you to Josie Glausiusz for contributing this story and wonderful photograph to the East End Women's Museum.