Author Archives: Andie

Our Spring 2018 programme is now available

We have some great talks lined up for the current term, including two excellent guest speakers.  As well as our members talking on diverse topics, our very welcome guest speakers are Richard Albanese (Maritime Heritage Project Manager at Trinity Buoy Wharf) who will be talking about Maritime Heritage at Trinity Buoy Wharf; and Stephanie Ostrich (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network [CITiZAN] Project Officer) who is talking about the work of CITiZAN on the lower Thames.

See full details of our Spring 2018 programme at:

Thames Ironworks.  Source:  Wikipedia.  Photo credited to Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company – Britain at Work – A Pictorial History of Our National Industries. Cassell and Company, 1902. Two warships being constructed at the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, in 1902 or slightly before.


Bataville: Bata Shoes at East Tilbury. By Sheila Dobner

Thomas Bata. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

Tomas Bata. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

Bata shoes was founded by Tomas Bata (1876-1932) in 1894 in Zlin in what was then Moravia- now Czech Republic. There was a long family history of shoemaking enduring 8 generations, or 300 years.  By the 1920s and 30s Zlin had become a modernist factory town, a state of the art “workers utopia” with housing as well as factories. Bata believed that a happy workforce leads to higher productivity. His vision was to create low-cost footwear for the general public. “Everyone has the right to an affordable pair of shoes on their feet”.

British Garden Cities such as Letchworth influenced the grid layout of the town, with its open feel, but the architecture was more in the Bauhaus style, Modernist and Functionalist. It was designed by some of the best architects who had worked with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and predated the renowned Isokon flats and Lubetkin’s Highpoint in London. The 16 storey headquarters 21 Building was then the tallest building in Europe (allegedly!) The Bata shoe store in Prague which dates from the 1920s is described as iconic and is still there.

Tomas Bata visited the US and in 1904 worked on an assembly line there. He visited again in the interwar years. His trips to the U.S. and Ford’s factories inspired him to establish assembly line methods of production in Zlin and worldwide. Factories and Bata towns were established in the US, Canada, India, France, the Netherlands, Brazil etc. However the business was decentralised and allowed for design appropriate to local demand. By the early 30s Bata and Czechoslovakia were the world’s leading footwear exporters. On Tomas’s death in 1932 his half-brother Jan and later his son Thomas took over the now worldwide Bata Shoe Organization. Jan had his office in the HQ 21 building in a giant elevator so he could monitor the whole operation without leaving his desk! The son Thomas is credited with starting the idea of 99 pricing (eg £19.99)… By the start of World War II Zlin was a town of 45,000 inhabitants.

Bata Houses. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

Bata Houses. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

In the 1930’s the threat from Hitler was growing in Czechoslovakia. Bata had already established factories in many parts of the globe and when a local clergyman sent a plea to Bata to come and establish a factory at Tilbury to provide work for local people, badly hit by the Depression, Tomas Bata saw the opportunity for some of his Czech workers to come to Britain. The site was attractive – close to sea ports and London and the rural site offered a better quality of life.  Tomas Bata was killed in a plane crash in July 1932, but the site had been purchased and the project continued according to instructions left by him. In 1933 the first “Bata Houses” were built for the workers at Tilbury.

The cubic, modernist house or “Boxes for shoe people,”  all straight lines, right angles and boxy shapes, were quite unlike the red-brick houses of the London suburbs and took people a while to get used to. The first houses were built on an open plan, but later, bowing to local taste, included a “best front room”. All had bathrooms and electricity, not always to be taken for granted in that area. The houses were generally much appreciated. There was a hostel for single people.

Donald Brun poster for Bata. Source: Alliance Graphique Internationale

Donald Brun poster for Bata, 1951. Source: Alliance Graphique Internationale

In 1939 Jan Tusa (father of John Tusa of the BBC World Service) was sent from Zlin. He was a 30 year old accountant and soon he was to take over at Tilbury.  Tusa’s family, including John who was born in Zlin, soon followed him over.

Second World War contracts helped British Bata to thrive, and 30-40 Czech managers were sent over to train the local English workforce, though the language barrier was sometimes a problem. During the war when many of the men were called up the women took over their jobs. At least 81 employees were killed. After the war Bata in E. Europe, which had been taken over to produce footwear for the Nazi regime, was nationalised by the communists. Bata HQ moved to Toronto, Canada.

