East London Textile Arts (ELTA) is an arts organization based in Manor Park, in the borough of Newham, East London. It was founded in 2008 by Celia Ward and constituted in 2010 by Celia Ward and Sonia Tuttiett. From the start ELTA has met on different days of the week in various community centers around Newham. One of the most cohesive and skilled groups has gathered weekly on Wednesdays at the Little Ilford Baptist Church, off Romford Road since 2010. ELTA is a diverse group of women who work individually and collectively to produce textile art works that reflect issues and urgencies specific to their locality. These include histories of migration and cultural diversity, protecting nature in this highly urban and post-industrial part of London, gentrification and changes to the character of the area, and health issues effecting communities, such as diabetes, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison to many other community projects, ELTA’s longevity has produced a close-knit and supportive environment. Members of the group are skilled in embroidery and are able to make extremely high-quality works, some of which take up to a year to complete.
According to some calculations Newham—positioned between the inner and outer zones of London—is the most ethnically diverse borough in England and Wales, with the largest Asian population in London, including people of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi heritage, as well as of Chinese, African, and Afro-Caribbean descent, amongst many others. It is a poor borough with high rates of unemployment and ill health, and was recently hit particularly hard by the pandemic, for one year recording the highest death rates in England and Wales.
In the last decade it has also been part of a massive project of top-down regeneration effecting large parts of East London, which in Newham has dramatically transformed a zone to the West of the borough, the so called “arc of opportunity” of ex-industrial and brown field sites, including the Olympic Village, Canning Town, and Docklands areas, with debatable impacts on the local populace. As director of the group Sonia Tuttiett points out in her interview, while seeing demographic flux, Manor Park (where ELTA is based), with its streets of late Victorian terraced houses, has not experienced the physical transformation of the environment found elsewhere in Newham.
I moved to the borough at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit, and had the intention at that time of researching “textile politics” locally as part of “Folded Life.” The interruption caused by the lockdown meant this was possible only after the lifting of restrictions in mid 2021, which is when I made contact with ELTA, a group whose work on social, health, and environmental issues in the borough seemed relevant to the project. I visited the group regularly between September and December 2021, conducting interviews in the church hall where they meet, a striking feature of which is a large-scale, black-and-white mural entitled A Modern Pilgrim’s Progress, painted by the artist Fyffe Christie and completed in 1961. This mural appears as a backdrop in portraits taken of group members by Thierry Bal.
I interviewed six people in total, a mostly pragmatic selection according to those who were present at the time of my visits and were willing to participate in the interview process. While the interviews were unstructured and wide ranging, the focus was on biography as well as a discussion of a particular textile made by the interviewee. Many of the textiles that we focused on were small, embroidered samples depicting significant aspects of people’s lives, produced by members of the group during lockdown. Consequently, the interviews provide a snapshot rather than a comprehensive account of ELTA, although some reoccurring themes point to an experience shared by several members of the group, of arriving in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, often to work in the NHS, and then settling in the borough. The interviews generally lasted from one to two hours, and while the sound recordings and transcriptions constitute a larger archive of material, here they have been excerpted for brevity.
I extremely am grateful to the members of ELTA for their hospitality and generosity in agreeing to be interviewed for this project.
London, December 1, 2021
Grant Watson<Could you say something about your background?
Sonia Tuttiett<Well, I was brought up in a quite an artistic household. I’ve always done a lot of art, but I decided at sixteen to focus on music and ended up becoming a professional violinist. Alongside that, I’ve always done portraits or painting and I’ve always loved textiles. And I got very interested in needlepoint, just after I got married in the nineties. I met my husband when I started coming to this church. We got married here and he’s now the pastor. I’ve been in Newham for thirty years. Back then I got involved in “First Fruit,” a textile project to help people back into work that was run by somebody in Newham because we are part of Newham churches. I was also helping to set up a sewing project to help people back into work.
GW< How did you get to know Celia Ward?
