‘Feminist History in the East End’ – Reclaiming Our Past

This post was written by Leila Kassir, the Research Librarian for British, USA and Commonwealth Literatures in Senate House Library.

Nestling in the Senate House Library special collections, as part of the Ron Heisler collection, is a pamphlet entitled ‘Feminist History in the East End: a Walk’. This 1979 pamphlet was researched by Clare Manifold using the resources of, amongst others, the Fawcett Library, Tower Hamlets Library’s local history collection and the long-gone feminist bookshop Sisterwrite, to create a route for a sponsored walk, to raise money for Rights of Women. The walk encompasses circa 50 points of late 19th/early 20th century women’s history on an 8 mile route around London’s East End, starting and ending at the Crown Gate East in Victoria Park. The feminist magazine ‘Spare Rib’ printed a feature on the walk in the October 1979 issue, no. 87, which can be viewed free online and is worth reading in conjunction with the original pamphlet as it gives a good sense of the walk on the day, 29th July 1979, when 60 women and a dog named Dalston set off to remember feminist actions of the past.

Preparing the walk

Since discovering this pamphlet in January this year I have been considering re-walking the steps it lays out to determine what, if anything, still exists and as an act of commemoration for the women discussed on the 29 densely packed and researched pages. So it was that on Saturday August 26th 2017 I set out with two friends, Ruth and Mary, with photographs of the pamphlet pages, highlighted London A-Z print outs, and spools of thread to tie at the sites mentioned en route, to step not only the streets of Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx, but also those of Clare Manifold and the 60 women from 38 years previously.

We met at 11am at Crown Gate East, as did the women in 1979, but being somewhat shy types decided to forgo the performance art they began with. Instead, we tied our first thread and read aloud the first two pages of the pamphlet which related the stories of suffragettes who had spoken, protested and been arrested in or around the park.

We then proceeded to attempt the entire route. All the roads listed in the pamphlet still exist, though not all the buildings, and we tried to ensure we stopped at each of Clare’s original points. We felt quite thrilled as we set off, wondering whether anybody had walked this particular route, with this specific aim, since July 1979. We wanted to do justice to Clare’s research and I am happy to report that we did make it to the end, albeit 8 hours later and with a couple of food stops. This blog post is not a step-by-step description of our attempt at the route, as there is nothing better than reading the pamphlet for that, but instead it is a record of some thoughts and impressions from the day.

When undertaking any walk of this kind, particularly in a city such as London which has undergone and still undergoes such change, there is a mix of searching for obvious physical traces of the past with the more mystical sense of walking well-trodden paths. This walk was no exception; much of the original pamphlet considers sites of historical activity in a general way – roads are discussed where crèches were founded, where women took refuge, or where they worked under radically new conditions – but it is clear from the style of writing that at these points the sites themselves no longer existed, even in the late 1970s. In these instances, we did as the women in 1979 did, and stood on the ground, read the stories, and hoped that in some way our act of remembering was enough to reawaken ghosts.

Door in Coburn Road

There were also numerous instances where the sites were still very much alive and working in 1979 but have disappeared in the intervening years. A couple such sites were locations of female employment: a bag manufactures once in Bow Common Lane and a Fancy Goods factory in nearby Coburn Road, both of which were still employing women, under what conditions it is not clear, in 1979. Neither of these buildings exist today, both replaced by new build housing, of the social or private rented kind it was hard to tell. Near the site of the former Fancy Goods factory was a lone door, severed from its original building: perhaps this was part of the old site of manufacture or maybe it is unrelated and linked to the nearby railway? Such is the guesswork and need for further investigation involved in walks of this kind.

Development at St Clements Hospital

Unsurprisingly, the predominance of new build housing was one of the day’s recurrent themes. Many of the buildings mentioned in the pamphlet have disappeared during the last four decades, to be replaced by housing blocks. Sometimes these vanishings reflect the changes in the local community, such as the disappearance of the Association for Jewish Youth in Jubilee Street, whilst others have fallen victim to the incessant rise of Capital such as the case of the St Clements Hospital now the site of a Linden development, where some of the one bedroom flats will be sold at half a million pounds.

 

Flower stencil in St Stephen’s Road

We had a couple of frustrating moments en route when our attempts to locate a site proved entirely fruitless. One such was our search for 321 Roman Road where ‘the Workers’ Dreadnought’, the ELFS (East London Federation of Suffragettes) publication, had been produced. Despite much toing and froing, we could not locate any such number so instead tied our thread over the nearby canal bridge. Occasionally, the lack of original site was replaced by a poetic trace, or at least something we read as such especially after a few hours of walking and thinking solely about women’s history, under a rare scorching late August sun. My favourite of these was the red and black rose stencilled on an end terrace in St Stephen’s Road, in the gap where the Lansbury’s house had once been.

The most unsettling example of this change, an early instance of the gentrification of East London, is the Bow Quarter gated community which exists in the former Bryant and May factory, scene of the match girls’ strike of 1888. As we stood taking photographs of the factory tower that still splits the sky line, and reading the plaques on the doorways commemorating Annie Besant and other aspects of the building’s history, a current resident asked us if we would like to go in the gates and have a look around.