The style of management was “very robust” as John Tusa has described it, but effective. Competition between departments was required – weekly league tables were published in the Bata Record, and there was a Christmas quality competition. The company’s modern methods included objective setting, management by performance, brand image and a mission statement. Jan Tusa as MD spent a day a week walking round the factory. Mistakes were not treated kindly. The MD’s response was described as “playing hell”!

One of the remaining Bataville buildings. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

Life at Bataville for the workers was reportedly a cross between a holiday camp and a prison camp! The town was designed to meet all their social needs. There was a theatre, sports facilities (West Ham football club trained on the football field and played the Bataville team once a year!), a hotel, a cinema, a restaurant, grocery and butcher’s shops, a post office and the town’s own newspaper, the Bata Record. In 1963 an Espresso Bar with a coffee machine and a jukebox was added and some well-known pop groups visited. Tom Jones played in the hotel ballroom. A company farm supplied milk, eggs etc and workers were encouraged to volunteer there in their spare time.  There were regular dances, parties, concerts and sports days which everyone was expected to attend. Teamwork and a sense of solidarity were encouraged. Czech music, songs and country dances were much in evidence.  Marching music was played over loud speakers as the workers entered the factory. Gardens must be kept tidy or disciplinary action would be taken. No bad behaviour was tolerated but was not usually a problem as the residents took pride in the company and their town. However to some residents the all-embracing company town was stifling. And if you lost your job you lost your house. At its peak there were 3000 workers at East Tilbury.

So what happened to Bataville? In 1970s conditions for trade changed and manufacturing began to be shifted abroad to places where footwear could be produced more cheaply, such as Malaysia and India. No shoemaking takes place at Zlin either now. Downsizing took place at East Tilbury in the 80s, and closure finally came in 2005. The disadvantages of the “company town” now became evident as unemployment hit and buildings fell into disuse.

The Bata factory today. Photograph by Sheila Dobner

In 1993 the unique quality of the town of Bataville was recognised and it was made a Conservation Area, including a Grade II listed factory building. However the leases of the buildings had been sold off and as people died or moved away the houses came into private hands. Facilities such as the swimming pool closed or changed use. The listed factory building is now owned and used by a storage company. The library became the Bata Heritage Centre, unfortunately burned down by vandals earlier this year so I was not able to visit. (Hopefully to be restored).

Under the Thames Gateway plan (2006) the whole area is earmarked for mass regeneration. Architects Allies and Morrison and the private company Thamesgate have plans to turn East Tilbury and neighbouring Linton into “a sustainable community-based town re-founded on local needs” with 7000 new houses and 5000 new jobs by 2021. We wait and see.


Poplar High Street. By Ian McBrayne

Poplar High Street, running east-west across the top of the Isle of Dogs, is steeped in history.  There has been a road in that position at least since the 15th century.  It used to be a classic high street and a significant through route.  Thanks to a continuing process of development and change, it is now neither.

Poplar High St. Courtesy Google Maps.

The High Street has played a significant part in the history of the port.  It used to be at the heart of one of the dockland communities.  In the 17th century, it was the only land route to Blackwall, then a major shipbuilding and repair centre, and to the central part of the Isle of Dogs.  The East India Company had property on the street, it was greatly affected by the building of the West India Docks and it was home to the Poplar Workhouse, many of whose inmates had port-related trades.  At the turn of the 20th century, the street became home to the London County Council’s School of Marine Engineering.

Gascoyne’s map of the area in 1703 and Rocque’s map of 1746 both show the High Street as the only road in the area which was at all built up at that stage.  Much of the land was owned by the manors of Poplar and Stepney.  It was mostly leased out in quite small parcels and then further sublet to the actual occupiers.

When the East and West India Docks came in the first decade of the 19th century, that was a trigger for a large amount of rebuilding along the street.  This is the stage at which it became a typical high street, with most of the new buildings consisting of a shop with residential accommodation behind and above.  By 1840, the surrounding area had become much more developed, with East India Dock Road built to the north in 1812 and the London and Blackwall Railway newly opened to the south.

Harrow Lane c1920

Harrow Lane, at around 1920. Public Domain.

The street was now at its most prosperous.  The 1881 census shows a well-to-do middle class street, with an average of five people per building and one family in six having at least one live-in servant.  Just to the north, however, there were a number of courtyards squeezed in on back land with far less salubrious housing.  By the start of the 20th century, the street was becoming very shabby and a number of noisome trades were springing up.

