Kate Thompson was a woman who took multi-tasking to a new level. The mother of nine raised all her children in three rooms of a stinking slum in Bethnal Green, East London, yet still she found time to nurse her neighbour’s son through double pneumonia, fight her greedy landlords for a groundbreaking reduction in rent and calmly extinguish incendiary bombs during the Blitz. Clad in a starched apron, this well-upholstered and formidable wartime East End matriarch seemed indestructible. Yet sadly, she was not.
At the age of 63, with the war in its fourth year, Kate was suffocated to death in a night of undiluted hell. On March 3rd 1943 she, along with 172 other men, women and children were crushed to death in the space of 15 minutes after an explosion triggered a deadly stampede down to Bethnal Green Underground shelter. Rescuers’ hair turned grey overnight; whole families were torn apart at the loss of all those children.
I lament Kate’s passing too. It might sound odd that I should grieve for a woman I do not know, 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 a journey in which I have uncovered the lives of some remarkable 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.
Denise from Stepney – whose 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, Mum was the one the local girls turned to. She even got involved if a husband wanted too much sex from his wife! She was a midwife, nurse, social worker, citizens advice bureau and neighbourhood watch rolled into one.’
I had to conceal Denise’s true identity due to the inflammatory nature of her activities. For her mother, whom I call Polly in the book, had a duel identity. Polly was a child-minder by day, abortionist by night.
Over time, Denise gained an understanding of the way her mother helped out girls in trouble. Her chosen method was a crochet hook. She used the kitchen table, laying down a rubber sheet. If the pregnancy had been advanced enough and the foetus intact, Polly would wash it and bury it in the churchyard opposite: ‘In consecrated ground,’ she told her daughter, with a brutal logic.
As her mother’s secret unfurled, Denise looked upon her with new eyes, marvelling at the dichotomy of her mother, the local child-minder, also acting as the local abortionist. Over the years, dozens of girls in the same predicament traipsed through their doors, pale-faced and terrified. With abortion strictly illegal and birth control inadequate, it was a wonder there weren’t more.
During the war out-of-wedlock sex was no longer taboo and imminent danger acted as a powerful aphrodisiac. The arrival of two million American GIs to Britain in 1942 added to the potent mix.
Consequently, the number of illegitimate births in England and Wales jumped from 24,540 in 1939, to 35,164 in 1942. In response, a clandestine subculture existed in working-class communities to help avoid these scandals. Polly was a paradox. A woman of faith, who nurtured new life, but was equally competent in ending it. As her childhood rolled out Denise realised it was also a love of her community that drove Polly. Despite rationing, there was always plenty of food in their cupboard and coal for the fire, thanks to the black market, and Polly made sure no one on the street went without.
Another woman who played a vital role in the wartime economy of her street was Alice Walker.
‘Mum acted as a money lender, helping out women for whom there was more week than money,’ confides her daughter Marie Butwell. Along with the pawnshop and buying items on tick, women like Alice enabled women to pay the rent or tallyman when he came on his rounds.
Sprightly 86-year-old Marie, nicknamed Girl Walker was born in Stepney in 1933. Her mother raised her with five strict codes of conduct. Speak the truth and shame the devil.Work hard. Have a running-away fund. Never borrow money. If you lose your way, never ask a copper or a priest, ask a tramp, and then give him tuppence for a cup of tea.
When she was six, war broke out and she was evacuated to Windsor. Here she was treated like so many other so-called ‘lousy Londoners’ and suffered shocking abuse at the hands of the woman she was billeted with. When Stepney’s chief female Alice got wind of this abuse, she swept in like a hurricane and knocked her daughter’s abuser out with one punch, before marching her daughter back to the East End.
When the Blitz broke out, Girl Walker was buried alive in an Anderson shelter when a railway siding was bombed and fell on top of it, trapping her for three days, before she was finally rescued on New Year’s Day 1941. Despite this, throughout five years of continuous bombing, rationing or running from V1 rockets, she was never allowed to cry or show her fear.
‘I remember calling out to my mum in the street once, “I love you all the money in the world and two bob.” “I don’t know where I got you from,” Mum replied. The women were tough back then because they had to be.’
Strict conduct governed East End streets. Alice insisted her four daughters refer to the older matriarchs of the street only as ‘Auntie’. To call them by their real names would be disrespectful, a crime punishable by a swift clout round the head.
Babs Clark, 86, from Bethnal Green, is another inimitable East Ender whose entire childhood seems to have been spent narrowly escaping a harrowing death. Like Girl Walker, she too was abused when she was evacuated. When her costermonger mother, Bobby – who, according to Babs, ‘had muscles any docker would be proud of’ – discovered this, she dished out a similar revenge to Girl Walker’s mum, before vowing to bring Babs back to the London. When Bobby and Babs were machine-gunned on the beach in Torquay by a German plane, Bobby declared: ‘Sod that, we’ll be safer off back in the East End.’