ST< I met Celia because I was asked to assess ELTA when they applied for funding from a locally charity, and the following year when I left “First Fruit,” I thought I’d love to volunteer with her because the community hand embroidery she was doing was great. I think she settled on embroidery because it’s portable, it’s inexpensive, and anybody can do it at whatever level. It just seems like the best way of doing an art project in the community. It’s not messy, unlike painting, and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. It’s the ideal sort of project medium, because people can do their own designing, or we can provide designs for them.
GW< How did you set up this current group?
ST< We wanted to set something up in Manor Park and realized there was a space here at the Little Ilford Baptist Church because of my connection with it, and we’ve been here for about thirteen years. We’re quite unique as a project because we have longevity, which means we produce very high-quality work and for people it’s more like a family, a true community group. It’s not just an outreach project. The great thing about the group is that it is so multifaith and multicultural.
GW< What kind have changes have you seen in the borough since you came here?
ST< I first came to this church in 1987 and at that time it was a largely white working-class population in this area. Newham always had different pockets of people, but this was definitely white East End, with quite a few Afro Caribbean families, but gradually there’s been a real drift out towards Essex. And now it’s more South Asian, majority Muslim, but also Hindu, and later, there were quite a lot of Eastern European people flowing in as well. It’s like a tide in this area, you know, the populations flow. It’s a very restless population.
GW< Was the buying and selling of council properties beginning in the 1980s and using that money to leave the city part of this outflow?
ST< Yes, I think that was a catalyst. But even before that, the war had a lot to do with it too, because there was a lot of bomb damage around here. Many families moved out of East London while they built the tower blocks and some of them never came back. Then Thatcher selling off council houses meant that a lot of people sold up and went to Canvey Island and spread out into Essex. It’s always been a very poor area, with a huge amount of poverty, very bad state schools. But I have to say with the coming of African and Asian people to the area, they have very high standards for their children, and it’s interesting how the schools improved.
GW< My partner was a counselor in Brampton Manor and lots of kids were going off to Oxford and Cambridge.
ST< Yes, very inspirational. So, in fact, I do think that this newer population has raised the area far beyond what it was when I first arrived and that the population has stabilized. For example, the ELTA ladies bought houses and settled in this area. I think it is indicative because they’re committed to the group because this is where they’re staying, where they’ve got their community and their family. For me, it’s been a complete privilege to live and work here for all these years. And we’ve met so many amazing people. It’s been hard too; it’s not an easy place to live and lots of people have problems. Especially when you are running a church, you tend to meet a lot of people with mental health issues and financial issues. Lots of poverty. But I think that the biggest change I’ve seen is amount of people with mental health issues, who need support.
GW< Why is that increasing do you think?
ST< Well, COVID has been a big one. But I would also say that a big reason is that a lot of the community centers have closed down in Newham, which is another reason why we use the church.
GW< Because of austerity, right?
ST< Yes, it’s had a huge impact. They closed down the community centers, especially youth centers and provisions for adults with learning disabilities and created libraries as hubs. Those were okay, except that I found out that Muslim ladies, for example, often don’t feel comfortable being in an open space with people that they don’t know. That can be quite threatening. So actually, having a small group like this in an enclosed building is quite an advantage.
GW< Several years ago, I was interviewing people who were part of a group called Focus E15. They were critical of Labour in Newham because of the social cleansing taking place in the borough, in terms of the closing down and destruction of social housing in order to make way for new builds. Is that more the case in the west of Newham around Stratford and the Olympic Park?
ST< I think that they’ve experienced it particularly there; it’s a more affluent area. As I said, there’s a lot of flux, a lot of change, but I think probably this particular area is last to change. There’s a lot more new developments Stratford and in Canning Town. In this area, all these rows of housing are going to be very hard to redevelop. That’s why they’re so great for landlords. You can divide a house up and have ten people in one of these terraced Victorians. They’re cracking down and there’s lots of illegal letting, but there’s not much scope for sort of knocking things down and putting up new builds because it hasn’t been industrialized. Elsewhere in the borough, it’s very much due to the industrial past and a lot of wasteland that was created once industry moved out. And that’s the difference. It’s a very diverse borough, in all ways.
