An unnerving silence fell over the courtyard as a woman in her late fifties stepped out onto her balcony. Dressed in a starched white apron she cut a formidable figure against the gloom of the Bethnal Green tenement block. In her left hand was a placard; in her right, a scalding hot potato. The turban that sat atop her head cast her face into shadow, but her eyes glittered with a dark defiance. Her name was Kate Thompson and she was ready to go to war.
Her voice pierced the still of the fetid summer afternoon: ‘Less rent, more repairs!’ Using her placard like a baton, she drummed out her anthem, causing a flock of pigeons roosting on the washhouse roof to flap into the skies in alarm. ‘Less rent, more repairs! Less rent, more repairs!’ More voices from the surrounding balconies and courtyard beneath joined the chant and soon the sound of the East End tribe pulsed off the dung-stained cobbles. ‘Let’s run ’em out the tenements!’ Kate bellowed. She lifted an arm as strong as a butcher’s hook and sent the hot potato sailing over the edge of the balcony in a perfect arc. It landed with ruthless accuracy right in the privates of an unsuspecting bailiff, who crashed to his knees on the floor of the courtyard.
Pandemonium broke out as the visiting landlord, Mr Smart, and his bailiffs were assailed from all sides. Ear-splitting howls filled the courtyard as they were set upon by an apron-clad army, pummelling them with their placards and pelting them with stale cakes from Mrs Selby’s grocery shop in the square. The women on the balconies above went wild, showering the men in rotten vegetables and insults. This was an East End sisterhood in action!
The landlord and his bailiffs beat a hasty retreat, followed by a crowd of hissing women and children as Kate offered up a final two-fingered salute from on high. Victory was theirs and the message was clear. Don’t mess with a matriarch!
The battle was the culmination of a two-week rent strike action, instigated by Bob Graves, Secretary of the newly formed Quinn Square Tenants Association, but won by Kate and her female neighbours. Kate’s Bethnal Green address – 83 Quinn Square, Russia Lane – might sound exotic, but by August 1938, it was one of the most congested, densely populated slums in the East End of London. A place so notorious, policemen would go only in pairs. None of the flats had their own water taps or toilets so facilities on the landing were shared between four families.
Washhouses were located on the roof and the women of the Square had to drag their laundry up six flights or take it to the council wash-house at York Hall. The walls crawled with bugs and the damp caused the plasterwork to drop from the bulging ceiling. Not one flat contained a cupboard to put food or clothing in, not that there was much to store in any case.
Outside, the air was ripe; manure, meat and asphalt mixed with sour putrescence from the rubbish chutes. The proud women of the square waged war on dirt, taking it in turns to scrub the communal spaces and toilets daily with Carbolic, but with just one tap between four families, staying clean was a challenge. Perhaps that’s why Russia Lane had its own bathing centre, known as a Personal Cleansing Station, where children would go to be deloused and treated for ‘The Itch’. The buildings would conduct regular smoke-outs to kill bed bugs, and residents would also try to control the spread by blowtorching the window frames and doorposts to burn the bugs which lined the crevices. But the vermin of Russia Lane were invincible and great breeders so the residents fought a losing battle.
The high, soot-stained walls of Quinn Square concealed over 246 flats, built around a central square, housing large families crammed into every available square inch. Despite their ferocious efforts to keep it clean, many lived in a dilapidated tenement. Residents reported broken steps, lavatory doors with no locks and broken facilities in the washhouse. It may have been a slum but to Kate and her nine children, it was home: a place where poverty was tempered by the richness of community life.
Kate was born in September 1880 in Poplar, East London. Queen Victoria was on the throne, and the empire still had muscle. In the East End though, the unlit streets and alleys were narrow and horizons were as low as the smoking chimneypots. Hopes were eroded by brutal poverty, and every day was a bitter fight for survival. Like so many others born into poverty, Kate was respectable; a respect which came not from money or social class, but from conduct and a deeply ingrained pride. Perhaps it was this sense of pride that gave her the will to fight harder than any man. Or maybe it stemmed from a determination to always, at any cost, protect her family for beneath the corseted bosom, beat a heart consumed with familial love.
At the age of 18, Kate married a cooper (barrel-maker) by the name of William Thompson, and moved to Bethnal Green, where she bore him seven sons and two daughters. Kate is believed to have lost one son that I know of. Infant mortality rates were petrifyingly high and there was a heart-breaking saying offered up to a mother when a new baby arrived: ‘Has it come to stay?’
According to the electoral register, Kate was registered to vote from as early as 1923: unusual for those times. Women had been given the vote only five years earlier and even then, it was only for women over 30 whose husbands were householders. Perhaps it was an interest in politics that led her to insist on her right to a decent standard of living, or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, far from being a dormant victim, Kate and over 200 other residents promptly formed a Tenants Association and flatly refused to pay their rents until the rapacious landlord Mr Smart, or Crafty Old Smartie as he was known, reduced them to more reasonable levels and made repairs.
