In the middle of last summer, in a brief window after the end of the first lockdown and before the start of the tier system that we then became so familiar with, I went on a journey. I had an urgent need to walk in the footsteps of some strong women of the past and so I packed my bag and headed off to do the sort of research that I love best. I was entirely solitary. For four days I walked for miles every day; apart from a single visit to an archive, I spoke to almost no one other than to buy food. Each evening I retreated to my base to think without interruption about what I’d discovered during the day. With maps, photos and whilst sitting on my bed eating the boxed meals that the hotel served up during that extraordinary Covid year, I started to work out what I felt I needed to know.
I stayed at the Fulham end of Putney Bridge in south west London. It was the perfect location for my voyage of discovery into the lives of my four great grandmothers – Annie, Amy, Ellen and Elizabeth – who all lived in Putney, Fulham and Chelsea at the turn of the twentieth century. Armed with addresses gleaned from census material and family knowledge, a map and a phone, I looked for houses, workplaces, schools, shops, pubs and churches. The streets were quiet; I had never seen London like this and it made my walks easier than I’d expected without the normal rush of constant movement. Some scenes I remembered from childhood visits to the house in Putney where three generations of women lived together until the 1950s – my great grandmother, grandmother and my mother. Most of the time, however, I made new discoveries, thinking about how the women went about their everyday lives. All of it gave me a sense not just of the familiar but of my place in these women’s traditions. I wanted to know how their lives – like mine was for years – were dominated by thoughts of what they could cook for tea and of how much money was left until pay day. Was everyone ok? Was everything done that needed to be done? Might there be anything left over for a weekend treat for the family? Was there time or energy for an evening stroll or a Sunday trip to the park?
My great grandmothers were working class women; at certain points on my travels, the prosperity that is evident in these districts in the 21st century made it harder to picture the realities of their lives. The Sunlight Laundry in Fulham where Annie and one of her daughters worked has been converted into luxury apartments and is next door to a pub that I suspect is now rather different in feel and style to the one that my great grandfather – perhaps sometimes with Annie – visited, a few minutes’ walk from their house in Querrin Street.
It takes imagination to picture the financial struggles of Ellen, mother of 11, landlady to four lodgers in an 8 roomed rented house in what is now a very upmarket street running between the Kings and Fulham Roads but with a different lens applied, the past does still surface. The spirit of those early 20th century streets and buildings remains – I feel it at least – and although it is easy to be blindsided by gentrification, to gawp at the price tags of London’s houses, it is as impossible to walk around today’s London as it was 100 years ago without realizing that for millions of people, the streets are not paved with gold. Affluence and struggle are present side by side right across the city. London is full of overpriced and done up houses but for the majority of people hardships remain and the anxieties that these induce were, I suspect, all too familiar to my great grandmothers.
All four of my great grandmothers worked and mothered during the years that I wrote about when researching my book on the branches of the all-female trade union, the National Federation of Women Workers. All four could have been members of trade unions. Names of branch members have remained elusive throughout my research and so I have to accept that I will probably never be able to find out if they were union women. There are no family stories of radicalism or activism and to be honest, the odds were stacked against them being trade unionists. Hidden, low paid work such as theirs made it difficult to avoid the gaze of the boss, to find the necessary money for union subs, to find the time to attend branch meetings which were so important in keeping members united and supported and there were too many calls on their time. Annie had the best chance of being unionised when she worked in the industrial laundry and I do know that the Sunlight had a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers. Indoor domestic service, which at least three of them were engaged in before their marriages – placed women directly under the glare and influence of their mistresses and even those who went home at the end of each day, likely did so in a state of exhaustion, making it difficult to act on any chance encounter they might have with a trade union organiser.
At various times the women were laundry workers, domestic servants, shop workers and seamstresses. All of them were wives and mothers. Some of them worked outside the home after the arrival of their children, others found alternative ways to make the money that was needed to pay the rent, to feed and clothe their families. I know with certainty – and not because any one has told me – that all four were the lynchpins, relied upon by everyone, doing the shopping daily, making meals out of what was available and affordable, worrying when a pair of boots was nearing the end of its life, when a pair of trousers had been patched for the last time, when a child’s growth spurt meant saving for new clothes or material, if no hand me downs were forthcoming.
These are the things that women have done – and continue to do – across the generations. My life has been broadly similar. I don’t know how my great grandmothers felt about their lives or how they dealt with illness, deaths and the insecurities of a life with few – if any – safety nets. They left no written records, they talked to no one about their experiences. All I know is that they lived through it and got through it – somehow. I wasn’t expecting revelation or ghosts to accompany me on my walks around their neighbourhoods. I discovered a few new facts – how much rent they paid, what the rates were, the occupations of those in their streets – but nevertheless I left with a much stronger sense of these women’s lives. This in turn galvanized me at a time when I needed a helping hand. Knowing where my great grandmothers walked, the front doors they went through, the schools their children attended, the shops they visited, gave me a sense of their daily routines. I recalled them in times of trouble –their husbands and sons fighting in the First World War, rationing, soaring costs of living and the constant battle to keep all the plates spinning – but I realized something else when I was standing on their streets. I don’t know if they felt strong. There may have been times when they just wanted to give up, walk out of the door and disappear.
And so I stopped thinking of them as having something that I didn’t and instead simply thought about them as women who might have been just like me. In doing so, I began to understand something about myself that connected me to them in a way that I hadn’t previously seen. I was looking to them for inspiration because I admired their strength in overcoming difficulties and their courage in just getting on with whatever life chucked at them – which seemed to me to be quite a lot. I wasn’t expecting them to speak to me in any other way. But they did. They told me, as I stood by their front gates and outside their workplaces, that it was only right that, when looking at their past strengths, I also acknowledge my own. Events had left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain but I was still there. I was still getting on with it, just as my great grandmothers did before me. I am strong and capable too. One day my great grand daughters might come to see where I lived my life. Like me, they’ll find nothing spectacular but they might, when they need it most, see that it is enough just to get through tough times and enjoy the good ones.
Happy International Women’s Day, sisters.
If you want to find out a little more about the four never-ordinary- women who were my great grandmothers, their First World War stories are available on this site under Women’s Lives in the First World War. Women’s Lives in the First World War – Cathy Hunt historian
There is also a post on the years in which great grandmother Ellen lived in the same street at Sylvia Pankhurst Ellen and Sylvia: Chelsea 1906 – Cathy Hunt historian