By Doreen Wachmann
RACHEL Kolsky, who has just published Women’s London (Lifestyle Books) to mark the Year of the Woman, denies she is a feminist.
But she is passionate about celebrating women’s contribution to society. Indeed, Rachel has always been passionate about everything she does.
London-born, she read politics and modern history at Manchester University, living in Hillel House.
She told me: “I was so happy there. I love Manchester.”
Back in London, her first short-term job was for a Kedassia kosher caterer.
This she described as “an hysterical, amazing experience”.
She said: “I learned how to cook. They were exciting days. I never knew what was going to happen.”
While working for a statistics unit, she was asked to look after the library.
She told me: “When I sat down at the librarian’s desk when the librarian was not there, I just knew that was what I wanted to do.”
So she trained as a librarian and was employed by a merchant bank in the City of London to be a librarian and business researcher.
She said: “I loved it and was fascinated by it. I was not motivated by the money, but really enjoyed working for the people who were. The City was very exciting in the 1980s. It was a really special time bubbly, fast and great.”
After a spell working for a West End fund manager, Rachel returned to the City to work for an insurance company.
In total, she worked in the financial services industry for nearly 30 years.
In the late 1990s, while she was working in the City for the second time, friends encouraged her to become a tour guide.
Rachel told me: “They thought I’d like it because I love London. I love walking and talking and I was working in the City which was the centre of London’s history.
Rachel completed her first guiding badge on the City of London in 2000.
She said: “It was an eye opener. I realised I absolutely adored the exploring, the learning, the practising, the talking, the whole shebang of guiding.”
She started leading a few tours as a weekend hobby while she was still working full-time. Then she gained a badge for Clerkenwell and Islington, which she described as “a very under-visited part of London”.
Her friends suggested she take the major Blue Badge, which she did. She started taking leave from work to lead tours.
By the time she was 50 in 2008, she decided it was time for a full-time career change. By this time, just before the financial crash, the City of London was losing its appeal to Rachel.
She said: “The City had changed. It was not what it was. I loved it in the 1980s and 90s. The City had become cold, very corporate and sterile. It was not fun to work in anymore, very uninspiring.”
Then, the very day Rachel left in 2008, the City crashed!
Rachel said: “The financial crash happened the day I left the office. Everybody said Rachel leaves the city and it collapses. We had a really good laugh.”
She set herself up as a freelance tour guide, specialising in social history, especially Jewish London.
She waxes lyrical as she talks about her tours, saying: “Jewish London is much more than the East End. It is amazing. I have divided the East End into different things like ‘Women of Worth’ and ‘Radicals and Revolutionaries’.”
She also does Jewish Hampstead and Freudian Hampstead, the Jewish West End and Mayfair, including the Rothschild home and the City of London, as well as all the Jewish cemeteries, Jewish businesses and shuls.
Another of her specialities, which links in with what she studied at Manchester University, is Women’s London.
She did her first walking tour for the Women’s Library in 2005. The tour included the Wonderful ‘Women of Whitechapel’. This was followed by the ‘Battling Belles of Bow’, around the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ about life above and below stairs of the Bloomsbury Women, ‘Chelsea Women’, ‘In the Footsteps of Henrietta Barnett’, ‘In the Footsteps of Octavia Hill’, the founder of the National Trust.
Rachel says: “There is no end to the amazing things you find as you walk around London.”
Not surprising, given her tremendous enthusiasm for her work, she found her clients to be “incredibly loyal”. They would book tours a year in advance and they would become friends.
Rachel said: “They made friends with each other. The tours were like parties. It was a lovely feeling.”
Then at the 2010 Jewish Book Week, her friend, Roslyn Rawson, who had recently retired, suggested that they co-wrote Jewish London.
Rachel was at first reluctant, as she was working full-time, but as ever, she allowed herself to be persuaded and two years later Jewish London was launched at Jewish Book Week.
It was such a good seller that it is now into its third edition.
Rachel said: “I realised I could write a book. It was amazing.”
After publishing two books on Whitechapel, Rachel was asked by participants on her women’s tours to put it into writing her stories of women. Thus was born Women’s London, which is being published this month after years of publishing delays.
Rachel says the timing to coincide with the Year of the Woman is “miraculous”.
Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of Parliament passing the Representation of the People Act, which allowed women to vote for the first time.
But Rachel claims she is not a feminist.
She says: “I never call myself a feminist. This is a totally apolitical book which allows people to enjoy, explore and celebrate the impact women have had and continue to have on London’s streetscape, heritage and culture.
“I am not a political activist. I walk around London and open people’s eyes to how much around them is linked to women, all different types of women, from social workers, who have broken down male bastions to those who campaigned for the vote.
“My book shows where they were born, lived, died and were buried.”
Calling herself a Biba Girl, Rachel effuses about the book’s feature on ‘Fabulous Fashion’, highlighting Kings Road, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood and Laura Ashley.
Jewish women featured in the book include Miriam Moses, the first female mayor of Stepney, who founded the Stepney Jewish Girls’ Club and helped to improve shelter provision in the East End during the Second World War; suffragette and Poplar councillor Minnie Lansbury, who died after a spell in prison; Alice Model, who established the Jewish Maternity Hospital; anarchist and peace activist, Milly Witkop; Liberal Judaism founder Lily Montagu and her sister Netta Franklin, who established the Parents National Educational Union, as well as the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage and was president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies; DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin; and artist and East End charity worker Rose Henriques.
And then, of course, there is Amy Winehouse, whose statue has been erected in Camden.