Every man and woman who can recall life in Britain during the war has a story to tell, but the brave, vibrant and wickedly funny factory workers of the East End have a rich and never-ending wealth of tales. The many kind and inspiring women who gave up their precious time to help me with research opened my eyes to a side of life that has long since vanished from this country.
The majority of the ladies who used to work as seamstresses in garment factories are now in their late eighties, but as sharp as tacks and fiercely independent.
Nearly every machinist I spoke with began work at fourteen. It was commonplace to finish school on a Friday and find yourself marched to the nearest factory to start work at 8 a.m. sharp on the following Monday, not that a single one bemoaned the abrupt end to her childhood. Indeed, they were proud to hand the precious brown-paper pay packets that they received at the end of each week straight into their mothers’ hands, and thus be able to contribute financially towards their households.
The East End mother was the lynchpin of her family, and her daughters were utterly devoted to her. Girls were pleased to be going out to work, making their way in the world and ‘doing their bit’. Tragically, when war broke out, this phrase took on a whole new meaning.
Many of the women who worked in the then thriving East End rag trade were suddenly no longer stitching exquisite dresses and delicate children’s wear bound for the smartest stores ‘Up West’, but instead found themselves sewing army battle dress, surgical field bandages and, once the fighting began, repairing uniforms peppered with bullet holes.
Much is made of the efforts of munitions workers during the war, but the work of machinists is often overlooked. It must have been hellish repairing uniforms and stitching bandages bound for the battlefields, to say nothing of how it brought the horrors of war into sharp focus. After all, how could a mother not worry about her serving husband, son or brother, when it might well be his uniform she was repairing? But for East End women who fell out of the cradle as machinists and for whom hard work was bred in the bone, they tackled the long hours and gruelling workload with great aplomb and guts. Not that they had much choice even if they did object. The job was classed as ‘essential war work’, and upping and leaving in most cases simply wasn’t an option.
So instead, they stayed seated behind their Singer sewing machines and they sang their hearts out while they sewed.
Singing along to Music While You Work or Workers’ Playtime on a crackly wireless alleviated the boredom and kept up that all-important morale and work momentum.
‘Oh, the factory singalongs were just wonderful!’ recalled one lady. ‘One woman would start humming a tune, the worker next to her would pick it up, and it would travel down the line, until the whole factory floor was belting it out at their top of their lungs. “Show Me The Way To Go Home” and “On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep” were favourites or, if we were feeling sentimental, “Silver Wings In The Moonlight”.’
Some of the younger, more inventive of the women workers also found ways to amuse themselves. Slipping love letters and notes into the pockets of army uniforms or stitching them into the bandages, out of sight of the ferociously strict foreladies who oversaw the running of the factories, was commonplace. A risqué but doubtless thrilling pastime! What serving soldier aching for news from the Home Front wouldn’t have been delighted to find a note in his pocket suggesting that he, ‘Write to me if you’re in the mood and I’ll be in the nude’? It was an imaginative response to the lack of young men on the streets of London, and typified the Cockney factory worker, who had always been used to trading on her wits.
One has to admire the woman who worked out how to fuse her sewing machine by ‘holding the wheel and keeping her foot down on the treadle’ thus craftily earning herself an extra ten-minute break, or the lady who proudly told me that she didn’t regard herself as a proper machinist until she had accidentally impaled her finger on the sewing machine needle three times! Her descriptions of the forelady carefully turning the wheel until the needle was extracted from her thumbnail made me wince, and she said that after she had been deftly bandaged up she was told to get on with her work.
These two women, like every other machinist I spoke with, calmly worked their way through the raids of the Blitz until the bombs got too close for comfort and they were forced to seek shelter. The Luftwaffe weren’t going to stop their sewing machines from humming, if they could help it!
Today, the East End is unrecognizable from its former self, but back then, the streets of Bethnal Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Stepney, Hackney, Aldgate and Whitechapel were teeming with garment factories, all crowded with women working ‘in the rag’ and struggling to make ends meet through piece work. Many of the women I spoke to preferred piece work, where they were paid a set amount per item they produced, as it gave them the chance to earn more money.
