Tree is planted for Edith Ramsay, East End’s ‘Florence Nightingale of Brothels’

MP Rushanara Ali plants tree to commemorate Edith Ramsay (inset)

MP Rushanara Ali plants tree to commemorate Edith Ramsay (inset) - Credit: Archant

A new tree marks the life of Edith Ramsay, the charismatic social campaigner who organised children’s wartime evacuations away from air-raid danger and later campaigned to take prostitutes of the streets of London’s East End. The tree was planted at the reopening of Stepney’s Edith Ramsay sheltered housing complex by MP Rushanara Ali on Friday.

MP Rushanara Ali with residents at Edith Ramsay house

MP Rushanara Ali with residents at Edith Ramsay house - Credit: Archant

Elderly tenants of Gateway Housing Association showed the Bethnal Green & Bow MP round their new homes.

One pensioner, June Whitehead, 73, told her: “My landing has had a new facelift with ‘designer’ wallpapers, blinds and decorative frames which look rather wonderful. I’d say it all looks 100 times better.”

The complex reopened after refurbishment to bring it up-to-date for the needs of the 21st century with self-contained flats replacing the old one-room bedsits.

But the tree the MP planted marked the story of the 1930s Depression, the East End at War and its welfare reforms of the 1950s and 60s.

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Edith Ramsay is remembered for her campaigns in the 1950s against vice and prostitution. Residents at the time petitioned Stepney borough council to do something to rid the streets of prostitutes.

The 1957 Sexual Offences Act succeeded in driving the women off the streets—but into the illicit clubs and cafés that sprang up overnight in Whitechapel which effectively became brothels.

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One enterprising club owner set up a committee to obtain a license, appointing Edith Ramsay to oversee it to make it legitimate, in her role as head of the Stepney Women’s Evening Institute. Many “rescued” women were brought to Edith’s institute in Myrdle Street where she attempted to teach them dressmaking.

Lord Stoneham described her in Parliament as “the Florence Nightingale of the Brothels”.

But her East End story begins in the 1920s, when the middle-class daughter of a Highgate Presbyterian church minister moved to Whitechapel to teach at Old Castle Street School after graduating from London University.

She stayed in Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall Settlement, but later chose to live in slums with poor sanitation and overcrowding, to understand the lives of the people she wanted to help.

Her campaigning aimed to improve the conditions of the poor, of deprived children, alcoholics and immigrants. She pioneered education for working women, adult literacy and English for successive waves of immigrants.

But Edith is also remembered for her role in organising the evacuation of children and families in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War.

She was in charge of ‘non-school’ evacuees on the day war broke out with Hitler’s Germany, Sunday, September 3, for children who hadn’t gone with their schools two days earlier, to be sent out of London with their families and pensioners instead.

Edith was already at the assembly point at Stepney’s Farrance Street School, close to where the complex named after her now stands, when War was declared at 11am that day, arranging buses to take her evacuees to Paddington station to catch trains to the countryside of Somerset.

After the War, Edith was elected to Stepney borough council in a 1945 Labour landslide, then as an independent, 1959-62, and as a Liberal, 1962-65.

She lived just long enough for the opening in 1983 of Gateway Housing’s Edith Ramsay House, named in her honour, attending the opening just weeks before her death at the age of 88.

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