By Kate Thompson
“The Blitz was Hitler’s attempt to bring Britain to heel. He believed it would have such a devastating effect on civilian morale that the Government would be forced to negotiate peace terms. But he underestimated the British character – and particularly that of our matriarchs.”
The old cliché: ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to’, perfectly describes the indomitable matriarchs of the East End – our capital’s historic (some would say infamous) heart of wider East London, north of the River Thames.
These women ruled the old slum areas of the city, coming into their own during the First and Second World Wars when the men were sent away to fight. From Stepney to Shoreditch, they were the go-to ‘aunties’ who dispensed advice, held communities together and kept spirits up with pots of strong tea.
“Poverty breeds resourcefulness”, says author, Kate Thompson, and this was unquestionably true of Beatty, Hettie, Babs, Girl Walker, Dr Joan, Old Boots, Mrs Dudgeon and all the other “redoubtable working women” who lived through times of immense hardship but never forgot the meaning of familial love.
“Vibrant, caring communities turn out vibrant caring children.”
The slums were England’s version of a modern-day favela or shanty town – squalid, overcrowded sections of the city inhabited by people living in extreme poverty. Slum is thought to be an East End slang-word meaning ‘room’, which in 1845 evolved to ‘back slum’, meaning ‘back alley’ or ‘street of poor people’. It is often used as a derogatory term and has negative connotations, especially when employed by town planners or wealthy land-grabbers to delegitimize urban areas in the hope of repurposing them for money-making ventures.
Every street in every East End borough once had a head female. Long before the welfare state came into being these women acted as defenders and enforcers who observed a strict code of honour which, according to Thompson, “included brute force, love, hope, humour, imagination, solidarity and resilience.” They were its chief protectors, matriarchal minders if you like.
“In World War Two, it was women who saved the day.”
By the time the author met, befriended and recorded their remarkable stories, many of these women were nonagenarians, even centenarians, though age had not dampened their grit and ebullience. Their recollections of forcefully requisitioning the London Underground during the Blitz, crawling from beneath mounds of rubble after a night of heavy bombardment, driving the British blackshirts (Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists) from Whitechapel during the Battle of Cable Street and standing up to the Kray-twins are, quite frankly, hair-raising, but they were equally doughty when it came to feeding large broods of children, standing in as mid-wives and holding down two or three jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
The Stepney Doorstep Society: The remarkable true story of the women who ruled the East End through war and peace is a melange of inspiring and often surprisingly joyful tales; an unvarnished social history of the individuals who held the local populace together during Britain’s darkest hours. Eminently readable, it is an important record of the unsung but hopefully never to be forgotten beaproned guardians of old working-class London.
“Respect. Tolerance. Pride. Cleanliness. Cherished virtues I have heard time and again as being the bedrock of East End communities.”
Many thanks to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for providing an advance review copy of this title.
Sounds wonderful, Paula. I really “don’t* think they make them like the used to. And however un-PC it is, I wonder how modern generations would cope with some of the privations of the past… 😉
Very true, Kaggsy. They were a tough breed. It brings home what life was like before the NHS and the welfare state. My old Nan was a Mancunian and she often talked about the poverty she witnessed in the early 20th century – she could remember children running about with no shoes. To be hoped future generations never have to suffer such extreme privations again.
Great review – I’ve heard a lot about this one.
Many thanks, Jay. A fascinating read.
This sounds fascinating, Paula, thanks for putting it on my radar!
It was an interesting read, Ola! 😊
I *love* the sound of this! I’m a Londoner born and bred and definitely had a few of these matriarchs in my life – I was very lucky. Although I’m a south Londoner I think there’s something very special about the East End. I’ve been working in east London now for 3 years and there’s always more discover, especially historically.
It is wonderful you have first-hand knowledge of these remarkable women, Madame B.Where did they find the strength to survive (thrive, even) in such appalling conditions (even without bombs raining down on their heads every night), let alone hold their local communities together? Incredible!
Wondering how it holds up against the challenges to the myths of the Blitz. Guess I’ll just have to read it.
Well you can never be sure, Josie, but in my opinion these accounts are quite truthful – you certainly find out how useless the British Government could be when it came to protecting ordinary folk during the Blitz (the locals forced their way into the underground because the shelters provided were next to useless against the bombs). There were also cover-ups to protect the country’s morale, often to the detriment of those living in the East End. Not all Brits covered themselves in glory but these women came into their own because they were practical and had plenty of experience of surviving on the breadline. 😊
This sounds fascinating Paula. The strengths these women had to draw upon are just extraordinary.
This sounds wonderful Paula, I definitely want to read this. These women remind me of the tales I have heard about life in the back streets of Liverpool during WW2. There may be many similarities.
