Women's history

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Jane Johnson, a 'disorderly' woman of Rag Fair

Jane Johnson, along with her husband John, kept an alehouse and brothel in Shorter Street, just off Well Close Square, Rosemary Lane, and Cable Street. She was a well known thief and receiver of stolen goods around Rag Fair, and was cited in at least a dozen cases heard at the Old Bailey. In 1740, Johnson was accused in court of buying stolen handkerchiefs from small time thieves, John Sharpless and William Disney for half a crown. The handkerchiefs had been stolen from Sarah Stumper who kept a small shop in Leman Street, Goodman’s fields. Johnson was taken into custody but when the trial reached court, she escaped from custody with the help of her friends. (1)

Johnson turns up again in a burglary case in 1741 involving thief John Lupton. The Old Bailey court heard that Johnson had purchased a stolen cup with a silver handle and a silver spoon for four pounds from Lupton and his friends. However, although cited in court as the buyer of the stolen goods, Johnson escaped prosecution. (2)

In 1743 Jane Johnson was indicted once more on two separate accounts. She was charged with ‘feloniously receiving’ 26 pounds of stolen chocolate and a selection of brass ware and steel buckles from thieves John Read and David Shields.

The informant David Shields gave information that he had sold Johnson the goods, telling the courtroom, "she keeps a very bad House – there none resort to the House but a parcel of Boys who go out a robbing and picking of Pockets...there are two Rooms on a Floor, 2or 3 Beds in a Room, and 3 or 4 of these Boys lie in a Bed". (3)

Jane Johnson managed to avoid the death sentence, Newgate prison and transportation, making a living for at least a while from her criminal exploits. She is just one of many ‘disorderly’ women who lived around Rosemary Lane, east London in the 18th century.

Women like Johnson did not accept a life on the margins, and while they may not have been treated as equals to men, they had agency. They got by in whatever way they could.

Their stories are a hugely important component in our understanding of the lives of the ordinary and poorer members of early modern London society.

Thanks to Dr Janice Turner from the University of Hertfordshire for contributing this story to the East End Women's Museum.

 

(1) Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913, (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012),

(Hereafter, OBP), OBP, John Sharpless, William Disney, 16 April 1740, t17400416-25.

(2) OBP, John Lupton, 14 May 1741, t17410514-11.

(3) OBP, John Read, 13 April 1743, t17430413-14.

 

Happy Birthday to the East End Women’s Museum!

It’s the East End Women’s Museum’s first birthday today! We'd like to say a huge thank you to all our friends, followers, community partners, mentors and fellow museum nerds: we couldn’t have got this far without you.

Women sat at a new year's party, 1960

Our journey started (as the timestamps remind me) over lunch in July 2015. The Ripper Museum had just been unveiled that day; part of a ghoulish bait-and-switch that had led locals at Cable Street to believe that a women’s museum was about to be opened on their doorstep. I sent this email, from Cardiff, to Sarah J, who would become my partner-in-not-another-crime-museum:

a message I sent to Sarah asking if she would like to make a museum of some sort

Within the hour, Sarah had passed this message on to twitter: in a matter of days we’d received offers of support, practical help, donations and advice.  People’s generosity, warmth and encouragement has been overwhelming. Mostly in a good way. When something starts with a tweet, and gathers momentum so quickly, it’s enough just to trot alongside the snowball for a while.

Where we are today

A year later, we’ve steadied our course, and are well along the way to making the missing museum a reality. We’ve had our first exhibition (in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage) and our next, with Hackney Museum, is in the pipeline. We were proud to take part in the East End Women’s Collective’s ‘Real Story’ exhibition, too, as well as learning from women who are making history right now.

We’re also a bit more of an official entity as of this week - at least, I just signed some very serious-looking paperwork so I hope so. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to plan for the long-term future of this project - and as soon as we’re able to, we’ll let you know more about that.

A huge thanks to the East End (and the Internet)

As we approach the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, I’m proud to be part of a growing chorus who want to amplify the voices and stories of East End women, past and present. It’s thanks to the this chorus, the communities we work with, and our online supporters' thirst for stories about awesome women, that we’ve got this far.

