Steps away from the bustle and colour of Brick Lane, it’s easy to miss Princelet Street. But this peaceful road with its unassuming brick buildings is home to two blue plaques — and even more unusually, both plaques commemorate two of London’s notable women.
It’s these women and dozens of others that Rachel Kolsky, award-winning tour guide and author of Jewish London, is celebrating in her new book, Women’s London. From the East End to royalty, from fashion, art and culture to medicine, archaeology and politics, the guide whisks readers around the capital to discover the less well-known female figures who’ve contributed to the capital’s history.
For Kolsky, Whitechapel is where the first seeds of the book were sown, after she was asked to run walking tours by the Women’s Library back in 2005.
“Walking from Whitechapel to Spitalfields, it’s not the prettiest of areas, it’s residential from beginning to end, but the variety of women I can profile on that tour and the variety of what they did is remarkable,” she says. “At the Royal London hospital, Edith Cavell, Queen Alexandra, then you’ve got the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), Maria Dickin. Mary Hughes, who was a phenomenal social worker of her day, Alice Model, Miriam Moses, Annie Besant, Anna Maria Garthwaite. And you’ve got contemporary women like Tracey Emin and Monica Ali.”
Which is how we find ourselves standing on Princelet Street, looking up at the blue plaques commemorating Miriam Moses, the first female mayor of Stepney in 1931, and 18th century silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite, before walking to the Brady Arts and Community Centre on the site of the Stepney Jewish girls’ club founded by Moses, and to the former Jewish maternity hospital, one of Alice Model’s philanthropic initiatives.
The hospital was a Jewish institution. Model, from West Hampstead, turned to good works in the East End when she married, establishing the Sick Rooms Help Society which provided help at home when mothers became ill and then a Jewish day nursery. Next, in 1912, came the maternity hospital.
"The funny thing is that if you meet people who were born in the East End and ask them where they were born, they typically say Mother Levy’s." Mother Levy was Sarah Levy, who ran the Sick Rooms Help Society. "You didn’t have to be Jewish, if you weren’t Jewish and you wanted to come here, you’d never be turned away."
Born in Kenton herself, and now living in East Finchley, Kolsky has spent her life in London, apart from a brief time at college in Manchester studying politics and modern history.
With anecdotes and facts at her fingertips as we wander, she enthusiastically points out historic details along the way, such as the roundel decorated with matchstick women, commemorating the Bryant & May match girls’ strike in 1888, on the site where social reformer Annie Besant tried to raise money for the strike fund.
The book is a culmination of years of research and guiding on the 59-year-old’s part, compiling the tales of women as diverse as Amy Winehouse and Lily Montagu, who she picks out as a “very special person” for setting up the West Central Girls club in Soho, her role in co-founding Liberal Judaism, and for navigating her own family schism which ensued after rejecting the Orthodox values of her father.
With self-guided walking routes based on Kolsky’s own original tours, as well as places — and women — of interest around the city, the book also profiles individual women, including artist Rose Henriques and sculptor and Auschwitz survivor Naomi Blake.
Even for an expert like Kolsky, there’s always something new to discover; while writing the book she was introduced to the achievements of Dame Cicely Saunders, a pioneer of palliative care, and uncovered an unexpected story behind the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology where she spotted a bust of a woman named Amelia Edwards. After some digging of her own, Kolsky discovered an “amazing” tale of a woman who forged a career as a very successful writer before becoming an Egyptologist in her early 40s after an expedition up the Nile.
The book itself will always be an ongoing work, she adds. Writing about the 1976 Grunwick Strike, something Kolsky remembers as a teenager, coincided with a new exhibition at Brent Museum and archives as well as new murals unveiled in Dollis Hill just months ago.
“I lived in north west London as a child, and Daddy would drive us through Neasden, Dollis Hill, Willesden to my grandparents,” she says. “Because I was a teenager then, although I remember the strike, I didn’t really understand the underlying tensions. It was a brilliant exhibition and I thought [strike leader] Jayaben Desai has to be in my book. It opened my eyes to something I remembered but I was able to fill in the details.”
With new plaques, new statues, new female firsts still taking place — including, she points out, the first female Bishop of London in 2018 — the profile of women in London is only set to rise.
“It’s interesting how many British female firsts we’re still getting in the 20th century,” she says. “Women are still breaking down barriers.”
Women's London: A Tour Guide to Great Lives by Rachel Kolsky, is published by IMMLifestyle Books.