GW< And in terms of ELTA, what about gender in the group? Is it only women, or have you ever had men join?
ST< Well, we had somebody come once who brought a big bag of socks with him and he said he wanted us to darn them with him, so he didn’t last long! But in all seriousness, we have had a few men participate over the years. We don’t want to be exclusive and would try to accommodate, but it could be a bit of a problem because we do have Muslim women that come and would not be comfortable having men as part of the group. They’ve said that quite clearly. However, with the ALD groups we do get men. Those are very mixed groups.
ST< Adults with Learning Disabilities. They are absolutely brilliant. We have a man who does the most amazing work.
GW< And those groups are not so gender conditioned?
GW< Finally, how do you sustain the capacity to keep ELTA going?
ST< Well, I think we have to keep the subject interesting. The one area we’ve never really tapped into is LGBTQ issues, so I’d really like to do something around that next. But whatever we do, it has to have integrity of its own, as a good piece of artwork. That’s the bottom line for us. We do sometimes feel, when we’ve been asked to work with museums and galleries, that we’re the “outreach thing” buckled onto the back of an exhibition. Actually we don’t think that model has a lot of integrity, because often people finish the project and they’re devastated because there’s nowhere to go on to. We’re not prepared to do a six-week project where you just scratch something together. We would probably take a year so we produce the best quality we can. For example, the Newham Map piece, which took a year make (2011–2012). It was made by a group with a mixed level of experience and skills but includes some amazing quality embroidery as well as a lot of other techniques such as hand painting and beading. Because it was quite abstract—embroidering street maps—people found it quite difficult to imagine, but when they saw the final piece, with the whole map together, they adored it and were very proud of it. It’s now one of our most popular hangings.
London, October 6, 2021
Grant Watson< I thought to begin by focusing on one of your textile creations, the large scale puppet sculptures which you based on the painting Mammon (1884–85) by George Frederic Watts.
Lorna Lambert< I don’t mind at all; they were a bit controversial when I did them.
GW< Why controversial?
LL< Mainly because they weren’t pretty, they weren’t attractive to look at. But I wanted to make a statement with some impact, which was whether you’re in power or down on a lower layer of society, we’re all human, all the same inside. There is corruption everywhere in society, in different ways, so all the growths and sores on the outside of the puppets represent what is hidden. I just wanted to bring that out into the open. The painting that I’d seen of Mammon with his opulent gowns and surrounded by his riches and the youths restrained at his feet conveyed to me that they were the victims, if you like, of our society. That’s why I did the puppets with no faces, to show that it was humanity in general.
GW< Could you describe the piece? What does it look like? How many puppets were there? What was the inspiration?
LL< There were nine puppets in total. The tallest one was approximately four feet, with the rest progressing down in size to about twelve inches. I wanted the largest to represent the heads of governments and corporations, so he had a big fat belly, the one with plenty of food to eat, the greedy, money grabbing, powerful one with the wealth. He was the one with the worst sores, the blackness spreading like cancer then infecting one person then another, and so on.
GW< Which represents the corruption?
LL< That’s right. Let’s face it, there’s no government or big business that hasn’t got corruption running through it. Unfortunately it’s the way things work. It’s hard to put it in words. I can visualize it and I know what I meant to convey but trying to describe something as a visual concept and putting it into words is difficult for me. . . So really it was just showing that all throughout society, apart from when you’re very young, corruption is taught, isn’t it?
GW< It’s passed on?
LL< Yes, it’s about oppression, power, manipulation, and greed that works its way down through all societies. I just wanted to make the statement that though the Mammon I saw was painted in the 1800s, today our society is exactly the same. You can’t change human nature.
GW< It’s the same old story.