View of Bow Quarter

Inside what is now a complex complete with shop and leisure centre, with blocks named after areas of New York, artfully preserved aspects of the building’s origin can still be seen including the engraved BM lettering, signs to the warehouses, and dates carved into the bricks. There is a display on a wall outlining the building’s history, which includes the 1980s/90s development of the complex as the most recent key moment. The complex is pristine, and it is interesting to see these well-preserved historic elements and how they add something (financially, culturally?) to the experience of living in this secluded world, which seems miles away from the nearby Roman Road with its bustling street market and cafes. Nowhere else on the walk had its history as well-preserved as at this gated community, this site of such important feminist labour action, although this preservation is hidden from the eyes of most of the local community.

As we walked we began to consider the differing ways social history is preserved, if it is preserved at all. At a few points, we came across Bow Heritage Trail plaques on houses and other buildings. These little blue and bronze signs were attached to two of my favourite sites on the walk: the home of the former Gunmakers’ Arms pub which was briefly taken over by the ELFS and renamed the Mothers Arms, including a nursery and birth control clinic, and also 45 Norman Grove where a toy factory was founded, run under workers’ control and where women received equal pay. After doing a bit of research later it appears this Heritage Trail was instigated by Bow Neighbourhood in 1990 and incorporated already existent Bow Historic Buildings plaques and generated new ones. Conversely, however, a nearby house at 18 Stepney Green, once a refuge for sex workers, has no such plaque although Clare Manifold mentions a very moving story behind the foundation of the refuge. Who decides what should be commemorated, and how?

At Fern Street Settlement

Perhaps the most sympathetic preservation on the route, and more useful than a plaque, is what has happened at the site of the Fern Street Settlement which was founded in 1907 by Clara Ellen Grant. Clara was the headteacher at the local Devons Road Infant School, where she provided the children with hot meals and clothes, and her home became a settlement. She was known locally as the Bundle Woman of Bow, as she gave to local children Farthing Bundles containing such items as toys, shells and fancy boxes. The Fern Street Settlement still exists, with a mix of handmade and official memorials to Clara Grant affixed to its walls, and still provides services to the community, young and old.

As we walked, we decided to take note of any signs of political street level activity, be it graffiti, community centres, stickers. We saw a fair amount of writing on the wall, and it made us smile to see anti-nationalist stickers in Jubilee Street, former home of the Jubilee Street Anarchist Club and the Arbeiter Fraint, and near to the homes of anarchists Milly and Rose Witkop.

Stickers in Commercial Road

More surprising, however, were the browned stickers we saw in the windows of a derelict building along Commercial Road, espousing the benefits of the GLC (Greater London Council) which was dissolved over 30 years ago in 1986, at the height of Thatcherism. It was not lost on us that the original 1979 walk took place less than 3 months after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister for the first time, and the dissolving of the GLC saw the end of funding for many community groups, including many supporting women. These stickered traces of the fight to save the GLC provided a potent addition to our walk.

Seeing this glimpse of relatively recent history made me somewhat nostalgic and mournful. Of the three on this walk I was the only one who grew up in London and, due to my age, can remember the GLC (we three are aged within three different decades: 20s, 30s and 40s).

Two threads at Crown Gate East, Victoria Park

I also am the only one who lives near the East End of London so it was that as the day drifted towards dusk Ruth and Mary needed to return home and I was left alone for the last few stops on the route. It was here that another rather unfortunate aspect of women’s lives in London came to the fore, as walking alone as a woman in anything other than a determined, I-know-where-I-am-going, manner is rarely a comfortable experience. Alone, and despite walking daily around London and being very much at home here, I became much more aware of my map and hid it in my pocket, relying during these last stages of the walk on my own knowledge of London’s streets, and felt less happy spending significant time at each of the sites. I was determined, however, to see the walk to its end and tie a thread on the remaining points, and am glad I did so as the last hour took in Weavers’ Fields and other sites of the textile trade, but I was relieved when I managed to tie the final thread back again at Crown Gate East just before darkness fell.

I hope that we did justice to all the research that Clare Manifold undertook in the 1970s to produce this walk. Certainly, the pamphlet engendered in me, Ruth and Mary a very special sense of having taken part in a continuing commemoration, and whilst so much has changed in the East End of London there are still many traces and sites reflecting the past activity of women attempting to gain agency in the world around them. What would be wonderful is if someone were able to develop the story, and extend Clare’s original pamphlet to reflect the women’s history of the area from 1979 to date.

As an addendum: it appears that Clare Manifold may have written a second pamphlet, and created other walks. The ‘Spare Rib’ article mentions a Bloomsbury walk and I found on WorldCat details of a pamphlet called the ‘Second ROW Feminist History Walk’ dated 1983. However, I cannot trace either pamphlet – the WorldCat copy, supposedly and astoundingly located in New York Public Library, was – on enquiry – found to be missing. If anybody has information on either of these pamphlets I would love to hear about them.

 

Leila Kassir

Research Librarian: British, USA and Commonwealth Literature

Senate House Library

University of London