Historical Fiction Week: Guest Post by Kate Thompson

The next guest on my Historical Fiction Week is Kate Thompson, author of the fantastic Secrets of the Singer Girls (March, 2015) and Secrets of the Sewing Bee (March, 2016). I've had the pleasure of reading both and I highly recommend them. Today she stops by to talk about how she researched her novels, both set in the East End during WWII:

Hello Alba,

Firstly, thank-you for including me in your historical fiction week. There seems to be so much talk these days of the loss of community. The days where you could leave your door open, kids played out on the street and everyone in that street knew your name are alas, for the most part, long gone. 

However, when I look on your site, I am heartened to see another community springing into life, albeit it an on line one and I love that you encourage like-minded readers to come together and share their passion for books. 

Community is something I try to address constantly in my writing, and features heavily in both in Secrets of the Singer Girls, my debut novel for Pan Macmillan and the prequel, Secrets of the Sewing Bee, published in March. 

The books focus on the lives of East End seamstresses, whose work sewing Army and Navy uniforms in a Bethnal Green factory in wartime throws them headlong into some extraordinary situations. In order to research this fully, I spent many absorbing hours interviewing women who I came to call my ‘real life Singer Girls’. 

It all started with Kathy. Nudging 90 and still line-dancing, this sprightly octogenarian told me in detail about her fears on the first night of the Blitz and her raw anguish at seeing the destruction of her community at the hands of the Luftwaffe. After the moving interview I went to leave, but she called me back. 

‘I nearly forgot, love,’ she said. ‘I knitted you something.’ How sweet, I thought, as she took out something in soft white wool from her knitting bag, she’s knitted something for my baby son. On closer examination, it turned out to be not a pair of baby booties, but a willy-warmer! Kathy and her friend Vera took one look at my shocked face and fell about in raucous howls of laughter. 

Meet the real-life Singer Girls here
​Kathy was a former seamstress, and told me all about the long lost world of the wartime rag trade. I listened rapt, as she filled my head with stories.

Today, the East End is unrecognisable from its former self, but during the war, the streets of Bethnal Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Stepney and Whitechapel were teeming with garment factories, all crowded with women working ‘in the rag’. The blistering poverty of those times was brutal. The Welfare State hadn’t been dreamt up and the streets were filled with the poor and hungry. Children walked about with bare feet or in shoes patched up with cardboard. But from great poverty springs ingenuity, and the Cockney rag-trade worker, was nothing if not resourceful. 

One has to admire the women who worked out how to fuse their sewing machines by holding the wheel and keeping their foot down on the treadle, craftily earning themselves an extra ten-minute break, or the lady who proudly told me that she didn’t regard herself as a proper machinist until she had accidentally impaled her finger on the sewing machine needle three times! 

These women, like every other machinist I spoke with, calmly worked their way through the raids of the Blitz until the bombs got too close for comfort and they were forced to seek shelter. The Luftwaffe weren’t going to stop their sewing machines from humming, if they could help it!

​From those first stories, Secrets of the Singer Girls was born. Secrets of the Sewing Bee is set two years earlier during the Blitz and my research took me to some fascinating places, not least Bethnal Green Underground, where a lady named Gladys, pointed to the exact spot on the platform where she slept nightly to shelter from the bombs. Hard to conceive with a steady stream of commuters rushing past, but that’s what’s wonderful about history isn’t it? It contains so many surprises.

Like the fact that the same underground station also had triple bunks for five thousand, a library, a theatre built over the tracks and even a cr̬che to enable mothers to work Рall built 70 feet below ground! Setting a story in and amongst the camaraderie of a secret wartime village seemed so obvious once I knew of its existence.

​I find it fascinating how the war changed women’s lives in deeply profound ways. There is a perception that women were the gentler sex back then, tending to home and hearth, but on digging deeper I discovered a very different woman to the one presented to us though nostalgic dramas, stoically waiting for her husband to return home from the battlefields. 

My characters, in keeping with the women of Britain, behaved in extraordinary and uncharacteristic ways. Shocked out of their rhythms by fear, necessity and freedom, they indulged in affairs, took part in protests, lynch mobs, stormed from stifling jobs and took on exciting and dangerous new ones. 

As one woman told me whilst I was researching the book, “Women found their soul. It was the very best time to be alive”. This was confirmed by another lady who confessed: “I ought not to say this, but I found it exciting”. Another woman proudly told me she finally found freedom from her abusive husband, and got a job painting huge ships down the docks. Her eyes still sparkled at the memory. I’m not trying to diminish the fear and heartache experienced by so many, but highlight the ways in which women discovered what they were truly capable of.

Discovering that sense of freedom and the huge evolution it brought about in women's lives was very exciting.

​It is often the quiet voices of history, which are the most revealing. These women and their unassuming thoughts and feelings tell us so much about how difficult, but also how rewarding it was to be a woman in war-torn Britain.

Thank so much for such an interesting post Kate, I always find it fascinating to read about the role of women during the war and to discover how strong and brave these women were. 
Find out more about Kate Thompson and her books on: 

About the book: 

Title: Secrets of the Sewing Bee
Author: Kate Thompson
Published: March 10th 2016 by Macmillan

Blurb: Orphan Flossy Brown arrives at Trout's garment factory in Bethnal Green amidst the uncertainty of the Second World War. In 1940s London, each cobbled street is strewn with ghosts of soldiers past, all struggling to make ends meet. For the women of the East End, their battles are on the home front.

Flossy is quickly embraced by the colourful mix of characters working at Trout's, who have turned their sewing expertise to vital war work. They fast become the family that Flossy has always longed for. Dolly Doolaney, darling of the East End, and infamous tea lady, gives her a particularly warm welcome and helps Flossy settle into wartime life.

Things aren't so easy for Peggy Piper, another new recruit at the factory. She's used to the high life working as a nippie in the West End, and is not best pleased to find herself bent over a sewing machine. But war has the ability to break down all sorts of class barriers and soon Peggy finds the generosity and spirit of her fellow workers difficult to resist.

Dolly sets up a sewing circle and the ladies at Trout's play their part in defending the frontline as they arm themselves with their needles and set about stitching their way to victory. But as the full force of the Blitz hits London, the sewing bee are forced to shelter in the underground tube stations on a nightly basis.

In such close quarters, can Dolly manage to contain the secret that binds them all? And how will Peggy and Flossy cope as their lives are shaped and moved by forces outside of their control?

"Secrets of the Sewing Bee is a touching story that will surprise you more than once. With complex characters, secrets, love, friendship and tears, it has it all. I cannot wait to see what Kate Thompson comes out with next."

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