It has been more than a year now since I first met with the Rotherhithe Babes, a group of southeast London cockney women in their late 80s and early 90s, sitting across from one another, reminiscing about the time Eileen had dressed up as a 'washer woman' to jump on top of Theresa's husband and embarrass him.
They welcomed us to their coffee morning and after two slices of lemon drizzle and many stories about the finer pie and mash shops in the area - many of which have now closed down - we were told we could come again. This was the start of a unique side project that has taken us a year to pull off.
On 11 May 2017, we launched their book, 'Our ups and downs: growing up and getting on with the Rotherhithe Babes' – a collective memoir of mischief, community and eccentric characters, along with tragedies, great loves and losses. It is a tangible legacy of their remarkable lives and of the work we do in the Standing Together project.
The Rotherhithe Babes are one group of great older women who have enjoyed each other's company over many decades. They talk with great humour about the changes they have seen in their world and their local area over their lifetimes. We have documented some of these stories in their book:
The project aims to build support groups for tenants in retirement and extra-care homes, who may be lonely, having moved from their respective communities.
All too often, I work with people with very few connections to the area they now live in and find that many people struggle to get out of their flats every day or to meet with their new neighbours. This of course was not the case for the Rotherhithe Babes, who have known one another for almost 50 years.
Where all too often I find empty lounges with armchairs pushed against the walls, here there was laughter and noise, crude jokes that were interwoven with painful memories and people supporting one another through poor health – all the while making fun of one another for their poor memory! The Babes, (as they're now collectively known in our office) were giving of themselves in a way we hadn't experienced before.
It was around four months into the project, after learning how old the Babes were (they are remarkably vivacious, ageless and active for their age) and how much they'd really achieved, that I realised we needed to record these stories. They are pertinent to all of us and especially to women.
This oral history tells tales of harassment in male-dominated industries, raising families at a time of intense financial struggle, navigating a relationship with no wisdom imparted about their bodies and managing loss at a time when the country was determined to keep calm and carry on.
These are unthinkable circumstances and yet the stories are so relatable and so human. There is a brutal and earnest truth to the way the Rotherhithe Babes talk, and it’s funny and meaningful and it makes you think about the past and what it is to be young today.
That’s why I transcribed the dialect and the words just as they were spoken, they are as important as the messages in the stories. The Rotherhithe Babes are authentically themselves and have been their whole lives.
I am so honoured to have an opportunity to share these stories and to know that like so much of the landscape of an ever-changing London, they will not be forever lost.
Standing Together programme
The Standing Together Project aims to improve the emotional health and community connections of older people living in supported housing, as well as to reduce loneliness and isolation.
A-Z Topic: Mental health in later life
As we get older, changes in our lives such as retirement, bereavement or physical illness can affect our mental health.