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Gilda’s Oral Histories of the East End

Photo for Gilda's writing page

“I am very proud of my cockney background and have many memories of my East End childhood. I wanted to record the stories about that way of life before they were forgotten, and that was why I began writing my books about cockney history. Many families have roots in east London or in similar close-knit communities, and I wanted to preserve their stories too.”

“I spoke to East Enders of all ages to find out what they thought about these changes and to listen to their stories. In those stories there is so much more than tales of being poor and living in slums. There is a lot of sadness, but there is courage too. There are also laughter and good humour, warmth and strength, and happy memories about what it was like to live in a close community

I hope these tales will show that riches can come in many forms.”

“Food brought back so many memories for the people I spoke to about what life had once been like in the East End. They said that the food wasn’t always the best, but it was what people could afford. It was tasty and it filled their empty bellies.

Immigrants have come from all over the world to live and work in the East End and the food has reflected that…”

“Many older people had memories of the East End as a place full of big families who had lived and worked there for generations and who knew everyone in the neighbourhood. They also thought that the world they remembered had gone forever.

In some ways they were right…”

“Everyone knows that the world cannot stand still, and moving away from the slums with hopes of a better life for yourself and your children is an understandable step. As I said, my own family moved away to a new estate during the slum clearences. Yet despite all the hard times, the bad housing and the poverty, a longing and a fondness for the old East End remain with so many of those who choose to leave.

Like me, some people choose to move back.

So what is it that we remember with such warmth? ”

“I was told time and time again that East Enders really missed being able to go just a few streets or even a few doors away to visit their families.

Women said they had been freer. They didn’t have to worry about finding childcare if they had to go out, as there was always someone to keep an eye on their kids as they played in the street.

While the housing might have been rough and overcrowded, the women spoke fondly about how they sat outside chatting if the weather eas good, or went to someone’s house for a natter if it was raining. The men said they could always find a pal to chat to when they went to the local pub, a place where they would be known by name.

Life today is far more private. People move around the country, as they change their jobs and lifestyles. We close our front doors, put on the bolts and watch TV. The days of popping round to a neighbour’s place for a game of cards, or just for a laugh, are long gone for far too many of us.

And far too many of those who shared their tales with me said that they didn’t even know their neighbours. They talked sadly about stories they had read in the newspapers about elderly people being found dead in their homes months after they had died. They couldn’t believe that there had been no one to miss them. They thought everyone should have someone who cared.

I think that’s what we long for, life in a community where we know each other and where we do care about what happens to our neighbours. But people also want to do better for themselves. We couldn’t have dreamed of the material possessions that are available now, which young couples just expect to have. That includes things like the posh washing machines that have replaced the big, steamy laundry where my nan would laugh and joke with her neighbours as they struggled to do the weekly wash.”

“I believe it’s more than moving away that has changed how we live and behave today. I was visiting my dad, and went into the supermarket to get him some shopping. The shop gave out hand-held machines that you swiped across the bar code on each item as you walked around with your trolley. When you finished, you put the hand-held machine into another machine and paid by putting your money or a credit card in a slot. You could do all your shopping without speaking to a single human being.

How different from shopping in the street markets that can still be found all over the East End. Every stall holder has a cheeky remark or at least the time to say, ‘Good morning, darling,’ as you buy your fruit and vegetables.

I know which way of life I prefer.

Perhaps, though, I should leave the last word to my much-missed dad: “Of course they were the good old days – we were young!”


“Perhaps I wasn’t even born. Perhaps they are not all memories but stories that my family, like families are meant to, tell and embroider and retell and laugh about. “

“My Mother’s memories about the same events can be different from mine. This confuses us and we sometimes disagree about ‘what really happened’.

Perhaps it’s like the children’s game of Chinese whispers. When you whisper to me, I don’t hear what you say, but I hear what I know. Familiar words that make sense in my world, not yours.

It’s easy to take other people’s stories for granted, to undervalue them, when you think they’ll always be there. They can tell the story another day.”

“All the women who spoke to me about their experiences of the past wanted to have their stories remembered, they knew that it was important not to forget, nor to be forgotten. They wanted their past to be told in ways that they would recognise.”

“Records of the past can bring much pleasure, but critical awareness should always be present, operating as a rubbish detector. Critical awareness highlights and questions both the form and content of the text, looking for the hidden agenda, camouflaged by seductively fascinating detail. Oral history, having a wealth of such detail, should make the reader particularly suspicious about the motives of the writer.”

“Oral history can provide information about the cultural processes which lead us develop specific versions of ourselves through our memories; it can also look at how they can further our oppressions by reinforcing the engendered social relations in which we live.”

“I hope that the methods I have used to collect the testimonies have done justice to the lives of the women who were kind enough to trust me with their time and their memories. The pleasures of having the discussions certainly seemed mutual. We laughed a lot.”

“During the taping sessions women were moved to tears as well as laughter.”

“Each version of a story has its own truth. And our myths, whether of the universal, numinous kind or of the more prosaic, family variety, are used by us to tell and retell truths in ways that mean we can make sense of our world. Of course there will be contradictions arising from competition between myths: my truth is often your tall story.”

– Pull No More Bines


“The supposedly ordinary lives of ordinary people are all too easily forgotten, especially in our modern world, where everything is changing so rapidly, and new practices, beliefs and habits become the norm between each bewildered blink of the eye.”

“I believe passionately, that all our lives are worth recording and that all our stories are important. There is no such thing as an unimportant or ‘ordinary person.”

“these were the testimonies I wanted to do justice to. Because if I didn’t record them, what would happen to them? They might not be taken seriously, would maybe be misinterpreted or, perhaps, worst of all, simply lost.

“These are real people’s stories, not fictional accounts that could be picked up and put down at will.”

“There were some things that people wanted to speak about at length and others that, while they were still important, could be dealt with in a passing comment.”

“Our stories – our histories – are about who we are and why we are what we are, and we owe it to ourselves, our families and the future to let them know what we and our times were really like.”

– Our Street


A line of a song, a half-remembered tale from a much-missed relative, a sudden, fearful memory of that first day at school, all can make us weep. Not from nostalgia but from loss. Why didn’t we write it all down, ask more questions, realize it was our past we could lose?

“A lot of what we call history – the factual representation of the past – is as much to do with opinion, faith and dogma as any philosophical or religious system of belief. But through oral history, how we represent what we remember, we can explain the meaning of the past to ourselves, and thus the meaning of the present, and who and what we are, or want to be.”

As we are separated from the past of our memories by the increasing number of years that, before we know it, have slipped by, so the barriers to understanding, knowledge and lessons that maybe learned also slip ever further from our reach. Who was my great-aunt Mog’s husband? Did she have one? Was she widowed? Does that explain why she was in the workhouse?

Wanting to understand things can lead us to a realization that we can only ever have a partial knowledge.

– My East End


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