Craftivism Challenge 2020 launches

On 16th November we launched our #craftvism2020 challenge to celebrate women activists in East London.

We’ve been doing craftivism events regularly since 2016, working with the public to create over five metres of bunting that commemorates equality, diversity and women’s history more broadly. The aim was to keep building on the bunting this year, but due to the pandemic we had to take a slightly different approach to normal. It was too risky to meet in person, so instead we created craftivism packs, which have been distributed across the community.

In total 60 packs were sent out. Forty went out via local food banks, and 20 were sent to directly to participants on request. The packs included threads, needles, fabrics and all sorts of other crafting goodies. The task set was to create a flag for our bunting using the women in our online exhibition as inspiration. The results have been fantastic.

So far we have had contributions from young and old, sewing commemorations from Spare Rib magazine to the suffragettes. Some have looked more widely for their inspiration, dedicating their flag to figures in black history, including the writer, Octavia E Butler and Josephine Baker. You can check out each design on Instagram using the hashtag #craftvism2020.

The deadline for all flags to be returned is 8th Jan, so you still have all Christmas to take part. We don’t have any packs left, but if you email me I can send you the instructions, and then all you have to do is rummage around at home for any old bits of embroidery thread and fabric.

Our exhibition is back, bigger and better

It’s been years in the development; hours of sitting in cold archives; many cups of tea over oral history interviews; but finally our new Women Activists of East London exhibition is back. And it’s even better than last time.

I am so excited about the stories we have uncovered in this new phase of the project. There is much more diversity, including celebrating queer women activists. That’s fitting as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Gay Liberation Front. But we also managed to go back even further than that, finding stories of suffragettes in same sex relationships.

We have once again worked with award winning photographer, Elizabeth Dalziel. We have also worked with the brilliant illustrator Laura Greenan, who helped bring to life the women we could not find photos of. The lack of photographic documentation of women, particularly those from working class communities, is one of the things that keeps women’s history in the sidelines. It has been great to have these additions to the collection.

We have pulled all this together in an exhibition, which opens on 31st March at 1B Window Gallery on Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow. The exhibition will then tour around a number of venues. Here is a sneak preview.

Eva Slawson
Eva was a Christian socialist, looking to religion for both spiritual comfort and intellectual stimulation. She joined the Leyton branch of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Labour League and suffrage organisation, the Women’s Freedom League.  Eva was interested in feminist issues, especially the nature of relationships between men and women. In 1911 Eva met Minna Simmons and a close friendship immediately developed. After Minna’s husband died, Eva moved into her home in Walthamstow. While Eva did not describe their relationship in explicitly sexual terms, it was clearly profound.


The Sari Squad

The Sari Squad were a group of mostly Asian women who formed to fight deportations and the Immigration and Nationality Acts, which, like the hostile environment toda,y were built on a racist premise. They women engaged in many acts of civil disobedience, including chaining themselves to railings outside Conservative MP, Leon Brittan’s house.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Photofusion/Shutterstock (2286837a) Picket by Sari Squad of Tory Party conference, October 1983 Politics

Photo by Photofusion/Shutterstock (2286837a) Picket by Sari Squad of Tory Party conference, October 1983

Rachel Salmon
Rachel and her sister were some of the first visually impaired children to go to a mainstream school. They were trailblazers but it could also be quite challenging, as some of the teachers didn’t want to teach them. These early experiences informed her political views. In the 1990s she joined the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People and Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN). Rachel got involved in lots of direct actions, such as stopping traffic by chaining herself to buses in Whitehall.

