Beyond Medicine
Beyond Medicine
A social history of women and pandemics

When Britain went into lockdown in March 2020, it was not only dealing with a health crisis, but a social one too. Stories of doctors and nurses battling on the frontline are numerous, but what happened in local communities is less well documented. This exhibition shares the stories of those who worked hard behind the scenes to keep society moving, the majority of whom were women. It explores themes of faith, technology, and the strength of grassroots networks. It poses difficult questions about valuing women’s work, and why the crisis failed to trigger a radical social rethink as in 1945.

The exhibition contrasts these experiences with the 1918 pandemic. It explains the difficulties in researching these stories, highlighting the importance of documenting people’s memories before it’s too late.

There are ten stories in this exhibition from women in East London, which were collected through oral history interviews in the summer of 2022. They are a sample from our larger collection, which is archived at the Bishopsgate Institute. They represent a fraction of the untold stories that exist within our communities. This exhibition is our way of thanking both those who took part in our project, and everyone else who stepped up in 2020.

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Women and the 1918 pandemic

The so-called Spanish Flu arrived on the back of WW1, hitting communities already dealing with huge amounts of death, hunger and hardship. It is hard to calculate exact figures, but estimates suggest between 2-5% of the world’s population died. This includes 228,000 people in Britain.

Historian Catharine Arnold has described a type of collective amnesia when it comes to the 1918 pandemic. Not only was the media hit by war time reporting restrictions, but there’s little reference to in memoirs, literature or art. And there are no memorials for influenza victims, even though it disproportionately impacted young men who had been on the frontlines.

This makes it hard to uncover the stories of those who lived through it, especially when looking for women’s experiences, which are typically under-reported. One of the few resources that exists is the Collier Collection, which is archived at the Imperial War Museum. It was collected in the 1970s and contains letters from those who were mostly children at the time. People like Bernard Wilson of Stepney, who remembered:

“As long as I live I shall not forget seeing people collapsing in the street. There was not an ambulance system as we have today and I saw people picked up off the ground and taken away in flat topped wheelbarrows.

Beyond Medicine #4

And Mrs Cain, also from East London:

“They died like flies and were taken in plain wood coffins by lorry loads … I can remember the black flags flying in the street where almost every house had someone who had gone.”

This collective amnesia makes uncovering stories of women who stepped up almost impossible. That’s not to say we did not find hints that it happened, including around East London. We discovered the story of Lydia Phillips, from Highams Park, who volunteered at her local hospital to help overstretched nurses; and Mrs Hislop and Miss Lister from Leyton, who ran baby clinics and home visits, helping with “feeding and clothing children, and the hygiene of the home”.

The Collier Collection revealed community kindness in 1918. Mr Copping first saw his father fall sick and then his mother. He remembered:

“Relays of strange women came in, simply to sit by my father’s bedside: it was just another case where the women spontaneously got themselves organised in the face of a common enemy.”

Beyond Medicine #5

Doris Martin, who grew up in Stepney, remembers each member of her family falling ill, one-by-one. She recalled:

“Neighbours were afraid to enter the house because of the scourge! When we wanted a loaf of bread my mother had to put coppers on outside window ledge – then a loaf was put there.

With a lack of evidence from Britain, we looked overseas for stories of women stepping up during the 1918 pandemic. In Australia, they converted their homes into soup kitchens; in the US, wealthier women turned their cars into ambulances; and in Ireland, Sinn Fein physician, Kathleen Lynn, transformed a house in Dublin into a hospital, and recruited a citizen army to care for the sick.

Canada had one of the biggest volunteer responses. Unlike in Britain, federal departments and local mayors called on volunteers to come forward. In Quebec, women’s organisations sent volunteers into affected homes. They also raised funds to financially support families. The Red Cross took over home economics departments of local schools to cook “broths and custards”, which were delivered to the bedridden. Meanwhile in Ottawa, 200 women filled the entire council chamber at City Hall, sewing each night until 11pm to equip newly opened emergency hospitals. In one 24 hour period they churned out 1400 items, including hospital shirts, towels and nappies.

Although some men volunteered, public perception considered women more suitable to caring, which led to men’s reluctance to step up. A lot were also still overseas, waiting to be demobbed.

With this international picture of sisterhood mobilising to fight one of the deadliest moments in human history, it seems reasonable to assume British women did the same. Unfortunately the exact details of their contributions we will never fully know. It highlights why the stories in the rest of this exhibition are so important to our understanding of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Jennie Caminada: the scrub sewer
Jennie Caminada: the scrub sewer

Jennie was a child when she started sewing, making dresses for her dolls. Her passion grew, and she turned it into a career. Despite all her experience, nothing would prepare her for what happened in March 2020.

