Family

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

By Charlotte Elliston

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

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

Childcare options in the early 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Need For Day Nurseries

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

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

 Children being evacuated by train.  ©  RAF Museum

Children being evacuated by train. © RAF Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham

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

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

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

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

 Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham after WWII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

Additional sources are as follows:

http://www.barkingdagenhamlocalhistory.co.uk/barking-eastbury-house

https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-phoney-start-to-the-second-world-war

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/

http://www.barkinghistory.co.uk

https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/

http://www.striking-women.org/module/women-and-work/post-world-war-ii-1946-1970

 

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

 

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!

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

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

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.

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

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

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

East End Women: The Real Story

  East End Women: The Real Story Logo

Hopefully you've already heard about East End Women: The Real Story, a pop up women's history museum which will be on display at St George’s-in-the-East church, just round the corner from the Ripper Museum.

The exhibition - and the brilliant billboard right opposite the Ripper Museum - was funded in large part by donations to 38 Degrees, who have been supporting this work. If you haven't already please sign the petition against the Ripper Museum.

There's a bit of confusion about the relationship between our two (painfully awesome) projects, so we've tried to answer a few questions here.

Are the East End Women's Museum and this pop up museum separate projects? 

The East End Women: The Real Story pop up museum / exhibition and the East End Women's Museum are independent, linked projects working towards a common goal: sharing the stories and voices of women from east London's rich history.

The East End Women's Museum is part of the East End Women's Collective - a group of volunteers who have put this brilliant exhibition together. You can find out more about the exhibition on the East End Women: The Real Story website.

So wait - what is your project about?

The East End Women's Museum is a long term project to create a permanent museum of women's history in east London. Right now we're doing things like securing funding, establishing ourselves as an organisation, recruiting a steering group, and planning some community consultation events (fun ones, we promise).

We're not going to be able to open our doors any time soon, so we're thrilled that there's an exhibition open right now for people to visit, and we hope to build on what the East End Women's Collective have achieved.

That sounds good. How can I get involved?

Thank you! While we get ourselves set up the best thing to do is to join our email list. That way you'll get monthly(ish) updates about our project, plus links to women's history events and exhibitions from our friends and partners, and be the first to know about meetings, volunteering opportunities, and general pleas for help!

When can I visit East End Women: The Real Story?

The exhibition is on display at St George-in-the-East Church, E1 0BH 26 May – 9 July

Mon – Thurs 9.30am – 8.30pm Fri & Sat 10am – 5pm Sun 12.30pm – 5pm

Unfortunately the church is not wheelchair accessible.

Are there any events coming up connected to the exhibition?

Yes! The first one is a Family Fun Day on Saturday 28 May, 12-4pm. Come and see the exhibition, plus a talk by children’s author Alan Gibbons, history walk by David Rosenberg, craft activities, face painting, boxing display by Girls Who Fight, as well as games, books, tea and cake. See the Facebook event for more details.