Much of the housing was now in poor condition, and in the mid 1930s Poplar Borough Council made a number of slum clearance schemes, replacing old housing with the first of the blocks of council flats which dominate the street today.  More followed in the 1950s, replacing houses damaged in the Blitz.

Here are some examples of the way land usage along the street developed and changed over time.

  • The East India Company site: In the 1620s, the East India Company was persuaded of the need to provide almshouses for retired seamen and their families.  In 1627, they bought and converted a substantial Elizabethan house on the street, with space for a garden behind.  Shortly after, they were persuaded to build a chapel in the garden for local worshippers, to save the journey to St Dunstan’s in Stepney.  It opened in 1654 and is the only church left in London which was built during the Commonwealth.
The Almshouses, at around 1798. Public Domain.

The Almshouses, at around 1798. Public Domain.

In 1801 the Company replaced the original house with a row of purpose-built almshouses along the street and another row at the end of the garden.  In the middle of the street frontage was a house for the chaplain who served both the chapel and the almshouses.  When the Company folded in 1858, the chapel became a parish church, St Matthias, with the chaplain’s house becoming the vicarage, while the almshouses were demolished.  One corner of the site was used to accommodate offices for Poplar Board of Works and the rest was turned into a recreation ground.  The church is now a community centre, the offices are a hotel and the vicarage is private flats.

  • West India Dock housing: Dolphin Lane, one of the ancient lanes leading south from the High Street onto the Isle of Dogs, became a short cul-de-sac when the West India Docks were built.  The Dock Company built 70 cottages there for its workers in 1849 and later added a library and reading room.  The popularity of the latter gradually faded and it closed in 1886.  The building was put to a variety of industrial uses until the whole site was cleared in 1936.  Today, exactly where the cottages stood, are some pleasant rows of slightly cottagey housing, an unusual sight in an area dominated by flats.

A similar story can be told of the other ancient southward lane, Harrow Lane, whose post-dock remains contained some indifferent Victorian housing, as well as houses built by the Dock Company for their police force.  A slum clearance scheme in the 1930s made way for two elegant blocks of council flats.  On the opposite side of the High Street another 1930s block marks the spot where three of the more unpleasant courtyard developments were cleared.

  • From workhouse to college: Poplar Workhouse occupied a row of houses on the south side of the High Street from 1757, and acquired its own purpose-built premises on the site in 1817.  The premises gradually expanded behind the main frontage throughout the 19th  In 1854, there was accommodation for 601 inmates; this rose to 786 after 1868.

The Workhouse, in around 1950. Public Domain.

In 1894, a public library was opened on the High Street a little to the east of the workhouse, and shortly after the space in between was used by London County Council to set up a marine engineering college.  The workhouse and the library were both badly damaged by bombing in the Blitz.  The workhouse closed, though it was not demolished until 1960.  There were plans to demolish the library as well and replace it with an extension to the college, which was by now a further education college.  In the end, the library building was kept and incorporated into the college.  In 2004, a further college extension was built on much of the workhouse site, so what is now New City College occupies three adjoining buildings in very different styles spanning more than a century.  On another part of the workhouse site the name The Workhouse has been retained for a modern sports and leisure building.

Today the strong residential element in the street remains, together with some of the religious, educational and social features that go with that, but most of the shops have gone.  Today Poplar High Street is nothing more than a typical nondescript modern urban street.  Maybe, though, two recently opened boutique hotels are a sign of gentrification to come.

Robin Hood Gardens. CC BY-SA 2.0. Sourced from Wikipedia.

There is one other indication of what may happen in the future.  On the north side of the street at the eastern end sits Robin Hood Gardens, two long curving blocks of council flats in a starkly modernist style completed in 1972.  These controversial blocks are at least the third wave of housing on the site, and are themselves awaiting demolition.  They will be replaced by the second phase of a massive housing development known as Blackwall Reach; the first phase on the south side of the High Street is already well advanced.  This is the first development which suggests that what we think of as docklands regeneration is reaching the area.  This could be a turning point for the High Street.

For much more detail about the history of the street and its buildings, see Volume XLIII of the Survey of London, available online at .

Pymme’s Brook. By Sue Flockton.

