On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hilaire joined a guided walk focussed on Notable Women of Lavender Hill. Here’s her account of an illuminating tour.
Jeanne Rathbone led this informative walk around the Lavender Hill area, organised as part of the celebrations of the centenary of some (not all) women getting the vote. Jeanne is a member of the Battersea Society, and a formidable champion of women who have made a significant impact in our area but are now largely forgotten.
The tour began outside Battersea Arts Centre, as we assembled on the steps and donned Votes for Women sashes. The vast majority of blue plaques in Battersea honour men so Jeanne had smaller blue plaques made up, which were held up at appropriate locations along our route. The first of our Notable Women was Jeanie Nassau Senior, who lived at Elm House, on the site of what is now Battersea Arts Centre.
Sunday 22nd April, the date we’d chosen for our workshop, Exploring women’s history through the power of poetry, asanother of our public engagement commitments for our Arts Council funded Research & Development project.
Our north London venue was just round the corner from the Emirates Stadium and we’d checked there was no home game. Then we invited a small group of women to be our guinea pigs. With only a few days to go we discovered Arsenal’s home game against West Ham, originally scheduled for Saturday 21st, had been moved to the Sunday, kicking off at the same time we’d planned to start the workshop. Don’t panic! We would start an hour later, once the game was underway, and then we’d finish well after the match was over. We emailed everyone with the new start time, and assurances that the football wouldn’t interfere on the day. But would they still come?
Yes they would. They braved the vagaries of Sunday travel. They soldiered through the unseasonably hot weather and London marathon crowds. Across London they came; our five intrepid workshop participants, undeterred by the Premier League football match taking place only a few streets away. And once everyone was settled round the dining table, we were off, delivering our first London Undercurrents workshop.
We warmed up with five minutes of free writing, and then spent some time looking at poems each written by a female poet in the voice of another woman, rather than their own voice. In particular we discussed the poet’s choice of writing in first, second or third person and how this affected us as readers.
Another exercise involved choosing two postcards from a pile spread out on the table, all of which featured a woman or women from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and eras; writing in the first person as if you were the woman in one of the cards; and then writing in the second person, as the woman in the other card addressing the first. This generated some great responses and interesting discussion.
Before a break for tea, coffee and biscuits, we shared some of our London Undercurrents experiences researching women in our patches of London, with examples of materials and books we’ve used on hand for everyone to browse. Then after the break, it was back to more writing, with a wonderful focussed hush in the room, and the occasional roar of Arsenal fans in the background.
Where do we find our London Undercurrents women? As Hilaire writes, sometimes it’s pure chance:
I was searching for something (now forgotten) in Wandsworth Libraries’ online catalogue. As I typed, one of the suggested titles that popped up beneath the Search box caught my eye: Dispute at Decca’s: An investigation into a sit-in by Asian women workers. I clicked on the record for more details and discovered it was a 13 page pamphlet published by Wandsworth Council for Community Relations in 1975. There were two copies in the Heritage Service, based at Battersea Library, so at the next opportunity I walked up there determined to find out more.
I’d made a note of the catalogue reference, but as I couldn’t find the pamphlet on the reference shelves I asked the friendly archivist for help. She hunted through a number of cardboard magazine holders before locating the item on a shelf where a lot of Wandsworth Council’s records are stored. I settled down at one of the tables with my notebook and pencil and immersed myself in this snapshot of 1970s community – and industrial – relations. One of the first details I read excited me – the Decca factory was on Ingate Place, a stone’s throw from where I live. But this was not a dispute on the same scale as the Grunwick strike, as I had briefly imagined. The sit-in lasted just over 7 hours from the evening of 14th August 1975 until the early hours of the following morning.
The Decca company manufactured weighing machinery, radar, radios and colour TVs at several factory sites, including Ingate Place. Earlier in the summer of 1975, management had decided to cease production of TVs at Battersea due to a downturn in demand. This affected about 400 staff, from a mixed workforce of West Indian, Asian and white workers. Initially the union had tried to oppose the closure, but judged that there was little appetite amongst the workforce for industrial action, so eventually accepted the decision. Then two weeks before staff were due to be made redundant, 70 Asian women workers attended an offsite meeting where they decided to return and occupy the factory, demanding redeployment or a shortened working week.