When the whole thing starts feeling a bit unreal, unachievable or unbelievable; I take refuge in history. Even when things feel hopelessly broken, as they might have for you, too, in the last few weeks. I look at what our sisters achieved, what they made, what they left behind, and honour what they couldn't - those lost stories we will never hear.

 

Woman drinking tea during the Blitz

And every now and again I revisit what I wrote, on the day the Ripper Museum opened, this time last year:

“I would love to build something, physical or otherwise, that will keep and share these stories, long after this sideshow is gone.”

Here’s to another year. I can't wait to see what we make together.

Olive Christian Malvery: journalist, 'lecturer, reciter, and social worker'

Olive Christian Malvery, seated and wearing a white blouse, face tilted down

Olive Christian Malvery, seated and wearing a white blouse, face tilted down

Olive Christian Malvery was an Anglo-Indian writer and investigative journalist who exposed poverty and terrible working conditions in London at the start of the 20th century.

Early life in Lahore and London

Malvery was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, in 1871. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1898, Malvery came to London to study at the Royal College of Music.

She supported herself by writing fiction for journals and magazines, giving lectures, teaching elocution, and 'drawing room' storytelling inspired by Indian legends. In the introduction to one of her articles, 'Gilding the Gutter', she is described as "the well-known lecturer, reciter, and social worker".

Undercover for Pearson's Magazine

In 1904, Malvery began work on a photojournalism series on London's poor for Pearson's Magazine. She went undercover, disguising herself and working as a flower seller, a barmaid, a factory girl, and a homeless woman so that she could speak more easily to working class girls and women in east London and elsewhere in the capital, and to learn how they were treated.

Olive Christian Malvery in disguise as a waitress, serving coffee to a group of young men in caps

Olive Christian Malvery in disguise as a waitress, serving coffee to a group of young men in caps

The Soul Market and Hoxton Hall

Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1906 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.

Malvery had become friends with Sarah Rae, who ran a social club for working class girls at Hoxton Hall. Through Rae, Malvery met and made friends with many of the local Hoxton girls, some of whom were bridesmaids at her wedding to Scottish-born US diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in 1905. They had three children before his death in 1911.

Later years

In later life Malvery continued writing, and produced books about child labour, unemployment, and 'white slavery' (there was widespread fear in this period that young English girls were being kidnapped and forced into sex work).

Malvery also paid for two shelters for homeless women to be built in London, inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 43 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.

[Updated 18/9/18]

Sources

Jessie Lavinia Burrows

Middle aged woman and a man in a field, laughing My grandmother, Jessie Lavinia Burrows, was born into a very poor family in the parish of St George's-in-the-East in 1889. She had two sisters and a brother who survived, and two brothers who didn't. Her father walked out on the family when she was about eight and from then on their lives became even more impoverished, if that was possible.

Surviving on the streets of Shadwell

They slept for a while in shop doorways and underneath the costers barrows at the market, they went down to the shore of the Thames and scavenged food and fuel that had been thrown away - it wasn't a 'lark' for them in the mud. They ended up in the workhouse, she and her little sister scrubbing the stone corridors with cold water in the middle of winter. Her mother was at the Shadwell workhouse, they were sent to Surrey.

A lady with waved hair and a floral print dress

Hardship in service and marriage

Jessie was trained for domestic service and was frequently cold and starving hungry - she couldn't look at beetroot because she ate an entire stone jar of it when she was hungry and it was the only thing she could get into in the pantry. Aged 19 in 1909 she married a Fred Venning. Family lore says he was violent. In 1911 she went on her own to New Zealand with a baby that was less than a year old, sponsored by the Duke of Norfolk's Catholic resettlement scheme, which I have been able to find no information for.

Work, love, and loss in New Zealand

This baby girl, Isabella Mary, died of pneumonia aged 16 months, in New Zealand. My grandmother had spent two years living in a tent and working as a cook at a sawmill, where there was little medical care available. She had met my grandfather by now, who was also British, and the baby's death is registered in Taumaranui under the surname 'Good', though her name is recorded as Venning.