Pymme’s Brook, named after William Pymme, a 14th century landowner, through whose land the brook flowed, rises at Beech Hill lake in Monken Hadley, Barnet and joins the river Lea at Tottenham Marshes. From there the flow is to the Thames. In the western area, most of the Brook flows through open ground, while in the east much is now covered – a hidden river.  In the course of its route, it is joined by several other streams such as Bounds Green Brook, Moselle Brook and Salmons Brook.

Pymme’s Brook at Upper Edmonton. Photograph by Fin Fahey CC BY-SA 2.0. Sourced from Wikipedia.

Prior to the dissolution of the monasteries, much of the land belonged to different religious orders, in particular the Abbey of Saint Albans and the nuns of  Clerkenwell. There are records of the wood from the area being used to build the abbey at St. Albans, and of there being mills at various points along the stream, suggesting it may have been wider than at present.

After the dissolution, much of the land became the possession of Lord Burghley, who already owned a house nearby at Theobalds. He gradually sold or leased much of the land, which led to the  building of many large houses, whose estates encompassed the brook. Most were  built in the Tudor style, but were later rebuilt in the C18. Most of the great estates have now disappeared, but many of the houses remain, though they are no longer used as family homes. In many cases the local councils bought the land and opened public parks.

The first of these reached from the source, was Littlegrove House, in the present East Barnet. Records show that Capabilty Brown worked on the gardens here, though we do not exactly what work he undertook. However, his accounts suggest that it was a substantial amount of work. The house itself has disappeared, though some of the garden walls remain in the gardens of the houses which were built in the area.

Oak Hill House became a theological college. The grounds were bought by the local council which opened them as a public park, keeping the woods which remained. These are now a nature reserve, through which a tributary of the brook flows.

Osidge House came into the possession of the Hadley family (as in Monken Hadley, Hadley Common).  In the 19th century it became the home of Thomas Lipton (of tea fame). On his death, the land was sold to the council, but the house was left to become a home for nurses. It later became a care home and, at present, may be turned into flats.

From Osidge the brook flows to what is now, New Southgate, bordering the cemetery which was built in the 19th century when the burial grounds in central London were closing. For a few years it had its own Necropolis station, with a branch line from the northern railway and a morgue at King’s Cross. However, unlike similar stations such as the one a Brookwood, it was never a great success – probably because it was not a great distance from  the centre.

Arno's Grove

Arno’s Grove. Picture from volume 5 of “A Topographical and Historical Description of London and Middlesex by Messrs Brayley and Brewer Sourced from Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Arno’s Park overlooked the stream, in the area now known as Arnos Grove. It was pulled down in the early 18th century and replaced by a house a little further up the hill from the brook. In the 20th century it was the home of the Walker family of brewers, and seven sons who played cricket for England. Nearby was Minchenden House – called after the nuns (Mynchen) of Clerkenwell. When the Walkers wanted to expand their grounds, they bought the house and pulled it down. The house contained wall paintings by Lanscroon. Arnos house was the first in Southgate to have electricity. Eventually, the property was sold. The area around the brook was bought by the council and opened as a public park. This now has a viaduct carrying the  Piccadilly Line. The rest of the land was sold for development. The house became the offices of the electricity company, and is now a care home called Southgate Beaumont. 

Flowing eastwards, the brook became part of the Broomfield estate – again opened as a public park. Like Arnos house, Broomfield contained Lanscroon paintings. The house was badly damaged by fire in the 1980s and 1990s, though the basic structure remains and is the subject of much debate about a possible restoration. The grounds still remain as a park and contain lakes believed to have been the monastic fishponds. 

Flowing back and forth under the North Circular Road, names around the brook reflect its industrial uses. Evidence suggests that Tile Kiln Lane was in an area of tile and brick making, dating back to Roman times, while Tanners Lane reflects the use of the brook for tanning over many centuries. 

Millfield house – the name suggesting that there was once a mill on the brook here -still stands. After it was no longer a private house, it was sold to the Strand Union Guardians and became a workhouse for orphans. In WW1 it initially housed Belgian refugees, then became an hospital for epileptics. Left empty for many years it was taken over by the council and now houses an arts centre, with a theatre having been built in the grounds. 

