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East London Suffragettes
Voices from History
By Sarah Jackson, Rosemary Taylor
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor
All rights reserved.
THE EAST END
Of course London has had an east as long as it has had a centre, but the 'East End' didn't form in the popular imagination until the late nineteenth century, when industrialisation and the social changes which followed in its wake caused the area's remaining middle-class families to flee to the suburbs. After more than a century of fame (and infamy), Bow, Stepney, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Wapping feel familiar even to those who have never set foot in them.
To many respectable middle- and upper-class Londoners in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the East End seemed to be at once on their doorstep, and a kind of foreign country. With its poverty, disease, slums and sweated industries, it was too close for comfort, and many feared that the political activism, industrial action and religious dissent which were also a hallmark of the area would seep westward. In 1891, writer John Henry Mackay described the East End as 'a hell of poverty. Like an enormous, black, motionless kraken, the poverty of London lies there in silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and wealth of the city and of the West End.'
At the same time, the harsh living and working conditions experienced by many of the East End's community seemed unimaginable and nightmarish. The inhabitants themselves were subject to intense prejudice. One journal from 1888 observed that 'A shabby man from Paddington, Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor. But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an "East Ender"; the box of ... bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up.'
Despite these fears, the East End fascinated many in London and beyond. It represented more than a geographic area, becoming a symbolic battleground for a host of conflicting ideas about work, home, health, identity, democracy and religion.
The thick black lines on Charles Booth's map of London memorably visualise the poverty which was one of the defining characteristics of East London at the end of the nineteenth century. Victorian philanthropists and reformers, including William Booth and Octavia Hill, had campaigned to raise awareness, alleviate suffering, and improve conditions. Despite this, the East End into which Sylvia Pankhurst arrived in 1906 was not greatly changed from the days of Charles Dickens. In 1895 German anarchist Rudolf Rocker visited Tower Hamlets to observe and document the conditions in which people lived and worked, which he described in The London Years:
There were at that time thousands of people in London who had never slept in a bed, who just crept into some filthy hole where the police would not disturb them. I saw with my own eyes thousands of human beings who can hardly still be considered such, people who were no longer capable of any kind of work. They went about in foul rags, through which their skin showed, dirty and lousy, never free from hunger, starving, scavenging their food out of dustbins and the refuse heaps that were left behind after the markets closed.
There were squalid courts and alley-ways, with dreary tumble-down hovels, whose stark despair it is impossible to describe. And in these cesspools of poverty children were born and people lived, struggling all their lives with poverty and pain, shunned like lepers by all 'decent' members of society.
While Rocker's account is typical of many examples of 'slum literature' in that it dehumanises the East End's inhabitants – they are described as a mass of animal-like creatures, without individual faces, names or voices – it paints a vivid picture of the squalor in which people were forced to live.
In the notorious overcrowded slums, families were housed in single rooms, with only a single outside lavatory and a water pump shared with several houses. Many of the buildings were falling into disrepair, with broken stairs, peeling wallpaper, or chunks of plaster pulling away from the ceiling. The slums were also full of vermin – black beetles, bed bugs and rats were perpetual unwanted guests of the human tenants.
Disease was an inevitable consequence of such living conditions. There were repeated outbreaks of cholera in East London during the nineteenth century, including a very severe epidemic in 1866 in which more than 5,000 people died. Infant mortality was also extremely high, reaching 250 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in some of the worst slums, such as the notorious Old Nichol in Shoreditch.
At this time doctors charged a fee and medicine was expensive. In 1911, as part of a wave of reforms, the Liberal government introduced National Health Insurance (a forerunner of the National Health Service) for employees earning less than £160 per year. The worker contributed 4d, the employer contributed 3d and the government 2d, which provided sickness benefit entitlement of 9s, free medical treatment and maternity benefit of 30s. Although an estimated 13 million workers came to be covered under this scheme the new provisions still only benefited a small portion of the population. For example, a man might be covered through his workplace, but his family would not be.
Another crucial factor which contributed to poor health was a lack of adequate food for nutrition, or even for survival. Starvation was a real and insistent danger facing the poorest inhabitants of East London, as this excerpt from Jack London's 1903 book The People of the Abyss reveals:
The Carter was hard put to keep the pace at which we walked (he told me that he had eaten nothing that day), but the Carpenter, lean and hungry, his grey and ragged overcoat flapping mournfully in the breeze, swung on in a long and tireless stride which reminded me strongly of the plains wolf or coyote. Both kept their eyes upon the pavement as they walked and talked, and every now and then one or the other would stoop and pick something up, never missing the stride the while. I thought it was cigar and cigarette stumps they were collecting, and for some time took no notice. Then I did notice.
