The East End has a proud history of strong women working for women’s rights, and it seems it still attracts pioneering women. We meet Claire Davis, current resident of the Sylvia Pankhurst Toy Factory house, and a pioneer in her own right.
The East End has a proud history of strong women working for the rights and benefit of the local community. From Sylvia Pankhurst campaigning for votes for women (and working men), to Angela Burdett-Coutts’ drive to form the Ragged School Union, and Jennifer Worth of ‘Call the Midwife’ fame, to name just a few.
Claire Davis is another local woman in a similar vein. For around 15 years she has supported women and new families in East London through home birth and breast feeding support groups. And much of it has been done from the very same house in which Sylvia Pankhurst and her Suffragettes opened the Toy Factory and crèche which allowed East End mothers to work.
“We didn’t buy the house because of the Pankhurst connection, but that’s a lovely side to it,” Claire says, acknowledging that there is “some kind of female power aspect” to what she does, and what has gone on in the house before her.
“It’s been a powerhouse, a house were a lot of fantastic stuff has got going. A lot of stuff that’s happened here has spread out and made a really positive change for mothers in Tower Hamlets, and that’s what this house was set up by the Suffragettes to do.”
Claire and her husband Frank moved in 17 years ago when they were expecting their first child. At the time Claire, who has no formal medical training, was working for the government, but after becoming a mother she “became really interested in issues around home birth”.
“I was born at home, so I had my babies at home. I had always thought that that was the right thing to do,” she says. “(But) I met people and had lots of conversations with people that didn’t know it was even allowed. So I decided that I wanted to do something with my time that helped women have better experiences.”
“There are all sorts of reasons why birthing at home can be very empowering, and in many ways the mother’s experience is likely to be better than in a hospital. I wanted other parents to have the fantastic experiences that we had. A lot of the time the best thing you ever hear (from people who had hospital births) is that ‘it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be’. Birth should be a celebration. But often it becomes too clinical…”
So in 2001, once a month, Claire began inviting people who were thinking about home birth into her house to discuss their options and listen to the experiences of others. “Hundreds and hundreds of people over the years have come through. It was a very lovely thing,” she says.
“We’ve had children born on boats, on the top floor of council tower blocks. Once we had a baby born at eight in the morning and the family were round here at eight in the evening to celebrate with us all.”
Claire has also been fundamental in helping women post-birth, including supporting new mothers with their breast feeding, and training others to be supporters too. “I have trained a lot of women in Tower Hamlets. And a lot of the people that I’ve trained and supervised here have gone on to set up breast feeding groups in the community”.
Today she works part time with Barts Health Trust co-ordinating local breast feeding services. And while she no longer runs the home birth group at 45 Norman Grove, she has been fundamental in steering the set up of the Barkantine Centre, an out-of-hospital, home birth-style facility on the Isle of Dogs.
“This house has been a hub for so much to do with women and babies and that sort of thing. It’s been very female power driven.” And to a certain extent, it still is, thanks to Claire and Frank’s four daughters. But more than that, it’s about family and community. “There was always a feeling (before we bought the house) that this could be a really interesting family home. And it has been. We’ve got no plans to go anywhere else,” she says.
Claire, who grew up in Stevenage, says living in the East End “is as exciting as I could have wished for”. She says the cultural diversity is hugely beneficial to the outlook of her children – “it stops you making assumptions and having prejudices. I see wonderful community cohesion in Tower Hamlets kids” – and the area “really does feel like everything’s on our doorstep”.
“I got married in shoes from Impulse Shoes on Roman Road. All our kids school shoes are from there,” she says.
“I must have spent about £10,000 over the years in Thompsons,” her husband Frank adds.
“All our carpets are from Abbots. Once they even stored a big piece of carpet in their warehouse for us until we were ready to lay it in another room,” she continues. “We pop down to the market every weekend. Pie and mash is a classic. We get take away every couple of weeks form Roman Tandoori. I get my flu jabs from Sinclairs Pharmacy. I get my legs waxed at Skin and Tonic. And I’m not ashamed to say I’ve sung karaoke at the Albert a few times.
“There’s a lot of life in The Roman. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It is impossible to be bored here.”