Her vow sounded a bit hollow when Bobby, Babs and her sister, Jean, were caught up in the same devastating crush at Bethnal Green Underground that killed Kate. Babs was wrenched free from the crush by her big sister.
The war had one final trick up its sleeve for Babs, when a V2 rocket exploded near her school, causing the classroom ceiling to cave in and kill the boy sitting next to her stone cold dead at his desk.
Babs has nothing but respect for her hard-working mum, who was as tough as boiled brisket after losing her first husband whilst pregnant with Babs’ sister during the Depression. Bobby raised Babs not to dwell on misfortune, but to work as hard as you possibly could. ‘Hard work was a currency, which ensured the survival of my whole family,’ she insists.
Hard work, along with a fierce sense of belonging and altruism was instilled in the many women I interviewed, with all insisting that not one woman, but the entire street parented them. Keeping a close eye on her neighbours’ kids in dockside Deptford was Irish mother of seven, Mrs Dudgeon, who cared for local children so that their mothers might go to work, not for money, but in exchange for a ‘bit of shopping’ or having her steps scrubbed.
Her matriarchal duties extended to helping birth the babies of the street, cutting the cord with a sterilised razor blade before wrapping the new born infant in a while boiled man’s shirt, as well as laying out the dead. She was also influential in family planning. In a time when birth control was virtually unheard of, Mrs Dudgeon would melt down antiseptic soap, like Wright’s Coal Tar, to liquid and fill up thimbles with it. It would harden and set in the thimble. Girls would insert the DIY pessary into their vaginas in the hope that it would kill the sperm.
But Mrs Dudgeon really came into her own when the Luftwaffe was battering the close dockside community. She ran the local shelters with ease, making sandwiches for all and soothing fractious babies back to sleep, even encouraging parents to go to the local for a drink, provided they come back when the raids began.
Running the Underground Tube shelter in Bethnal Green was a formidable matriarch by the name of Mrs Chumbley. She had been a nurse during World War One and with a booming voice ensured that the hundreds of children who slept there nightly filed sensibly down the shelter steps. She made sure the shelter was washed daily with carbolic to prevent disease and that food and drink supplies were readily available. But perhaps her most challenging time came the night of the Tube disaster, when she was forced to wrench children free from the mangled crush with her bare hands. One man I spoke with, Alf Morris, 88, still weeps as he recalls the dark night Mrs Chumbley saved his life.
Her heroics were not isolated. Dr Joan Martin saved life after life during the Blitz as one of the few female medics practicing back then, moonlighting by night as an ambulance driver. Six months before her death aged 102, she was at pains to stress to me who the true heroes of the Blitz were.
‘The wartime mothers of the East End,’ she insisted. ‘They were remarkable, tough women who suffered great deprivation, but always put their children first, often going hungry themselves so that they might eat.
‘I saw such terrible suffering in the East End. Malnourished children with rickets, covered in scabies and bug bites. The kids would come in and, when given a drink of milk, would ask politely: “Where can I drink to?” They were stunned to hear they could have a whole glass. It was those strong mothers who raised polite children in the teeth of such poverty who deserve the medals.’
The oldest woman in the book, 101-year-old (as of 7th July 2017) Beatty Orwell grew up watching the Stepney Doorstep Society caring for its own. When her father died aged 44 of a stroke when Beatty was 13, leaving her mother Julia to care for three daughters, the tight-knit Jewish community around Petticoat Lane rallied around, cooking her meals to ensure her children did not have to queue outside Soup Kitchens.
‘People shared what little they had with each other, you were never really alone and neighbours looked out for one another,’ Beatty told me.
This sense of duty to your community embedded deep within young Beatty and when that neighbourhood came under threat from fascism in 1936, she joined the anti-fascist party and stood up with the 250,000 strong crowds at the Battle of Cable Street to prevent Oswald Mosley’s inflammatory march from passing through the Jewish East End. During the war Beatty was bombed out of her flat, made bullets in a factory and worked as a postwoman, whilst raising her baby daughter June.
After the war, Beatty – along with all wartime women – vowed to put the past behind her and look instead to the future. This she did by becoming a councilor and lady mayoress of Tower Hamlets in 1966, when her husband John was made mayor. Together they worked hard to provide better housing for East Enders and helped to establish community funding.
The Stepney Doorstep Society was killed off by a combination of post-war suburbanization and the institutionalization of roles women took for granted, but these rich stories give us a chance to celebrate the women missing from the history books.