Tower Hamlets

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  • 1. Battle of Cable Street [ View On Map ]

    Aldgate East Station, Whitechapel High Street
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E1 7QX

    Start your tour by going to Aldgate East tube and take the Whitechapel Art Gallery exit. Standing outside the gallery, to your right you should see Aldgate Place.

    In October 1936 Beattie Orwell stood in this spot, watching anti-fascist protestors gather in their thousands to block Oswald Mosley and approximately 3000 members of the British Union of Fascists. The fascists planned to march through Spitalfields in a deliberately provocative attack on the predominately Jewish community. What followed became known as the Battle of Cable Street.

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  • 2. Sarah Wesker [ View On Map ]

    Wentworth Street
    E1 7SA

    The arch you see before you is all that remains of Rothschild Buildings, a block of flats in Spitalfields, tenanted mainly by Jewish families. One such tenant was Sarah Wesker. Despite being less than five feet tall she was a formidable figure in the labour movement.

    The first strike Sarah organised was in the 1920s. She recalled:

    “We had this strike for a farthing on the price of a pair of trousers and he [the factory owner] never forgave me for that, even though he won, not us. I used to stand outside the factory and collect the girls’ contributions. He would call me all the names under the sun and call the police to me, but the policeman would say ‘She isn’t doing anything wrong […] But it was difficult, and eventually the girls decided they didn’t want to be in the union any more. After the strike he wouldn’t take me back, or my sisters.”

    In 1929 Sarah became a founding member of the United Clothing Workers’ Union. She was the only female member on its executive committee and later became the full time women’s organiser, mobilising hundreds of workers across Spitalfields and Hackney.

    Campaigning during the Great Depression meant Sarah was fighting both employers and male colleagues, who believed women should be in the home, not stealing men’s jobs. Despite this, she made considerable progress paving the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

  • 3. Mala Sen [ View On Map ]

    Brick Lane/Hanbury Street
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E1 6QL

    As you walk down Brick Lane, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of this imported piece of south Asia, take a moment to reflect on its origins. It hasn’t always been this way. Far from it.


    By the 1970s, the Jewish community had mostly moved out and there was a rush of newly arrived migrants from Bangladesh. Soon a fresh housing crisis hit the area. Families were dismissed by local authorities for having made themselves “intentionally homeless”. Those who found housing were often placed on a predominantly white estates and soon fled back to Spitalfields, preferring the discomfort of a squat to the constant danger of racist attacks.

    Bengali women took the lead, determined to keep their families and homes safe from racism. One such woman was Mala Sen. In 1976 she co-founded the Bengali Housing Action Group, securing empty council flats for homeless Bengalis. Along with Darcus Howe and Terry Fitzpatrick she drew a map for the Greater London Council, defining a safe living area for the community. This established Brick Lane as the Bangladeshi heartland of Britain.

  • 4. Julie Begum [ View On Map ]

    Brick Lane / Bethnal Green Road
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E2 6DG

    Nearly 60 years after the Battle of Cable Street, another group of women rose up in similar circumstances. It was 1993 and the election of a BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets, plus a general rise in racist attacks, sparked protests in Bethnal Green.

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  • 5. Naseem Khan [ View On Map ]

    Boundary Gardens, Arnold Circus
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E2 7JR

    You are standing on Arnold Circus in the middle of the Boundary Estate. It was built in 1900 and is arguably one of the world’s first council estates. It replaced the Old Nichol Rockery, which had become an overcrowded slum. The remains of the Rockery lies under Arnold Circus.

    By the 1970s the estate had fallen into disrepair again, and many of the properties were squatted. Eventually they were refurbished but Arnold Circus remained derelict until 2010, when one woman decided to change that.

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  • 6. Muriel Lester [ View On Map ]

    Kingsley Hall, Powis Road
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E3 3HJ

    Before you is Kingsley Hall, founded by Muriel Lester and her sister Doris. They named it after their brother Kingsley, who died in 1914. During the war it was used as a soup kitchen and by air raid wardens working through the night. It also supported workers during the 1926 General Strike, and in the 30s Gandhi stayed here.

    But the Hall has a more controversial history. Muriel was a pacifist, and during her years of campaigning she faced public hostility and even prison for her beliefs.