The blistering poverty of those times can never be underestimated. London’s East End in the 1930s and 1940s was a compelling and mysterious world, a place of gritty hardship, aching hunger and staunch loyalties, unimaginable to much of today’s pampered society.
The Boundary Estate, built in Bethnal Green, was the world’s first council housing. Strong moral codes of honour governed the cobbled streets and ruled the redoubtable women who lived cheek by jowl in its terraces and tenements. The Welfare State hadn’t been dreamt up and the streets were filled with the poor and hungry. Children walked about with bare feet or wore shoes patched up with cardboard. Strips of newspaper were used in place of toilet roll – or, as one woman told me, ‘Mum just dried my bum with a handful of flour’ – and many ragged children queued for a free breakfast from the East End Mission. The staple diet of many was stale bread dunked in watery Oxo.
Poverty always fell hardest on the mother and many women in Bethnal Green held down three jobs, from charring to assembling matchboxes, working their fingers to the bone from morning to night, somehow managing in the teeth of great odds to raise their children decently and put food in their tummies. It’s little wonder that so many of the machinists that I interviewed were fiercely loyal to their mothers. They had witnessed their mothers’ many sacrifices.
‘My father used to knock my mother about and clout her in front of us kiddies,’ one woman confided in me. ‘She was too scared to leave him. Where would she go? She went without food so me and my brothers and sisters could eat, she worked so hard to keep the family together. I used to call her the Duchess.’
Despite the phenomenal work ethic and efforts of these mothers, two centuries of uncontrolled development and a large poor population lead to chronic overcrowding and by 1931, a census recorded that 18,156 dwellings were housing 27,978 people in Bethnal Green. Unemployment, low wages and overcrowding were the characteristics of a borough that was the backyard of the richest square mile in Britain.
A 1936 pre-war report on the health of the Borough of Bethnal Green, which is now held at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives observed wryly: ‘There is a paradox that in a borough noted as a centre of the boot, shoe and clothing trade, only a reported five per cent of children are well clothed and shod.’
This was a world I needed to attempt to understand in order to write about it with any degree of authenticity. So just how does a mother-of-two who has been lucky enough to lead a comfortable life with all the trappings of modern convenience attempt to understand a world of teeming slums, and to get beyond the nostalgic clichés?
The Bethnal Green Tube disaster was a defining moment in the history of the East End and researching more about this tragedy really did open my eyes to the suffering of the people who lived and worked there during the war. Little is known of one of the biggest civilian disasters to happen during the Second World War, but in less than thirty seconds, 173 people, mainly women and children, were crushed to death on a stairway that led down to the underground shelter.
I went to see the steps that lead down to the Underground at Bethnal Green and on a bright spring day, with streams of commuters descending them, it scarcely seemed credible that so many people perished here in scenes of undiluted horror. But 72 years ago, as a war-wearied Britain fought the evils of Nazi Germany, tragedy unfolded on those steps.
Not a single German bomb was dropped in Bethnal Green that evening and scarcely a broken bone was reported, but in the time it took for the air-raid siren to sound, the narrow corridor was converted into a charnel house as people piled helplessly one on top of another. After the searchlights went on, an anti-aircraft battery in nearby Victoria Park launched a salvo of new rockets and, fearing that Hitler had unleashed a new kind of warfare, the crowd surged forward. A mother carrying a baby tripped on the stairs and, like a pack of cards, the shelterers fell one-by-one.
The scenes were unimaginable on that damp, blacked-out and bleak March night in 1943. Faces bulged in terror, slowly turning lilac as the air was forced from their lungs; protective arms thrown around loved ones squeezed the life out of them. The descriptions I’ve included within the book are harrowing, but they happened.
Reporters tried to bribe children who had witnessed the spine-chilling event to describe what had happened. For a wartime government obsessed with propaganda and keeping up morale, news of this leaking out would have been disastrous. So instead, the shattered survivors put up, shut up and said nothing, condemned to carry their silent torment with them to their graves. No counselling, no acknowledgement of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or compensation that today’s society demands. Their suffering was sealed off like the countless bombsites that peppered the neighbourhood.