They were given land in the north island and my grandmother farmed it while my grandfather travelled the country bridge building. My grandmother's mother and siblings joined her in New Zealand in a short time. They lost a four year old daughter to peritonitis caused by appendicitis as they lived 30 miles from the nearest other settlement and though they put her on a horse and cart to get her medical care it took too long and she was buried in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Returning to London, and the war

In 1932, my grandmother brought her children home, though the oldest child and only boy stayed in New Zealand. She, and my mother, lived through the Blitz in Brixton, bombs falling all round them. She managed to buy a house and set up a theatrical boarding house in Brixton, counting Johnny Weissmuller and Benny Hill among her guests.

Jessie's own brother died at 18 in the Dardanelles when his ship went down, he got out but went back to save the ship's cat and they drowned together. This story of William Burrows, Chief Stoker on the HMS Irresistible trying to save the ship's cat is repeated by more than one source.

Always a Cockney

My grandfather died in a flu epidemic in the 1960s and my grandmother left London - she never stopped grieving for him. Jessie died aged 83, always proud of being a Cockney. Everything I know about our family comes from her, the bravest, kindest woman I know.

A huge thank you to Ann Croucher for contributing this story and these great photographs to the East End Women's Museum.

Mary Driscoll: Matchwoman, strike leader and shop owner

Always hold your head up. Remember you're as good as anyone.

A group of matchwomen leaning against a wallMary Driscoll was born to Irish parents in London in 1874.  She had three sisters, Katherine, Margaret (known affectionately as Mog), and Elizabeth. Both Mary, Mog, and their mother worked for the Bryant & May match company in Bow in terrible conditions and for very low pay.

In June 1888 when social activist Annie Besant published an article in her weekly newspaper 'The Link' about the conditions at Bryant & May, the management tried to get their workforce to sign a paper contradicting the article, which they refused to do. A worker was dismissed as an example, triggering a full strike in a single day as around 1,400 women and girls refused to work.

The management offered to reinstate the fired employee but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages. After a week the whole factory had stopped work.  At a meeting with the management on 16 July the matchwomen's terms were accepted and the strike ended in victory. (Find out more about the strike in this talk by historian Louise Raw.)

Mary Driscoll was one of the strike leaders, and at the time of the strike she was aged 14 and living at home with her parents at 24 Cottage Street in Poplar.

Eight years after the strike Mary married a dock worker, Thomas Foster. They had 11 children, of whom five survived infancy. Thomas drank heavily, and could be violent towards Mary, once pushing her down the stairs. She effectively supported herself throughout her marriage as much of her husband's income was spent on drink. Mary took in washing, and took the children hop-picking each summer.

Thomas died in 1916, while Mary was pregnant with their son William, who died a few years later from the Spanish flu. Mary never fully recovered from this loss.

After Thomas' death, Mary was able to set herself up as a shopkeeper, opening a cats' meat shop and a corn chandler's beside each other on the now demolished Parnham Street. Mary could not read or write, but despite this became a successful businesswoman, known for her financial acumen.

It's unclear where Mary found the money to open the shops, it's possible that if Thomas had died in an accident at the docks she would have received compensation as his widow. It's unlikely that her in-laws helped, as she greatly disliked them (she even threw a party when her mother-in-law died in 1930).

Mary retained her Irish Republican beliefs all her life, and displayed portraits of Robert Emmett and Michael Collins in her rooms. Reported to be hardworking, fiercely independent, and typically quiet, Mary Driscoll was prepared to “fight her corner”.

During an air raid in the Blitz Mary once ran through the streets with her newborn grandchild, desperate to find a church in which to baptize him (she succeeded). Mary died in March 1943.

Source

Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History by Louise Raw

Mary Jane Kelly

A sketch of Mary Kelly from 1888Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick in 1863 and her large family moved to Wales when she was young. Her father John worked in an iron works, and Mary had seven brothers and at least one sister She was a tall (5’7”), pretty girl with blue eyes and though she may have been illiterate was reported to be very clever and to have some artistic ability.

When she was about 16 she married a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion. Mary stayed for eight months in an infirmary in Cardiff, before moving in with a cousin and starting to work as a prostitute.

Mary moved to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel. Reportedly, she was invited by a client to France, but returned to England within two weeks, having disliked her life there. Gravitating toward the poorer East End of London, she lived for a time near the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. When drunk, Kelly would be heard singing Irish songs. A friend commented that "she was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

In 1888 Mary moved in with Barnett, they lived in a single room at 26 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Barnett worked as a fish porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, but when he fell out of regular employment and tried to earn money as a market porter, Kelly turned to prostitution again to pay their rent.

