East London has always been something of a male dominated area, one where men could be men and see real escorts. The sort of place where testosterone was encouraged.


There were external factors in East London society which were beyond the control of women, but which defined the parameters within which they functioned. Essentially these were the size of the population, the gender ratio and the environmental resource base which determined the economic and industrial development of the urban area, I argue that this resource base was a fragile one and the economic development was slow and unreliable giving rise to attitudes which were conservative rather than innovative. While economic growth was difficult, an improvement in the economic conditions did take place. From the 1890s, many families had achieved some degree of stability and a white middle class was formed. In spite of the many negative forces, there was a growth of consciousness of the many unjust laws and social barriers which faced women and those who were involved came from this white middle class. These are the issues addressed in this chapter. Population Growth and Gender Ratios Population growth and the gender ratios were indicators of the potential for change. Only when there were sufficient numbers of women to act in support of one another would there be suitable conditions where they could challenge prevailing norms.

East London during the 1870s and 1880s was a small society with few women, and people were struggling for economic survival. This meant that the addressing of female concerns was not a priority. 26 It is impossible to give accurate and comparable figures for the urban population of East London during the years 1870 to 1911 as the published census figures were for the whole Electoral Division of East London, an area which included country districts. In 1873 there was an influx of single men, both black and white, to work on the harbour and railway works. The Anglian brought 64 immigrants from Europe whose occupations were listed as bricklayers, carpenters, gangers and platelayers, with no mention of wives and children.1 In the following year RMS Basuto brought a further sixteen immigrants. 2 The population was further enlarged in 1876 by 100 more single men; masons, navvies, quarrymen and carpenters, who had been selected in England by Mr W.H. Fuller, Director of the East London Boating Company at the time, to work in the harbour. 3 In 1875 the newspaper published figures for the urban area which gave population figures for whites as 808 males and 447 females, a ratio of 55 women to 100 men. This was a very small group with an unbalanced ratio.


The black population was even smaller, comprising 751 males and 127 females, with an even more markedly unbalanced ratio of 17 women to 100 men. 4 A count of the residents listed in an 1878 directory gives only 268 whites with ten women heading households. 5 The presence of so many single men employed in the harbour and railway works, military men stationed at Fort Glamorgan as well as visiting sailors,meant that there was a ready market for poor women who needed to earn money, and prostitutes made their way into this port town. There were only a few stable settled families in this period and the resultant urban society was a rough one with fights being the order of the day, particularly among the ‘blue-jackets and surfboatmen’.6 Men, both white and black, and often women, lying drunk in the street were common sights as were street brawls and ‘abusive language’ being heard in public. In 1876 the newspaper reported that there had been “a disgraceful street brawl in front of the canteen in Smith Street between a lot of drunken sailors.


Obscene language and disgustingly indecent scenes are almost a daily occurrence in front of this canteen which all the prostitutes in town seem almost to make a home of.” 7 East London of the 1870s was then a male dominated society with very few respectable black or white women in the town, and who played little part in public life. There was little impetus for change and innovation. The Economy By the 1890s the economy had improved and greater numbers of women had entered the town. The location figures for 1895 show that there were 58 females to 100 males (See Table 1), an indication that black women were beginning to enter the town in greater numbers, but there was still a preponderance of whites. A count of the residents in the 1898 directory showed a marked increase in population as the number rose to 1038. This included 111 women who headed households. S The 1904 location figures give similar ratios to 1895 with 54 females to 100 males but there is some question as to the reliability of these figures. The position during this period was one where some groups of white women from the middle class, who had enough knowledge and resources, were able to start challenging accepted norms.

The 1911 census was a more comprehensive one than had been done before and for the first time there was a breakdown of the urban and rural figures. The total urban population showed remarkable growth with a total of 25605, of which 15323 were whites and 10252 were blacks. Of these 7833 were white males and 7520 were white females, a ratio of 96 females to 100 males. The black urban males numbered 5824 and the females 4428, giving a ratio of 76 females to 100 males. 9 What is evident is that the ratio between white men and women was just about even and that black women were entering the town in much larger numbers than previously and were bound to make a considerable impact on their community. With a major growth in numbers and an improvement in the economy, further steps towards addressing women’s issues were taken. Environmental Determinants In the East London situation some fundamental attitudes and responses of women to their society were determined by the prevailing environmental conditions. The fragile resource base of East London and the immediate hinterland affected the women adversely, particularly in the early years, when there was little economic stability. Without the confidence of a sound resource base, most women would not be prepared to put their livelihood at risk by challenging accepted norms