Friday, July 31, 2015

Not all Angels, but Not Just Victims Either.

MATCHGIRLS,1888 strike lit way for new trade unionism.

REBEL councillor Minnie Lansbury on way to arrest and jail, 1921

"ANGEL OF CABLE STREET", Dr. Hannah Billig

CABLE Street, in the East End of London, entered the pages of history on October 4,1936, when police attempting to force a way through for Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirt fascists ran into resistance, barricades, and unpleasant objects such as the contents of chamber pots hurled at them from the upper storeys of houses. 

A much larger crowd was waiting at Gardners Corner. Eventually,though heads were bloodied and arrests were made, the police, or the Home Secretary, decided to call it a day. Mosley was told his march was off,and he should pack up and go home. Many an East Ender had stories to tell of what they had been part of that day, and most of the legend they handed on to their young were true.

But if the Battle of Cable Street has rightly been remembered, the "Angel of Cable Street" deserves her place in history too,   Born in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, in 1901,and growing up around Brick Lane, Hannah Billig, the daughter of refugees from Czarist Russia, qualified as a doctor in 1925, and worked in hospitals before setting up her surgery in a Georgian townhouse at 198 Cable Street in 1935. A blue plaque there commemorates her work. Soon the lady doctor riding around to visit people, on her bike with her big black bag, became a familiar sight. She always seemed to have time for the local kids, whether ill or not. And in those pre-NHS days she would see to the patient first, and worry whether they could pay later, if at all.  Sometimes she would pay for medicines out of her own pocket.

During the Blitz on London, Dr. Billig took care of the sick and injured in the air raid shelters in Wapping.  On March 13, 1941, she was tending to people at Orient Wharf  when an explosion threw her out of the shelter and broke her ankle. After bandaging it herself, she helped to get the others out of the rubble, and cared for them through the night.

For her courage and bravery, Billig was awarded the George Medal. Not content with this service, Hannah joined the Indian Army Medical Corps in 1942 as a Captain and was posted to Calcutta. For her work with injured soldiers and refugees in Assam, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1945. The story goes that she apologised for being unable to collect her decoration at the Palace because she was too busy with her patients.  She carried on in the new NHS until her retirement.
Hannah Billig is one of many brave and outstanding women made what they became by their experience in London's East End, but making their own mark on history,and the prospects of future generations.  It was here that Eleanor Marx helped the gas workers organise, and Sylvia Pankhurst turned from women's suffrage to workers' revolution, her follower Minnie Lansbury going on to play a leading part in the Poplar council fight.  Not all the makers of history were particularly famous. We can't give the names of all the Bryant and May "matchgirls" who lit the way for the new trade unionism at the end of the 1880s, or the women who stood their ground united in the Stepney rent strikes of the 1930s, creating in their own way yet another barrier to fascist aims of divide and conquer.

But all deserve to be remembered.

 So when a new museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ got planning permission to open on Cable Street, that seemed only right, and commendable,something to look forward to.

The original application for the museum said: “The museum will recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day.”

The document cited the closure of Whitechapel’s Women’s Library in 2013 to stress that the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it was billed, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history”.

But what has actually opened on Cable Street has turned those apparently virtuous intentions into a sick joke.  Instead of commemorating the matchgirls' strike of 1888, this museum is dedicated to the life of  Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who viciously murdered women across London's East End, from 1888 and 1891.  The founder (a former Head of Diversity at Google) claims "It is not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”.

This is rubbish. The Ripper's victims may have turned to prostitution in order to live, but they were not to know they would fall victim to a psychopathic murderer who managed to evade detection and whose identity remains a matter of mystery and speculation to this day. Critics of the new museum see it as victim-blaming, as well as treating victimhood as the only role for women, quite the opposite of the kind of history we have cited.

Besides which, it is pretty evident that what was promised in the planning application and what has been delivered are very different things. The new museum, with its sign depicting the supposed Ripper as a black silhouetted figure in Victorian costume on a rose pink background, is turning what may be a legitimate historical and criminological interest into an entertainment for tourists. Besides the implications of treating real-life murders this way, it insults all East Enders, though especially women, by treating the area as a mere backdrop for psychopaths and killers.

A petition is now under way, calling on Tower Hamlets council  to revoke the planning permission for the new museum on Cable street or force it to close down and re-open as the women's history museum we were promised.

About Hannah Billig:

 Sign the petition to Tower Hamlets council:

 Learn some real East End history on the streets where it happened:

And read Dave Rosenberg's book "Rebel Footprints":

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