Rachel Salmon, disability rights campaigner, poses for a picture at her home in Walthamstow Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. Rachel currently works at Hackney Council and is shop steward for her union. She has done a lot of work around diversity and inclusivity at work, including race, sexual identity, gender and disability. 
Rachel is also the Disability Officer for Walthamstow Labour Party. She is trying to encourage the Executive Committee to ensure events run by the Labour Party are accessible for disabled people as well as people who find being involved in political activity difficult more generally. She is also involved in Disability Labour, which is focused on more national issues, such as making sure disabled people can access things like public office. (Elizabeth Dalziel)

Rachel Summers
Rachel has always loved being outside. As a child she would take snails for a ride on her trike, and had a tank of pet woodlice. After training as a forest school leader, Rachel took over a piece of derelict land and transformed it, not just for her forest school, but for the whole community to enjoy. She is also active in Extinction Rebellion, and helped her own children organise a local school climate strike.


Women Activists of East London opens on 31st March at 1B Window Gallery on Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow. It will then travel to: Higham Hill Library, Walthamstow (4th May to 14th May); The Mill,  Walthamstow (19th May to 18th June); Walthamstow Garden Party (18th to 19th July)

Seeking stories of queer women activists

Screenshot 2019-06-17 at 12.08.35

The stories of queer women are often missing from our narratives of feminist activism. That’s why we decided to dedicate our latest oral history project to uncovering some of those stories.

We are delighted that we have already recorded an interview with a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners,  and have many more wonderful interview lined up. I know there are more though – we just need to reach the women.

If you identify as a queer women activist, or know someone whose story you think we need to record, please get in touch. You don’t have to have been born in East London to qualify for inclusion, but you do need to have some kind of connection with the boroughs of Waltham Forest, Hackney or Tower Hamlets. That might be through work, activism, family or living.

We have 20 volunteer interviewers, who have been trained by the Oral History Society and are eager to meet you and hear your stories. Contact us today!

Bus Girls at the Women’s Library

LSE archive Blog 4Volunteer Kelly Webster trawls the Women’s Library archives at LSE in search of information on the Hackney Bus Girls’ strike.

I went to The Women’s library at LSE. This was my first visit but I needn’t feel nervous as everyone was very helpful, especially Gillian Murphy who gave me tips on how to search and even brought to my attention different resources.

I was searching for leads on the women’s bus strike in Hackney of 1918, and was hoping to find information regarding queer women activists and women activists of The East End.

Gillian suggested I check out Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s file, which actually contained a letter from Millicent to The Times Newspaper regarding the strike. In the letter Millicent shows support for the women and presents the true facts, that the women had given prior notice of the grievances and the plan to act if they were ignored.

Searching through the correspondence for women vehicle workers, it showed me how women had become an integral part of the labour force in war time. A letter from The Common Cause to the London Branch for Women Motor Drivers, requests help to obtain “a short letter or statement of an authoritative character from the women’s side” about the strike. This was significant because many women’s voices went unheard especially among the working class.

I didn’t use all the material I looked at but it was nevertheless fascinating and a privilege to look at. I remember browsing through the personal little note books, diaries and contact books of Amanda Sebestyen who was part of the Spare Rib Collective. They contained notes, ideas and even little doddles, the kind we all find ourselves drawing at times and it gave the items a shared human touch.

My best advice would be to do your research before you attend. You can order up to three items before your booked visit, although you can order more items on the day at specific time slots. An item can be a full box but also just one file and you are designated a desk and a key to a numbered box, one of many that creates a wall of perspex. Here you keep your orders and take one item out at a time.

I really loved going to the archives. The digital world is helpful but can be very sterile, and certainly won’t make you sneeze, yes there will be dust so bring a tissue.


Exploring London’s archives

Volunteer Debbie Scott takes us on a tour of London’s many archives, including LSE, Museum of London, Britsh Library, London Met Archives, Bishopsgate and Tower Hamlets Local Archives.

I’m familiar with using the Tower Hamlets archive from researching my family history, so I know the procedures. I like the way it is laid out, providing easy access to directories and microfiche, although I always have to be reminded about how to use the machines. It is always well staffed, and the librarians are helpful. Doing this project I learnt some extra tips from them, such as how to select a map and how to identify the district number on Ancestry. I was also advised that Find My Past is better for searching specific streets, which I did at the British Library. Again, I have membership but had never ordered books before, so I took the opportunity to read some books which are hard to find,  and consult others which are too expensive to buy. In the 70 minute wait for the books, I accessed  Times Digital and British Newspapers Online to confirm facts and for some juicy snippets! It’s all a bit baffling but help is available.

