International Women's Day: book tells stories of Hackney women in history
- Credit: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
History enthusiasts have uncovered the stories of 113 women from Hackney’s past, and published them in a book to celebrate International Women's Day.
Not all the females featured in the Women from Hackney's History are inspirational or famous, and they include undiscovered unsung heroes as well as two child murderers, a blackmailer and a baby farmer.
All of the women lived, worked, were born or were buried in the borough over the course of five centuries, and their brief illustrated biographies demonstrate how times have changed for women and for Hackney.
A team of 18 women from both the Hackney Society and Hackney History, formerly Friends of the Hackney Archives, worked on the book, which was published today.
One of them, Wendy Forest, told the Gazette the women featured are “by no means all saints and heroines”.
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"There are some really bad women in there," she said.
"We didn't want them all to be women who were the 'first at this' and the 'first at that'.
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"We have plenty of women like that who are heroic and unproblematic. But having those outlier women who make the huge breakthroughs doesn't tell you much about ordinary life, and we wanted to give snapshots that shed light on challenges faced in the past."
Some of the more famous subjects include music hall singer Marie Lloyd and 18th century businesswoman Eleanor Coade, who manufactured an artificial stone used on Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion, who was formerly a linen draper in Hoxton.
But the story of garment factory worker Doll Hainsby is one that was plucked from obscurity by the team.
Her husband committed bigamy during the Second World War, abandoning her and their children and leaving them reliant on Doll's wages alone.
"Luckily Doll was a strong woman who was able to provide for her family," said Wendy.
The book includes another story of bigamy, this time during the 18th century, involving Helen Sadler, the first mistress of Sutton House, whose first husband was also a soldier.
The 160-page tome is a successor to a 16-page fold-out pamphlet about 20 women, which was first published by the Hackney Society in the 90s and still attracts buyers to this day.
"The idea came from the fact people showed there was still an interest, so we thought let's see what can be done about this," said Wendy.
"The idea was to go for 100, and we fairly quickly got 100 names.
"The writers and performers are thick on the ground in Hackney, and we had to search more for scientists and sportspeople, but actually they were there."
She added: "Nobody set out to collect 113, but it seemed like a really good random number."
Some of the more obscure sources they drew on included court records, genealogical archives, census records and the TUC’s strike register, which helped find one of the matchgirls who was in the Bryant and May strike.
“She'd stayed in the same street in Hackney Wick all her life," said Wendy.
“That strike was so important in labour history and helped to launch unions among unskilled workers.”
Although a few professional historians were involved in the project, most of the contributors are amateurs.
“Most of us haven't got any highly developed research skills, and in a way it’s like detective work. You find a clue or a link and you think, 'ah that's it'."
The idea was conceived before the pandemic struck.
"We thought that lockdown would be a real barrier and actually a lot of archives and libraries made things available online during lockdown which was really helpful, but it meant that there were some things we just couldn't follow up," said Wendy.
"I'm disappointed we haven't got a woman from the Vietnamese or the Turkish Kurdish community.
"We made contact but it's not possible to go and meet people and talk them through the project, so we are thinking about doing an update. Possibly something digital.
"We have some ideas who might be included in that, but we'd be grateful for more."
The book will usually cost £12, but is currently available for £10 plus postage and packing.
An online talk to celebrate the book is planned for March 25.