LL< Yes, so really, it was just to reflect on our society in general. Celia [Ward] encouraged me to go ahead with it. She liked the idea, the concept of it. You’ve got the rich living the rich life and still getting richer. Now we’ve even got more social problems. So, I’d probably make even more of a statement today, because of COVID, there’s now so many more things that affect our lives. Sometimes I like to think a bit deeper and make a statement, even though I enjoy creating pretty things, life is not always pretty.
GW< Is that the largest work that you’ve made?
LL< Yes, that is the only politically “incorrect” or significant thing that I have done, and it’s the biggest as well. It meant something to me, it was something that I felt I had to do. At the time it wasn’t supposed to be a political thing, but it turned out that way, because that was my impression from the painting, the effect it had on me was looking at the victims of society.
Kang Sing Fung
London, October 13, 2021
Grant Watson<Do you have a particular textile you would like to talk about?
Kang Sing Fung<Yes, the most recent is the one I made during lockdown with my husband.
What I should say to start is that a few days after Christmas last year my husband was knocked down by a car and there was a bit of rehab we had to do at home. And then following that it was lockdown. So unfortunately, not a lot that one could do. He writes poems and is very good at classical Chinese, so I said maybe he could write about the lockdown and put down his thoughts. So he wrote the poem, I stitched it into this textile. And he found it very helpful.
GW< Was he bedridden after the crash, was he hospitalized?
KSF< Let’s put it this way, he was very lucky. I had just gotten a phone call from my husband who had finished working at the Dickens Museum and was on the way back home. Five minutes later the phone rang again and the person on the other end said, “your husband was hit.” That terrified me, I went all cold. I didn’t know where they took him because it was not local, it was a winter month, four days after Christmas. And then I couldn’t go and see him till the next day. In the meantime, they were observing him, and doing tests and scans to rule out a head injury. He also tore a shoulder ligament and was very badly grazed on one leg. Imagine, suddenly you’re walking on the crossing and then you’re in the air, hit by a car. So that was really shocking. Only recently he got flashback. He doesn’t talk about it, it’s quite scary. So, even before that he managed well, but then I think he also had mental health issues himself, but he just dealt with life. What can you do? It was lockdown, so we just did exercises at home. I am resilient in that sense, and my skills and knowledge about rehab also helped.
GW< How’s his health now?
KSF< Touch wood, it’s really a miracle he’s back to doing volunteer work. But it was frightening for us.
GW< It must have been very traumatic to go straight into lockdown. So, there were a series of textile works you made during this period?
KSF< Yes. I made this one about things going on in the media, about the NHS, saying “thank you” to the NHS in different languages. I was also inspired by Captain Tom and Marcus Rashford, and I embroidered their portraits with stories about them.
GW< And you have been doing embroidery for quite some time. I heard you are one of the earliest members of ELTA. When did you join the group?
KSF< Yes. I started in the other church St. Michaels along that road with Celia [Ward]. And they wanted to include people from the community, especially in this population there are a lot of Asian women who don’t go out and they thought that it would be nice to run the group so they can come out and can be sociable as well and doing some work. But then I find that the time and the day was not so suitable, and Celia said, “why not go to join Sonia’s group?” So that’s how I joined here. And now that I’m retired it is really great for me that I can have my “me time” doing things I enjoy.
GW< Could you share a bit about your background?
KSF< I was born in Malaysia and came over here when I was about twenty years old, to further my studies and find my profession. I was doing nursing and then I got married and then ended up staying and starting a family. Once my son went to nursery, I re-started part-time, working on the health and social care services. In 1995 I went back to university and I changed my career to occupational therapy. And now that I have retired, I have time to join all these groups—the embroidery group, the art group, the tai chi group. They’re all equally important to me, because as it see it, physical health and mental health cannot be separated. It’s important for me to find a balance.
GW< Is the attitude you are talking about in line with thinking in occupational therapy?