Kate was not a woman who sought out trouble, but if it knocked on her door, she was not one to shy from a fight. So, with an iron will, the withholding of rent and an instinctive understanding of the value of solidarity and community, Kate and her neighbours scored a victory for the working-class underdogs of Quinn Square.
The landlord acceded to their demands to lower the rent and carry out repairs, and the test case for arrears of rent made history, paving the way for success for other Tenants Associations. Kate and her neighbours were not alone in their protest that smouldering summer. In the late 1930s, rent strikes were breaking out all through the East End, in defiance of the notorious ‘slum lords’. After their success, the floodgates were opened and strikes spread to all areas of London, then municipal tenants across the United Kingdom.
Kate’s success in the strikes solidified her role as the matriarch of Quinn Square, a woman now called upon to help birth the babies and lay out the dead, whose advice and counsel were sought out by the younger women of the Square. When World War Two broke out a year later, there was no reaching for the smelling salts; it was just another fight to be endured. Rationing and poverty were nothing new to the women of the Square, who knew how to feed huge families on sixpenny stews. When incendiary bombs landed on the roof during the Blitz, they were calmly extinguished, and Kate did what she did best: brewed a pot of tea and got on with it.
Let us walk by Kate’s side through the rain-lashed and blacked-out streets of Bethnal Green in March 1943. It’s 8.17pm on a dark, wet Wednesday evening, and the air-raid sirens are wailing, but neither Kate, nor any of the hundreds of East Enders seeking shelter at Bethnal Green Underground, are panicking. This is a well-rehearsed routine, performed nightly during the Blitz. Indeed, there is time to down a glass of her favourite Porter malt beer and pull her fur collar around her neck before leaving the Black Horse pub and heading down the Tube, her patched-up boots matching the slap of hundreds of feet against wet concrete. It is busy. Despite having a local resident’s ticket which entitles her to one of the 5,000 bunks, she wonders if she will get a spot to sleep.
Outside the stairway to the Tube, three buses rumble to a halt, delivering more bodies into the sticky darkness. The crowds intensify. Kate feels breath, hot against her neck and the press of bundles of bedding pushed into the small of her back. She feels uneasy. Queer even. A baby cries, its angry wail rising over the air-raid siren. But then, another, less familiar noise screams through the darkness. After three-and-a-half years of war, her ears are tuned to the nuances of aerial bombardment. She can distinguish a Jerry plane from a British one, but this is like no sound she has ever heard before.
A vibration ripples beneath her feet at terrifying speed, leaving her ears ringing. The crowd freezes, fearing some new sinister method of warfare. The baby’s cries stop abruptly. A sickening moment of silence. ‘It’s a bomb!’ shrieks a lone voice. The weight of hundreds of bodies trying to get to safety though the small shelter entrance sucks the breath from her body. Kate is picked clean off her feet and propelled at astonishing speed towards the steps underground.
Helpless, she twists this way and that to free herself, but she is wedged solid and trapped. As she reaches the top of nineteen slippery steps, which lead to the Underground, a dim twenty-five watt bulb casts a flickering light over a hellish image. The woman carrying the crying baby has tripped and is sprawled at the bottom of the steps in a stairwell, frantically trying to shield her baby from the surge of people racing underground. ‘Stop! Go back!’ Kate orders over the roar, but then, she too is falling helplessly, faster, faster into the seething pit of flailing bodies. Before she can get back up, others fall over her. The pile-up causes a domino effect. The crush of people frantically trying to get underground only adds to the chaos. Soon the steps are a writhing mass of men, women and children.
Kate is pinned to the wet concrete floor, waiting to be rescued. At first, it’s the indignity of it all, her hat is dislodged and her stays dig painfully into her flesh, but as the enormous crush grows more suffocating, a more terrible thought dawns on her.
Panic builds and desperate cries for help rend the air. All around her, limbs are tangled into impossible shapes, there are muffled groans, hair chokes her mouth and nostrils. Above her, shoes sail through the air, and every now and again, a pair of hands reaches down to pluck a body from the pit. But there’s no salvation for Kate. Not this time. The bodies above her are too tightly interlaced, five, no, six people deep. A snapping of ribs. Her eyes bulge. A low moan escapes her lips. The woman on top of her who had been clutching her child protectively now squeezes the life from her. The child’s face turns purple as the oxygen slowly leaches from her lungs. Then, silence.
In that moment, Kate knows. In her life she has fought many things: grinding poverty, the Depression, rent strikes, disease, slum lords, corruption, discrimination, the class system, fascism, indiscriminate bombing… This is one fight she will not win. And so we must leave Kate here.