I joined the LSE but was disappointed as I couldn’t find the books I needed. They should have been on the open shelves but some were not available or misplaced. I had to return to the Librarian on bottom floor, but even she couldn’t find them.

The best experience was viewing original material.

I wanted to view original court records at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I have also visited before but this was the first time I’d enquired beforehand. The librarian  sent me the catalogue numbers and I made an  impromptu visit, confident I could pop in. ..but my membership had expired. Luckily, I looked trustworthy  and they renewed it. I made a materials request then spent 20 minutes dawdling in the exhibition. The tatty originals were handed to me in the archive room, separated from the public area.  Although it was fascinating  to handle them they didn’t yield up any new clues. I was hoping to find addresses. I was tempted to photograph the scrawled pages but it would have cost me £5.

Having researched Adelaide Knight, I was keen to see the original Canning Town WSPU minutes held at the Museum of London. I arranged a visit via email and although the archivist couldn’t be there, she made sure the relevant material was available on the day I visited. I was met at the front desk and taken through a warren of corridors to the archive library . Left alone with the CT minutes book and a scrap book of cuttings, letters, summonses etc, I was in heaven. Though not thoroughly indexed, the scrap book was a gold mine! Originals from J Sbarboro and M Baldock plus letters concerning the Cavendish sq incident they were involved in. I filled in a photo permission form and snapped away, then got absorbed in a  brilliant letter by Kitty Marion, whom I determined to researcher  further. The CT minutes (1906-7)provided a picture of the change in nature of meetings: from formal, to planning trips, to tailing off. There was no record of the departure of A.K. but there was an insight into the mutual support of the local organisations and how they promoted meetings and the women’s cause. I photographed some pages that showed the feistiness of the women , some as evidence and some that made me laugh. I hope to go back and spend more time interrogating its treasures and I’m looking forward to delving again into Bishopsgate Institute’s basement as the tour was so wacky.

Exploring May Morris at the Women’s Library

Volunteer Ruth Singleton goes in search or May Morris at LSE’s Women’s Library.

There’s something special about old manuscripts. They carry the weight of all the people who have pawed at them over the years, all looking to find something different in the same collection of words. And, to my mind, there is something even more exciting in the personal writing and the private correspondence of people long dead, which has been preserved for one reason or another as a clue to the past.LSE archive Blog 3

As I began to sift through the reams of online information stored in relation to May Morris, William Morris’s younger daughter, looking for links to activism and queer communities, I soon found that the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library archives was a treasure trove of letters, photographs and past research. Well, I say that I found this out – in fact I was directed and supported by the archivists in residence, who unearthed a number of artefacts that I otherwise might have missed.

I booked myself in for a Saturday of rummaging and, on arrival, was immediately pleased by the orderly process. It felt like a ritual: discarding everything not required for (or allowed in) the reading room, being shown to my desk and handed the key to my ready-prepared set of resources. It was quiet, with just a handful of studious types, curiously leafing through piles of paper. There was a gentle white-noise hum of monitors, underneath which the muffled conversation of the archivists floated through the air, almost as though the room were alive, calm and relaxed. Nothing more, but the thrum of papers being turned and the keyboard tap-taps. The lights hanging over each desk remind me of something you’d see at the dentist’s, but they prove invaluable for taking photos of my finds.
Two hours pass, absorbed and un-punctuated, then three. Histories intermingle, voices besides the one I am here to find catch my eye – history in the archives is full of the voices of men, letters between them, weighty and formal. The scrawl is sometimes almost illegible, written over here and there by a slightly more recent past. Fleeting references to May Morris shine out unexpectedly like gems, and around them the complex webs of the world she inhabited spin out in different directions. I begin to recognise handwritings, learn what to look for, what is not of importance.

