We spoke to writer and journalist Kate Thompson about her wonderful book Secrets of The Singer Girls
Can you tell us a little about your background as a writer/journalist?
I worked as a journalist for many years, but when I gave birth to my second son in 2011, I decided to go freelance to be around more for my chilrden. After ghost writing several wartime memoirs, I realised that nostalgia was a genre I felt very comfortable writing in, then two years ago my agent suggested I try my hand at fiction.
What inspired you to write the novel set in the East End clothing factories – is there a personal connection?
I had been to Bethnal Green on a number of occasions chatting to women who remembered the war in the East End and it seemed that virtually every woman I spoke to had worked in the rag trade as a seamstress. The more they filled me in on life on the factory floor the more compelling I found it, and it occurred to me it would be a wonderful place to set a novel.
Do you have any favourite stories from speaking to the ‘real life’ factory girls?
The women I spoke to shared so many great stories. One woman told me about how they would ‘hold the line’, which meant the seamstresses would hold onto your wheel and put your foot down on the treadle. If all the women did this at the same time it fused the machine and craftily earned them an extra tea break. I also love their resilience, if a woman accidentally impaled her thumb on the needle, the forelady just turned the wheel to extract it and she was simply patched up and told to get on with it. You had to do this three times apparently before you were considered ‘a proper machinist’. Despite the hard work and often ferociously strict foreladies, the women also managed to extract every last drop of fun from factory life, singing at the tops of the voices to Music While You Work on the wireless and sneaking little notes into the army uniforms in the hope of finding a sailor or soldier sweetheart. For all its hardships, the rag trade taught them many skills, pride in their work, a sense of self and a place in their community.
Was there anything that particularly shocked or moved you?
After spending many hours speaking with women who lived there, I also realised what an enormous part the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster had to play in all their lives and how it helped to shape the psyche of the community. It was the biggest wartime civilian disaster; 173 men women and children were crushed attempting to get down underground at the tube to the shelters when the siren went off. The tragedy was that there wasn’t a single German bomb dropped that night, it was anti aircraft rocket testing from the nearby park. Churchill’s government hushed the disaster up as they didn’t want the German’s to find out as they would have had a field day with the propaganda of it, so effectively Bethnal Green was forced to grieve in silence.
Do you have any more book ideas lined up that you can tell us about?
I’m already in the process of researching for a follow onto Secrets of the Singer Girls. It’s set in the same factory with some old familiar faces, as well as some new ones. This book starts two years earlier in the summer of 1940 and takes us through the Blitz and the East Enders fight for the right to take sanctuary in the safety of the Underground.
See the May issue of Sew fore more from the real singer girls and more. Plus, watch the Secrets of the Singer Girl’s preview here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8jJKf3Jrg4
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