I think many people are unaware Liverpool sustained heavy bombing during WW2 (it wasn’t far behind London in terms of nightly raids). Coming from North Wales, I grew up around Liverpudlians who had moved to the area and heard many a tale of the Liverpool Blitz. I should think their humour alone kept spirits raised – they’ve always been a tough breed. My mother’s side of the family still lived in Manchester during this period and experienced a near-miss when a bomb landed on a house in the next street. My Nan always recalled standing up in the air raid shelter to have a stretch and sitting down quickly when she heard the whistling sound getting ever closer!
Paula – I am very attracted to stories of the unsung, so thank you for bringing The Stepney Doorstep Society to our [my] attention. And thanks for sharing the origin of the word “slum” in your review.
Thank you, Leslie. I’m glad you found it of interest. 😊
Thanks from me too, Paula, for alerting me to this one. It’s on the list!
Hope you enjoy it, Sandra! 😊
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like such a cheeze-y cover for what seems like a very worthwhile read. It looks like it was packaged to appeal to fans of that Midwife show (I’m blanking on the title of it – I keep meaning to watch it, as a teenaged friend of mine thinks it’s the best thing ever – and now that I’ve said this, I’ll probably get hooked on it and have to eat my words. Well, not really!)
I know what you mean – it wasn’t the best choice of covers.
I don’t watch a great deal of TV but Call the Midwife is an enjoyable programme. It certainly shows the importance of protecting free health care and the benefits’ system in this country – I would hate to see a return to such abject poverty in modern Britain (we do, of course, have poverty, but not so extreme nor on such a grand scale). The series has some interesting storylines concerning the importance of vaccinations, the issue of back-street abortions and so on. All of which it tackles with sensitivity. It’s the sort of drama that pulls at your heart strings – it’s relatively easy to get hooked! 😂
That does sound like the kind of show I could get attached to fairly easily. More than a decade ago, there was a BBC show about a female doctor who treated the disenfranchised in the London slums (Victorian time period, though) which I just adored for all those reasons you’ve stated. And I’ve gotten hooked on a lot of good UK crime stories in recent years too (Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey, Broadchurch, River and on and on). And, okay, also Downton Abbey. 😀 Sheesh, how do we get ANY books read?!
Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey were both written and directed by the wonderful Sally Wainwright – my absolute favourite writer of drama for TV (she creates fabulous roles for women). If you ever get the opportunity to watch Last Tango in Halifax, I thoroughly recommend you do. It isn’t a crime series but a very loosely adapted story of Wainwright’s mother’s second marriage (in her later years) starring Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid, Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker. Set in Yorkshire, it’s a life-affirming depiction an older couple and their complicated families. The acting and dialogue are superb, it’s funny, moving and very down to earth. A new series (about the fourth, I think) is due to be aired in the UK very soon. Wainwright also pulled off another successful series last year: Gentleman Jack, in which Suranne Jones of Scott & Bailey plays the infamous Anne Lister. Series two is coming soon! 🤣 Did I mention that I don’t often watch the TV?
*wriggles in seat* There’s no option for me to reply inline to your comment above, but I can’t keep quiet about your other rec’s because I was actually going to mention Last Tango — it’s one of my favourite favourites. What a messy and heartfelt story: I just love it. And I think I “discovered” it right after “Happy Valley” but I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t recognize the link to the creator Sally Wainright. But now I’ll watch for her name. And I’ve heard of GJ but it was on my “someday maybe” list and now it’s bumped straight up to “soon”. There’s a world apart from not often watching to never watching, eh? LOL Do you track your viewing anywhere, like GoodReads for books, but for films or shows? (Apologies to anyone who is offended by the not-very-bookish diversion…but it is all good storytelling in the end.)
I’m so pleased to learn you’re a fan of Last Tango in Halifax, Marcie! 😃
Much as I love lists and tracking technology, I’ve never kept tabs on my TV viewing in a systematic way. Is there such a website? I daresay there must be.
You might rather not know! 🙂
Rather late for this discussion but I, too, am a big fan of ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and avidly watch every episode. It is far removed from my life in Australia but I love the actors and the scenery so much 🙂
It’s never too late to discuss LTIH, Gretchen. I’m so hoping they will make another series but I’m doubtful. 😕
Fingers crossed, Paula!
Great review, Paula. 🙂 I’m a noob about British society in World War II, since I am an Indian. So, I am always keen to read more books about WWII. Thanks for your recommendation!
Thank you so much, Debjani. I love the expression “noob” – I had to google it! 😂
This sounds fascinating. My attention span for nonfiction has been lacking the past few years but this is one I think I would really enjoy.