It was while reading through a copy of the memorial service held each year in honour of the victims, that I felt compelled to find out more, for there in black and white, was a sobering reminder of precisely how privileged my life truly is. I share a name with one of the victims! Kate Thompson was just one of the women who suffocated to death on those dank, dark steps.
It’s hard to put into words the emotions of seeing your namesake in a grim roll call of death, but it set me thinking and leant a deep poignancy to my research. Just who was the other Kate Thompson and what led her to flee to the so-called sanctuary of the Underground that fateful evening? Did we share more than just a name? From that moment, I knew that whatever it took, I would write this book so that Kate, and all the other people who died that night, would have a voice.
Cursory research did not bode well. Apparently, Kate was down the Black Horse pub in her favourite fur-collared coat when the sirens went off that fateful night. She was also a 63-year-old mother of nine, living in one of Bethnal Green’s roughest areas when she perished in the disaster. It would have been easy to dismiss Kate as a victim battling for survival in the narrow cobbled streets, but to do so would be foolish, because a closer examination into her life revealed some surprising facts.
Consulting a genealogist, whose job it is to trace back through historical records and piece together family history, provided me with a far more illuminating picture of her life than hearsay.
Kate Hammersley was born in September 1880 in Poplar, East London – setting for popular BBC drama Call the Midwife – the impoverished daughter of a cabinet-carver father. At the age of 18, in July 1898, she married a cooper or barrel-maker by the name of William Thompson and moved to Bethnal Green, where she bore him seven sons and two daughters. They resided at Quinn Square in Russia Lane for most of their married life.
Pre-war, Bethnal Green housed some of the worst slums in London and of them, one of the most notorious was Quinn Square, a place where locals say you never went after dark and policemen only dared visit in pairs. Booth’s Poverty Map notebooks, written in 1897, singled out the six-storey buildings containing 246 flats as ‘very rough, very poor, very noisy’. Writing in 1928, the East End Star newsletter was less charitable, describing the dwellings as ‘one of the worst of the human rabbit-warrens in East London, these wretched flats house hundreds of men, women and children under conditions scarcely fit for cattle’.
Some of the flats contained illegal gambling dens and when the police were about, quick-witted residents would whistle off the balconies. ‘There was a lot of whistling in them days,’ one former resident laughingly told me.
The dark tenement block was built around a central square and the mostly two-roomed flats housed families of a density of nearly five times that. One woman I interviewed recalls a mother of twenty-five children looking after them in just two rooms, making Kate’s nine children seem a fairly modest family.
None of the flats had their own water taps or toilets, and tenants shared facilities on the landing between four families. Washhouse facilities were housed on the roof and the women of the square had to drag their laundry up six flights of stairs or down to the local bag wash. According to one local resident, the stench from the toilets was unholy. Perhaps that’s why Russia Lane had its own bathing centre, known as a Personal Cleansing Station, though I’m sure it was referred to by other names. In 1936, records show that 3,831 children attended for infestations of vermin and a further 1,287 were treated for scabies, or as it was otherwise referred to, The Itch. So far, so depressing.
By August 1938, Kate Thompson and many others lived in a squalid, dilapidated hell-hole. Quinn Square was in a serious state of disrepair. Residents reported broken steps, broken handrails on the stairs, lavatory doors with no locks and broken facilities in the washhouse. Inside fared no better, with falling ceilings, damp walls, peeling wallpaper and no cupboards to put food in. Not only that, but the landlords were having a merry time at their expense, charging exorbitant rents for such miserly facilities.
How did the fiercely house-proud and feisty East End women put up with this? The answer is, they didn’t.
According to the electoral register, Kate was registered to vote from as early as 1923, highly surprising for those times. Women had only been given the vote five years earlier, in 1918, and even then, it was only for women over 30 whose husbands were householders.
Perhaps it was this interest in politics that lead Kate to insist on her right to a decent standard of living. Far from being a passive victim, Kate and the other residents of the square issued a call to arms and got ready to show the landlords exactly what they were made of.