From the slimy, spittle-drenched sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and they were eating them. The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o'clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.
As one of its raft of reforms, the Liberal government had introduced free school meals for the poorest pupils in 1906, but had crucially failed to enforce the measure, instead allowing Local Education Authorities to decide whether or not to take up the scheme. By 1912 only half of all councils in the country had done so.
Poverty forced many children out of school at an early age, especially girls, for whom education was not viewed as a necessity. One 1899 report looked at regular part-time work done by boys and girls. Girls, all aged 6, were employed in the following ways:
Hours per week
Wages per week
Minding Neighbour's Baby
Every evening 7 to 8 pm 1d
" " "
Every Saturday 1d
Saturday – few hours 2d
Minding baby 7 hours
Tea and ½d
Window cleaning 4 hours 1d plus dinner and tea
Lace work 6 to 8 hours
Matchbox making 6 hours 2 ½d per gross
Carrying meals 5 hours 3d
Taking out groceries 15 hours 2d
Older children worked long hours before and after school, delivering milk, selling newspapers, working in shops and doing domestic work, earning an average of 1 ½d an hour. At this time a loaf of bread cost around 12d (twelve pence, or one shilling).
At the turn of the century, secondary education was still not available to working-class children. However, in 1907 free places were offered to very able pupils for further studies. Even then the Board of Education recommended that girls over 15 years of age should study Practical Housewifery: 'We do not think it desirable to attempt to divorce a girl's education from her home duties and home opportunities.' What exactly was meant by 'home opportunities' is not clear. By 1910 the Board of Education had outlined in greater detail the curriculum to be followed by 12 and 13-year-old girls in elementary school: personal hygiene, temperance, home nursing, housekeeping and infant care.
The social, economic and cultural character of the East End was enormously influenced by the major industries located there, industries which both women and men worked in their thousands. Many worked on and around the Thames docks, on the ships, loading and unloading cargo at East and West India Quays and Wapping, as ropemakers, as packers, and in great factories producing items which were shipped all over the world.
Margaret Harkness, who published her work under the name of John Law, carried out extensive research on women's labour in the East End. She wrote:
So far I have found that there are at least 200 trades at which girls work in the city, namely, brush-makers, button-makers, cigarette-makers, electric light fitters, fur workers, India rubber stamp machinists, magic lantern slide makers, perfumers, portmanteau makers, spectacle makers, surgical instrument makers, tie makers etc.
These girls can be roughly divided into two classes: those who earn from 8s to 14s, and those who earn from 4s to 8s a week. Taking slack time into consideration, it is, I think, safe to say that 10s is the average weekly wage for the first class and 4s 6d that of the second class. Their weekly wages often fall below this, and sometime rise above it.
The hours are almost invariably from 8 am to 7 pm with one hour for dinner and a half holiday on Saturday. I know few cases in which such girls work less; a good many in which overtime reaches to 10 or 11 at night; a few in which overtime means all night. There is little to choose between the two classes. The second are allowed by their employers to wear old clothes and boots, the first must make a 'genteel appearance' ... how the girls have to stint on underclothing and food in order to make what their employers call a 'genteel appearance!' Many a family is at the present kept by the labour of one or two such girls, who can at the most earn a few shillings.
The East End has a long association with the textile industry, which can be traced back to the wave of Huguenot silkmakers who settled in and around Spitalfields in the late 1600s. At the end of the 1800s, the clothing industry in East London was notorious for using 'sweated' labour, exploiting large numbers of mostly Jewish and Irish immigrant workers who had little choice but to work for a pittance in terrible conditions. An extract from The Lancet in 1884 reads:
In Hanbury Street we found 18 workers crowded in a small room measuring 8 yards by 4 ½ yards and not quite 8 ½ feet high ... The top room had at times to hold 18 persons, working in the heat and gas of the stove, warming the pressing irons, surrounded by mounds of dust and remnants of the cut cloth, breathing an atmosphere full of woollen particles containing more or less injurious dyes. It is not surprising that so large a proportion of working tailors break down from diseases of the respiratory system.
At this time in the East End many businesses also heavily exploited huge numbers of homeworkers, most of whom were women. Making matchboxes, taking in laundry or sewing work were common tasks, and the women were forced to work punishing hours to make ends meet. One of the most famous cultural representations of this form of sweated labour was a poem by Thomas Hood, called 'The Song of the Shirt', which appeared in Punch magazine in 1843. Here is an excerpt:
Till the brain begins to swim;
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!
Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, Men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you're wearing out,
But human creatures' lives!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
No other area of Britain has experienced the same degree of changing population as the East End of London, as successive waves of immigrants and refugees sought shelter or opportunity in the shadow of the Tower of London: French Huguenots, Germans, Irish, Jews, Chinese, West Indians, Indians and Bangladeshis. Each group in turn has introduced its own individual mode of working and living, building their own places of worship and houses, adapting their environment to suit their needs. Having established themselves, the newly affluent tended to migrate to the suburbs in the north and east of London, their dwellings and shops being taken over by the next generation of refugees.
The diversity of East London in the second half of the nineteenth century, and also the breathtaking racism of most Victorians, is evident in this description of 'Tiger Bay' (modern-day Shadwell) from The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict (1865) by Thomas Archer, who was horrified to see:
... colonies of Irish, hordes of Germans, burrowing in the wretched tenements and swarming from roof to basement, the children wallowing in dirt, and clothed in tatters ... A cellar where four lascars roll their yellow and black eyes upon us as they glare silently at each other, and smoke from one bamboo pipe ... Rooms, where dark-skinned, snakelike Hindoos (beggars and tract-sellers by day) live with English and Irish women as their wives ... yellow Chinese sit in the midst of filth upon a heap of rags or on a dislocated couch, the refuse of a neighbouring broker's shop, and stupefy themselves with opium, while their two or three wives quarrel or fight, or cook a modicum of rice and pork over the embers of a wretched fire ...
In Archer's deliberately titillating account we can see the seeds of many of the damaging myths and racist stereotypes which surround immigration in our own day. As Sukdhev Sandhu points out in his book London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City:
The East End in which blacks lived became synonymous in Victorian times with spiritual degradation. It was a man-trap, a Satanic stronghold, a dumping ground for human flotsam. It wasn't just that the area was blighted by poverty; the colour of its inhabitants encouraged reactionaries to see it as a place of contamination, of moral canker. The problem was one of poor (racial) hygiene. In sensationalist newspaper reports as well as in the accounts of social workers, it was seen as a dark zone which needed Christian reclamation just as urgently as those heathen lands thousands of miles away which were being penetrated by explorers and missionaries ...
While the racism of many contemporary accounts leaves a sour taste in the mouth, it is important to emphasise that the East End has been an ethnically diverse area for many hundreds of years, despite the whitewashing at work in much local history. For example, the practice of employing South Asian 'lascars' to work British ships (and then refusing to pay for their return passage) meant that from the 1700s onwards there was an Asian community in East London. Although most of the Asian people living in London at this time were men, there are numerous examples in parish records of marriages with local women, and mixed race families were not uncommon.
Between 1880 and 1914, many Jewish migrants from Poland, Germany and Russia came into the East End, many fleeing the pogroms in those countries, others looking to improve their working prospects. There were also large numbers of people arriving from Ireland, escaping cruel English landlords and waves of famine. Many African and Caribbean workers also travelled to Britain at this time, and settled in the East End. One of the most famous is Donald Adolphus Brown, who married East London suffragette Adelaide Knight and in 1921 was awarded a medal for bravery, as the London Gazette records:
His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award the Edward Medal to Mr. Donald Adolphus Brown, Foreman, R.N.O. Depot, Woolwich, under the following circumstances : —
On January 7th, 1919, while a number of rockets and lights were being re-packed at the Royal Naval Ordnance Depot at Woolwich, one of the rockets ignited and exploded, thus causing other rockets in the same case to explode. Brown, a foreman in the Ordnance Depot, immediately threw water upon the flaming case, opened the doors of the storehouse and dragged the case into the open. This he did single-handed, but as a result of his example, other employees came to his assistance, and the fire was eventually extinguished by the use of fire buckets and a portable pump.
The storehouse was full of fireworks and flares of every description, and there was a large store of detonators immediately adjoining; several hundred men and women were at work in the immediate vicinity, and had it not been for the promptitude and determination shown by Brown, there is no doubt that a very serious explosion would have occurred. Brown was fully aware of the fact that the store was full of explosives, and of the danger which he was running, and by his courageous act he certainly saved many lives.
Excerpted from East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson, Rosemary Taylor. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One The East End,
Two Women's Activism in the East End,
Three Early Suffragette Activity in East London,
Four The East London Federation of the Suffragettes,
Five Protest, Police and the People's Army,
Six Spreading the Word,
Seven The War,
Eight Women and Work,
Nine Food and Family,
Ten Later Years,
Eleven Women's Activism After the Suffragettes,