There are a number of factors identified in the Wandsworth Council for Community Relations (WCCR) report which I found fascinating. The majority of the Asian women workers were Gujarati speakers and had minimal or no English. They were also primarily Ugandan Asians, so likely to have arrived in Britain a few years earlier following the expulsion of Asians from Uganda under Idi Amin’s regime. Although several meetings were organised by management and the union to explain the closure and resulting redundancies, no official translator was brought in (despite this being recommended by WCCR) so the women relied on colleagues who spoke both Gujarati and English to translate for them. In interviews WCCR conducted in Gujarati with women who took part in the sit-in, it emerged they had not been aware they were going to lose their jobs until the offsite meeting (organised by the International Socialists) a fortnight before the closure. Apparently the Gujarati word for ‘redundancy’ carries a strong social stigma, so in previous meetings and discussions only the English word had been used. There was also confusion as the women believed management had promised they would be offered other jobs, whereas management said they would TRY to find them them other roles.
From stumbling across this blink-of-an-eye dispute, it feels like I’m uncovering dozens of interesting threads. There’s definitely the language/mistranslation angle, which could provide fertile poetic material. Then, once I realised the WCCR was not a department of Wandsworth Borough Council, but an independent organisation funded partly by the borough but also supported by the then Commission for Racial Equality – that opened another strand of research. On a subsequent trip to the Heritage Service, I looked through a history of WCCR, published in 1976 to mark their 10th anniversary, and learnt that as well as work on housing and employment issues, the WCCR ran a free nursery in Balham primarily for single parents, and published a controversial comic strip, Don’t Rush Me, promoting sex education to young people and using multi-racial characters. I returned the next day to read their 1973 report on Uganda Asians in Wandsworth, and in the same archive folder came across an undated leaflet requesting donations of money and supplies for a Hostel for Belgian Refugees on West Side Clapham Common. This probably dates from the First World War, and is another reminder of the long history of local people welcoming and helping refugees.
But then I’m drawn back to the Asian women who staged a sit-in just down the road, and their less than half-told story. Can I trace any of those who took part, or anyone who knew them? Would they want to talk to me? I’m thinking about ways I might be able to contact them, through community centres or Facebook. And there’s a bunch of WCCR papers in the National Archives at Kew – I wonder if they contain transcripts of the interviews?
One other thing I had to, once I’d established the exact address of the Decca factory as 15-17 Ingate Place thanks to the 1970 Kelly’s Post Office London Directory in the Heritage Service, was pay the site a visit. I’d never been this far into Ingate Place, and it’s another world! There’s a huge Edwardian curved building, dating from 1901, originally a depository for Hamptons and Sons furnishers, now a self-storage concern. Opposite is a small business centre in a number of units that were also originally part of the Hamptons empire. And, very briefly, in 1975, somewhere in this complex, 70 Asian women staged a sit-in. I couldn’t help but express my solidarity.
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.
As part of the research for London Undercurrents poems, old and new, both of us have sat red-faced as we realised that a few of our poems contain incorrect facts and figures. (Some of those factually-incorrect poems have actually been published too!) The shame. But also, the splendour. We’ve brought to life, and given voice to, women’s unheard stories – both real and imagined – and held audiences in thrall, despite getting a date wrong here and a historical reference wrong there. One north London Undercurrents poem, Hollywood comes to Holloway, is dated 1939 and contains references to the film It’s a wonderful life, which wasn’t made until 1946. Darn it. But it gets a great reaction from audiences and invokes the liberation of the cinema, even though the filmic references are wrong. A south London Undercurrents poem, CharlotteDespard Gets My Vote, is in the voice of a working class women voting for the very first time in 1918. However, it’s been pointed out that at this time only women over 30 who owned property could vote, and most working class women couldn’t vote until 1928. Yet the feeling of victory and freedom is palpable, despite the historical inaccuracy.