Her death aged 63 on a small, damp stairway in one of World War Two’s biggest civilian disasters was quickly hushed up under The Official Secrets Act by a wartime government desperate to avoid news of the scandal falling in to the enemy’s hands. It was deemed bad for morale. But 173 people – 62 of them children – were crushed to death, most of them within thirty seconds. The sights of that dark night were simply unimaginable. Air Raid Precaution wardens worked alongside housewives and boy scouts to save the injured. Bodies were piled into anything with wheels; ambulances, barrows and carts and were rushed to Bethnal Green Hospital or the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, until news filtered back that there was no more room and the dead were laid out in the corridor. Others were taken to the crypts of nearby churches or laid out on the pavement by the railings of Barmy Park. Authorities moved quickly, washing down the steps, removing the bodies and ordering those that witnessed it to say nothing.
By the time a creeping grey dawn slid through the streets, the only way you could guess at the catastrophic loss of life was by the neat pile of damp shoes stacked by the entrance and a broken pram discarded nearby. Death had visited and its stench hung heavy in the air. There was no enemy bomb in Bethnal Green that day. The Government had been testing new anti-aircraft rockets from a recently installed Z Battery in nearby Victoria Park. They had neglected to tell local residents. The enforced silence just compounded the sense of the survivors’ guilt. Rescuers’ hair turned grey overnight, whole families were torn apart at the loss of all those children.
I lament Kate’s passing too. As I imagine her last gasped breaths for air on that staircase, I feel my chest tighten with a deep sadness. It seems inconceivable that the life of a woman who had the spirit to take on bullies and fight for the repressed could be snuffed out in a hushed-up accident. She was the lynch pin of her community, the heartbeat of her buildings. Not famous, not even a footnote in the history of the Second World War, she is, to all intents and purposes, a forgotten woman in a forgotten tenement. But to me, she is an ordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. A life that should be celebrated not silenced.
It might sound odd that I should grieve for a woman I do not know and whose own life ended a full thirty-one years before I came into the world. But that’s where history is a great connector. For when I saw her name – my name – on a memorial to the dead, I felt an instant, emotional connection to this woman and the quest to find out more about my namesake has led me on journey in which I have uncovered the lives of some remarkable East End women.
I have sat in countless front rooms, community group lounges, church group bingo and coffee mornings – even tea dances – letting cups of tea grow cold as I listened, rapt, to some hair-raising stories. The more I listened and learnt, the more I realised, in some ways, Kate isn’t dead. Her spirit lives on in her sisterhood of East End women.
I discovered the enormous richness and complexity of working-class life, and the plethora of roles women undertook before the formation of the Welfare State institutionalized them. Every street had its own Kate, its own matriarch, who acted as the unofficial leader. The East End, in common with all working-class communities was a fiercely matriarchal society. Women in crossover aprons and button-down boots were the beating heart of the East End. They ruled the cobbles, kept the children fed, birthed the babies of the street when there was no midwife to call out, and conversely laid out the dead, whilst intervening in disputes and acting as money lender and marriage counsellor. The war only added an extra layer of armour to their strength.
‘My mum Flo was only 4ft 8” but I saw her punch a man down three flights of stairs for slapping me when I was a kid,’ recalls 83-year-old Ron from Russia Lane. ‘She lost a sister Roda in the Tube disaster in ‘43’, another sister Maud was decapitated by a lorry in the blackout in ’45 and her son Teddy died of TB in ’46. She was so grief stricken she lost all her hair, but she never gave up the fight. The war brought out the strength in women.’
East Ender Denise – whose own mum was the street matriarch as well as being a mother to seven girls – sums it up like this: ‘Every turning had one, she was the “go to” woman when something needed sorting. If a woman fell behind on her rent, Mum would step in and negotiate with the rent collector to stop her being evicted. If there were ever any dodgy-looking men hanging about, she’d see ’em off. If there was trouble, Mum sorted it. Baby needed delivering or aborting, Mum was the one the local girls turned to. She even got involved if a husband was wanting too much sex from his wife! She was a midwife, nurse, social worker, citizens advice bureau and neighbourhood watch rolled into one.’
It would seem that there was always a tough old bird like Kate on hand!
My 1940s namesake was a far stronger, better lady than I. Indeed, it would appear that a love of a fur collar is about all we have in common. I wish I had one ounce of her strength and common sense. Learning about her grim death on that bleak staircase was a catalyst.
