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.
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.
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!
Quite a lot, Hilaire discovered, when it comes to a street on her estate named Charlotte Despard Avenue.
For years, I’d vaguely wondered who was behind the unusual name of an otherwise nondescript street, which stretched the meaning of ‘avenue’, being neither broad nor tree-lined. So when Joolz and I came up with the idea of writing poems based on women who’d lived in our different neighbourhoods, one of the first names I jotted down in my notebook was Charlotte Despard.
My initial rudimentary research – a few brief mentions of her in local history books – left me feeling ambivalent towards her. A wealthy widow who, in 1890, took up residence in what was then the slum of Nine Elms in hope of improving conditions, but retreated to the family estate in Surrey at weekends. I put Charlotte Despard on the back burner, thinking perhaps I could write a poem from the point of view of a recipient of Mrs Despard’s good works; someone bridling with resentment at being patronized.
Then last May I went to a talk at Battersea Arts Centre on ‘Battersea’s political heroes’. In half an hour, Professor Penelope Corfield completely changed my view of Charlotte Despard. Yes, she was wealthy, but by the end of her very long life – she died aged 95 in 1939 – she was bankrupt, having poured her money into any number of causes and social initiatives. She was pragmatic, setting up free mother and child clinics in Nine Elms, supplying boots to children who would otherwise go about barefoot, and organising the provision of free meals at local schools as she understood that well-nourished children were better able to learn. She was also a vigorous campaigner on many issues and was deeply involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, earning a couple of stints in HM Prison Holloway. At the end of the talk I asked my burning question: how did the locals regard Charlotte Despard? The answer, according to Professor Corfield, is that she was loved and venerated. I had a new heroine.
Subsequently, I read the two available biographies – Charlotte Despard: A Biography by Margaret Mulvhill (Pandora, 1989) and An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist & Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater (Hutchinson & Co, 1980) – and amassed copious notes. Charlotte Despard was and did so much more than a short blog post can do justice to. Many of her causes were unpopular at the time, and she must have cut an eccentric figure in her mantilla and sandals. Certainly, she was flawed and complex, but her energy and commitment to social justice and equality are truly inspiring.
I knew then that I definitely wanted to write a London Undercurrents poem about Charlotte Despard. Trying to channel her voice, though, felt both impossible and overwhelming. Interestingly, Despard was something of a spiritualist and occasionally consulted Giuseppe Garibaldi for advice via her planchette!
In the end I decided to come at her slantwise, so to speak, imagining a Nine Elms matriarch casting her vote for the first time in 1918, when Charlotte Despard stood as the Labour Party candidate for Battersea. You can read the poem here on Well Versed along with a poem by Joolz, in the voice of a suffragette being force-fed in HM Prison Holloway.
Since the poem was published, it’s been pointed out that most working class women weren’t able to vote until 1928. The biographies I drew on as my main sources mention the age restriction in the 1918 Representation of the People act (women aged over 30), but not the property qualification, which the UK Parliament site describes as ‘minimum property qualifications’. I’ll have to present my poetic license here, and trust the spirit of the poem is true to this amazing woman.