The saying goes; don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. After our first mentoring session with Jacqueline Saphra, the poems that stood up to rigorous discussion and interrogation by all three of us, were the ones that had a strong voice, great attention to detail and an emotional pull. So now comes the delicate balancing act of fine-tuning, revising, rewriting, and creation while fact-checking and cross-referencing dates. Getting it right, so that each woman’s voice sings out, while firmly placing her in historical context and rooting her physically in the world where she belongs.
Hilaire writes: Ever since I first came across the fascinating story of Ida and Louise Cook, I’ve thought there must be a London Undercurrents poem in there. They were opera mad spinster sisters, living in the family home in Morella Road, Battersea, who jaunted off for weekends to 1930s Germany on a mission to help Jewish families escape Nazi persecution.
Where to start though? I read Louise Carpenter’s long Granta article, detailing her research into their lives, and subsequently borrowed Ida’s auto(duo?)biography Safe Passage from Battersea Library. The book was originally published under the title We Followed Our Stars – a much better title in my view, and truer to the spirit of the way the sisters lived their lives. This turned out to be a very entertaining read! Which shouldn’t have surprised me, after all, as Ida was one of Mills & Boon’s most successful authors, publishing over 100 novels under the pseudonym Mary Burchell.
But when I sat down to try to write a poem about them I encountered the same problem I’d had with Charlotte Despard. Too much information! Such long and varied lives, so many different strands and possible angles to take. The opera star crushes, and years of scrimping and saving to travel on their own to New York in the 1920s. Ida’s unexpected trajectory as a romantic novelist, while Louise continued a steady civil service career. The contrast between their staid home life and the extraordinary risks they took with their refugee work. Their lifelong intense closeness as sisters, and in later years their deep interest in spiritualism.
It was overwhelming. I wondered about ways to contain or focus the detail. I printed off a list of all 112 Mary Burchell novels, thinking I might be able to construct something using only the titles. Or perhaps I could frame the poem as a synopsis of an unwritten opera about the sisters. Neither of these ideas came to much.
One bright morning I cycled up to Morella Road, at the furthest corner of Battersea, just off Wandsworth Common, and stood outside number 24, looking up at the attic where Ida had typed out all those Mills & Boon romances. The bedroom the sisters shared for most of their lives would have been on the floor below. It’s a quiet, tree-lined street, and strange to think of the sisters returning to this ordinary home after smuggling valuables out of Nazi Germany, in order to provide financial security for fleeing Jewish refugees.
I realised I wanted the poem to be centred on this part of their lives. Reading Safe Passage, I was struck by Ida’s mostly brisk, matter-of-fact style (‘Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot’) and the occasional burst of rapturous prose when writing about the opera stars they worshipped. And I kept coming back to an anecdote Ida related in the book, of returning to Morella Road after a particularly harrowing trip to Germany. She walked into the kitchen and found her mother making pastry. ‘…which is, after all, one of the basic things in life. I can see her now, with the flour on her arms. I began to tell her what we had seen and I burst into tears.’ Mrs Cook ‘simply went on making pastry’, and a few minutes later Ida dried her eyes and was able to continue her account.
I had a sense of Ida’s voice. But I needed an imaginative space, to allow a poem to grow. In Safe Passage, Louise is present but not very vocal. Ida, by her own admission, was the more garrulous of the two. Louise is a given, often absorbed into ‘we’. But at night, in their twin bedroom, they must, surely, have expressed some of the anguish and despair, during those dark days leading up to the outbreak of World War 2, which they otherwise managed to keep under wraps.
So I had a starting point at last, and have written a poem in the form of an imagined dialogue between Ida and Louise, late at night when sleep is evading them. In the first flush of composition, there was relief and excitement. Now, I’m not sure how strong the poem is, whether it stands on its own without all the background information I’ve absorbed and left out. But at least there’s a draft I can work on, and share with Joolz for feedback. Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot – now I come to think about it, that sounds like a great summation of London Undercurrents!
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.