LSE archive Blog 2Another hour slips by as I fall down a rabbit hole of the compiled notes of a previous researcher writing a book on Morris’ embroidery. I get lost in her narrative; her endless letters, the slow and fruitless responses, the sudden burst of activity. The final product. I remember too late that her focus is not the same as mine, but still I have found some revealing passages. I put the box away.

I hand my final box back to archivist, and relinquish my key. It has been a useful day and certainly helped me understand how to approach archival research in the future. I’m looking forward to spending more time in London’s archives, these spaces of quiet and concentration, following leads and piecing information together. I wonder if archivists can still hear the gentle white-noise hum in their minds when they go to sleep at night. It’s something I could certainly get used to.


Newham Archive visit

Volunteer Debbie Scott went exploring in Newham Archives to uncover East London suffragette stories. This is how she got on.

I sent an email in advance explaining that I was researching local suffragettes and asking the best time to come. Despite being informed it was open from 10.30, I got there at 12.30 and was told, very nicely, that they were closing in half an hour. However, I was impressed to see that the librarian had got out some record books for me and some display material about the Lawrence family that she guessed might be of interest. It was. I was surprised to find that the Pethick-Lawrences had local family connections (Edwin Durning Lawrence) which may explain why they had sympathy with Sylvia’s campaign. The assistant archivist, Jennie, helpfully accessed Ancestry for me on her computer so we could trace the family’s roots back to Shoreditch.

I returned in the afternoon to search the record books: great hulking volumes of the Poor Law Guardians minutes, which didn’t yield the info I was looking for. So Emily, a volunteer, helped interrogate the online catalogue to find some other useful links and books. Of course, Plaistow was a village in Essex one hundred years ago and I discovered that the Kelly’s directories were far less useful than those for London boroughs, being jam-packed with all the eastern home counties.

So we resorted to the Electoral Registers, which are on microfiche here. Jenny selected the relevant one but, being a mine of local info, could also tell me that 32 Romford Road, where the WSPU met, was the Old Dispensary or the building next to it.

I was really impressed by how the staff were keen to help me but, as they were also helping the other users, and the system is a bit oblique, I had to wait until they were available to show me where resources were kept. I also expected that there would be a folder of material (clippings etc) on the local suffragettes but there wasn’t one, although there was, happily, a display outside the archive room on notable local women.

The one thing we must not forget about the women’s suffrage centenary

In 1918, the People’s Representation Act was past, granting women the vote for the first time. Next year, across the country, there will be events to celebrate this landmark event. Except, for some women there was nothing to celebrate.

East London Federation of Suffragettes procession from Old Ford to Westminster Abbey


The 1918 act only granted the vote to householders, and in 1918 that excluded around 40% of women (and men) in East London. As one of the poorest areas of the country their poverty excluded them from voting rights. It would be another three years until universal suffrage was granted.

It is so important that we remember this fact. Working classes consistently get erased from history, and revisionism is incredibly problematic. That’s why, as part of next year’s centenary events, we are embarking on a series of talks across East London to share the stories of the East London suffragettes. We want people to know that if they had lived 100 years ago, 1918 would not have been a year of celebration for them.

If you would be interested in hosting a talk, please get in touch. The talks are free as our mission is to simply share the stories of women who deserve more recognition than they get.

The final curtain (for now)

This weekend we come to the end of our two year journey into the history of women-led activism, as our craftivist banner gets exhibited at the Walthamstow Garden Party. The banner was made by local women inspired by our project, as part of the Jo Cox Great Get Together (June 2017).

P16189 Minnie Lansbury 600 dpi 001Our journey started back in summer 2015 as our volunteers investigated archives in search of women’s stories that history had forgotten. They unearthed the lesser known suffragettes, like Emma Boyce and Sybil Smith, who campaigned tirelessly for Eastend women to not only get the vote, but also fight poverty. The volunteers also brought to life women like Milly Witkop, who is often only known as Rudolph Rocker’s lover, as opposed to a powerful activist in her own right.