She was only 25 when she was found brutally murdered in Whitechapel on 9 November 1888. Mary Jane was a Catholic, and she is buried in St Patrick’s cemetery in Leytonstone.

Katherine of Sutton: Abbess and playwright

Late medieval nun with two monksKatherine of Sutton was abbess of Barking Abbey from 1358 to 1376, a position of great religious and political importance. As well as managing the convent and leading services and ceremonies, the abbess was required to provide goods and services for royal wars, as well as housing criminals in the convent until trial. Katherine made several changes to the liturgical process of the convent, incorporating performing arts into their celebrations. In particular she wrote and produced several mystery plays to be performed at Easter: Depositio, Descensus, Elevatio, and Visitatio Sepulchri.

The plays are unusual for the period, and feature detailed stage directions. The aim was to help bring alive the events of Easter in a way that reading scripture or attending a lecture could not, and "dispel" the "sluggishness" of the "faithful."

They seem to have been influential as much European theatrical literature which followed shares some of the same characteristics as the plays at Barking Abbey.

Sources

Damaris Page: The real life Moll Flanders?

17thC cartoon showing a brothel keeper and a fashionably dressed sex worker with the caption "Launching a frigate" Damaris Page was one of the most notorious women of 17th century England. She was born into severe poverty and hardship but rose to fame and riches. She was the subject of several Grub Street pamphlets in 1660, characterised as 'The Wandring Whore' and the 'Crafty Bawd', she may have been one of the inspirations for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders.

Page was born in Stepney around 1610, and worked as a prostitute throughout her teens. In 1653 she married James Dry in a Bermondsey church, and in 1655 she was brought to court for bigamy. She was charged with having been married to a William Baker of Stepney for the previous 15 years, though there is no mention of this marriage in the parish records so it may have been fabricated. Page was acquitted, and after the death of James Dry some years later she remained single.

Damaris Page appeared in court again, charged with the death of an Eleanor Pooley, who had died after Page had tried to perform an abortion with a two-pronged fork. She was convicted of manslaughter, and would have been hanged had she not been pregnant. Page was imprisoned in Newgate Gaol for three years.

Following her release Page became a brothel owner. She ran the Three Tuns in Stepney for seamen and another brothel in Rosemary Lane (now Royal Mint Street), near the Tower of London, for the wealthier naval officers. She agreed to press-gang her dock worker clientele for a fee, which made her very unpopular, and her house was targeted in the 'Bawdy House Riots' of 1668. At this time Samuel Pepys described Page as "the most Famous Bawd in the Towne."

By the middle of the century Page had moved into property speculation, investing the money she had made into building new houses on the Ratcliffe Highway, north of Wapping, and around in residential areas near the Tower of London. The income from these properties supported her for the rest of her life, and by her death in 1669 she had amassed a large fortune.

Source

Wikipedia - Damaris Page

Minnie Lansbury: Teacher, union activist, suffragette, rebel councillor

Photograph of Minnie Lansbury cheered by grounds, on her way to prison in 1921

I wish the Government joy in its efforts to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London's rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.

Minnie Lansbury was born in Stepney in 1889, one of seven children in a Jewish family who came to London to escape poverty and persecution in Russia. Her father, Isaac Glassman, was originally a boot finisher but later became a coal merchant. In 1913, Isaac paid the £5 fee to become a British citizen, entitled to vote. In 1914 Minnie married Edgar Lansbury, son of local MP George Lansbury.

Minnie became a teacher in a local London County Council school, earning £7 a month. She joined the National Union of Teachers and became involved in union activism, calling for equal pay for women among other things. She also joined the central committee of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes and played a key role in their campaigns and community actions. During the First World War Minnie became chair of the War Pensions Committee and used her role to protect the welfare of war widows, orphans, and the wounded.

After the War Minnie was elected alderman on Poplar Council. In 1921, she was one of five women who, along with their male colleagues, were sent to prison for refusing to charge full rates from their poor constituents. Although the Poplar Rates Rebellion was a success, while in prison Minnie caught pneumonia and never fully recovered her health.

