Heroes of industrial London fill Guildhall Art Gallery for Working Lives of Thames Gateway

By Kathleen McIlvenna | 17 January 2011
A photo of people in a museum
© Jonathan Eudall
Exhibition: Working Lives of the Thames Gateway, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, until February 27 2011

For the past three years, the Eastside Community Heritage group have been collecting oral histories from people who worked in the Thames Gateway area, once East London’s industrial heartland.

The project worked with the London Metropolitan Archives and the boroughs of Bexley, Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Newham, and Havering, conducting more than 250 interviews in an extensive collaborative project which has culminated in this new exhibition at the City of London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.

Situated on the upper landing of the main gallery, large panels covering the main industry types of East London invite you up. It’s easy to forget how industrious London was and it’s almost surprising to discover the range of industries that were located in this section of London.

There were chemical, food and drink, engineering, printing and textile factories as well as power stations, markets and of course employment focused on the ever changing transport systems.

These panels are supported by cases of objects demonstrating the type of work done, tools from Vickers Crayford, an ammunitions factory and silk screen printed scarfs made by the David Evans factory for the luxury store, Liberty.

A photo of old newspapers
The project has procured artefacts from five London boroughs© Jonathan Eudall
The exhibition really comes to life through the stories from the oral histories. Short snippets of these are available from two stands on either side of the gallery, where extracts are included in the panels, and there is also a television running a documentary made alongside the project.

Through these stories we learn what it was actually like to work in these industries, the social life that surrounded it and the discrimination and dangers found in the work environment.

One of my favourites was a story about a woman who cut the top of her finger off because curiosity got the better of her; she just wanted to know what happened in a hole in one of the machines.

Generally we come to expect a mix of objects, information and oral histories in displays today, but it is interesting to see an exhibition led by the stories of ordinary people, and I enjoyed the contrast between these everyday people and the grand portraits and busts of Kings and Queens of old.

It seemed to underline the importance of the work they did. They helped rebuild Britain after the war, and it’s fitting that their resilience and pride is recorded and celebrated.

Admission £2.50/£1 (free for under-16s, after 3.30pm and all day Friday). Visit the project website for more.
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