The Stepney Doorstep Society by Kate Thompson – Extract.

About The Book

The unsung and remarkable stories of the women who held London’s East End together during not one, but two world wars. 

Meet Minksy, Gladys, Beatty, Joan, Girl Walker . . . 

While the men were at war, these women ruled the streets of the East End. Brought up with firm hand in the steaming slums and teeming tenements, they struggled against poverty to survive, and fought for their community in our country’s darkest hours.

But there was also joy to be found. From Stepney to Bethnal Green, Whitechapel to Shoreditch, the streets were alive with peddlers and market stalls hawking their wares, children skipping across dusty hopscotch pitches, the hiss of a gas lamp or the smell of oxtail stew. You need only walk a few steps for a smile from a neighbour or a strong cup of tea.

From taking over the London Underground, standing up to the Kray twins and crawling out of bombsites, The Stepney Doorstep Society tells the vivid and moving stories of the matriarchs who remain the backbone of the East End to this day.

Extract

Eleven a.m. Sunday, 18 June 1944. The neighbourhood was alive with word of a new bomb, which had landed at 10 a.m. that morning. Flying shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns had injured a man, but amazingly, no one had been killed.

‘Sounds like a one-off,’ declared Gladys’ mum,Mary. ‘Be a good girl and take your sisters out for some fresh air.’

Twelve-year-old Gladys did as she was told, bumping the pram containing her two younger sisters down the concrete steps and out into a drowsy Sunday morning. She had just taken the turning into Marsham Street, when a strange spluttering sound broke open the still summer air.

Gladys stopped. Listened. She stared up at the sky, then back to the faces of her two sisters in their pram. No siren had gone off.

What should she do?

In wartime, the smallest action had a consequence. Her mind flashed alarmingly back to the Blitz. It had been three and a half years since she’d seen her best friend’s body carried past her, encased in a cardboard coffin.

The noise grew more persistent. The green leaves on the tree trembled. The sound rose up from the bowels of the earth, growing from a dull throbbing to a full-throttle staccato. A feeling, primal in its intensity, gripped her. Palms slippery with sweat, she gripped the handles of the pram and took off, her skinny white legs pumping in the direction of whatever looked like safety.

Spotting an alcove in the side of Westminster Hospital nurses home, Gladys managed to push the pram inside to safety and wedged herself in next to it. Gazing up, her blue eyes widened in horror. God in heaven, what was it?

A huge black rocket was heading unswervingly in their direction. Heart punching in her chest, she squeezed her eyes shut.

Please don’t let the babies be killed.

A tremendous noise rose up over the neighbourhood. The pom-pom guns started firing, the siren wailed. ..But over it all, the continual putt-putt of whatever that thing was bored through her brain like a speedway motorbike.

A dark shadow engulfed the pram. Silence. The engine had cut out.

Where is it? she wondered, sticking her head out of the alcove for a closer look. The rocket was slicing through the skies towards them.

Fear crashed over her, her blood roaring through her ears. Helpless tears streamed down her cheeks.

Please God, don’t let it be us . . .

She closed her eyes, but when she opened them again, she could see the rocket lurching, changing course. All of a sudden, it nosedived with terrifying speed straight into the Wellington Barracks, home to the Regiment of Guards. A thick, choking cloud of smoke mushroomed into the sky. The noise and debris was out of this world, but Gladys wasn’t hanging around to see who’d copped it. Pushing the pram out of the alcove, she turned and ran like a bat out of hell in the direction of home.