On 1 January 1922 she died, aged just 32. Her death was announced at a thousand-strong meeting at Bow Baths Hall: "The audience for a moment was stricken silent... Then out of the silence came a woman's cry of grief, followed by the weeping of many women." The meeting was abandoned.

A few days later a crowd of thousands of mourners, mostly women, stood in the streets as her coffin passed by. George Lansbury wrote a moving tribute to his daughter-in-law in the Daily Herald:

Minnie, in her 32 years, crammed double that number of years' work compared with what many of us are able to accomplish. Her glory lies in the fact that with all her gifts and talents one thought dominated her whole being night and day: How shall we help the poor, the weak, the fallen, weary and heavy-laden, to help themselves? When, a soldier like Minnie passes on, it only means their presence is withdrawn, their life and work remaining an inspiration and a call to us each to close the ranks and continue our march breast forward.

Sources

Mary Fillis: Baptised at St Botolph's, Aldgate in 1597

Portrait of an Enslaved Woman, Anibale Caracci 1580s You might not think it judging from period dramas and popular history books, but there has been a black community in Britain since long before the 20th century and the arrival of the Windrush.

Black British history before the 20th century

The presence of Romanmedieval, TudorGeorgian, and Victorian people of African descent in Britain and Europe is slowly becoming better known, thanks to the work of Onyeka Nubia, David Olusoga, and many others. But many popular representations of London's past are effectively whitewashed.

It can be tricky to find the voices and experiences of black people in the archives, especially if your search is restricted to one area, and if you are particularly seeking women's stories.

However sources like parish records can offer us tantalising glimpses. For example, one woman's story is hinted at in the record of her baptism at St Botolph's Church in Aldgate.

'Mary Fillis of Morisco, being a black more'

Described as a "black more" of "Morisco", Mary Fillis was most likely dark-skinned and probably lived in Spain before she came to England. She was almost certainly Muslim before her conversion.

She was of late servant with one M(ist)res Barker in Marke Lane, a widdowe. She said hir father’s name was Fillis of Morisco, a black more, being both a basket maker and also a shovell maker.

This Marie Fillis being abowt the age of xx yeares and having beene in England for the space of xiii or xiiii yeares, and as yt was not Christned, and now being becom servant with one Millicent Porter a seamster dwelling in the libertie of Eastsmithfield, and now taking some howld of faith in Jesus Chryst, was desyrous to becom a Christian.

Wherefore shee made sute by hir said m(ist)res to have some conference with the Curat of this the parish of St Buttolphees without Aldgate London...

So that I do say that the said Mary Fillis a black more at this tyme dwelling with Millicent Porter a seamester of the libertie of Eastsmithfield was christned on Fryday being the third day of June, in the presents of the undenamed [sic] and dyvers others, viz William Benton, Margerie Barrick, Millicent Porter, M(ist)res Magdalyne Threlkeld, Mathew Pearson, M(ist)res Young, Gertrud Ponder, Thomas Harrydance, being the parish Clarke, Thomas Ponder, being the sexton, and dyvers others.

Although we can only glimpse a few details about Mary's life here we can see that she was living as a free woman - a servant, not a slave.

We can also see evidence of her agency, she is not a passive character in this story. Mary makes the decision to convert, and she asks her mistress to arrange an appointment with the curate of St Botolph's. The list of witnesses also suggests that Mary has friends and supporters in the church congregation.

Unofficial histories

One of the challenges of recording women's histories from centuries ago is that many women's lives were lived in the margins of official documents. In many eras women have been less likely than men to own property, to hold office, to conduct financial transactions, or to pursue a legal case. This is especially true in the case of women of colour, particularly in poor areas like east London.

Because of this women tend to appear less frequently in the financial or legal records which are a vital source of information for historians. Where women are present they frequently appear as property, or as criminals, giving us a distorted picture.

Black women have been part of London's history for centuries. It's up to us to stitch together what we have, and work to uncover more information where we can to fill in the gaps.

Help us create an exhibition about women in Hackney

Illustration of a group of women protesting with placardsHackney Museum and the East End Women's Museum are joining forces to tell the story of women who have led political and social change in Hackney.

Why now?

2018 will be 100 years since some British women first won the right to vote.