Pymmes Park Trail. By Photograph by Northmetpit. Public Domain

Pymmes Park Trail. By Photograph by Northmetpit. Public Domain

Further into Edmonton, the brook flows through Pymme’s Park. After having had a series of owners including Pymme and Burghley, the estate was bought by the council at the beginning of the C20. The grounds became a public park, but the house was bombed in World War II.

Beyond this, the brook is mainly hidden, apart from one or two glimpses in what is now an  industrial area. Shortly before reaching the Lea, it is joined by Salmons Brook. It then flows through Tottenham marshes, where it is joined by the Moselle Brook. It then joins the Lea near Tottenham lock.

There is a Pymme’s Brook trail from the source, but which from Edmonton, follows Salmons Brook to Picketts lock.   

Navigating the Thames. By Sue Littledale

Anyone taking a trip up the Thames today can relax in the knowledge that only the occasional rubbish barge, pleasure craft or river police launch is likely to disturb its calm surface. If you’re lucky you may pass a lovingly restored sailing barge that offers a glimpse into the past of a river that was the hub of the nation’s trade for many centuries. Ever since the Roman period the Thames has provided a national gateway which, at its height in the late eighteenth century, saw nearly four thousand ships a year entering the Pool of London from the Thames Estuary to load and offload their wares. At the same time smaller craft were bringing coal and other essential commodities downriver from Oxford to meet the unrelenting demands of the ever-expanding metropolis.

Teddington lock and weir

Teddington lock and weir

There are in effect two rivers: the 147 mile stretch of the upper Thames from Teddington to Cricklade and the tidal Thames which starts at the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Estuary and ends at Teddington, where the salt water meets the fresh waters flowing downstream. The tidal Thames, at 68 miles, is the shorter section but also the most challenging. However, the upper river also presented its own problems to pre nineteenth century navigators. Before the introduction of the pound locks, skippers of the heavy barges plying their trade from Oxford to London had to negotiate dozens of ‘flash locks’ before they reached Teddington.

‘Flash locks’ were commonly built into weirs where a head of water was needed for powering a mill. The locks allowed boats to pass on a rush of water by opening a gate on one side of the weir and then closing it to retain the head of water without which the mill couldn’t operate. Boats going upstream would wait for the rush of water to subside and then they would be hauled through the opening either by a gang of men, a team of horses or by a winch or capstan: a slow and demanding process for the large barges which, by the eighteenth century, could carry up to two hundred tons.

Congestion was a major problem

Congestion was a major problem

Navigating the lower river presented two very different sorts of challenge: that of natural obstacles – such as the sandbanks, the tides and the weather – and the man-made problem of congestion. Before the sixteenth century river navigation was unregulated. Pilots bringing their vessels up to the Pool of London to discharge their goods were subject to the Laws of Oleron, a code of sea laws whereby any pilot losing a ship in his care was at risk of being hanged.

In Tudor times incidents on the river had become so frequent that a guild of mariners petitioned Henry V111 for a license to set up a fraternity to regulate pilotage. He responded by granting a charter to Trinity House “to improve the art and science of mariners; to examine into the qualifications, and regulate the conduct” of all Thames pilots. They had to be able to negotiate the dangerous estuary channels as well as show an intimate knowledge of London’s waters. The introduction of these regulations was not plain sailing – it took many years before a reasonable amount of authority was gained over Thames pilotage. Even after Samuel Pepys introduced a Spanish system of examination 150 years later many unlicensed pilots ignored the charter and continued to operate, although they could be fined by Trinity House.

Watermen's Hall (1778-80) by William Blackburn

Watermen’s Hall (1778-80) by William Blackburn

Also subject to new rules and regulations in Tudor times were the watermen who ferried passengers across the river. In 1555 The Waterman’s Company was set up by Act of Parliament to formalize their trade, govern tariffs and reduce accidents. An apprentice trained for one year, later increased to five; had to be between the ages of 14 and 20 and to work a minimum of 750 days to qualify. He was bound to a recognised master who was responsible for housing, clothing, feeding and training the boy. In 1700 the lightermen, who worked ‘in the navigation of barges or craft, used or to be used for the carrying of goods, wares or merchandise, without passengers, on all parts of the River Thames……” petitioned to join the Watermen’s Company and were regulated in the same way. Unlike the watermen, whose numbers were dramatically reduced when new bridges were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the lightermen’s numbers grew proportionately to the imports waiting to be offloaded onto the wharves.

