Wanstead's wonder women

The secret factory deep beneath Wanstead Underground stationThe secret factory deep beneath Wanstead Underground station

To celebrate 100 years since the first women in the UK won the right to vote, Redbridge Museum has launched Wonder Woman, an exhibition exploring the lives of women in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford over the past century. Museum manager Gerard Greene outlines some of the local themes of the display.

At the turn of the 20th century, Wanstead and Woodford were slowly changing from Essex villages into suburbs of London. There was a clear class division between the professional middle-classes moving into many of the new large houses and those who lived in working-class cottages.

For the new residents, it was both a practical necessity and a mark of respectability to have a domestic servant to undertake the household duties. These servants were mostly young, working-class women from the East End of London or from the poorer parts of the countryside. They were supervised by the 'lady of the house' who was normally the wife of the man who owned the house.

Elizabeth Mace-Matthews was one such lady. Born in 1860 to a middle-class family in Bow, Elizabeth was living in Grove Road, Wanstead by 1881. In 1888, she married Herbert Matthews, a wealthy man who worked in the shipping industry. They moved to Spratt Hall Road and later Wellesley Road, where they brought up three children. In the 1911 census they have one servant, 20-year-old Mary Lear from Canning Town. However, Elizabeth was an unusual woman, for between 1907 and 1922 she was editor and owner of The Bugle newspaper, which covered Wanstead and Woodford. There were few female newspaper editors in Britain at the time so Elizabeth's role is remarkable. The Bugle was an entertaining read which kept the people of Wanstead up-to-date with all the news and events happening in the village. It survived until the Mace-Matthews family left Wanstead in the early 1920s.

The First World War provided women with new opportunities. While middle-class women fundraised or organised charities, others volunteered as nurses. The Woodford and Wanstead Military Hospital opened in Highams, a grand house in Woodford Green (now Woodford County High School) in November 1914. The hospital had 75 beds, an operating theatre and convalescent rooms and was staffed by volunteer nurses, many from the local area. One such was Cecilia Matthews of 36 Cowley Road, Wanstead. She was a 22-year-old insurance clerk and must have taken to nursing since she served between December 1915 and March 1919, as is recorded in her Certificate of War Service, held by Redbridge Museum.

In June 1915, WH Smith advertised for a girl to work at their bookstall in George Lane, Wanstead. The Bugle newspaper approved: "It is the first time such an advertisement has appeared in this district... it will give women a chance – so often denied to them – of showing their capability to do work which has been regarded as the prerogative of men."

The Second World War once again saw women stepping into a wide range of roles. Daisy James was an Air Raid Precaution warden based in Herongate Road, Aldersbrook. Daisy was in the thick of the action during both the Blitz and the V1 and V2 attacks. Her husband wrote in his diary on 27 July 1944: "These fly bombs are definitely becoming a strain. After both Daisy and I being in attendance at 5 of our 6 local incidents and having one of them so near our own doorstep, I must admit that we find these constant alerts very trying." She and her husband Fred moved to Dale End Gardens, Woodford Green after the war.

Meanwhile, Elsie Dean of Wanstead worked in a 'secret' factory deep beneath Wanstead Underground station (shown here). She worked for Plessey of Ilford, who made communications equipment. During the war, to escape German air raids, Plessey moved their factory into the newly built (but unopened) Central Line Underground tunnels between Gants Hill, Redbridge and Wanstead stations. Elsie was interviewed by Redbridge Museum in 2001: "Our machines were actually on the station platforms. I never really felt claustrophobic underground, maybe some did but once you got used to it, it didn't matter where you were really. I used to come home from work, straight through Wanstead Park and then down the air raid shelter. Go home in the morning to get washed and dressed. All the time the air raid alarms were going off..."

The Wonder Women exhibition also looks at the variety of women's groups in the local area. The Wanstead Women's Institute celebrated its 10th birthday in 2018 and now has 80 members. Christine Toogood, president of the Wanstead WI remembers: "In 2008, I wanted to join a local WI group in Wanstead but it turned out there wasn't one. So, the WI helped us to hand out a few flyers to meet a month later in The George pub. When the time came, it was standing room only, and in the crush and noise of the pub nobody could hear the speaker... The meeting was abandoned for a later date in the more sedate surroundings of Christ Church hall. Today, we run a huge range of activities, including talks, visits to places of interest, art and craft activities, charity events, learning new skills and much more."

Another group of a very different strain was Wanstead and Woodford Women for Peace, an offshoot of the local CND and active during the 1980's Cold War. The group attended peace demonstrations and held events on women and health, as well as organising 'Peace Picnics' at the Anti-Air Warfare Memorial in Woodford Green.

More recent changes to women's lives are reflected in a 'vox pop' film made on the streets of Wanstead and Woodford. In a conversation that will resonate for many, Sahba of South Woodford noted that: "I think it's harder to be a woman, with trying to balance it all. My husband's wonderful, he helps out with everything. But with everything you have to do with the children, ferrying them around and then balancing work and feeling happy and not feeling too frazzled by it all... it's just harder in that sense."

Redbridge Museum is located inside Redbridge Central Library in Ilford and is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday and 10am to 4pm on Saturday. The Wonder Women exhibition is on show until 27 April. For more information, call 020 8708 2317 or visit wavidi.co/rm

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