The facilities may have been poor, but the community spirit there was strong. All the residents promptly formed a Tenants Association and, supported by a local Member of Parliament and members of the Council, the tenants of the 246 dwellings flatly refused to pay their rents until the rapacious landlords reduced them to more reasonable amounts. They also demanded that necessary repairs to the property be carried out. Their argument was simple. Why pay high rents for broken facilities? Why should they be forced to take their washing elsewhere at added expense? This was in the depression of the 1930s after all, at a time of widespread hardship and great unemployment. The added battle must have felt like a kick in the teeth.
One landlord responded by attempting to evict a tenant, claiming she was in arrears. When the agent, accompanied by bailiffs, arrived on eviction day, the tenants, wielding placards stating ‘Less Rent, More Repair’ barred their way, and the landlord was forced to make a hasty retreat. This was the biggest rent strike ever seen in the East End and it sent the press wild.
Buoyed by their success, the tenants of Quinn Square paraded around Bethnal Green with their placards, held daily meetings and picketed the estate office from morning until night. Showing the kind of stoicism that fared them so well during the Blitz, they refused to be beaten.
Apparently, every time the landlord went into the square – on one occasion even accompanied by a group of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascists, who attempted to break up the tenants meeting by organized hooliganism – a huge crowd of women and children followed them and booed them out of Russia Lane, pelting them with hot potatoes! And so it was that Kate and her neighbours scored a resounding victory for the working-class underdogs of Quinn Square. It would take more than an unscrupulous landlord and some bullyboy fascists to scare them into submission. They may have been housewives in pinnies, but were they made of stern stuff.
The landlords acceded to their demands to lower the rent and carry out repairs, and this case made history, paving the way for success for other Tenants Associations.
Of course, I have no way of knowing whether Kate was the one wielding placards and hot potatoes, but a woman I spoke to who knew her is in no doubt. Gladys, 88, is too young to remember the rent strike, but her memory of Kate as a formidable mother burns bright.
‘Mrs Thompson was best friends with my nan and by God they were tough. They were sturdily built, upright women who always wore black and feathers in their hats. She and my nan stood up for their rights and weren’t scared of any man. I’m surprised she didn’t strangle that landlord when he tried to take liberties with her.’
A year later, war broke out and Kate and the other residents began the second great fight of their lives.
Quinn Square was demolished in the 1960s. The events that took place there perfectly illustrate that you should never underestimate the fighting power of a woman when her home and her family are under threat. Whether it’s 1938 or 2015, it matters not – a mother will fight tooth and nail to protect the roof over her children’s heads.
Reading about the success of the tenants of Quinn Square in Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives filled me with an enormous sense of awe. The other Kate wasn’t afraid to stand up to corrupt landlords, fascists marching on her street or the might of the Luftwaffe. My 1940s namesake was indeed a far stronger, finer lady than I. 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 courage and pluck. What a pity therefore that this indomitable woman had to die in such a pitiful and entirely preventable accident in 1943. To survive all that and then be crushed to death on the steps down the Tube is unutterably sad. Kate’s youngest son Bill was in the army, helping to defuse high explosive bombs in a bomb disposal unit. It was a deeply dangerous occupation, but he survived the war. His mother, a civilian on the home front, did not.
That is why I have paid to sponsor a conical in her name on the memorial to the Tube disaster. Today, an impressive bunch of people are working tirelessly so that the memories of Kate Thompson and all the other men, women and children who lost their lives that day are never forgotten. For years all that marked the disaster was a small faded plaque over the entrance to the Tube station.
Now, thanks to the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, a beautiful and fitting memorial is underway. However, there are insufficient funds to complete the final phase and put a teak stairway on top of it with all the victims’ surnames carved into the wood. The charity will not rest easy until it is completed, and it is testament to the unshakeable power of human love and devotion that it is there at all.
As Sandra Scotting, who lost her grandmother and cousin in the disaster, explains: ‘It is so important we finish the memorial before we lose any more survivors. We must never forget their suffering that dark evening.’
As one local put it: ‘Bethnal Green survived and triumphed through so much because we are a true East End community that has always looked out for one another. We lived, worked, fought and sadly died, side by side.’
It is that very essence of community, heartfelt loyalty, camaraderie and, above all, friendship that I wanted to pay tribute to in Secrets of the Singer Girls. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and researching it.
For more information on the Memorial Trust, please visit www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org.