Sadly now the ferrymen and lightermen are long gone but all skippers of commercial vessels on the Thames are required to qualify for a Boatmen’s License before they can take a vessel up the river. Training is now done by the Port of London Authority which took over responsibility for all Thames navigation in 2007. River pilots also came under the PLA’s wing at the same time although Trinity House still licenses pilots bringing ships through the estuary as far as Gravesend.

The National Theatre and the South Bank. By Fran Bulwer

The National Theatre via Dezeen

The 20th century history of the establishment of a National Theatre in Britain is largely considered to go back to the 1951 Festival of Britain and the development of the South Bank as a (the?) major cultural hub in London, but calls for a national theatre institution similar to those in other European countries had started in the 19th century. Different moves to get the project off the ground resulted first in the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, but the creation of a company and building in London – in a number of venues before the South Bank – always seemed to be badly timed economically and politically in the early years of the 20th century and did not happen.

National Theatre interior

The interior of the National Theatre via via Dezeen

Although the political go-ahead for the National Theatre was finally given in 1948, during planning and construction of the Festival of Britain, financial constraints meant that it was not until the 1960s that planning got underway and building only started in the early 1970’s. The much-delayed (while a fledgling National Theatre Company used the Old Vic Theatre as their base) and financially over-budget theatre complex finally opened between Spring 1976 and Spring 1977. It is an exceptional cast concrete building designed by the modernist architect Denys Lasdun, working with NT Directors Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, and consists of three strikingly different auditoria, a series of foyers and front-of-house facilities and cascading terraces overlooking the Thames on the South Bank just east of Waterloo Bridge. Technical facilities are state of the art and the site allows plenty of space for workshop and rehearsal studios. It is loved and loathed in equal measure as a Thames-side landmark, but nobody disputes its qualities as a place to stage or see a play.

National Theatre exterior

National Theatre exterior via Dezeen

As part of the South Bank, just east of the Royal Festival Hall, BFI National Film Theatre and the halls and gallery there, the National Theatre plays a vital role in the cultural life of London, presenting over 20 theatre plays a year. Its position is enhanced by the Jubilee Walkway, completed in 1977 and allowing pedestrian access right along the Thames to link the Festival Hall to all the other cultural venues of the South Bank and Bankside up to Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern and the new Bridge Theatre at Tower Bridge.

While it had a difficult political and financial start, the National Theatre celebrated 40 years on the South Bank in 2016 and some recent building modifications mean that it should be there for a good while longer.

Vice and the Vote: Two Campaigning East End Women. By Jill Napier

Tucked away in St George’s Church, Shadwell, is a small exhibition about Women in the East End. Amongst them, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) is well known; Edith Ramsay (1882-1983) is not. Both women came to the East End from comfortable middle class backgrounds, committed themselves to the people there, worked hard to improve difficult conditions and embedded themselves in the community. Through their lives, we can get an understanding of what the East End and Dockland communities were like in the first half of the Twentieth Century, through two World Wars and their aftermaths, and gain an insight particularly into the lives of people there –  most especially women.

Syliva Pankhurst. Source: Wikipedia

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Old Trafford, Manchester. Her father, Dr Richard Marsden Pankhurst, was a progressive lawyer, an advocate of women’s rights and women’s suffrage and a Fabian Socialist. His strong socialist views were to influence Sylvia throughout her life. Her mother, Emmeline, was an active campaigner for women’s suffrage and founded the WPSU with Sylvia’s eldest sister, Christabel, in 1903. It was work for this organisation that sent Sylvia to the East End in 1912.

The East End had a well developed and active interest in the suffrage movement already as well as a proud tradition of active campaigning, protest and support for the Labour cause. Sylvia was a charismatic speaker but she was supported by a network of local women whose names are less well known. Melvina Walker was a docker’s wife and a former ladies maid: Julia Scurr, born in Limehouse, had been elected as a Councillor for Poplar and a Poor Law Guardian. Mrs Savoy was a brushmaker in Bow, Jessie Payne worked with her husband as a bootmaker: Adelaide Knight from Bethnal Green, had been made secretary of the Canning Town WSPU Branch in 1906. Disabled and married to a black seaman, she suffered police brutality and imprisonment for civil disobedience. Like Sylvia and many others she was prepared to sacrifice her liberty, and her health, for The Cause.

