‘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

Episode 1: The First Leg of the Route

As noted by a contemporary reviewer, the narrator and the redoubtable Captain Lee could not possibly have undertaken the entirety of the walk described in A Sunday Ramble in a single (albeit long) day. They set off from the Marlborough Head in Bishopgate Street, the site of festivities the evening before, at 4am ‘on a fine Summer’s morning’, determined to make their perambulation before even the full light of day is available to illuminate their way. The Marlborough Head appears to have been a real place, built in 1758 and rebuilt in the 1790s, during the run of the editions of A Sunday Ramble. [1] No detail is forthcoming from the narrator as to the nature of the establishment, but given its position on one of the major routes into the City, it was likely a significant institution.

Shortly after leaving the Marlborough Head, the ramblers make their first encounter with the inhabitants of London, which serves to set the tone for the narrative:

The shades of night had just began to retire; and by their retreat discovered here and there a staggering bacchanalian, who having sacrificed too freely to his favourite deity, was, after a night spent in riot and debauchery, repairing to his miserable kennel.

What beauties must the sluggard miss,
Who ‘scapes the morning’s rise;
He looks ev’ry healthy bliss,
That after Phoebus lies.[2]

We had not proceeded far, before we discovered several young persons, very gaily dressed, waiting at the gate of an inn-yard for horses, phaetons, chaises, and other carriages, which appeared to be getting ready with all possible expedition. I could not help expressing my surprize at seeing such a number of people at so early an hour, seemingly on the same errant; (for having passed by those we had first observed, I perceived that the next gate-way was occupied in the same manner;) when my friend informed me, that they were giddy young people who were going on a Sunday excursion to Windsor, Hampton-Court, &c. where they would probably spend much more than the labours of the foregoing week could defray. “Thus,” continued he, “they early contract a desire for gaiety and extravagance, which generally terminates in their destruction. The great part of these you have seen, are journeymen, and some even only apprentices, in genteel businesses; who, having contracted intimacies with milliners and mantua-makers, are, from the particular take of that kind of gentry, obliged to launch into every species of polite extravagance, in order to secure their desirable affections. Hence we frequently see, that when at length they become possessed of the amiable objects, they begin life with such an eclat, that their thoughtless inattention to business soon makes its appearance in the Gazettes, and they sink, unpitied, into obscurity.”

A Sunday Ramble, pp.2-3

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The described route of A Sunday Ramble, the first leg (as depicted on Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827)

As noted elsewhere in this Episode, there is a false sympathy about the way that the unnamed narrator reflects upon his typological subjects, which aims to increase the wry amusement he presumes on the part of his reader. Various other assumptions about the nature of the audience are clearly being made, as well, judging by the quantity and broad range of direct literary references and more subtle allusions made on virtually every page of the text.

Within a single paragraph the ramblers move on, away from the dedicated aspirant classes to a less salubrious group who are on London’s streets to make their living. En route to the Foundling Hospital, the pair

perceived a groupe of wretches, male and female, round a kind of cauldron filled with an infusion of sassafras, well known by the name of saloop, which they seemed to drink with greatest avidity; uttering at intervals such horrid oaths and execrations, blended with obscenity, as sufficiently intitled them to the appellation I have bestowed. As we drew nearer, I found there were five or six persons; of which number, two only appeared to be men, and the rest seemed to be the most abandoned prostitutes. One of the men, as we afterwards found, having drank two or three basons of the liquor, refused paying for them; on which, after some altercation, the saloop-man seized him by the collar, threw him on the pavement, and pommeled him pretty severely: the other, seeing his companion thus used, hell about the man with all the  fury his intoxicated condition would permit; and one of the girls, who it seems was a dulcinea of the saloop-man, with equal good-will, and more ability, about him. Thus a general encounter commenced; the saloop-man laid about his aggressor, his companion about the saloop-man, and the girl about him; during which time, the other girls appeared very busy in separating the combatants; when, I suppose, they took the opportunity of rifling their pockets: for when we interfered, and had so far reconciled them that they agreed to satisfy the man, they found themselves without the power of accomplishing it. The girls has however retreated, as soon as they perceived us; and, as the condition of the men prevented their knowing them again should they even see them, were most probably out of the reach of justice.

A Sunday Ramble, pp.3-4

The fascination with food and drink makes itself known in the earliest passages of the book.

The Foundling Hospital, established in 1741 by Thomas Coram as the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, does not seem to have been the initial destination of the ramblers, as little comment is made about the edifice itself. Instead, tellingly for historians of London’s topography, it was the fields in the vicinity of the Hospital that seem to have been the draw. Captain Lee remarks upon the fact that much of London’s woes – social as well as in terms of its population’s seemingly axiomatic ill health – would be diminished if only everybody took early morning walks in the fields. This is the first, although not the last, incidental reference in the text to a reason for walking other than for leisure.

From the Foundling Hospital the pair make their way to the Whitfield Chapel in the Tottenham Court Road, crossing the fields, quoting Dryden and refusing a number of salacious invitations to visit houses of ill-repute in Kentish Town as they do so. The detail from the Greenwood map of London above, drafted some fifty years after the original publication of the text, illustrates how developed this area had become in the intervening years. The Horwood survey of the 1790s (below) shows the area between the Foundling Hospital and Tottenham Court Road in a form that would have been perhaps more recognisable to the narrator:

Ep1_3b.jpg

Horwood, Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1792-99 [detail]

Traversing these fields would have involved crossing a number of parish boundaries and would have brought the ramblers into close proximity with new and ongoing building developments. Somewhat implausibly given the nature of their adventures even so early in the day, the narrator claims that they ‘rambled about the fields for some time, without meeting with any thing worthy of notice’, until they eventually ended up at the Methodist Chapel established by the late Countess of Huntingdon in Tottenham Court Road  for Mr Whitefield. The walkers are surprised and delighted to discover melodious voices singing in harmony so early in the morning. The visit they make to the service in progress enables the anonymous author to undertake a set-piece conversation between several characters on a number of pressing doctrinal and social issues.

Ep1_3c.jpg

The first leg of the route of A Sunday Ramble, Google Maps

Two hours of walking take the ramblers from their starting point in Bishopgate Street to the Whitfield Chapel in Tottenham Court Road, undertaken at (we must presume) a leisurely pace – at least leisurely enough to stop and talk with at least three different groups. The only topographical descriptions about the areas they pass through occur after they reach the Foundling Hospital, well over two-thirds of the way to the Chapel, so we are given no clue as to the actual route taken from Bishopgate Street. But then, given that we receive no indication that the Hospital or the Chapel was a deliberate destination of the walkers, it is likely that the route itself is largely nominal, and we should be wary of reading anything into it. We should devour what topographical detail we are given – and there’s plenty more in later sections of the text – but we should not draw any conclusions about the spatial aspects, the topology, of the actual walking being described. Throughout A Sunday Ramble places are important because of their associations (the kinds of people that frequent them; the kinds of behaviour contemporaries expect to witness there), but the means of moving between them do not seem to be. The author may describe real places realistically (more on this in a later post), but the locations may as well in many cases at least be entirely unrelated to each other as if they existed in a geographical vacuum.


[1] Survey of London Volume 39: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part I (General History), 1977, pp. 47-66.

[2] This is a quote from H. LeMoine’s, ‘The Morning’, The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Volume LVIII, 1776. LeMoine (1756-1812) was an author and bookseller in London.)