KSF< It’s hands on, and it’s about your everyday activities. So maybe it is to do with my profession but probably also my upbringing. We’re very down to earth, hardworking—my parents, who both came from China, were the same. They were from different provinces and spoke different dialects. My mother was not educated, which was typical in those days, but my parents were determined to send all their children to school so that they could have a good education. My parents don’t talk about it much. You know, that generation had been through the war, and as far as I know my father was tortured by the Japanese. And my mum had to go through a period when he was captured by the Japanese and she had all the little ones to care for herself. I’m number seven of eight children.
GW< And they’re all in Malaysia?
KSF< Yes, all my family is there. It’s very different now. My parents don’t talk much about what’s not nice and focus on the future for the kids. All to better themselves and to have a better life for the next generation.
GW< And what about your husband?
KSF< He was born in Canton, China but then his family moved to Hong Kong and later came to this country in 1968. At that time there were a lot of political things going on, and they felt threatened, so they moved to somewhere where they could have a life, and have a job and have a family, because there, if you don’t trust the government there are not many opportunities for you. So, he also went through a lot, but it’s not something he talks about. We never complain, everything we have is a bonus. That’s how we look at it, there’s a lot of people worse off than us. Well, we got everything we ever wanted.
GW< And what about your education in Malaysia?
KSF< Our education was not based a lot on creative things, it was very rigid, focused on doing well in mathematics, in science. And you can go on to be a doctor, but the arts were not that important. I wanted to be independent and work for money to support myself. That’s why I decided to do nursing.
GW< And you came to London to train here?
KSF< Yes, to Newham. Our school was in Forest Gate. And I’ve been here ever since.
GW< And how did you find it when you came in ’75, was it a culture shock?
KSF< I definitely had culture shock, starting with the journey. It was the first time I traveled on a plane! All my brothers, sisters, my family got together to buy me the ticket. It wasn’t something that we could really afford. My idea was to come and study here, work, and at least be able to send money back to my parents. That was a big thing in those days. There were other adjustments, like in Malaysia, we don’t have seasons. We only have monsoon, plenty of rain in the end and beginning of the year, and the rest of the time is hot and humid. And then you come here and there are four seasons. I saw snow for the first time. . . we had to learn these different seasons.
GW< And in Newham in the seventies, or in your nursing training, was there a Malay community or Chinese community that you could connect with?
KSF< It was very Chinese-oriented. At that time there were many Malaysian Chinese training here and also from other countries, like people came over from the Caribbean.
GW< What about the occupational therapy? Were you a therapist?
KSF< Yes. I started as an assistant. After I had my family, I went back part time working in a residential home and day center. Then I was able to apply for a new course at the university that accepted mature students. It was great because they took your life experience into account. When I qualified, I worked on mental health. That’s what I preferred.
GW< Did it involve creative activities?
KSF< Art is used a lot in the mental health setting. People often feel that they can focus, express, and then just do and nobody will judge them. Often with mental health, you have to fit into the system. And that’s not something people want; they’ve often already lost so much control. It’s not like when you have a scrape or cut you put on a plaster. So, picking up a brush or painting or doing a bit of sewing often helps a lot of people. It’s not easy because mental health is something you can’t see and often people don’t want to talk about it. It has such a taboo.
GW< Maybe we can end with you saying something about making the textiles, because that was a period when you were having issues because of your husband’s accident and the lockdown.
KSF< It was a challenging time. I used the lockdown as a time for reflection, especially following my husband’s accident. He didn’t want to talk about it—it was too much for him because his recovery took months and he was not in control, and he couldn’t do the things he enjoyed like volunteering because of his limited mobility and the lockdown restrictions. I used embroidery to nurture my mental health, to create, and to express myself. I find it very relaxing and the partnership between my husband’s creative writing and my embroidery turned out to be so positive for our mental health.
London, November 10, 2021
Grant Watson<There are two things I have been asking people about in the interviews—one is if they have a particular textile they want to mention, something that they have made or sometimes it’s something they own, the other is about their background. Where would you like to start?
