Like many generations of my family before me growing up in Newham, I was regaled with stories about my family’s exploits and the East End’s history.
I heard of raids on Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirt meetings, the forced sale of our Grandmother Clock to fund medicine for my mum, the fight for Cable Street, the humiliation of standing on the stones begging for work and the victory of the Matchwomen.
My recent visit to Manor Park Cemetery and the grave of Sarah Chapman, prominent in the Matchwomen’s strike and buried in a ‘pauper’s grave,’ close to the railway line, was a deeply emotional experience.
I was invited by Sarah’s great-granddaughter. Mrs Sam Johnson wants Sarah’s contribution to Labour history recognised. She is rightly proud of her ancestor. Sarah was one of the amazingly inspirational leaders of the Matchwomen strikers. Women worked in brutal, hazardous conditions in the infamous Bryant and May factory. They and fought and won against all odds and created a trade union. Those women kicked off the wave of activism which created the Party I proudly represent today.
Other great characters rest in that cemetery. Jack Cornwell, for example, grew up in Newham and, in 1915, joined the Royal Navy aged just 14. In HMS Chester, under heavy shelling, he was mortally wounded, yet remained alone serving his gun for 15 minutes, until he died. For his gallant bravery he received the Victoria Cross.
Annie Chapman, a victim of Jack the Ripper, also rests there. Left destitute and betrayed by her husband, Annie was forced onto the Whitechapel streets in desperation born of extreme poverty before her murder.
It was a delight to be shown around by the remarkable Janet Briggs, who manages the site and brought the past alive for me. Her passion and care for all the souls residing there is exemplary. She and I will work together over coming months to find much-needed funds to renovate a war memorial to West Ham’s civilian dead.
We must do all we can to keep our histories alive.
Understanding our past helps us shape our futures.