Thanks to volunteers Jo Bloor, Sarah Brooke, Jasmiina Kauriola, Jean King, Susan Kochs, Cleo Pollard, Yara Rodriques Fowler, Charlotte Rowland and Michael Simpson for their efforts in researching, writing and proof-reading the report.

Download the report now

14 BEATTIE ORWELL02Following the archive research we began recording oral history interviews with women activists. We aimed to get 30, but ended up with 35 and could have easily done more, but ran out of time. The breadth of work, on top of commitments such as childcare and day jobs, made these women’s stories even more incredible. While many expressed gratitude to be featured amongst such esteemed companions, I personally found each and every one an inspiration.

Thanks to our volunteers Therese Berger, Pam Decho, Rhiannon Finamore, Ellen Harris, Sian Harrison, Veronique Jochum, Jean King, Hannah Lamdin, Ursula Nield, Alice Patterson, Cleo Pollard, Michael Simpson, Gill Scott, Julia Spicer, Josie Stevens, Sonita Turner. And of course to the 35 interviewees who gave their time to our project and generously shared their story

The complete, unedited collection of interviews can be accessed via Bishopsgate Institute archives. You can hear edited versions of a selection by downloading our walking tour app.

Download the app now

160901_0049In Spring 2016 we began to curate the exhibition, which for some was the most interesting part. A lot of historical retelling comes from the top down; from academics who’ve shaped the story for us. But many of these were stories were previously untold, so open to our own interpretation. As one volunteer put it: “We were reading and constructing the past on our terms.”

The exhibition was only supposed to be a two week stretch during the E17 Art Trail, but ended up touring to six different venues, including the Walthamstow Garden Party, The Barbican, Rich Mix and on Ruby Road, in a guerilla style street-facing finale.

Thanks to our volunteers Therese Berger, Rhiannon Finamore, Ellen Harris, Sian Harrison, Veronique Jochum, Hannah Lamdin and Julia Spicer. And a very special extra thanks to Gill Scott, who helped coordinate the exhibition and events on Ruby Road.

The exhibition boards have been donated to two schools (one set each) in Stratford (Sarah Bonnel Girls School) and Walthamstow (Walthamstow School for Girls).

Banner 2As for the banner – out this weekend in the Community Marquee at Walthamstow Garden Party – that is being homed at St Hilda’s East, and used for events run by the Boundary Women’s Group

So for now that brings the project to an end. There is however so much more women’s history out there. We didn’t even touch on lesbian, bisexual and transgender activism, and there are some incredible women disability activists, such as Sisters of Frida. I hope one day we can get the funding to come back to their stories and add to this inspirational collection.

Added thanks to our steering group Sondhya Gupta, Sarah Jackson, Janet Bowstead and Julia Slay for their help and advice throughout the project

How a new exhibition helped me through the horror of 2016

If you’re feeling anything like me, then you’ll probably be glad to see the back of 2016.

P09297 Alice Model 001 300 DPII’ve gone from the high of the spring, when I was privileged to meet and hear stories from so many women activists, to an almighty fall into Brexit and the reality of the Trump administration. I have to admit to feeling pretty low right now.

I don’t have a cure, but I can suggest one small thing that might relieve the symptoms: take yourself down to the Journeys to Justice exhibition, featuring Women Activists of East London, at Rich Mix in Shoreditch 

On from now until the beginning of January, Journeys to Justice uses music, art and oral histories to explore the history of the US civil rights movement and its impact on human rights in the UK. It focuses on individual stories, which are both moving and inspiring.

I’m thrilled that a number of women activists from our project have been selected for inclusion in the exhibition. Their stories stand proud as a local illustration of much wider struggles. It’s also fascinating to see these women in a wider social context, to understand both the similarities and differences.

Most of all, it helped me see that there have been struggles before that have often seen insumourtable, but we have fought and won. I believe we can do it again.

The exhibition will be on everyday until 1st January at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Rd

Photo: Alice Model, maternity rights campaigner (Tower Hamlets Archives)