In the early days of lockdown she was contacted by a costume designer, whose work had all fallen away. Women in Hackney had created a “scrub hub” to deal with the PPE shortage, and she wanted to do the same in Walthamstow. Could Jennie help?

Within three days they had established a fully functioning company. There were 75 sewers, people sourcing fabric, quality control, a press officer and finance officer.

It was an all women group, except one man. “There is always something magical when women get together”, said Jennie. But she was aware that they were once again asking women to work behind the scenes for free, while men did the exciting stuff that got them in the news.

They worked incredibly hard – sometimes up to 14 hours a day. When the government supply chains started moving again, they wrapped things up. Many were burnt out, and others had regular work to return to. They’re proud of what they did and celebrated with a virtual drink together.

Saira Mir: the food bank leader
Saira Begum Mir BEM, BCAc: the food bank leader

The food bank – PL8 4U AL SUFFA – has been running since 2013, but the Covid 19 pandemic took the operation to a whole new level. And heading everything up was Saira Mir.

The idea for PL8 4U came from both Saira’s faith, and her job as an outreach worker, where she saw shocking levels of poverty. She secured a grant through Near Neighbours to run Sunday lunches for those in need, bringing together people of different backgrounds, ages and faiths.

The project grew: they took on extra help; began providing breakfasts and working with FairShare to collect end of day produce from supermarkets. They handed out toiletries, then clothes and finally the food bank opened.

When the pandemic hit, demand went through the roof. They set up two systems: referral; and walk in, with no questions asked. The Sunday lunches stopped, but they continued providing a hot meal take away service.

Saira lost both her mother and father to Covid, so safety precautions were always a priority. When she fell ill to Covid herself, a team of volunteers stepped up to ensure the service could keep running.

It didn’t stop at food. Saira contacted a friend who put children’s activity packs together. At Eid and Christmas they organised presents. It was never just a food bank, but a hub for community cohesion. And for Saira, it has seen her through her grief and provided the inspiration to keep going.

Jackie Conor: the food bank volunteer
Jackie Conor: the food bank volunteer

Prior to the pandemic, Jackie enjoyed an active retirement, with piano lessons, travel, and socialising. Covid 19 brought all that to an end. Restless, she looked for something new and discovered The Trussell Trust, who run a network of food banks across the UK. She was assigned to one in Hackney.

Jackie’s job was sorting crates of food from the distribution centre. At Christmas a lorry of toys turned up from the council. Jackie enjoyed sorting dolls and dinosaurs rather than baked beans for once!

Food bank users ranged from the homeless, refugees and young people in precarious employment. There were also those who’d lost their jobs due to the pandemic, or missed out on furlough schemes. Some days the queue would be down the road. As the pandemic continued it got longer, with some waiting for hours.

The Trussell Trust work on a voucher system, which are issued by doctors, social services or Citizen’s Advice. During the pandemic it was impossible to get through to many of these organisations, so Jackie’s food bank started issuing vouchers themselves. Although this didn’t break any laws, it was against the ethos of the charity and they were shut down. The volunteers had become close, so were heartbroken.

Jackie is a committed socialist, but had not been involved in poverty projects before. The pandemic gave her a shift in thinking. She is now looking for a volunteering role that focuses on food insecurity.

Ain Satar: the organiser
Ain Satar: the organiser

Ain and her husband are doctors, so they thought they’d be prepared for the pandemic. But the closing of their daughter’s nursery, and being heavily pregnant, added a whole extra level of stress.

In July 2020, Ain gave birth. This was no time to slow down though. Despite having a new baby to care for, Ain got involved with her local mutual aid group. With her husband, she mapped out the ward, recruiting volunteers for each street. They set up What’s App groups, where neighbours could request and provide help, such as picking up prescriptions and collecting food.

They connected with other local organisations, such as the William Morris Big Local, who provided funding for people struggling financially. Another organisation cooked hot food, which their volunteers delivered. Ain’s husband put together a list of resources for those who needed legal help. Soon social workers and other people in caring roles contacted them for a copy.

Ain took on the role because she saw things needed to be done, and nobody else was doing them. She insists it was a group effort though, and none of it would have been possible without the support of her husband.

Chrys Christy: the delivery driver
Chrys Christy: delivery driver

When the pandemic hit, Chrys knew many families would be desperately worried about food scarcity. She’d been helping at a food bank - PL8 4U SUFFA - and started delivering food to those in need.

Some of the people she was delivering to were socially isolated, so she took a little time on her deliveries. Standing on their doorstep with a mask, she would stay for a chat. Over lockdown, these relationships grew.

Jackie and Clive were two people she delivered to, and they realised during lockdown that they wanted to be together forever. Theirs was a beautiful wedding that the community got involved in organising.

Lockdown put life on hold for many, but for women like Chrys it was all hands on deck. Now life is back to normal, there is once again a scarcity of volunteers. Many have returned to work, but Chrys feels there’s also volunteering fatigue.

