When it comes to researching women in history, when does the local become the universal, and are the two intrinsically intertwined?
Joolz writes: I’m researching the role of daughters in the art of coin counterfeiting, known as Coining. It carried the death penalty in the 1700s, yet girls as young as 14 were an integral part of this dangerous and arduous task. Whole families were involved and as Islington was a rough area back then (and not gentrified, like today) I can imagine that counterfeiting coins was indeed something that women and young girls were involved in, in and around the borough. It’s been a tough one to prove though. The really good counterfeiters didn’t get caught. Those that did, operated mainly in the west end, so all I have to go on are reports of coiners caught in the act, in Seven Dials – several of whom were women. The punishment for women counterfeiters was burning at the stake, whereas men were hung. Gruesome. Yet it must have been an activity that drew families together in a tight-knit unit, working as one and accepting that risk was part of survival. For a young girl of 14, at times, it must have felt a far, far better option than many of the other illegal ways of earning money. This universal theme of ‘it’s this or prostitution’ is still prevalent for women even today. It’s not just an issue facing 14 year old girls in 18th Century Islington – or at any other given point in history. The local and the universal are one and the same, a tight-knit connection.
Joolz writes: To get ourselves ‘unstuck’ and actually start the ‘R’ part of our ACE funded Research and Development project, Hilaire and I met at London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday afternoon.
Hilaire got there ahead of me and set up on the large tables where we’d sat during our first visit – so it felt familiar and less daunting to me, at least. She was already making notes and reading a book that she’d taken from the shelves nearby, and I felt a rising panic that maybe I should be doing the same. We each had our plastic bag filled with notebooks and a trusty pencil (you’re not allowed pens in the LMA) and it felt tempting to ask her to help me work out what I should do next. But I made a conscious decision to ‘do my own thing’. My first step into the ‘D’ part of Research and Development too?
I headed to the information desk and asked the assistant where I could find information about brick-makers in the Islington area and the women who had worked in them. The assistant was really helpful and answered me in a loud voice, which surprised me as I had whispered my question to her in the assumption that it’s like being in a library. She pointed me in the direction of an old-fashioned set of wooden drawers holding yellowing reference cards with typed words on them. Typewritten, by hand. It felt like time travel.
Once I’d found some reference books that seemed like they could be a good match, I made a note of them, in pencil, then couldn’t actually bring myself to ask for them to be brought to me. Instead I joined Hilaire at the table where we were immediately surrounded by a tour of people being shown how to use the archive. They animatedly pored over maps of bomb damage to areas in London during the Blitz. They were there for ages and it started to encroach on our headspace. Then off they went, and I couldn’t help but leave my seat and get more maps out of the drawer dating back to the 1880s. I found Islington and Holloway and the areas I’m writing about for London Undercurrents. Hilaire joined me and found Battersea and Nine Elms and the areas she’s writing about.
Then a bit of magic happened. Here! Here was Mrs Nichol’s Cattle Farm on Liverpool Road, Islington where I set my poem Milk, Cheese and Cream. Look there! There’s Currie Street where Charlotte Despard lived, the women’s rights pioneer who features in Hilaire’s poem Charlotte Despard Gets My Vote. The two and a half hours flew by very quickly and I didn’t get to write much, but we were both almost jumping up and down with renewed energy and both of us had the look in our eyes that says: there’s a poem forming in the back of my mind.
Six months. That’s how long it took us two London Undercurrents project co-founders to fill out and submit our bid for Arts Council Funding. Six long months. We agonised over every question – what did it mean and what was the ‘magic’ answer that would guarantee success? And whhhhhyyyy were there so many questions in the first place?
We spent hours on the phone to each other and going back and forth via email. We spoke to poet friends who had been successful in their Grants for the Arts funding bid. We met with lovely, encouraging people in positions to help us understand what it is the Arts Council are looking for in an application, and how to give real value for money to any recipient of the activities the funding would support. They championed us and gave us such a boost in confidence. And on top of that they were lovely people, to boot. But most importantly, we interrogated – between the two of us – what we both really wanted the grant for, so that if we were actually – gulp – successful, we could be 100% sure of enjoying the activities we had proposed. Because this wasn’t just an exercise in form-filling. It was a real chance to work out why our project matters to us, why we must keep on going and why we feel it’s vital to share everything about London Undercurrents with the whole wide world.
Hilaire kindly said she’d be the primary name on the application, which meant she took the brunt of Grantium tedium. Joolz cheered her on from the sidelines, and provided an ear to lean on as Hilaire…err…what’s this bit…is this where I fill in…where on earth is…damn and @@@**!!! -ed over the phone. Together we took what felt a lifetime to finally….press….shall I press it? OK I’m going to press it…I’m pressing it….to press SUBMIT.
Screeeeeeeaaaaaam. We did it. We submitted what felt like a strong proposal which we really, really want to go ahead and deliver. We crossed fingers, toes and anything else that could be crossed. And waited…
Five weeks later, an email arrived with the enticing subject line Your decision letter is available for review. With shaky fingers and pounding heart Hilaire logged into Grantium and found her way to a screen where… DRUM ROLL… those magic words Offer letter danced before her eyes. Success!
