Hackney Changemakers: Esther Freeman

Esther Freeman and Rebel Women logo

Esther gets things done. She approached me pre-Covid to collaborate on a Hackney women’s history walking project which now has turned into a podcast (listen here). As you’ll see, we both like uncovering hidden stories and we both think that by looking back, we can better understand where we are today. And who doesn’t like a Maya Angelou quote?

If time-travel was invented we’d be off to the past like a shot, to listen to the stories of East London legends like Music Hall sensation Marie Lloyd. I’ve only recently appreciated what the women of Greenham Common went through and when I think of my own grandmother’s WW2 stories, I reflect on how much is left out of the history books. But thanks to people like Esther, a little of that imbalance is being redressed.

“It was one of those stinky, sweaty July days in London. I was standing at the foot of The Shard. Someone passed me a pair of binoculars so I could peer up at the ant-like figures climbing the tower. You couldn’t tell from so far below, but those five figures were all women. They were from Greenpeace and protesting Shell’s oil exploits in the Arctic.

The fact the activists were all women was important. Greenpeace had a reputation as being, what climber Victoria Henry [another Hackney connection, see this Hackney Gazette article, ed.] describes as, “beardy boys in boats.” She said after the climb a lot of women approached her, both in person and on social media, to say how she’d inspired them; not just her stand against climate change, but as a woman too. And so began my adventures in the lives and impacts of women activists.

I’d been an activist myself for over 20 years. I felt something was missing from it all, although I couldn’t put my finger on what. It felt hollow, and at times even a bit meaningless. Here was one more petition, or one more Twitter storm. Were we making progress or just going round in circles? To make sense of it all I began exploring the women who came before Victoria; to find out what had motivated them, and how they had fought and won.

I chose to look at East London, including Hackney, because it is where I live. Also, I knew it had a radical past. I was familiar with the Battle of Cable Street and the Chartist groups, but the women’s stories were often missing from these narratives. So I went in search of them.

Working with a fantastic group of volunteers, we delved into archives and conducted oral history interviews. I thought it might be a bit of a struggle to find stories, but it was in fact a snowball that became an avalanche. One woman’s story led to another, which led to another, and so on.

Hackney particularly was incredibly rich in stories: the first Turkish-Cypriot women councillor; the first black women MP; one of the original members of CND and Gay Liberation Front. It was also connected to wider social movements, such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

We took all the stories and created a walking tour app, which allowed people to go on self guided tours. This summer I was hoping to do some guided tours too, in partnership with Hackney Tours, whose area of interests fit so nicely into what we do. Sadly COVID has thrown a proverbial spanner in the works. But as I always say to my daughter, you only learn when things go wrong. So I set to work producing a new podcast, allowing people to connect with this important heritage in a personal, but socially distanced manner.

This latest episode will take you on an audio guided tour through Hackney’s landmarks, telling the story of its radical women. Through your headphones you can fully immerse yourself in this fascinating and inspiring history.

When I think about this heritage and why it is important, I think of the Maya Angelou quote:

“History, despite its wrenching pain can not be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

That is the missing piece that I felt in my activism all those years back. Connecting with our past helps us learn and find the motivation to continue pushing forward. In moments when I struggle to keep going, I think about Hetty Bower, Sarah Wesker and Marie Lloyd, and what they would do. I know they would keep going. And so shall I.

Subscribe to Rebel Women wherever you get your podcasts. The special Hackney episode launches on 5th August. Visit http://eastlondonwomen.org.uk/podcast/ for more information.

Want to know about contemporary Hackney changemakers? Want to get inspired and get involved? Then join us here!

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