To mark the occasion an exhibition exploring how women in Hackney have changed society both with and without the vote will be on display in Hackney Museum.

Join the community forum

We are holding an event for anyone who is interested to share their ideas and tell us what they would like to see in the exhibition.

You can also find out about joining the team of volunteers to create the exhibition, helping to uncover hidden stories by exploring the borough’s rich archives.

The community forum will be held at Hackney Museum, 1 Reading Ln, London E8 1GQ on Thursday 21 July 6 – 7.30pm, no booking required. Join the Facebook event.

Volunteer for the exhibition team

There are lots of ways to get involved, and no prior experience is needed – just enthusiasm!

There are some key roles we'd like to fill. Take a look at the role descriptions below to find out if one might suit you:

 

Nellie Cressall: Suffragette, rebel councillor, and Mayor of Poplar

Nellie Cressall in 1915, photo by Norah Smyth Nellie Cressall was born in Stepney in 1882, and worked in a Whitechapel laundry from her teens. She married George Joseph, and together they had six children.

In 1907 Nellie joined the Independent Labour Party, and remained active in the Party all her life.

Suffragette and Rates Rebel

After meeting Sylvia Pankhurst in 1912 Nellie joined the east London suffragettes, saying:

I had been thinking for some time of the unequal rights of men and women. I could not agree that men should be the sole parent, that a mother could not even say whether her child should be vaccinated or not – or that women should receive half pay and many other things as well. I thought that here is something I can dedicate myself to to help in some way to put things right.

Like many of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes Nellie was a pacifist and opposed the First World War. And like her fellow suffragettes Minnie Lansbury, Julia Scurr, and Jennie Mackay Nellie was one of the Poplar Rates Rebels of 1921.

Mayor and Labour Party activist

After the Poplar rebellion Nellie Cressall continued her work as a Labour Party activist, becoming Mayor of Poplar in 1943.

In 1951, when Nellie was 69 years old (with 26 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren!) she delivered a speech at the annual Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, defending the great strides in living conditions which Labour had brought about since the First World War:

Years ago after the First World War many, many people in my constituency sat in the dark because they had not got a penny to put in the gas. Today what do I find? People come to me creating about the heavy electricity bills they have to pay!... I have young people coming worrying me for houses.... We have got some houses where six families lived once upon a time.... Whereas in the old days people would get married, as I did, and be contented in two nice little rooms, today our young people want a home of their own.

Her speech “roused the audience to prolonged applause and cheering” and drew praise from Aneurin Bevan, who said her speech was the finest at the conference.

Sources

Jessie Payne: Suffragette

Jessie Payne in 1914, photo by Norah Smyth
Jessie Payne in 1914, photo by Norah Smyth

Jessie Payne and her husband Jim cared for Sylvia Pankhurst at their home at 28 Ford Road when she was recovering from being force fed in prison.

Like many east London families the Paynes lived and worked in their two rooms, making shoes and boots. [Update: see comments below]

The Paynes had a daughter with a learning disability, but she had died when she was young. Sylvia described the couple as “the kindest of kind people”.

“We come from the East End and we have the voice of the people”

Jessie Payne was one of the members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes who met Prime Minister Asquith in 1914. She told him about her daughter and the unequal rights of male and female parents:

Once when my girl was taken bad she went into the Poplar Workhouse, because I thought I was compelled to let her go.

When I got there the next morning they had placed her in a padded room, and I asked the doctor why she was there. He told me I had no voice, I was not to ask why or wherefore, only the father had the right…

If my girl had not had a good father to look after her, the same as her mother, I could not have got her out of the workhouse… I think we ought to have a voice in the different laws for women...

We come from the East End and we have the voice of the people, they want us to ask you to give the vote for every woman over 21.

Jessie Payne also played an important role in the suffragettes' war relief work, launching the drive to distribute milk to families with starving infants.

Sources

  • The Home Front, Sylvia Pankhurst
  • The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Voices from History: East London Suffragettes, Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor
  • Letters of Gold, Rosemary Taylor

Julia Scurr: Socialist, suffragette, and Poplar Rates Rebel

Julia ScurrJulia O'Sullivan was born in Limehouse in 1873 to Irish parents. In 1899 she married local Social Democratic Federation activist John Scurr. Sharing the same radical politics and a determination to improve the lives of working people in the East End, they made a formidable partnership.

