Fascinating audio tour brings to life Hackney's working women of the 20th century – including Poliakoff strikers
PUBLISHED: 12:27 01 June 2017 | UPDATED: 12:27 01 June 2017
on the record
The Working Women’s Bus Tour is the fourth and final instalment of A Hackney Autobiography, which contains audio tours inspired by the bookshop and publisher Centerprise. Emma Bartholomew reports.
A strike at a Mare Street garment factory in the 1920s is one of the historical stories about working women covered in an immersive GPS audio tour that follows the route of the 55 bus.
Starting from Columbia Road and ending in Lea Bridge Road, the sonic journey is narrated by a bus conductor called Kippie.
Her character is inspired by an autobiography called Taken For a Ride, which was published by the Centerprise bookshop and community centre and written by a real life bus conductor.
She points out where the Poliakoff factory would have stood, where Iceland is now at the junction of Mare Street and Well Street.
Women and girls who worked there decided to strike in 1928 when their bosses moved the business to Edmonton without consulting them. They were forced to travel further and pay bus fares from their meagre salary, and stormed out of work in protest.
They became known as the “singing strikers” because they marched around singing songs about their protest, raising money to cover their lost wages. The official trade union wouldn’t cover the cost as it didn’t recognise them.
The story was largely forgotten until Centerprise discovered a few sheets of the strikers’ song lyrics in a dusty old book and decided to investigate.
They even managed to work out the melodies by asking older women about the pop songs of the 1920s, with the help of the folk singer Sandra Kerr – who is famous for working on the children’s show Bagpuss.
Laura Mitchison, who researched the project A Hackney Autobiography with Rosa Schling, said: “No one would have known what these songs were about or how to sing them if it wasn’t for Centerprise.
“You don’t often hear about a lot of rag trade workers going on strike as they are seen as weak, disorganised girls without a union rep. But it proved they were a force to be reckoned with.”
"You don’t often hear about a lot of rag trade workers going on strike as they are seen as weak, disorganised girls without a union rep. But it proved they were a force to be reckoned with"
Rosa and Laura shared the songs with the Hackney Quest youth club, whose HQ is near where the factory stood. They used the story as inspiration to write their own protest songs about things like school detention and police brutality in the US, and their voices appear on the audio tour.
Kippie also introduces the listener to many women who have worked and raised children along the route, some of whom had autobiographies and poems published by the shop in Kingsland High Street, Dalston, in the 1970s and 1980s.
Laura said: “The women were working in the day. They called themselves ‘worker-writers’ – they reclaimed the night-time for creative activities and would go to writing groups at Centerprise.”
The tour also includes Sally Flood’s poem Working Mum, which describes how from morning till night her life is “one maddening rush”.
Laura said: “Sally and a lot of the ladies couldn’t write novels because they didn’t have time, so they would scribble down ideas on the back of embroidery pattern paper in the factory where they worked.
“If the forelady came, they would have to quickly machine over what they had written so they weren’t being seen doing things they shouldn’t do on the job. But the ones that were saved were taken to workshops at Centerprise.”
The women’s testimonies are read on the app by actors – some of whom were deeply moved by the lines they were speaking.
Laura said: “They were literally crying when they read the stories and books. It reminded them of things they half-remembered from parents and grandparents, and they connected it to things in their lives.
“The stories were mainly recorded in the ’70s and ’80s but they are, sadly, relevant today.”
To buy a copy of the book The Lime Green Mystery: An Oral History of the Centerprise Co-op, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find the free app A Hackney Autobiography on Google Play or the iTunes app store.