Polly Singh<I’ll start with the years when I came here and then go by decades. I was born in Kenya. My roots are there, but my family were originally from North India, the Punjab; we are Sikh. My father was an electrician, and my mother was a housewife. She was very good in embroidery, sewing, knitting, crochet, everything like that. So that’s where I picked up a little. We lived in Nairobi, the capital. The climate was nice, we had very nice neighbors. The neighborhood had mixed nationalities—English, Muslims, Hindus, all mixed, multiracial—very interesting and I enjoyed that. I still have friends from there.
GW< What about your education?
PS< I went to Duchess of Gloucester School, which was a mostly girl’s school, a very open school, again with all nationalities. We had all sports facilities, tennis, netball, cooking, and history, geography, and science subjects, and good English teachers. I joined the sciences, because I was good at chemistry, biology, and physics. I enjoyed those subjects, but I wasn’t very good in art.
GW< Was it still a British colony at that time?
PS < Yes, that’s why we had those English teachers and also teachers from New Zealand, Australia, and Scotland.
GW< When was this?
PS< It must have been in the fifties. Then in the sixties, I started studying nursing in Kenya. I did pre-nursing and got very good marks and someone said: “Why are you wasting your time? Why don’t you go somewhere? For example, England?” So, I came to England to do my nursing degree. I traveled on my own from Kenya to Heathrow. And when did I travel? On December 26th, so there was lots of snow all over. I was a little bit scared you know, thinking, “I hope I’ll reach the place in time,” but there was somebody from the hospital to fetch me at Heathrow and to put me on a train from Victoria to Brighton.
GW< Did you stay in Brighton?
PS < I stayed in Brighton for three and a half years to do my training and six months as a staff nurse. After I became a state registered nurse I decided to get into midwifery, so I applied to Bromley, Kent hospital. The first time I saw a baby being born in Bromley, there were tears in my eyes. Why? Because of the beautiful eyes, beautiful ears, little fingers, nails, everything, isn’t it a miracle? For the second part of my midwifery training, I was in a district in Crawley, and I used to visit people’s homes on my bike. And people used to call us angels. After I became a state certified midwife, I thought I’ll go back. But I could not go back to Kenya because it became independent during the ’60s, and my parents had gone to India. I had plans to travel to India by sea, but then what happened? The Suez Canal was closed in 1967 because of the Six Day War. And I had packed all my things in big, big trunks, but I was told, “oh, we have canceled all the ships, we can change your ticket to fly instead but only in about three months, you have to wait.”
GW< And did you make it to Punjab eventually?
PS< After the three months, I went to Chandigarh, my first time in Punjab and my first time in India. There was a PGI hospital (Post Graduate Institute) in sector 11 which I joined for a while and guess what I did? They opened up a unit for premature babies and ultimately, I was in charge of that place.
GW< When you came back to the UK, did you continue working as a midwife?
PS< No, I enjoyed midwifery, but I wanted to work in the operating theater. I did six months training in the seventies, in Hammersmith Hospital. That was exciting as well; I enjoyed it thoroughly. I have done very big cases, orthopedics, general cases, such pancreatic work, and laparoscopic cases.
GW< How come you joined this group?
PS< I’ve lived in Redbridge since ’91. When I retired, a friend and I were at Manor Park Library showing people how to knit and crochet. We saw Sonia [Tuttiett] there and asked to join her group. There are lots of people you meet here from different nationalities and you learn a lot and have to give and take. I think it is interesting and it has kept me going.
GW< The other question is if there is like a particular textile that has a specific significance to you?
PS< I made a piece about my mother, a little bit of my mum is in there, because she lived in Africa. So there are some African ladies in it. I went to Saudi Arabia, Jeddah, doing nursing, I just remembered now, and I bought a coral lamp. I gave it to my mum and after she passed away, I took it back, so that’s in there as well. Then I included a silver buckle—we used to wear a buckle on our nursing uniforms with one, two, or three stripes.
GW< And did you have anything from Punjab in the embroidery?
PS< No, I didn’t think about it. I forgot about it, it would have been nice. I had something from Saudi Arabia, but not from my own country!
