If you tried to list famous historical figures from British history, you might be forgiven for being able to name significantly less women than men. After all, women are still routinely side-lined or forgotten in our popular history and heritage. There is only one statue of a named black woman in Britain today, while only 14% of English Heritage’s famous blue plaques honour women. The East End Women’s Museum (EEWM) was established in 2015 in response to a huge missed opportunity to address these issues, when a proposed women’s history museum on Cable Street turned out to focus instead on the story of a serial killer.
East London women’s lives have been filled with stories of resistance, resilience and resourcefulness, but their stories have been confined to the margins of history. Through collaborative and community-driven projects, EEWM works to challenge gender stereotypes and gender inequality, to ensure representation of all women, and to empower women and girls to tell their own stories. In autumn 2019, I worked the with museum for six weeks to develop a new heritage trail which shares a handful of women’s stories through places in East London today.
Brilliant Women of Whitechapel, Bow and Barking is a self-guided trail which uses places and public spaces to explore stories of ‘ordinary yet extraordinary’ women who have lived in East London. The trail traces a symbolic line from the birthplace of the East End Women’s Museum in the traditional ‘East End’, to the museum’s future site in Barking, as well as a practical one along some of the main transport routes of the area. Through fourteen locations users can explore histories of both popular and less-known stories of East London women, from Annie Brewster, one of the first identified nurses of African descent who worked at the Royal London Hospital, to the machinists who went on strike at Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1969 to demand equal pay. But what does using the format of a heritage trail offer to the production and communication of radical histories?
On a very simple level, the places that become ‘points’ or ‘nodes’ on a trail act as useful tools of storytelling. Physical sites can be a hook, acting as access points into large historical themes or drawing attention to smaller stories from the past. For example, we used a mural dedicated to Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, painted on the side of the Lord Morpeth Pub in Bow, to explore the history of female voting rights. The mural marks the former location of the Women’s Hall on Old Ford Road, which between 1914 and 1924 was both the headquarters of the ELFS and a radical social centre run by and for working class women. The Women’s Hall was an important site for activists who could hold meetings and fundraisers there, while a ‘Cost Price Restaurant’ offered local women access to cheap meals and free milk for children.
Physical sites can also bring histories to life and add a sense of urgency or relevance, especially to histories which might be distant or abstract. Places act as a bridge between the past and present, between history and the trail user, which opens up space for understanding and historical empathy. This works on both an imaginary and sensory level – the very physicality of a place and the performative aspect of standing in it can allow us to better imagine the experience of it. Visiting a historic market, for example, might help users to imagine the sounds, sights, or smells of it in another era. Users of the EEWM trail are prompted to think about the everyday working life of Hannah Dadds, the first female driver on the London Underground, as they take a tube train from Bow to Barking. At the same time, the feeling of being in ‘the place where it happened’, and of sharing that space, can be deeply inspirational.
More importantly, heritage trails can also be used in more radical and collaborative history-making. Exploring histories by moving through public and familiar places can break down barriers, perceived or otherwise, between a potential audience and institutionalised, less-accessible forms of heritage. Heritage trails can foster a sense of shared ownership of our histories, especially when we carefully choose the sites featured and prioritise everyday spaces like homes, shops and streets rather than exclusive ones like civic buildings or museums. This is amplified when we choose to create heritage trails that are free and self-guided. Flexible trails allow people to develop their own interpretations of the space, adding in their own stories or anecdotes, to go off on tangents (physically as well as intellectually) – and research shows that they do this.
In the time spent walking between sites, users have conversations about the topics raised on the trail, or draw on their own knowledge and experience, so that as they move through a trail it compiles layers upon layers of history and memory from a range of different perspectives. For example at the Royal London Hospital stop, local users have contributed their own stories of working and being patients here, and commented that they engaged with this site in particular because of their personal connections to it. They were able to offer new information and a different perspective on the historical meaning of this site. This is important in London, where any given space can be inscribed with multiple historical and contemporary meanings, and where people’s relationships to history and place are constantly being written and rewritten. Heritage trails also limit which histories can be told. Although trails hold the power to challenge dominant historical narratives of particular places, they can also reinforce them. Our choice of which stories to tell and the accessibility of physical sites themselves hold enormous power, elevating one particular interpretation of the historical landscape over another, while by their nature trails aren’t accessible to everyone.
These issues are complicated by the rapidly changing physical and cultural environment in East London – in the six weeks I worked on the project I saw buildings disappear completely and others spring up brand new. At the same time, East London boroughs have some of the largest population turnover rates in Britain. But we shouldn’t think that spaces need to exist as they once were – the trail does not aim to create a nostalgic, varnished or static picture of the area. In the late 1970s, Mala Sen co-founded the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) to fight against discriminatory housing policies targeting Bengali communities living in Spitalfields. She helped families to squat in unused council buildings around Brick Lane, including on Woodseer Street, where the Brilliant Women of Whitechapel, Bow and Barking trail starts. Although these buildings no longer exist, today Brick Lane remains a thriving centre of Bengali culture and community, and acts as the perfect site to highlight both the history of Mala Sen and BHAG and the legacy it has in East London today.
Using places and public spaces to engage with radical histories is becoming increasingly popular. I’ve seen this in my previous work on history, community and place in Yorkshire, as well as in my research for the East End Women’s Museum (I had the pleasure of investigating plenty of tours and site-specific histories during my time with them). Projects like Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage and Uncomfortable Oxford are utilising places which offer new perspectives on the past, helping us to access voices on the margins, and reclaim historical spaces to challenge dominant narratives. The East End Women’s Museum’s Brilliant Women of Whitechapel Bow and Barking launches this month, to share and celebrate the stories of some truly inspirational and trailblazing women.
The Brilliant Women of Whitechapel, Bow and Barking Heritage Trail is available online and in print. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. The East End Women’s Museum exists through pop-ups and touring exhibitions, workshops, events and online. A new museum building will be opening in Barking in 2021.