Sylvia wa shocked by the conditions and deprivation she saw in the East End:

“Women in sweated and unknown trades came to us telling their hardships :rope-makers, wasre rubber cleaners, biscuit packers…those who made wooden seeds to put in raspberry jam. Occupants of hideously unsavoury tenements asked us to visit and expose them. Hidden dwellings were revealed to us, so much built around them that many of their rooms were dark as night all day……”

Her concern for the East Enders was not shared by her Mother and Sister; Sylvia’s opposition to the War, her high profile campaigning, her loyalty to “her mates” in the East End  and her fight to improve conditions there set her apart. The East London Federation of Suffragettes was formed quite separate and democratic, with a working class base and divorced from the WPSU.

The First World War hit the East End hard. A slump at the outbreak of War saw men unemployed in the Docks and the demand for goods produced in the East End, often made by women who were poorly paid and exploited, very much reduced. Food prices rocketed. Starvation was a reality. The ELFS response was a practical one setting up a cost price restaurant in their headquarters at 400 Old Ford Rd and offering free tickets, discreetly, to those who could not pay for the simple and nutritious meals. Milk Centres were set up in Bow, Canning Town, Poplar and Bromley to help starving infants. The Women’s Dreadnought – the ELFS newspaper – campaigned against exploitaion at work, food price rises, poor pensions and delayed allowances for soldiers’ wives and families.

There was a practical attempt to provide work for women with young children. The Toy Factory at 45 Norman Road, Bow, allowed for flexible working hours with reasonable pay and the prospect of childcare. Its products were sold at Selfridges. Mrs Payne taught bootmaking. A creche was set up with Lady Sybil Smith assissting and later expanded into a disused pub, The Gunmakers Arms. The Mothers Arms, as it became known, included the first ever Montessori School for older children and a medical centre staffed by two doctors and a nurse to deal with mother and child health issues.

Some of these projects were funded by well wishers and activists. Nora Smythe, an artist and sculptor, bankrolled the newspaper and the cost price restaurant. Her photographs of Sylvia and the ELFS activities are a valuable record of the East End at this time and are archived in Amsterdam, though now reproduced. While many of the actual buildings have disappeared, it is still possible to see the Toy Factory (now a private house) and follow the Suffragette story around Bow: Rosemary Taylor’s book “Walks through History, Exploring the East End” (2001) has an excellent trail.


Dame Edith Ramsay M.B.E. Source: Gateway Housing.

Edith Ramsay does not enjoy Sylvia Pankhurst’s high profile. Her papers were archived at Tower Hamlets Record Office, Bancroft Road at her death.  Her friend and fellow Councillor, Bertha Sokoloff, produced a biography  entitled “Edith and Stepney” in 1987. There are few photographs of her and her internet presence is very minimal. Yet Edith embedded herself in the East End community and had a tireless interest in everyone, working from 1920 when she arrived in Whitechapel until her death to improve living conditions, education, employment opportunities, health and welfare and community relations.

Born in Hampstead into a middle class family (her father was a Presbyterian Minister), Edith came to teach at the Old Castle Street Day Continuation School providing extened education for 14- 16 year olds on day release from their employment. Put up in the stark conditions of the Toynbee Settlement tenements, she had one very small room, shared “kitchen” on a landing, a pump in the yard and a shared WC. Baths were taken at the public bath house. Edith shared the lives and concerns of locals but was very aware that, though very basic, her living conditions were much better and more stable than many. This led her to visit and publish reports on hostel accommodation and doss houses in the Whitechapel area. Her reports document poor conditions, the division of families and the hand to mouth existence of the poor. Her particular focus was on women and children forced to live in poor and unstable conditions, thrown out on to the srteets during the day and sharing cramped, crowded and insanitary dormitory conditions at night.

From 1922-5, Edith became the Stepney Children’s Care Organiser with responsibility for organising voluntary helpers dealing with health care, free meals, clothing, milk distribution and child protection. In 1928, she returned to education becoming the Manager of Heckford Street Evening Institute where evening and afternoon classes were organised for mothers, workers and the unemployed. Adult Education was her paid job – it was the background and impetus to her immersion into the community and a life long commitment to improving conditions across the Borough for all.

Edith’s organisational skills and knowledge of the community saw her being made responsible for the evacuation of children, their families and old people in September 1939. She stayed in Stepney throughout the War