While we clapped for the NHS, Chrys feels we haven’t properly thanked all the volunteers who gave so much; the neighbours who helped neighbours.

Shenagh Govan: the cook
Shenagh Govan: the cook

As an actor, Shenagh’s world of work dried up when the theatres closed. But with time on her hands, she was determined to put it to good use.

Shenagh is active in both the Labour Party and Momentum, where conversations quickly started about how to help. She joined the mutual aid network, setting up a What’s App group in the streets around her. Initially it was used to deliver food and support older people living alone. Then she heard about the need for people to cook food at The Farm Community Kitchen for delivery.

Working in an industrial kitchen was completely new to Shenagh. She had to learn a lot and fast, including how to scale up to serve large numbers, labelling food for allergies and how to package food for delivery. She enjoyed being in the kitchen, and the calm of jobs like peeling potatoes helped her sort through things in her head.

Due to the cost of living crisis, demand for support remains high, so Shenagh continues volunteering today. It feels like a little family has grown around the longer term volunteers.

Due to the cost of living crisis, demand for support remains high, so Shenagh continues volunteering today. The service has been delivering three days a week, for three years, with a family growing not just at the kitchen but within the community it serves too. With the delivery of nutritious meals, and doorstep chats, those who would otherwise be struggling behind closed doors receive a vital lifeline.

Julia Hawkes: the baker
Julia Hawkes: the baker

Julia loves to bake. During her 37 years at HMRC she would regularly organise charity cake sales, or bake for people’s birthdays and leaving parties. When she retired, she carried on baking as she found it relaxing. But when the pandemic hit her baking took on a whole new meaning.

It started with the Thursday night Clap for Carers. Julia would bake for the event, handing them out to her neighbours at a distance. They stayed out after the clapping ended, to eat and chat. Soon it became a regular event, with Julia delivering cakes in all seasons.

While Clap for Carers has ended, Julia’s baking has not. Every week the neighbours still meet for cake and a chat. She’s baked for St Patrick's Day, Halloween, Purim and Chinese New Year.

During the stamp duty holiday, lots of people in the neighbourhood moved. She would bake a special cake for the people moving out, and knock on the door of those moving in, inviting them to cake night. It’s enabled them to get to know each other more quickly, building strong bonds across the neighbourhood.

Julia and her cakes nights are legendary. She keeps asking if people want to continue, and everyone always says yes. As far as Julia’s concerned, as long as people keep meeting, she’ll keep baking.

Caroline Keech: the vaccination volunteer
Caroline Keech: the vaccination volunteer

When lockdown was announced, Caroline was in a pub with friends and they decided to stay and “drink the bar dry”. Then she went home and ordered a mountain of gin and chocolate.

This seems to sum Caroline up – a brakes off approach to life. Only a few weeks into lockdown she was working with her neighbours to organisie cocktail parties, a 90th birthday celebration, fitness challenges in the front gardens, and supported a food bank for the street. She also helped her husband with food deliveries for those in need.

When the vaccination clinics opened, Caroline volunteered to help with the queues. There were some hassles with some people refusing to wear masks, and “anti vaxxers causing trouble”, but overall it was a positive experience. Some queued for 3-4 hours, but they set up picnics and played music, turning it into something fun.

While volunteering at the vacination clinic she also worked as a telephone responder. Every week, Caroline went to a phone centre to call those on the council’s vulnerable people list. She checked they had food, if they needed a befriending service or legal help.

After throwing so much energy into the crisis, she feels a void now things have gone back to normal. She is trying to get back to her old way of life, but doesn’t feel the same motivation.

Averil Pootan Watan: the church warden
Averil Pooten Watan: the church warden

Averil is a warden at St Barnabas Church, which has a mixed congregation made up of lots of migrants. She is also a care home manager, where many migrants work. Through these two roles she learnt that some undocumented people, particularly those who worked in private, individual, care settings were having trouble getting the the Covid19 vaccine. It was another care crisis waiting to happen.

In order to get the vaccine you had to book through the NHS website with an NHS number. If you didn’t have a number, then you couldn’t book. Many undocumented migrants don’t have an NHS number because they are not registered with a GP. They are not registered with a GP because hostile environment policies make them terrified of being reported to the Home Office.Yet they were desperate for the vaccine as they didn't want to put the elderly or young children they cared for at further risk.

Averil contacted St Barts NHS Community Engagement team, who responded with drop in centres where no ID was needed and no questions were asked. The first week 30 members of Averil’s congregation got the vaccine; the next week there were 50 more. Within 2-3 months they delivered 400 vaccines, with people coming from as far away as Scotland.

Averil’s faith kept her going through the pandemic. It stopped her getting overwhelmed and prevented isolation by keeping her connected to her community.

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