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.