Women march to Westminster

In July 1905 Julia worked with other socialist activists Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and Dora Montefiore to organise a march of 1,000 women from the East End to Westminster to lobby for jobs and welfare for the unemployed.

Poplar Board of Guardians

In 1907 Julia was elected to the Poplar Board of Guardians, and would remain a Guardian until she died. In June 1912 she presented a report criticising the lack of Day Rooms and recreational space at The Bow Infirmary (later St Clement's Hospital), stating that the residents had no choice but to stand around in unheated corridors. One man was refused discharge because he had no clothes. Julia reminded the governors that it was an infirmary, not a place of detention. Her male colleagues dismissed the report as being exaggerated.

Strikes and suffragettes

Julia became well known and respected throughout east London after organising food for the children of strikers during the 1912 dock strike. She also worked to improve the rights of the working class Irish community and became heavily involved with the women's suffrage movement and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). She was one of the women elected to the deputation who met Prime Minister Asquith in June 1914, and opened the meeting with a speech:

We women of East London are much concerned in regard to social conditions in our district. There is very great poverty around us and the rents are terribly high. There is much unemployment amongst the men and a very large proportion of the women are the principal breadwinners, although they are both the childbearers and the keepers of the home. We want to say to you that, in our view, a woman attending to her home is as much a wage earner as if she went out into a factory.

Poplar Rates Rebellion

On 1 September 1921 Julia was one of the 38 Poplar councillors and aldermen who were arrested and imprisoned for refusing to pass on unfair city rates to their constituents. Following widespread support for their act from the people of Poplar, the press, and other local councils London County Council backed down and the Poplar Rates Rebels were freed.

Last years

Julia Scurr was elected to the London County Council herself in 1925, but died in 1927 aged just 57. She was admitted to Bromley Infirmary in the last years of her life due to her deteriorating health. Her fellow councillor George Lansbury believed that the treatment she received while in prison was directly responsible for her early death.

Sources

Speak Out London exhibition at London Metropolitan Archives

SPK OUT London: Diversity City logo and image of two women looking at materials Speak Out London is an exhibition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer histories at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Excitingly, it also the beginning of a permanent collection recording LGBTQ+ histories in London.

Voices of LGBTQ+ Londoners

The free exhibition is on until 24 August, and reveals stories of LGBTQ+ history from 1395 to the present day, from court records to GLC events; medical studies to protest and acts of parliament to campaigns.

If that sounds a little dry, don't be put off. The historical documents and materials are fascinating, but the beating heart of the exhibition is a collection of oral histories from LGBTQ+ Londoners telling their stories. There's a listening station in the exhibition, but the recordings are also available in the LMA Mediatheque.

Even though the exhibition is compact, it has the capacity to shock and inspire, from callous 'scientific' documents to vivid community newsletters. Oscar Wilde is present, of course, but so are lesser known figures like Eleanor (John) Rykener and Charlotte Charke.

Speak Out wall of contested terms: a white brick wall with 'gay', 'bisexual', and 'lesbian' written in large graffiti style letters

The focus is firmly on collective action, community, and the everyday experiences of individuals rather than a list of important events or famous figures. It's an approach which invites the visitor in to the story, and there are opportunities to create or annotate the exhibition content.

There's a glorious 'wall of contested definitions', then a map of London with magnets for attaching flyers, posters, or notes about locations. The East End is looking a bit sparse by the way - when you visit, why not help fill it in!

Speak Out map of London with notes and flyers affixed

Visit the exhibition

London Metropolitan Archives 40 Northampton Road London EC1R 0HB

Opening times:

  • Monday 9.30am-4.45pm
  • Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 9.30am-7.30pm (Please note LMA will be closing at 4.30pm on Thursday 24 June for a special event)
  • Friday – access to exhibition only: 11am – 3pm
  • LMA is also open on Saturdays 9 July and 13 August, 9.30am-4.45pm

Don't miss the great events running to coincide with the exhibition, including the Without Borders conference 22-24 June 2016.

Poster reading "Something missing?... We welcome contributions and deposits... Contact us via 02083323851 ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk"