On this month’s Interview with an Author, I chat to Sunday Times bestseller, Kate Thompson. Author of The Stepney Doorstep Society – a detailed and important history of the matriarchal society of the East End of London – as well as six novels set in the East End during World War II. Kate explains why women’s history is vital in our understanding not only of the past but in how we live today.
AW: Hi Kate, thanks for speaking to me this month. For those who don’t your work, you specialise in the female experience of WWII, what particularly drew you to this subject?
Kate Thompson: At first, it was an interest sparked by the history of the Second World War and in particular, the East End, a place I had always been endlessly fascinated by, but it quickly evolved into something much more complex.
The more women I interviewed, the more intrigued I became about the power of the matriarchy in East London. My interest became far more focussed on a narrative that examined and celebrated the contribution of women to the rich social, economic and political history of East London in the days before the Welfare State existed.
The East End, in common with all working-class communities, was a matriarchal society. Women in crossover aprons and turbans were the beating heart of their neighbourhoods. The matriarch, or auntie, was the go-to woman, responsible for birthing the babies of the street, laying out its dead and a plethora of other roles. As chief female of her neighbourhood, she was a social worker, midwife, citizens advice worker, funeral parlour, nurse, hairdresser, childminder, moneylender and abortionist, all rolled up in a starched apron.
It began to dawn on me that these are the women missing from the history books, and their unfiltered gush of history deserves our scrutiny. These women might not have held any power in an official sense, taken part in military campaigns, made laws or started wars, but they were forced to react to them. History, when viewed up close and personal through their eyes, is so much more revealing and takes the true temperature of the times.
AW: You’re right, women are so often missing from the pages of history, particularly working class women, yet they tell a fascinating tale of survival and fortitude. All your books are based on real-life events; how do you decide which stories to use and what are your most useful research tools?
KT: It’s a very organic and fluid process. I tend to hear about things as I’m on my travels interviewing women, then I go to archives and see what more I can uncover. For example, the book I’m researching now about Bethnal Green’s wartime shelter library built over the tracks of the westbound tunnel at Bethnal Green Underground was sparked when a lovely wartime survivor and cockney, Pat Spicer, told me she used to borrow Milly Molly Mandy from the shelter library when she was a child and it sparked a lifelong love of reading.
I remember thinking, how peculiar and curious: was there really a library built over the tracks? She was young, perhaps she was mistaken? I went off to the local history library archives and sure enough, I should never have doubted an East End matriarch (they never forget) there it was, a perfect wood-panelled little library with 4,000 volumes, built 78 feet underground. This library offered a lifeline to thousands of weary wartime shelters, offering escape, solace and a blessed respite from the war waging overhead. I had heard of Dig for Victory but never Read for Victory.
AW: How interesting! It must have been a relief to escape from the difficulties of war for a few hours in the safety of the library. Your new book, Secrets of the Lavender Girls, is the sequel to Secrets of the Homefront Girls and are both set in the Yardley factory. The books focus on female friendships and the support women give each other. What did you find most inspiring about the real-life stories you gathered during your research?
KT: I think the ingenuity of the way women support one another, and their resilience. Women back then definitely placed female solidarity ahead of all else, and truly believed you had a duty to help those in your community, because you never knew when it was your turn to rely on that help: what little we had we shared. Neighbours were as close as friends. We lived collectively, not individually – are sentiments I have heard shared over again from Hoxton to Hackney.
Gladys, 92, puts it this way:
‘The problem is, once you reach a certain age, people think you’re not important,’ she frowns. ‘You cease to exist as a valid member of society. You’re a “dear”, not a person. There’s such a lack of understanding. We need to be teaching manners, morals and respect to our younger generation. Attitudes towards older people must change. We have lived through so much. We have stories to tell, and advice to offer.
‘After all, when you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future. We’re missing a trick by not utilising the skills and wisdom of our older generation.’
92-year-old Irene agrees: ‘I may have snow on the roof, but I’m not old, I have stories to tell.’
Women like Gladys and Irene don’t leave a paper trail, which makes it all the more rewarding when you do find them and listen to those stories. Because after all, aren’t we all in the business of storytelling?
These women and their generation are irreverent, subversive, politically aware, resourceful, cunning and wickedly funny. They got the job done and kept communities functioning.
AW: Never a truer word, Kate. These women are as important to history as the men who are also, quite rightly celebrated. They all fought the war, the men with guns, the women with their guts and ingenuity. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.
Thank you, Kate, it’s been a wonderful insight.