I became obsessed with this magnificent breed of womanhood, and found myself wondering why we don’t have those sorts of figures in our communities any more when, it strikes me, we need them more than ever. I became determined to seek out the last remaining matriarchs, to uncover these shadowy women, chief females, or so-called ‘aunties’ who have been on the fringes of all the major events in history. I have uncovered the forgotten victims, the unsung heroines, and even those who gladly faced prison for the illegal services they performed. All the glorious richness and diversity of East End life is here. From villains and heroes, to crusading nuns and fascist fighters, with an East Enders actress and a Pearly Queen thrown into the mix. There’s even a group of stripping pensioners that make the Calendar Girls look like Mary Whitehouse. A potent cocktail!
Their lives and stories aren’t always pretty; they are hair-raising, shocking, painful, ugly and incongruous with our pampered lives. But they are always thought-provoking. And now, I’d like to share them with you. This book isn’t just a social history; it’s a celebration of the matriarch and an exploration of the ways in which forgotten working-class women have contributed towards the diverse economic, political and cultural shaping of the East End of London. The title is The Stepney Doorstep Society but it could just as well be called the Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bow, Spitalfields, Shoreditch, Aldgate, Hoxton or Wapping Society. Every single East End neighbourhood had its own strong female collective, a group of women whose influence extended beyond their own doorsteps, to the doorstep of any woman in the community who needed their help. I am sure the same is true of any working class area of Great Britain.
I am not a historian, or an academic. Instead, I am a journalist, ghostwriter and novelist. To feel my way into an experience of the past and make sense of it, I seek stories, not statistics. All the women in this book have an extraordinary thirst for life and an infectious energy. They continue to march the streets of their beloved neighbourhood with their Zimmer frames and trolleys, patrolling their turf like an army of proud pensioners. They draw from many different religious backgrounds and cultures – some Jewish, some Catholic, some Church of England and others proudly atheist, refusing to believe God exists after all they have seen – but common elements bind them. They have all worked extremely hard all their lives, they have all outlived their husbands by some considerable time, and all are proud to be born either within the sound of the Bow bells, or in strong working-class communities.
Indeed, Marie, who features in Chapter Two, told me that when her granddaughter bought a lovely house out in Essex, complete with a granny flat for her, she enquired whether it came with a shovel. ‘Why?’ her granddaughter asked, puzzled. ‘Because the only way you’ll get me to live out here is if you hit me over the head with a shovel, then bury me in the garden with it!’ ‘The only way I’m leaving the East End is in a box,’ she sniffed starchily, her steely blue eyes glittering with a fierce determination.
This staunch devotion towards the East End, coupled with a bone-dry wit is another thread, which binds the women I’ve met. When I first met 91-year-old Kathy from Bethnal Green, she took great pride in telling me about East Enders reaction to the Blitz, and how her dad saved Bethnal Green Town Hall after it caught fire when an incendiary bomb dropped on the roof. She also took great delight in handing me something in soft white wool from her knitting bag at the end of the interview. How sweet, I thought. She’s knitted something for my baby son. On closer examination, it turned out to be not a pair of baby booties, but a willy warmer! Kathy and her pal Vera took one look at my shocked face and fell about. ‘We must’ve knitted fifty or more of them over the years, babe,’ said Vera, wiping her eyes with laughter.’ I got the train home with a homemade willy warmer and an expanded mind.
Teaming up with the newly launched https://eastendwomensmuseum.org, we are determined to take these forgotten women by the apron strings and pull them from black-and-white into dazzling multicolour, and in doing so, pay homage to the extraordinary and instinctive way they have dealt with their lot in life. The Museum share the same goal as me. Put simply, to celebrate and amplify the voices of East End women. The women the history books forgot.
This feels like a timely place to mention all the women who I didn’t get to interview. Those East End women who didn’t reach extreme old age, who were damaged, scarred and altered, perhaps not for the better, by the Depression, by the war, by life… for there must be legions. This book is about remembering all real women, dead and alive.
The matriarchs in this book are the last generation of East End women with intimate knowledge of what it takes to survive poverty and wars in the days before the welfare state. There is a yawning gulf between their experience and ours. Born into the first half of the twentieth century, they have something revealing to say, which can inform our lives today. Not only that, but they are important. Their enormous wealth of social history will die with them, as will their unique, no-nonsense insights into how to live a simpler, happier life. They did not expect many pleasures out of life, so those that they did have were all the sweeter, and enjoyed to the full.
‘We didn’t have a lot, but what we did have, we shared,’ is something I’ve heard countless times from the mouths of East End women, along with: ‘We was all one’.
So let’s not waste time. Come and join me on a journey back in time. Let us delve the back streets, prowl the lamp-lit alleys and walk the narrow tenement corridors. Let us catch a glimpse of the matriarch feeding her family by candlelight, rolling up her sleeves to bring new life into the world or silently laying out the dead. Let us sit at her knee and observe her thrift and ingenuity. Let us imbibe her remedies, recipes and resourcefulness. Above all, let us learn from the courageous way she took on the Second World War.