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Changing Communities

Earlier this year I’d spent a frosty Tuesday in the docks of East London keeping warm and toasty in the University of East London’s archive library. Bracing the bitter wind, looking out over this Easterly stretch of the Thames, I tried to imagine the area as it used to be as a thriving hub of London’s shipping docks up until the middle of the last century. I’m undertaking a research project for author Kate Thompson for her next novel, which is set in East London during World War II and I’d come along to listen to East London People’s Archive, audio recordings. The Cockney view of life is unique with the ability to crack a laugh, even when talking about horrific experiences such as the war. This particular oral history takes place at a local community centre and as the group gather and settle down to chat they cheer when spam and corn beef sandwiches are passed around alongside cups of milky tea.

There was anxious laughter as Joan reflected on the sense of community she enjoyed during the war, ‘it was lovely really’ she said, rather than mentioning some of the horror and loss she must have experienced. ‘Neighbours looking out for your kids if you had one indoors sick, they’d go and get a bit of shopping for you’. Doris explains that their neighbours wouldn’t hesitate in sharing their coal rations with them. Doors were left open for people to come in and out, ‘You didn’t have nuffink but neither did anyone else’. The group agree that the war cost them their sense of community. A large number of homes were bombed in East London resulting in many residents moving to Essex and Kent, whole families were pulled apart. Even though they were only a short train ride away, to them it felt like an ocean between them after living amongst their friends and family all their young lives. Rose from North Woolwich, talking in 2004, says she feels sorry for those people in the new tower blocks that are being built ‘they just sleep there, in their box, they go to work, come home, go back to work again’. She assumes they don’t know their neighbours and exclaims ‘what kind of life is that?’.

On my way home I half shut my eyes against the bracing wind and watched the planes land on the alarmingly short runway of London City Airport in a strip of the Thames that would have been packed full with skyscraper sized ships and I tried to imagine what it must have been like living here back then. Sailors arriving from every part of the world bringing with them cargos of tea, spices and menagerie animals. I could still hear East Ender Doreen chatting in my ear complaining that she couldn’t sleep when the docks were closed as she couldn’t stand the silence. I made my way back to the DLR and brought myself back into the present by reading the news. The Commission for Loneliness, in honour of murdered MP, Joanne Cox was one of the lead stories of the day. Ms Cox had come up with the idea after joining her grandfather on his postal round in the West Yorkshire and realising that he was the only person that some people would see that day. One thing that struck me was that the elderly people I had heard chatting on the recordings did not appear to be lonely. They were very much involved in the community, visiting a different social club every day and in younger years, they had arranged festivals for their local area. I thought about Rose’s comment about young people living in a ‘box’ of a flat and not knowing their neighbours. Perhaps Rose was right, it wasn’t the elderly that were lonely but those much younger and too busy working to have a social life. In 2015 the Office for National Statistics undertook a study on loneliness and well-being in old people but when they correlated it with an earlier study they found that people of working age between 35 and 54 were the most lonely of all the age groups and the least likely to socialise.

I recently gave up my full time job in a busy, friendly office of around 200 people and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on my last day. I enjoyed the job but I knew what I would miss the most was the friends I had made at work. A few weeks after leaving I suffered a family bereavement. Feeling sad and a bit lost, I decided to visit my old office. I wanted to go somewhere familiar, to a place where people shared their every day events with each other. Conversations can switch in seconds from a huge row with a boyfriend the night before or to that evening’s dinner choices. My ex-colleagues were pleased to see me and I enjoyed catching up on everyone’s news. I thought back to Rose and her comment about people going to work then coming home to a box and I realised that not everything has changed since the war, we still have a community but they are now the offices, the bars and pubs next to the office and not necessarily our homes.
So what about the future? Will I become lonely now I am not surrounded by people all day? I could see how this could happen, especially as there is a trend towards zero hour contracts and people working from home. I thought back to ‘You Say You Want A Revolution’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in London and a gallery dedicated to the hippie ideals of sharing knowledge and seeking alternative communities. The Internet was created to bring people closer together and yet 40 years later this has resulted in more and more people being asked to work from home and only connecting via a broadband network. In the case of Richard, an IT project manager, he was required to work from home due to the lack of desk space at his office. The only day he could find a spare desk in the building was a Friday as many people chose to work from home that day but of course, there were not many people present to interact with.