London, October 20, 2021
Grant Watson<Where did you grow up?
Radha Rajan<I was born and brought up in Malaysia, and later got married in Singapore. My mother and father had come to Malaysia from India––Kerala State, Kollam, you know, paddy fields and villages—in the 1930s. My mum was a farmer’s daughter and my father was from the same community.
GW< Why did he go to Malaysia?
RR< For a job, of course. He went straight from India to a rubber estate, where he was a chief clerk. At that time, it was a colony, and all the top jobs were held by the English. The manager was a white guy, and my father was working under him because he knew English, and people who spoke English got better jobs. He spent all his married life on that estate. I grew up there until 1951/52, when my mother had to move to town because of our education. The estate didn’t have a school for us. There was one for the laborers, but they separated laborers from the staff.
GW< Did your parents ever go back to India?
RR< Yes, every three years the estate boss would give him his passport to return to India and visit his homeland and then come back. I was the only daughter, so in 1946 when my parents went to India, they took me. They wanted me to learn Indian culture, like Indian classical music and dance.
GW< What brought you to London?
RR< My husband was working for the British navy. He was a civilian on the naval base in Singapore, where he was from.
GW< How did you meet?
RR< It was an arranged marriage. Can you imagine me having a love marriage? My parents would have thrown me out of the house. No, they didn’t believe in that—I’m talking the 1950s.
My mother came from a village in India in the 1930s, and she kept that tradition. I was twenty-six when we got married. He was working as a clerk on the naval base, and I was a stenographer in a legal office. He was looking for a girl, and my father had passed away by then, and you know they have these middlemen. . . so that’s how we met.
GW< And did you get along immediately?
RR< I liked him, and he really wanted to marry me. We met in April, got engaged in June, and got married in August. And once we were married, I stayed with him in Singapore for one year, but then I became pregnant and I moved back to my mum. By then Singapore and Malaysia had a passport system, so it wasn’t possible for him to come back every day. They started questioning him—why are you coming to Malaysia? I was going to give up my Malaysian citizenship and move permanently to Singapore, but it didn’t come to that, because the naval base was closing down in 1969 or something like that, and they started saying that everyone who was working there could come to the UK. My husband applied and he got it, so he came in 1970. I was pregnant with my second daughter, so when I had the baby she became an automatic British citizen.
GW< And did you come straight to Newham?
RR< Straight to Newham, because my husband got a job with a company called TCL, which did telephone cables. He was a supervisor there and he worked there until he retired.
GW< How did you find it when you first arrived?
RR< I didn’t like it. I just wanted to go back, but then we bought our own house because in the rented place we had so many restrictions. You know, at that time everybody was living in one room with the landlord after you, saying you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. And the house we were living in didn’t have a bathroom. There was a toilet outside and a big bath in the kitchen, and we used to have a bath every day, and the landlord didn’t like it. And he told us we couldn’t wash our clothes at home, that we had to take them to the launderette. I mean, there were so many difficulties and I wasn’t used to it because we had quite a good life back home, nothing like this.
GW< How did things improve?
RR< About six months later, my husband said, “right, we’ll change. We’ll move out. We’ll look for a house.” Our first house cost us 7500 pounds. It was a huge house, three bedrooms, a very big hallway. So that’s how our life started. My girls went to Little Ilford School, and they were both good at their studies. The older one went on to Manchester University and a BSC in biology, and a PhD in genetics. She worked in clinical research and married a British guy, and now she is a teacher. My younger daughter graduated from Wolverhampton University with a BA in environmental studies. After some years working in the media, working part time and temping, she ended up in Hackney Council working for the legal team. The lawyer used to take her to court, and she was fascinated by it. One day she came to me and said, “I’m going to take up the law. I’m going to buy a flat and I’m going to change my life.” She graduated as a lawyer and applied to an accountant’s office, and now she is one of the directors.
GW< What about your work here?
RR< I started working in 1974, about three years after I arrived. I was first in Holborn working at the Manpower Services Commission, and later I was transferred to the Department for Education and Science, where I worked for twenty-eight years.
