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Gilda at the Bishopsgate Library

Bishopsgate Institute, which opened in 1895, is an independent cultural institution featuring a historic library and extensive library and archive collections. The archives were initially assembled by the Institute’s second librarian, Charles Goss, and have been added to since. The archives now consist of a variety of personal, organisational and other collections covering the history of London, the labour movement, freethought and Humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning. The collections are particularly strong in nineteenth- and twentieth-century material. Bishopsgate Institute still seeks to collect archival material in its areas of interest.

The Bishopsgate Institute holds the archive of Gilda O’Neill, including: drafts of published and unpublished works; research notes; press cuttings collected for research and regarding campaigns; notebooks; correspondence with contributors and readers; audio tapes; reviews.

“Gilda’s contribution to the history of the East End of London was enormous. Her kind of history was the most important kind: how people lived day-to-day, what they spoke about, how they felt…what they had for dinner! This history of every day life, or ‘history from below’ is central to the Library and Archives at Bishopsgate Institute, and this is why she felt so at home when she visited us. She was a wonderful spirit and we are honoured to hold her archives”

– Stefan Dickers, Library and Archives Manager

I am still a Cockney at heart…’ is how one correspondent described herself in a letter to Gilda O’Neill sent from Basildon in Essex in 2000. The letter is one of dozens of typed and handwritten notecards, cards and letters in the O’Neill Collection, deposited at Bishopsgate Institute by John O’Neill in 2011. The ‘Letters from Readers’ date from 1990 to 2005 and are from both men and women. They were posted from a range of locations across Britain, from London to the West Country and from the North-east to Norfolk. Some letters were sent from overseas, from the ‘Cockney’ diaspora in the USA and Australia. But most are from Essex and Kent, reflecting the out-migration of east Londoners during the second half of the twentieth century.

From this correspondence we gain glimpses of Gilda’s popularity as a writer and historian. Her warm and generous spirit is also apparent in the content of the letters and in Gilda’s determination to respond to each and every writer personally – many letters have a scribbled handwritten note stating ‘Replied’ together with the date. The border between author and reader is blurred and it is clear that the letter writers felt a close personal bond with the writer who brought to life the East End of their childhood through works such as Our Street, My East End and The Cockney Girl:

‘I have just read your book The Bells of Bow. Reading this book was like living my life all over again.’ (Essex, 1995)

‘I recently read…The Cockney Girl. Brilliant it was. It brought back a lot of happy memories for me.’ (Bradford, no date)

‘I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your book Pull No More Bines…My grandmother and mother, now both dead, were born in the East End and your reported speech text of the women interviewed [for the book] made me laugh out loud frequently, it reminded me so much of how my grandmother spoke.’ (London, 1993)

‘Thank you so much for writing My East End. It brought back many wonderful memories of when I grew up in Bow.’ (USA, 2000)

As the Learning Officer at Bishopsgate Institute, one of my roles is to develop learning sessions for students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities using items from our historic library and archive collections. Both in terms of content and ‘back story’ the readers’ correspondence in the O’Neill collection provide engaging sources for educational work with young East Londoners. Many letters include vivid and memorable historical information about the local area in the twentieth century. This information is conveyed through the eyes and words of people who lived in places like Bethnal Green and Bow in the mid-twentieth century and chose to share their memories with Gilda many years afterwards, whether in a paragraph or two in a handwritten letter or in a couple of typed chapters of an unpublished memoir or autobiography. This set of letters also act as inspiration to young people – especially young women – to aim high. Here was a woman who grew up on the same streets as them, with few opportunities in life. Yet Gilda’s determination, hard work and talent as a writer and historian helped her to overcome the material obstacles in her life. And along the way, her published works detailing the day-to-day experiences of dozens of ‘typical’ East Enders not only recorded but also touched and brightened the lives of thousands of men and women across the world.

* All the quotations above are from O’Neill 4/2, Letters from Readers, Bishopsgate Institute & Archive

– Michelle Johansen, Learning Officer, Bishopsgate Institute

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