I agree with Rose that our home lives have shifted but I disagree we have lost our sense of community, as human beings it is there but not in the way she experienced it when she was growing up. I appreciate that loneliness is a complex subject, someone can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. In the practical sense there are people who live in a remote area or are not physically able to join a group or a community. Charities such as Age UK and initiatives such as Commission for Loneliness are working towards combating the increasing phenomenon of loneliness. The rise of social media could result in people only being in touch online and not meeting face to face. Relationship charity Relate disagree as 64% of respondents to their 2010 survey claim they saw their friends once a week and use social media to ‘check in with people’. The charity highlights the importance of communication in relationships and their findings show that social media is helping as people communicate with each other in a variety of different mediums. I am writing this post in a cafe over looking the Thames, not far from the docks where Rose lived. All around me there are people deep in conversation on their mobile phones, a couple discussing social care over their coffees, a young woman with an elderly couple engaged in a lively conversation. So Rose shouldn’t worry, people will always seek human connections, as long as we have access to good wifi, our communities will grow outside of our boxes.

The mug in the picture is designed by Jinny Ngui in aid of AgeUK East London and available from Etsy. Kate Thompson’s new book The Wedding Girls is available now.

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V&A Museum of Childhood: Game Plan

Today, 31st March, is National Board Game Day in aid of children’s charity NSPCC and it inspired me to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood’s board game exhibition titled Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered. The museum dedicates a large space to display board games along side popular physcology so you can work out what kind of player you are. I played a lot of board games growing up with my two younger brothers and I have been dusting off the old games recently, which I put down to my youngest brother moving back to London after living abroad for many years. There is nothing like an intense game of monopoly with your sibling to take you right back to your childhood.

Museum of Childhood board game exhibition

The exhibition starts with the first known board game called Senet, discovered in the tombs of Ancient Egypt and is thought to be associated with passing into the afterlife although the actual rules are unclear. Next, is a more familiar game, Draughts or Checkers as it was originally known and it is estimated to have begun in France around 1100. The exhibition lists every board game you can think of in chroniological order and the young or young spirited can get involved by playing a game as they move round, including ending up in jail.  As I walked through the years I was most interested to find the games I played on many a rainy day as a child. Snakes and Ladders was probably one of the first games I played and was invented in India, arriving in England in 1892 as a circular board. 

Museum of Childhood board game exhibition
As I grew older, Game of Life was a favourite and it can be found under the 1980’s section in pristine condition, my brother and I would play this for hours spinning the Wheel of Fortune with such vigour if often spun off the board. Pictionary is alongside, which I loved playing as my elder brother is a terrible drawer so I would be in fits of laughter at his attempts and one of the only games I could win against him because he couldn’t cheat.  Now days I prefer a game of Scrabble, I’m not sure why as as spelling isn’t my best subject. An original set from the 1970s is shown but was actually patented in America in 1948. I didn’t realise Cluedo dates back to 1934 and was invented in Birmingham, UK. The edition shown is from the 1950s and looks very similar to the set I played with in the early 1980s. I think some of the characters have changed names now. One of only two known sets of the original Monopoly game is on show. The original city is Atlantic and was printed on oilcloth so it could be rolled into a tube. This is another game I played with my elder brother and only realised he had taught me the wrong rules to benefit him when I tried to play with my husband many years later. 
Museum of Childhood board game exhibition
The exhibition finishes with interactive games involving social play on the internet. My younger brother was a big online chess fan until a sore loser component sent a virus to his PC so now he only sticks with the real life version. Throughout the exhibition are tables in which visitors can play larger versions of the games on display and at the end there are tables full of young teenagers doing just this. The chart at the end made me smile, discovering ‘What’s your Gameface’. I was shocked to discover I was a gloating winner, probably because I never get the chance to win against my two ‘cheater’ brothers, I know which game face they are.

