Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Women from Hackney’s History: Guest Review by London Historians member Margaret Willes, a denizen of the eponymous London borough. 

women of hackney coverThis book began life as a brief pamphlet featuring the lives of a handful of Hackney women. It has developed from this rather modest caterpillar into a handsome butterfly, the biographies of over a hundred women written by eighteen authors, all women, and published jointly by the Hackney Society and Hackney History (the Friends of Hackney Archives). Each mini- biography consists of about 500 words, often accompanied by an illustration of the person, and contextual images.

The earliest biography in terms of chronology is that of Jane Shore from the late 15th century. It is based on rather shaky foundations, suggesting that her surname is derived from Shoreditch. The daughter of a City merchant, her marriage to another merchant was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation and she became the mistress of the great womaniser, Edward IV, and of his friend, Lord Hastings. Jane is given a dramatic mention in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where Richard accuses her of witchcraft, while in real life he obliged her to pay public penance at Paul’s Cross in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral for her lewdness. Thomas More recognised that she was more sinned against than sinning, and Jane Shore became the symbol of the victimised woman.

This is certainly a theme that runs through the whole book, for the status of women, ‘weaker vessels’ according to the diarist John Evelyn, has until very recently been subordinate to men. On marriage a woman’s property was transferred from her father to her husband, and only in the potentially blissful state of widowhood might she be in charge of her own fate.
One interesting 16th-century case study highlights another problem: that of bigamy. While most of the earlier biographies are inevitably of women of status because there is some information about them, Helen Sadler was a laundress. Abandonned by her drunken first husband, Matthew, she found employment in the household of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s powerful minister. There she met and married Ralph Sadler and had a family, but with the reappearance years later of Matthew, their children were deemed illegitimate.

Not only do we know a considerable amount about Helen because of the court case, but also the house in which she lived in Homerton, now known as Sutton House, has survived, looked after by the National Trust. And, of course, Hilary Mantel has painted a brilliant portrait of the Sadlers, along with that of Cromwell and his family in her trilogy of novels. The story of Helen ended happily when an act passed in 1545 made her the first woman to be granted a divorce on grounds of desertion.

This book is not, however a constant chronicle of wronged women: there are bad ones too. We kick off with Jane Daniell, who blackmailed Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Elizabeth I’s last and doomed favourite. And the dreadful honour of the first woman to be hanged in the 20th century was Lousia Masset, who beat her son to death.

On a brighter note, there is the first really successful female writer, Hannah Wolley, memorably described here as a ‘domestic goddess’. Born in 1622, Hannah received a good education, not the norm for most women of the time and, marrying a teacher, she helped him to run a school. She began to write books of practical housewifery, publishing her first, The Ladies Directory, in 1661. After the death of her husband, she kept her family by writing further highly successful books, with recipes both culinary and medicinal, and by teaching, probably in part of what is now Sutton House.

Sutton House is one of the historic gems of Hackney, and another is the Hackney Empire, the music hall built at the very beginning of the 20th century by Frank Matcham and recently magnificently restored. Some of those who trod the boards are featured in the book, including Marie Lloyd, known for her doubles entendres and her rendering of ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’, which has made her a household name. Less well known is Belle Davis, an African American singer from New Orleans, who usually appeared on stage with young boys known as ‘dancing picanninies’.

Belle and her boys serve as a reminder that Hackney has for centuries received immigrants, in varying degrees of welcome. One featured in the book is Claudia Jones from Trinidad, a pioneer journalist and activist, and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival. Another is Minnie Green, an Indian ayah or nanny who did battle in the British courts in a case against violent and exploitative employers in 1892. A recent example is Mona Mahmoud from the Sudan, who acted as an interpreter, working with children stranded in refugee camps. She was an early victim of Covid, dying in her mid-forties and leaving five children.

There is a rich and varied treasure trove here, from Tudor courtiers to the wonderful Barbara Windsor, who died in only last December. The book is well written, the editor has done a fine job in pulling together all the contributions, and the pictures are excellent. My one reservation lies with the organisation of the material. The editor has chosen to run the pieces in alphabetical order of the subjects. This means that we do not get a feel of how the lot of women has changed over the years, nor indeed the history of Hackney itself, which evolved from a rather smart courtly enclave to one of the poorest boroughs in the country by the mid- 20th century. The area since then has undertaken a remarkable shift, helped by the infrastructure put in place for the Olympic Games, and become again a desired place to live.

The one advantage of the alphabetical approach is that the reader cannot go for the period of history that might particularly attract them, and thus all kinds of unexpected gems shine out from the page. One of my favourites is May Brodrick, a pioneer female Egyptologist who studied in the late 19th century. One of her university professors declared ‘I have never taught a woman in my life, and I never will’. History has proved not to be on his side.

Women from Hackney’s History will be published on 8 March, but possibly earlier. For a limited period you may buy it for £10 +p&p here. Actual cover price is £12. 


Our reviewer, London Historians member Margaret Willes, is an author and historian, notably of gardening, but much else besides. Her book The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn was London Historians Book of the Year for  2017. She has books on St Paul’s churchyard and Southwark Cathedral in the pipeline. 

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