While the men were at war, women ruled the streets of London’s East End. Kate Thompson celebrates the lives of the tough matriarchs who helped their neighbours with everything from delivering babies to paying the rent.
Kate Thompson (no relation) was a woman who took multitasking to the extreme. 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 ground breaking reduction in rent and extinguish fires caused by incendiary bombs during the Blitz. Clad in a starched apron, this well-upholstered and formidable wartime matriarch seemed indestructible. Yet, sadly, she was not.
At the age of 63, with the Second World War in its fourth year, Kate was killed on a night of sheer hell. On 3 March 1943 she, along with 172 other men, women and children, were crushed to death, most of them in the space of a few minutes, when an explosion caused by testing a new anti-aircraft rocket triggered a stampede down to Bethnal Green underground station. Families were torn apart by the loss of so many relatives.
I lament Kate’s passing, too. It might seem odd to grieve for a woman I did not know, but that’s where history is a great connector. For when I saw her name – my name – on the order-of-service card at a memorial service to commemorate the disaster, I felt an emotional connection, and the quest to find out more about my namesake has led me on a journey upon which I’ve uncovered the lives of some remarkable East End women. I discovered the complexity of working-class life, and the plethora of roles women undertook before the formation of the welfare state.
Denise, 65, from Stepney, whose mum was a street matriarch as well as a mother to seven girls, sums it up like this: ‘Every turning had a matriarch like my mum, a go-to woman when something needed sorting. If a woman fell behind with her rent, Mum would step in and negotiate with the rent collector to stop her being evicted. If there were 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 was a midwife, nurse, social worker, Citizens Advice and Neighbourhood Watch rolled into one.’
However, I have had to conceal Denise’s identity for her mother, a respectable childminder by day, performed abortions after dark at a time when it was illegal and birth control was inadequate. Over the years, dozens of girls traipsed through her door, pale-faced and terrified. During the war, out-of-wedlock sex was no longer taboo and imminent danger acted as a powerful aphrodisiac, leading to many unwanted pregnancies. The huge influx of American GIs to Britain from early 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.
Another woman who played a vital role in the wartime economy of her street was Alice Walker. ‘Mum acted as a moneylender, 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 others to pay the rent or tallyman when he called round.
Sprightly 86-year-old Marie, nicknamed Girl Walker, was born in Stepney. Her mother raised her with five strict rules: 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 Girl 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 Alice, Stepney’s chief female, got wind of this, she swept in like a hurricane and knockedout the abuser with one punch, before marching her daughter back to the East End.
During the Blitz, Girl was buried in an Anderson shelter when a railway siding was bombed and fell on top of it, trapping her for three days before she was rescued on New Year’s Day 1941. Despite this, throughout five years of continuous bombing, running from V1 rockets, shortages and rationing, she was never allowed to cry or show her fear. ‘I remember calling out to my mum in the street once, “I love you more than all the money in the world – 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 the East End streets. Alice insisted her four daughters refer to the older matriarchs as ‘Auntie’. To call them by their real names would have been disrespectful – a crime punishable by a swift clout round the head.
Babs Clark, 86, from Bethnal Green, is another indomitable East Ender whose entire childhood seems to have been spent narrowly escaping death. Like Girl Walker, she was abused when she was evacuated to Torquay. When her costermonger mother Bobby – who, according to Babs, ‘had muscles any docker would be proud of’ – discovered this, she dished out a revenge similar to that of Girl’s mum. Then, when she and her daughters 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.’
Sadly, this was not to be as Bobby, Babs and her sister Jean were caught up in the devastating crush at Bethnal Green underground station that killed Kate Thompson. Babs was wrenched free by her big sister. Bobby survived the war but died of a heart condition aged 52.
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 at his desk.
Hard work, along with a fierce sense of belonging and altruism, was instilled in the manywomen I talked to, with all insisting that the entire street parented them. Keeping a close eye on her neighbours’ kids in Deptford was Irish mother of seven Mrs Dudgeon, who cared for local children so that their mothers could go to work. She did it 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 newborn infant in a boiled shirt, as well as laying out the dead. She was also influential in family planning. At a time when birth control was virtually unheard of, Mrs Dudgeon would melt down antiseptic soap, such as Wright’s Coal Tar, and fill up thimbles with it. When hardened, it was used as a DIY pessary by girls in the hope of killing sperm.
But Mrs Dudgeon came into her own when the Luftwaffe was battering her close dockside community. She ran the local shelters, making sandwiches and soothing fractious babies, even encouraging parents to go to the local for a drink, provided they come back when the raids began.
Helping to run the underground station shelter in Bethnal Green was a formidable matriarch and air-raid warden by the name of Mrs Chumbley. She had been a nurse during the First World War and, with a booming voice, ensured that the hundreds of children who slept there nightly filed sensibly down the shelter steps. But her most challenging time came the night of the stampede disaster, when she helped to wrench children free from the crush. One man I spoke with, Alf Morris, 88, still weeps as he recalls the dark night when Mrs Chumbley saved his life.
Her heroics were not isolated acts. Dr Joan Martin saved life after life during the Blitz as one of the few female medics practising back then, moonlighting by night as an escort with ambulance crews. 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 glass of milk, would ask politely, “How much can I have?” They were stunned to hear they could drink a whole glass. Those strong mothers who raised polite children in the teeth of such poverty are the ones who deserve the medals.’
Beatty Orwell, aged 101, grew up watching what I have come to call 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 tightknit Jewish community around Petticoat Lane rallied round,cooking Julia meals to ensure her children did not have to queue outside soup kitchens. ‘People would share what little they had with each other; you were never really alone and neighbours looked out for one another,’ Beatty told me.
After the war, Beatty vowed to put the past behind her and look instead to the future by becoming a councillor 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 postwar suburbanisation and the institutionalisation of roles women took for granted, but these rich stories give us a chance to celebrate those women missing from the history books.
The Stepney Doorstep Society by Kate Thompson will be published on Thursday by Michael Joseph, price £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 (a 20 per cent discount) until 2 September, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; P&P is free on orders over £15.