Museum of Childhood, what is your game face?
Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered is on until at the Museum of Childhood until 23 April and I recommend a visit to inspire you to dig out those dusty board games in your attic and remember the satisifcation that comes with being the first to find out the murderer in Cludeo or impress your family with your entertainment knowledge from your 1980’s version of Trival Persuit. If like me, your games have been lost over the years, vintage fairs and jumble sales are a great place to pick up pristine versions. I recently bought a few from Cup & Saucer on Etsy including a Scrabble dictionary which I shall be using to beat my brother at Scrable this evening for NSPCC Board Game Day, how every many points we have left at the end of each game we will convert into pounds and donate to the charity. 

V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green tube. Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered on until 23rd April 2017, free entry

The Museum of Childhood is a large open building that was originally known as the Bethnal Green Museum, opened by Prince Albert in 1872 to bring Britain’s cultural heritage to the East End of London. In 1974 it became known as the V&A Mueum of Childhood and was further developed to its current format at the end of 2005. It is a great place to take the kids on a rainy day as they get a sense of space in the warehouse like building, running between exhibits and interactive classes. It is also a fantastic place for adults like me who like to revisit their childhood.

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 Vintage Stories: Tokyo.                      

Did you know that Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan? It was introduced in 1872 but has had a professional league since the 1920s. At the Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair in Bethnal Green last month, our stall was next to Suzy Loves Milo. The owner Bob often visits a variety of cities in Asia to source vintage clothing for his stall including a recent trip to Tokyo to pick up these fabulous baseball trousers. Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair is back in Bethnal Green on 2nd April.

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Spring Vintage Fairs & Markets

Spring time is the perfect time to update your wardrobe with some vintage pieces. The weather can switch from cold and windy to warm and bright in the space of minutes, so wearing layers is the trick to keeping cool and warm in the same day. I start with a top or t-shirt followed by a cardigan and then a lightweight jacket. I prefer vintage jackets as they give an outfit a statement and I’m really into capes at the moment. I haven’t managed to find the right one yet but I’m on the look out. Jackets or capes are the ideal item to buy at a vintage fair as the fit doesn’t have to be exact. If the jacket is a bit small, wear it open with a big scarf, or if it is too big you can wear with a belt and take the sleeves up. The fabric is what you should be looking out for; a textured tweed in your favourite colours or a fun print. You can pick up a well tailored jacket that costs less than a mass produced high street version. So head to a vintage fair this spring to find a statement jacket that will cheer up dull days and keep you warm or look good on  your arm when the sun is out. Here is a list of where to shop in the South East of the UK this Spring (click on the pictures for the links to each fair’s Facebook page)

12th March, So Last Century, Beckenham, Kent
Photo credit: So Last Century
 18th March, Tunbridge Wells Vintage Fair, Kent
Photo credit: Squirrel Vintage
19th March, Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair, Balham, South London

25th March, Pop Up Vintage Fairs, Mercato Metropolitano
Elephant & Castle, South London

Photo credit: Pop Up Vintage Fairs

 

 

26th March, Clerkenwell Vintage Fair, East London
Photo credit: Clerkenwell Vintage Fairs
2nd April, Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair, Bethnal Green, East London
Photo credit: Olive Road (Jo from Retro Bambi)
 9th April, Pop Up Vintage Fairs, St Stephen’s, Hampstead, North London
Photo credit: Pop Up Vintage Fairs

 

23rd April, Frock Me, Chelsea, West London
Photo Credit: Frock Me Vintage
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Worst Civilian Disaster of World War II took place 74 years ago today

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster 1943

74 years ago today the worst civilian disaster of World War II occurred in East London and yet very few people know about it. Bethnal Green Tube station was regularly used as an air raid shelter during the Blitz of WWII.  On the 3rd March  around 2000 people headed to the disused tube station in anticipation of an air raid. Berlin had been heavily bombed the night before and people were worried about a retaliation from the Nazi bombers.  As they were heading down the tube station entrance anti aircraft rocket guns were being tested in near by Victoria Park.  These were incredibly loud and a new sound that the locals hadn’t heard before. The air raid sounded and resulted in a lot of people moving towards the small entrance all at once.  There was only one small entrance in those days, not the 3 there are now and it was very dark due to the black out requirements of the time.  A mother carrying her baby slipped at the bottom step and the knock-on effect caused 300 people to be crushed in the tiny stairwell.  173 people lost their lives and 90 were injured including children and babies.  There were no attacks from enemy fighters that evening and due to the secrecy act during the war, the event wasn’t brought to the nation’s attention until many years after the war. There still hasn’t been an apology from the Government, who blame the East End People for panicking.

