It was a cold early Sunday morning when I stepped outside my block of flats in South London and made my way by tube to Fenchurch Street Station. I had received a few glances from passengers on the Northern Line, but not as many as I had anticipated and it is a testament to the diversity and vastness of the city that no one really bats an eyelid when someone in a costume travels on public transport in London.
I arrived at the station and spotted my group immediately. They were standing outside the station dressed in Edwardian costume, discussing hats, boots and suitcases and surrounded by the filmmakers who were mostly dressed in black and carrying lots of expensive looking equipment. It was slightly jarring to see my Edwardian colleagues sipping takeaway lattes in paper cups while adjusting their hats. It felt as if the modern world was suddenly intruding on the past rather than the other way around. I was also very aware that what our little group was feeling in the modern day – trepidation, excitement and determination – might have been what our original counterparts would have been experiencing as they readied themselves for their journey to The Hague. On this particular day we were recreating the campaigners’ thwarted expedition; they made it as far as Tilbury Docks, but were unable to catch a boat as all shipping had been suspended.
I had never been to Tilbury and so I was quite interested to see what it looked like. I shyly greeted two women I had met on the previous day at the costume fitting and we admired each other’s costumes, swapping stories about how we had procured our felt hats, our gloves and carpet bags.
The plan was to film us in a number of scenes, both speaking and non-speaking. This was my first experience of filming and I was unsure of what to expect. Luckily Charlotte Bill proved to be an enthusiastic director who encouraged us and was very clear with her instructions. We were filmed from a distance gathered outside the station (without our modern coffee cups!) and then walking towards the entrance. I tried to act as Edwardian as possible, which I assumed meant holding on to your skirts so you don’t trip and looking serious and determined.
Once we were on the train platform we attracted far more curious stares from onlookers. One woman in costume is just about anonymous, but a whole crowd of women of varying ages dressed in period costume is too dramatic to be ignored. The train company were very helpful and kept the train waiting on the platform a little longer than normal so that Charlotte and her crew could film us embarking the train; they focussed on our Edwardian boots and ruffled skirts as we stepped into the carriage.
Being filmed was an odd sensation. We were asked to repeat actions, some of them very natural and automatic gestures such as stepping, pointing and looking. I found I was much more aware of my hands, arms and feet. I wanted to seem authentic but I felt a bit ungainly and a little fake. Pretending, which comes so easily to us as children, seems to be trained out of us as adults and here we were trying to discover it again. We pretended to sit down and think about our quest for peace as the train rolled out of the station and towards Tilbury.
Since I was a relative newcomer to the project and I had missed all of the introductory meetings and research sessions in the LSE Archives, I did not feel confident enough to act a speaking part and so I sat with a group of women who were silent actors in the documentary. I took off my gloves and folded them in my lap and gazed out of the window.
We had to be careful to not look into the camera, which was difficult, since it was a huge conspicuous black machine that had a massive glass lens like a giant surprised fish eye. I felt my gaze doing wide circles around the mechanical beast, which must have looked very odd indeed! The journey was very pleasant. I enjoyed sitting still and listening to the other women in the group being filmed and interviewed. Each eloquently described the real life activist they were representing and the story of the documentary began to take shape. Passengers on the train got on and off at different stations, some photographed us with their mobile phones but most just stood around the carriage and watched us with a mix of curiosity and bemusement. The train was not just taking us to Tilbury it was taking us back into the past.
Once we arrived at Tilbury, we were filmed getting off the train and standing on the platform. Charlotte took a photo of us all smiling at the camera, faces beaming. We looked both modern and antique at the same time. Before we started our walk to the dock, we ducked into a small local café to use the facilities and found ourselves confronted with a large crowd of local dock workers and their families enjoying large cooked breakfasts. I self-consciously fiddled with my gloves as I squeezed past a man sitting at a table carving up a fried egg with beans. The waitresses in the café smiled at me with genuine friendliness despite their busy work and stopped to ask me what I was doing at Tilbury.
The long walk to the dock was along a path between a tall brick wall and small road along which an occasional lorry would pass. The crew filmed us intermittently as we walked to the dock, our Edwardian clothes juxtaposed with the industrial surroundings.
This pleasant walk gave our small group a chance to talk about all sorts of subjects and we soon found common ground in our views on feminism, gender and interest in social history. I fancied that this must have been what the original women might have experienced; the joy of meeting like-minded people who feel as passionate about a cause as you do.
Arriving at the dock we were met by a very pleasant dock official and led on to a large antique-looking wood and black iron bridge which was attached to the dock. The film crew set up on the dock and we proceeded to follow our director’s instructions, which involved waiting, sitting, walking, talking, staring out at the water and pointing. We seemed to look and point at every large ship that went by. Although all these actions were very natural ones, doing it in front of the camera felt a little foolish and we frequently giggled, probably far too often for a bunch of serious peace activists. We attracted the attention of the local police as their police boat passed and they waved enthusiastically at us.
During the lunch break, I got a chance to look at some old photos of Tilbury Dock on the walls of the local office. We spent the rest of the afternoon waiting, like the real campaigners did 100 years ago, as the sun went down. I had only been standing on the chilly dock for one day but I felt pretty tired, it was not hard to imagine how exhausted the real women must have been after three long days of vainly waiting to catch a boat that would never come. How disappointed and frustrated they must have been. At the end of the day, we returned to the dock office building and changed back into our modern clothes, checked our modern mobile phones for messages and the spell was broken. We were heading suddenly back into 2015. I felt sad to say goodbye. Although my fellow volunteers were virtual strangers to me and I had only met a handful of them before the day of filming, I was bound together with them by this shared experience and I hoped that I would have the chance to meet them again.