Coffee and a comptometer

Comptometer at Lakehouse Tea Room, Leytonstone I was working in my local cafe this morning when four friends came in from a walk on Wanstead Flats.

Lakehouse Tea Room has a little pile of local history books on the counter and vintage decor which includes a Singer sewing machine, an old typewriter, and a mysterious machine called a comptometer (although I didn't notice it at first).

Do you remember...?

The ladies took the books to their table and swapped memories about growing up and starting families in Walthamstow, Stratford, Leyton, and Leytonstone. I tried not to eavesdrop and completely failed, I hope they will forgive me.

They talked about Bearman's department store and the old Dominion cinema, about cycling through Walthamstow Village, about all the old pubs that have disappeared (The Plough, The Green Man, The Chestnut Tree, Turpin's Inn), the lost lido at Hollow Ponds.

They talked about Alfred Hitchcock (a son of Leytonstone, although he didn't stick around) and William Morris (born in Walthamstow, though his family moved to Woodford when he was six), and resolved to visit Vestry House Museum.

Why I love local history

Their fascinating conversation represented so many of the things I love about local history. It's so often a joyful, social affair. I especially enjoy the levelling effect of hearing people share stories from their own lives in the same breath as they talk about icons like Hitchcock and Morris.

There's a confidence, a sense of ownership, and a real delight in sharing it. I remember sitting in the cafe at Bow Idea Store shortly after I moved to the area, and an elderly lady just pulled up her chair and started to tell me all about her memories of the Krays, mixed in with stories about her friends and neighbours.*

Women's history is everywhere

ComptGal2As they were leaving the cafe this morning one of the ladies pointed to the comptometer and said she remembered using one for ledger work in accounts.

"There was a whole office full of us, all working on these machines. You weren't allowed to talk to the girl next to you, and you had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom." She laughed and said, "Those were the days!"

It turns out that most comptometer operators - like early computer programmers - were women. I looked again at the comptometer, the typewriter, and the sewing machine. All these objects have a story to tell about women and work, and it's the words of the people who used them that bring those stories to life.

*Fact: everyone who spent more than a week in East London in the 60s knew the Krays.