I use Bethnal Green tube station regularly and have often read the small plaque commemorating 173 lives lost in the disaster on the wall by the steps.  I had only heard bits and pieces about the disaster but a few years ago I started to see a memorial being built and the charity collecting money at the station.  Then late last year, I attended the Write Idea Festival in Whitechapel.  I chose the author Kate Thompson’s book reading as her novel, Secrets of the Singer Girls, is about women who worked in the rag trade for the war effort during WWII.  Kate’s novel is fiction but she had undertaken many hours of research from over 30 women who worked as sewing machinists during WWII.  Kate said she was compelled to include the event of the 3rd March at Bethnal Green Tube Station in her novel as so many of the women she spoke to were visibly still moved by this disaster all these years later including Henrietta Keeper, who came along to talk with Kate.  As Kate was researching the archives for details of the event, she came across the list of names of people who had sadly lost their lives and found her own name there.  She went on to research the Kate Thompson from 1943 and found her to be a strong, vibrant woman and consequently she has sponsored a conical on the memorial in her honour.  The Stairway to Heaven Trust joined the Write Idea Festival and explained more about the fund raising the charity had been doing to raise the nearly £500k required to build a memorial for the 173 people who died in the disaster.

Early in December 2015, I was coming to the end of the Secrets of the Singer Girls.  I was listening to the novel as an audio book as it enables me to sew at the same time as reading.  I was on the number 8 bus passing Bethnal Green tube station just as Kate’s characters are caught up in the Bethnal Green tube disaster.  The description of what happened that evening was no longer fiction and the way Kate described what happened that night was harrowing and felt very real.  It bought me to tears as I looked over at the part built memorial.  I couldn’t believe that the government have never taken responsibility for what happened that night and if it wasn’t for the Stairway to Heaven charity, the victims would be forgotten.  At that time, I was busy making Christmas decorations of the number 8 bus to sell at a local fair and it felt fitting to donate the money to the Stairway to Heaven charity. I’m very proud to say that Olive Road has sponsored one of the conicals, which will be fitted within the teak stairway and will project light onto the pavement below and each one has been dedicated to the 173 victims.  I’ve sponsored Olive Thorpe’s conical not just because it is close in name to my company but also because it is a name that runs through many generations of my family.  Olive Thorpe was 36 years old when she died at the disaster. She lived in Kerbela Street, just off Brick Lane and died along with two of her daughters, Barbara (age 2) and Marie (age 11).  I would like to find out more about Olive, Barbara and Marie so if anyone has any information, please get in touch.

I’ll be joining the Stairway to heaven team on Sunday 6th March 2016 at St John’s Church, Bethnal Green at 2pm in memory of the 173 people who died.  If you would like to donate online, please head to the charity’s website and click on the ‘donate’ button.  The charity have done a great job in raising nearly half a million pounds but still have a way to go in order to finish the memorial. There are a few concials left to sponsor, if you would like to sponsor one, please email info@stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org

Reading list

Stairway to Heaven Full Story

East London Advertiser: Vindicated East Enders Blamed for Britain’s Worst Wartime Civilian Disaster

East London Advertiser: Last Hurdle for Cash to Complete Bethnal Green’s 1943 Air Raid Memorial

East London Advertiser: Dr Joan Martin 99 Recalls Horror of 1943 Bethnal Green Air Raid Shelter Disaster

Bethnal Green Memorial Project

East London History Society: Published in 1992 recounts a vivid description of the disaster and the obitary of a honorable doctor who helped the survivors. (download the pdf version from 1992)

East London Life: Kate Thompson wrote a couple of articles for the local paper to give a background on her book research and also the other Kate Thompson who sadly lost her life in the disaster.

The Express: Kate Thompson describes the real life stories of the women her novel is based on

The Dailly Mail: Kate Thompson describes in more depth the stories of the women who lived and worked during the Blitz including a video of a Tube Station shelter.

Tales by East Enders: a published book following a charity project for the Sundial Centre in Hackney