All that to-ing and fro-ing, asking and listening, refining what our project is about and how we want to move it forward has paid off. We have funding for a mentor and for some time to research and write new London Undercurrents poems. We’re going to share our progress via this blog and other outlets, and we have a few activities planned for early 2018 which we’re very excited about!
Thanks to everyone who has helped us get to this point, especially Laura at Spread the Word. Now all we have to do is deliver!
Over at Well Versed we’ve got two poems about the fight for women’s suffrage, looked at from different perspectives – a suffragette being force fed in Holloway prison in 1913, and a working class woman casting her vote for the first time in 1918, for the visionary campaigner Charlotte Despard.
And on Ink Sweat & Tears two young women from different eras remain agents of their own lives despite lowly jobs. On the north side, a lady’s maid in 1814 enjoys her day out on the frozen Thames. While in Battersea in 1923, a dance-crazy worker kicks her heels up in a confectionery factory.
Let’s hear it for all the amazing women who continue to inspire us today!
Some postcodes are richer than others, it seems, when it comes to north London Undercurrents poem locations, writes Joolz.
I’ve plotted each poem location on the map and numbered it with its corresponding position in our manuscript. N1 wins so far, with five poems written in and around its confines, including Chat with a clipper(6) and Picking oakum in the poor house (23).
But I’m sure that once word gets out amongst the other postcodes, plenty of other unheard women’s voices (from the past and present) will seep up through the clay and push themselves forward so they can feature in a London Undercurrents poem too.
Even in today’s hard times, Joolz reflects, these words still don’t have the same meaning in modern, gentrified Islington as they did back in the days of The Workhouse.
I’ve been researching what it must have been like for women residing in north London Workhouses in the 18th century for a new London Undercurrents poem, and found this fantastic reference point: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Islington/
It has uncovered some distressing but interesting facts, and given me some shocks too. The biggest shock came from seeing a picture of a Workhouse in Islington that was built in the late 1700’s. I did a double take – it was the beautiful redbrick house in leafy Barnsbury that I’ve gazed at often and coveted for many years. It blew my mind.
According to a report made in 1865, the building had an infirmary with a “thoroughly bad edifice with wards ill built, too small, too low, badly lighted and badly ventilated…”
Thankfully, the report goes on to say that the wards “…have yet an aspect of cheerfulness and comfort. The walls were coloured cheerfully; there were prints hanging on the walls, and a few ornaments about the fire-places. In every window were a few flower-pots or flower-boxes.”
It does however throw the grim reality of life in Workhouses that weren’t so cheery, into stark relief. Poor people.
And lo, the 27th of March arrived, and people gathered in the basement of the Poetry Café, and there was music and there was poetry and it was Fourth Friday.
And, after a mostly mellow set of songs based on First World War poetry from LiTTLe MaCHiNe, we took to the floor and unleashed the voices of more than a dozen London women, alternating north and south, and jumping back and forth in history. Joolz, championing north London, performed poems featuring, amongst others, a fearsome punk snarling on her way to see The Pistols at the Hope and Anchor, a lady’s maid tiptoeing adventurously out onto the frozen Thames, and a determined suffragette enduring force feeding in Holloway prison. Carrying the banner for south London, Hilaire read poems that included a lady cyclist daringly zooming round Battersea Park in the summer of 1895, the young Catherine Boucher willingly taking on William Blake as they married in St Mary’s Church, and a group of rowdy Battersea women on their annual trip to the seaside in 1947. It was great to share these London Undercurrents poems with such an appreciative audience.
In the second half of the evening, Jill Abram gave an assured and engaging reading, with poems about family, memory, tea and – maybe – herself. And LiTTleMaCHiNe rounded off with a rousing set including a fantastic prog-rock version of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. All in all, a storming evening. Our thanks to Hylda Sims and Dix Schofield for making it happen!
… the woman who grew asparagus in Battersea, the prostitutes of Islington, the gas mantle girls of Wandsworth and the cinema goers of Holloway, plus many more voices of the feisty women who’ve lived and worked in north and south London over the centuries.
We’ll be reading at Fourth Friday this Friday 27March from 8pm at the Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BX. Entry is £8/£6
Jill Abram and LiTTLe MaCHiNe will also be performing so it should be an excellent evening. Hope you can come along!
Prompted by a (nice) comment from Peter Ebsworth – co-editor of South Bank Poetry magazine – that our London Undercurrents poems had taken up four pages in the latest issue, I started thinking about the constraints of format and length.
Up until now, I’ve been letting the north London Undercurrents women speak for as long as they want, and if they take 40 lines of a poem, or more, then that’s up to them.
But this time, I wanted to see what happened if I gave my next speaker as short a time as possible. After all, she is a Londoner and used to pushing in and jostling to be heard, no matter how small or overlooked she is.
As part of the project, I’ve been researching the Jones Brothers department store, which opened on the Holloway Road in 1899. It was a stylish and much-loved shopping venue until its closure over a hundred years later. I wanted to discover what life could have been like for one of the many ‘shop girls’ and how they enjoyed a new independence through working there, in any number of departments.
So I’ve put the short poem challenge to one of these women, who worked behind the counter soon after the shop opened, before the turn of the last century. She did well, with just nine lines of pure pith.
And now it’s south London’s turn – over to you Hilaire.