By Jessica Bryant and Lara Mills
On 3rd July 2018, we were given the opportunity to sit down with two childhood friends who became involved in the Women’s Rights Movement during the 1970’s, Clare Manifold and Vanessa Hall-Smith. They created the ‘Feminist History in the East End- a walk’ pamphlet for the Rights of Women Collective in 1979. This pamphlet outlines 50 stops around the East End of London with each point corresponding to a specific event, place or individual within National and East End Feminist history. As with many activist campaigns, this publication was the result of a collaborative effort between the members of Rights of Women and many other organisations, including the Labour Museum, Tower Hamlets Local History Collection in Mile End, and Britain’s first radical Feminist bookshop, Sisterwrite. This collaboration gave Clare with the knowledge to tell the stories of the East Ends’ hidden Feminist figures. In Clare’s words, “the research was done by meeting very, very, very helpful people: Bill Fishman, Anna Davin, Richard Pankhurst…everybody was extremely helpful to an ingenue student”. Clare was exceptionally humble in crediting those who helped her, and made sure to inform us that she was “not a real historian” just an “enthusiastic amateur”.
The pamphlet was subsequently acquired by ephemera collector Ron Heisler and formed part of the Heisler Collection of radical pamphlets held in Senate House Library. In January 2017, Senate House Librarians Jordan Landes and Leila Kassir became responsible for rediscovering this document and bringing it to the attention of Layers of London.
Our job? To digitise each individual stop of the walk onto the Layers of London website, a map-based history project based at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. Much like Clare, we were aided by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the Senate House Library and Layers of London staff whilst working with the pamphlet.
In our discussion with Clare and Vanessa, there was great emphasis on the collective nature of the Rights of Women group, a precursor to the current Rights of Women group which offers legal support and advice to women trying to navigate the law. Vanessa wanted to make us aware that the women’s group was a non-hierarchical collective at the time the pamphlet was created. The walk was designed as a cooperative measure to raise funds for the group by means of sponsorship for those individuals who completed the walk. The monetary amount raised has been misplaced in memory.
When asked about the time-frame for this work, Clare said that she had two months to complete this 39-page pamphlet while finishing her M.Phil and selling jeans on the side. Once the research had been compiled and the route decided, Clare established a workshop in her mother’s living room with piles of paperwork scattered around the lounge and women from the Rights of Women group clacking away on typewriters with, in Vanessa’s words, “NO SCANNER!” The final manuscript was sent to Blackrose Printing on Clerkenwell Road where the bound final copies were created for distribution after three days of effort. Very few of these original copies have survived, with the exemption of Clare’s original copy which sat on her kitchen table during this interview. The copy at Senate House Library has undergone conservation at the hands of conservator Alex Bruce. She restored the front cover “which had completely detached” by “removing the staples and pasting the cover together with a thin strip of lightweight Japanese tissue and gluten free wheat starch paste”. Finally, she re-attached the front cover using two stitches through the original staple holes.
Fast forward 39 years, and we find ourselves digitally conserving the content of the pamphlet onto the Layers of London digital platform with the help of scanners! Although the original pamphlet is available for viewing in Senate House’s Special Collections, a key part of our overall effort is to make this social history readily available to a wider audience, and ‘Feminist History in the East End- a walk’ can now be found in the Collections tab on the Layers of London website.
Our aspiration is that the digital availability of the document will inspire a new wave of feminists to become engaged in the fight which we are responsible for continuing. Clare and Vanessa share in this hope, and their enthusiastic response to the work which we have carried out on the pamphlet was incredibly humbling to witness. Both are “optimistic for this generation”. Clare, in particular, believes that “it’s a wonderful new world for the East End”, and that the legacy of the history of oppression and radical activity within the East can be inherited by its new inhabitants, “the Radical Hipsters” who are going to “make new alliances with everybody who is still there, and are going to be walking shoulder to shoulder to transform things as they come up”.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of this walk we are engaging in a similar exercise of learning from the stories and acts of our feminist predecessors. As the female activists of the 1960’s and 1970’s looked back to the Suffragettes for inspiration and guidance, so we look back to these women in order to move forward in the fight for female equality. In the words of Clare Manifold, “the people can’t be kept down ever”.
Originally from New York, Jessica Bryant studied History and History of Art at Boston University as an undergraduate. She became involved with Layers of London and the Feminist History of the East End walking tour while a graduate student at University College London studying the History of Art.
Lara Mills is a third year English and History student at Queen Mary University of London and resides in East London. Together with Jessica, Lara became involved in the Layers of London, ‘Feminist History in the East End’, project during her university summer break in order to unearth some of the untold stories which lie at the heart of one of her favourite London districts.