London history

Edith Cavell: Nursing in London and Belgium

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

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

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

Early life

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

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

Training in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Pancras and the Shoreditch Infirmaries

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

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

Innovating nursing in Belgium

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

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

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

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

Death and commemorations

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

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

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

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

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

Her legacy

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

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

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

Thank you Eleonora Sammartino for contributing this article!

Sources

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

Media

Footnotes

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

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

3 Ibid.

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

5 London Royal Hospital Museum

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

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 London Royal Hospital Museum

10 Ibid.

11 Butcher, 79.

12 Souhami.

13 Butcher, 80.

14 Ibid., 81.

15 Souhami.

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

17 As quoted in Butcher, 86.

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

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

20 Ibid.

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

22 Ibid.

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

Phillis Wheatley: the first published black woman poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also wrote that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl

Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword
Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword

Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age, immortalised in not one but two plays: The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611.

A "boisterous and masculine spirit"

Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, and in The Newgate Calendar, which describes the "boisterous and masculine spirit" which appeared in her childhood:

She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.

Crime and punishment

As she grew up, Mary got into more and more trouble. At 16 she was charged with stealing two shillings. Her uncle tried to send her to America for a fresh start but she jumped overboard and swam ashore before the ship sailed.

Mary got her name, Moll Cutpurse, by stealing purses in the area around St Paul's cathedral. An accomplice would distract the target while Mary cut the strings of their purse, detaching it from their belt.

She was in and out of prison and was burnt on the hand four times, a common punishment for thieves. She also acted as a fence for stolen goods. One of her other roles was as a pimp and go-between, finding young women to be mistresses for men and men to be lovers for married women.

"Indecent and manly apparel"

Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey
Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey

She became a recognisable figure around town, drinking in taverns with men, smoking a long clay pipe, and wearing men's clothing: breeches and a doublet.

According to The Newgate Calendar: "This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off... She was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life."

She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, singing songs and playing the lute.

In her autobiography she records a court case in which:

some promoting operator set on by an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel

As punishment she was sentenced to stand at St Paul's Cross wearing a white sheet during the Sunday morning sermon. However Mary gleefully points out that as she was not ashamed or repentant the punishment was pointless:

They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood.

"Thou shame of women"

Mary's friend the showman William Banks once bet her £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. She accepted the bet, and even bought a trumpet and a banner to go along with.

Riding on Banks' famous horse Marocco, Mary proceeded "undiscovered", and amused herself in imagining she was "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso", until she reached Bishopsgate and faced an unpleasant reminder of the danger she faced:

where passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down'.

I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure...

So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.

"She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her"

At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:

Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet.

She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:

For no communion she had, Nor sorted with the good or bad; That when the world shall be calcin'd, And the mixd' mass of human kind Shall sep'rate by that melting fire, She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.

Sources

Miss Muff's molly house in Whitechapel

A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.
A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.

One of the challenges of uncovering transgender histories is that even where we find stories which hint at trans identities, we can't go back and ask the individuals in question how they would describe themselves.

Even if we could, concepts of gender identity constantly shift and change throughout history, and the question would probably make very little sense to someone who lived centuries before us.

However, the hints we find show us that in the past, just like today, gender was not a simple binary.

Molly houses

In 18th century London a 'molly house' was a coffeehouse, inn, or tavern at which men could meet in secret to socialise and have sex. 'Molly' or 'moll' was a slang term for a gay man, and for a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

Although at this time in England sex between men was punishable by death, molly houses were part of a thriving gay subculture:

The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

One of the main molly districts was on the east of the City, around Moorfields in Shoreditch. What is now the south side of Finsbury Square was a cruising area known as 'Sodomites' Walk'.

Cross dressing

Molly houses are a site where gay histories and trans histories intermingle. It was common for men at the molly house to wear women's clothes and to speak and act in typically 'feminine' ways. Most had alternative names such as Plump Nelly, Primrose Mary, Aunt May, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England, and the Duchess of Camomile.

One very famous molly called Princess Seraphina wore her feminine identity beyond these secret meeting places and into her public life. In 1732 she brought a case against a man for stealing her clothes. Her neighbour Mary Poplet described her in her testimony:

I have known her Highness a pretty while... I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation (salivation was a mercurial cure for syphilis); but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull's Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Raids on molly houses

Much of what we know about mollies comes from court proceedings following raids on molly houses, the most well known of which was the raid on Mother Clap's molly house in 1726, in Holborn. (Incidentally, Mother Clap was a real woman called Margaret Clap.) After the raid several people were tried and three men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of 'sodomy'.

One of the best documented examples from east London is a raid on a molly house in Whitechapel.

"Nine male ladies" arrested

The molly house was owned by Miss Muff - also known as Jonathan Muff - and it stood in Black Lion Yard. The yard no longer exists, but Black Lion House now stands on the site at 45 Whitechapel Road.

On 5 October 1728 The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer includes a news item about the raid:

On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy.

Of the nine arrested we know that two were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one - whose name was given as Thomas Mitchell - attempted to end his life in prison:

he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder; but by the immediate Help of some eminent Surgeons he was preserv’d, tho’ at the Point of Death thro’ the great Effusion of Blood.

Glimpsed histories

We can never know at this distance how individuals would define or describe their identities, especially when so much LGBTQ+ history is uncovered through documents produced by a hostile state and media: court records, medical diagnoses, and newspaper reports. What is clear is that both homophobia and transmisogyny have long roots.

It's also clear that throughout history many, many individuals have resisted those forces, sometimes risking everything to be true to themselves. It's up to us to try and tell their story when we find it, even if all we have are hints and glimpses.

Sources

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

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

Who should apply

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

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

What's involved

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

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

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

How to apply

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

Janine Booth on the Poplar Rates Rebellion

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

East End Women's Museum Event: Janine Booth.

Find out more

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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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.

 

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.

Milly Witkop: Anarchist, feminist, and union activist

Picture of Milly WitkopMilly Witkop (1877-1955), was a Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant and the life partner of Rudolf Rocker, lived in Dunstan Houses, Stepney Green, London E1. In 1897, Milly and Rudolf were refused entry into the United States because they weren't married. Milly told the officials who accused them off advocating free love: "Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution."

Milly worked side-by-side with Rudolf building the anarchist and trade union movements amongst Jewish immigrants in the east end. They co-editing Arbeyter Fraynd and Germinal. After Rudolf was interned in 1914 as an enemy alien, Milly continued anti-war activism until she was arrested in 1916.

When released in 1918, she joined Rudolf in the Netherlands (where he'd been deported). They moved to Germany after the war and tried to build the FAUD anarcho-syndicalist union.

Milly was one of the founders of the Berlin Women's Union in 1920 and was involved in building the national Syndicalist Women's Union (SFB). They fled in 1933 and moved to the US where they continued their activism.

Thank you to Donnacha DeLong for contributing this story.

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

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"