Commend and Append: Documenting the Feminist History of the Infamous East End

Hi I’m Lara and I’m currently working on a student placement with Layers of London!

Since moving to the East End to study history two years ago I have become smitten with the wonderfully diverse, history, culture and individuals of the area (and, of course, the 24hour bagel shops). Therefore, when the opportunity to document the East End’s feminist history onto the new Layers of London map arose, I couldn't resist. So far I have been tasked with documenting half of the checkpoint areas noted in the ‘Feminist History in the East End- a walk’ pamphlet; a document sourced from the Ron Heisler Collection in Senate House, originally created by Clare Manifold for the ‘Rights of Women’ group in 1979.

Beginning at Old Ford Road, just outside of Victoria Park, and working west through Globe Town towards Bethnal Green I began to document locations including Cranbrook Estate, Weaver’s Fields, York Hall and Hanbury Street. With this came a slow realisation about the uncanny nature of what I was researching. I found that many of these locations, ones which I familiarise myself with several times a week, were now entirely foreign! Take Bethnal Green Library for example. To my mind, this was a space of knowledge and study frequented by curious students, adults and children. No - I was immensely mistaken. It turns out that this space had once housed 993 patients and chained women naked to their beds in what was, between 1800-1920, Bethnal Green Asylum- absolute madness!

Whilst this revelation was fascinating, albeit slightly unsettling, what it did showcase was the profound effect which buildings and locations can have on the understanding of  local history. With this, I decided to conduct my own feminist walking tour around the areas of the East End which I had researched during my first week. Destinations Bethnal Green Asylum and York Hall Public Baths still exist today, yet their architectural purpose has been reincarnated to match the needs of the 21st century; York Hall is currently a spa/hotel and also home to British Boxing.

Often, I found that the histories of locations which still architecturally exist were easier to research, whilst the stories surrounding checkpoints which have been demolished seem to have vanished with the buildings themselves. For example, Weavers Fields was one of the East’s poorest weaving districts during the mid 19th century. However, after WWII the area was demolished and transformed into Bethnal Green’s largest public green space which still exists today. In the ‘Feminist History in the East End’ pamphlet an old weaver documents how she would “be tied to the loom all day” and often eat her meals there. Whilst the Weavers have been commemorated by Peter Dunn’s sculpture ‘Weaving Identity’, it felt humbling on my visit to have known the unique stories of the unspoken women who inhabited the area as well as the more renowned figures, e.g Henrietta Barnett,  Florence Booth and Eleanor Marx, who have left an infamous and public legacy on the East End.

With this, I urge anyone who is curious, or a just a bit of a fan of where they live, to use the internet for a quick historical browse, use Layers of London, use Google Maps and just go for a walk; you might find your favourite local pub was a hub for radical feminism or the site of an infamous murder?! When you have the same effect I did when I realised I’d been studying in an old asylum for the past year, you’ll thank me (or maybe not, who knows).