    During WW1 she organised a march to Parliament, demanding that milk be sent to people starving in Germany. Members of Kingsley Hall also adopted and cared for a German child for two years. Muriel continued her peace campaigning into WW2, and in 1941 she was arrested and detained in Holloway prison for the remainder of the war. Churchill did not like this outspoken woman undermining his efforts!

    Muriel continued her peace campaigning into the atomic age, and was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She has been dubbed the Mother of Peace.

  • 7. The Match Girls [ View On Map ]

    Bow Quarter, Fairfield Road
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E3 2UB

    You should be standing outside Bow Quarter, a residential gated community which was formerly the Bryant and May match factory. The factory’s employees were young, mostly Irish, working class women. They endured appalling working conditions including 14 hour days, poor pay and the severe health risks of working with white phosphorous.

    In 1888 Annie Besant wrote an article about the factory for radical newspaper, The Link. The sacking of one of the informants sparked a strike, which saw around 1400 employees walk out.

    The factory owners threatened to sue The Link and move the factory overseas. However the women workers were shrewd and strategic, garnering support from the wider community. After three weeks Bryant & May gave in, conceding to almost all of the women’s demands.

    The middle classes, particularly employers, were taken aback by the workers’ resolve and solidarity. Working class women had previously been depicted as inadequate victims of their circumstances. One woman observed:

    “Few people could fail to be touched by the way in which the girls were determined to stand together at all costs. In every direction girls might be seen plotting how they could help one another on until Bryant & May gave them back their pennies.”

    The factory closed in 1979, when production moved to Liverpool. It fell into disrepair until 1988 when property developers turned it into one of East London’s first urban renewal projects. A number of well known personalities have lived here, including Katy B and John Barrowman.

  • 8. East London Federation of Suffragettes [ View On Map ]

    459 Roman Road
    Tower Hamlets, London
    E3 5LX

    You’re standing outside 459 Roman Road, which until 2014 was the site of Arbor Printing Works. It had been operating on this site for 117 years, and was known for printing the handbills for the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).

    The ELFS was founded by Sylvia Pankhurst, who’d grown increasingly dissatisfied with her mother’s exclusion of working class women from the suffrage movement. Although the ELFS continued to agitate for the vote, and equal pay, many of the lesser known ELFS members engaged in more gentle forms of activism. This included Sybil Smith, who managed the first ELFS creche from 1914. It was so successful that a second, larger nursery was opened at a disused pub called the Gunmakers’ Arms. Renamed the Mothers’ Arms, it also housed a baby clinic and free milk depot.

    The outbreak of war also led to many working women losing their jobs, due to the upper classes cutting back on luxuries. So the ELFS opened factories, employing local women to making clothes, which were distributed to the ‘poor and needy’ for free.

  • 9. Poplar Rebel Women [ View On Map ]

    Minnie Lansbury Clock
    Bow Road / Alfred Street, Tower Hamlets, London
    E3 2AD

    In 1920s, councils funded their own local poor relief through the rate system. The high level of unemployment in Poplar meant the council had to charge over twice as much as rich boroughs like Kensington. On top of this they were also expected to collect a ‘precept’, which funded cross London bodies, such as police and water.

    The Poplar Labour Party refused to collect the precept. They felt it was unfair that their poor residents had to pay for centralised services, given they were paying disproportionately more for local services. They were told to pay the precept or face prison.

Five of the councillors had been part of the East London Federation of Suffragettes and wouldn’t be intimidated easily. Minnie Lansbury, Susan Lawrence, Julia Scurr, Nellie Cressall and Jennie Mackay stood by their principles and in 1921 were sent to Holloway prison. A crowd of 10,000 supporters tried to prevent them from entering. Standing outside the prison gates, Susan Lawrence said:

    “We are here representing a principle which we have to defend as well as the men […] We go cheerfully determined to see this thing through. I hope our example will not be lost on all local authorities throughout the country.”

    Following the imprisonment neighbouring boroughs threatened similar action, and trade unions came out in support. In 1921 the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act was rushed through Parliament, equalising tax burdens.

    The women suffered great hardship for their cause. Minnie Lansbury developed pneumonia following her imprisonment, and died in 1922. The clock you can see opposite the tube station entrance is dedicated to her.