GW< To come back to the embroidery, how did you get into doing that?
RR< I did machine embroidery in Malaysia and I got a diploma for that. When I came here, I started doing cross-stich, just on my own at home. I actually had an exhibition in East Ham, in a hall there for the Malayalee community, and the exhibition was for International Women’s Day. I showed the Last Supper in cross-stitch. It is a large version, about 38 x 30 inches, that was my masterpiece. I said to my husband, “I’m going to make this picture for Mary, my daughter’s mother-in-law for a Christmas present,” because she was a church-going person. So, I started in August and I used to do it at home and take it to the office and do it during lunch break. I used the small cross-stitch, and it took me three months. When it was finished, I put it in a frame, and I gave it to her at Christmas.
GW< What about the small embroidery you made during the pandemic?
RR< I did it last year, because during lockdown Sonia [Tuttiett] used to go house-to-house giving us projects. She told us we could do anything that relates to the family or to your life, so I took a few photographs of the living room, and in the end I quite liked the one with my granddaughter playing the violin in the living room with plants, so I combined it and embroidered the piece from that.
London, November 17, 2021
Grant Watson<How long have you been part of ELTA?
Rekha Patel<About five or six years, a long time. We go to the museum, they take us all over.
GW< And how long have you lived on Green Street?
RP< Oh my god, long time, about forty years. We’ve seen massive changes. All the shops have changed, Marks & Spencer, Woolworths, all gone, Stratford has changed completely. Even the bus stops have changed!
GW< What originally brought you to Newham?
RP< My husband got a job in Dagenham, at the Ford company. Before that we were living in Wembley, where my husband’s brother lives. But husband started doing night shifts and it’s too far to travel, so we brought a house here.
GW< When did he start at Ford?
RP< He started in ’84 and retired in 2000 when they closed the assembly plant. He came from India originally and knew how to do sewing and pattern cutting because he had worked in a factory there. He studied in Bombay where he learnt how to make shirts, dress, trousers. And when there was a strike at Ford, he worked cutting dresses. Because he was off for about two months, and you don’t get any money, and I had little children, and we had to rent the house, it was lucky that a local tailor hired him. It was very hard when we first came here, because of the jobs you have to do, plus the cost of rent, plus you have to save money to buy a house, and London is an expensive and demanding city.
GW< Did you also come from Bombay?
RP< No, I was born in Kenya. But when I was about twelve years old, my mother and my sister and I moved to Ahmedabad, in Gujarat. I studied economics for one year, then my sister who was living in England by then invited me to visit. That’s how I met my husband. I got married and so I didn’t go back.
GW< Were you also working here?
RP< Yes. I worked at Selfridges, on Oxford street, in the office doing invoice payment. I worked there for twenty-five years. It was a nice place to work, nice people, and you see different people coming in, Indian actors and actress, so I enjoyed it.
GW< And how did you find living in Newham?
RP< It’s much better here. We have our community, we meet each other, we do Diwali festival together. Even during COVID everybody asked each other, “do you want anything, we can get things for you, you stay at home.” So that’s why even though we’re both retired, we didn’t move anywhere else everything is near us.
GW< There are different communities from all over South Asia.
RP< Yes, from Kerala, Sri Lanka, Bombay, Punjab, Pakistani, also Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and there are good relations between us when we work in the school or somewhere.
GW< And what made you join ELTA?
RP< When I retired, I was lonely. I saw a listing in Newham Magazine and I went to the East Ham library and asked Sonia about it. She encouraged me to come and that’s how I started, and then you make friends and you can pass the time.
GW< What type of textiles do you make?
RP< During lockdown I made a panel with the kitchen and the garden, because I like cooking. In the garden I have fig, plum, and apple trees and some flowers.
GW<What about the cooking?
RP< I cook every day—I have to. I make vegetarian dal, chapatti every day, pakora, idli, dosa. It’s a mix of Gujarati and South Indian recipes.