How a spate of sex attacks in Hackney Marshes have re-ignited women’s safety fears

Brooke Coe, 35, used to go to Hackney Marshes every day. She lives nearby and has always loved the feel of the rural oasis in the middle of the city: the canal towpath for walking; the woodland for some headspace; the marshes for running and socialising in the summer.

But since reports of at least 22 assaults on lone women in the area since February — most of them in broad daylight — the advertising executive feels nervous to even leave her house. She’s changed her walking route, chose not to sunbathe there in the heatwave last week, and bought a police-style pepper spray which she now carries at all times.

“I feel so upset — and so angry,” Coe tells me from her home in Hackney Wick, hours after the Metropolitan Police confirmed it had arrested three men — two 16-year-olds and an 18-year-old — in connection with the series of sexual assaults in the east London area (two have since been released on bail pending further enquiries).

Coe is relieved the police seem to be making steps towards catching the attacker or attackers, but still doesn’t feel safe. “In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder and the protests, they [the Met Police] said they were taking violence against women seriously, but this guy has been allowed to go on and attack 30 women. How could that have happened? I will never feel the same here… and I’m not even one of the women who’s been attacked.”

So far, the Met says a total of 22 women are reported to have been sexually assaulted in the east London area, and posts on social media suggest this number is actually closer to 30, including a woman allegedly being raped by one of the alleged attackers in the last week. The Met Police says it has no record of such an incident, but the rape rumour has done nothing to quell the torrent of fear among women in the area since the attacks started being reported in February.

Incidents reported to the police include a man — dubbed the ‘Hackney Marshes pervert’ — cycling up to women who are out walking or running and grabbing them from behind, touching their genitals or breasts or harassing and intimidating them. Walthamstow Marshes, Millfields Park and Victoria Park are among the locations named alongside Hackney Marshes and some victims are reported to have been as young as 14.

AFP via Getty Images

“She was petrified — the worst part is she blames herself for being polite to him,” says local tennis coach and DJ Elena Bottici, 49, whose 14-year-old daughter was followed and harassed on the street and in a corner shop near the Marshes earlier this month.

“He followed me on a red bike, beckoning at me,” says local mother-of-three Sally King*, who was intimidated by a man fitting an identical description to Bottici’s daughter the following day while on a 9am run. “When I heard about the [alleged] rape, I couldn’t help but think back to my immediate reaction [to turn around towards other walkers]. If I’d carried on, could that have happened to me too?” she asks. She hasn’t run alone again since.

Since the attacks on King and Bottici’s daughter, five other women just in their local parents’ WhatsApp group have come forward to say they’ve experienced similar attacks by a man fitting exactly the same description: slim, 5”9, bald, possibly in his early thirties and sometimes wearing a hat, backpack and headphones.

The worst part is she blames herself for being polite to him

The Met has since released an e-fit of the suspected attacker who matches a different description — a light-skinned male, possibly mixed race, aged 16 or 17, and usually wearing a grey tracksuit — leading locals to question whether there are at least two attackers committing the assaults: one likely to be in his thirties, one in his teens. “A man with similar features [to the e-fit] stood really close to me on the bus after football training there recently — it scared me so much,” says Nicole Chui, 26, an artist from Homerton.

King, meanwhile, says a friend was groped by a younger man who fits the e-fit description. Could he be one of the teenagers arrested this week in connection with the attacks? Even if he is, is the other (older) suspect still on the loose? And are the police doing enough to help women in the area feel safe?

Among women in the area willing to speak about the attacks, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Stella Creasy, Labour MP for the neighbouring borough of Walthamstow, and keen women’s rights advocate, says this recent spate of attacks shows that there is “much work work to be done” to address the prevention of violence against women and girls.

Marsh attack

/ Met Police

“It’s troubling that despite months of reports, it has taken this long for the police to identify and arrest someone they believe to be responsible for these attacks,” she told the Evening Standard last night following the announcement of the three arrests. “We urgently need London to learn from other police forces who are using hate crime tactics to better identify those who target women and girls through recording incidents of crimes motivated by misogyny. No woman should be at risk for simply being in a public space.”

Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier, who looks after the constituency Hackney Marshes falls under, says that while the attacks have been “very distressing”, she hopes that “the perpetrator is now off the streets so that women can feel safer on the marshes and nearby canal”. But Labour’s Diane Abbott, MP for neighbouring Hackney North and Stoke Newington, disagrees. She says that while “there will be great relief if the culprits have been apprehended”, “these cases raise important questions about how seriously the police take sexual assaults of this kind and the priority they are given.” She has written to local police chief Superintendent Marcus Barnett expressing her concerns.

The Met says that despite the arrests, it is continuing to make the investigation a “priority” and is taking it “extremely seriously”. Its local force has increased police presence in the area, and officers are speaking with members of the community to provide reassurance. Hackney Council says its staff are supporting this through enforcement officer patrols and by gathering evidence from its network of CCTV cameras and local contacts.

Hackney mum Sally King*, who was harassed while out running on Hackney Marshes this month

/ Elena Bottici

But women in the area say they still don’t feel safe. “The general consensus here is that women feel the police don’t care about our safety,” says Helena Andrews*, 28, a designer who lives near the Marshes and has neighbours who’ve been attacked in recent months. “These attacks have been happening since February, yet the police didn’t seem to care until someone [allegedly] got raped. What if it goes further and someone is murdered?”

For the women who did know about the attacks, the advice seems to have been: “’Women stay at home’… which just isn’t good enough,” agrees Lucia Robinson*, 26, who lives nearby and shares the most common feeling among women in the area: anger that the attacks are so brazen, in busy areas in broad daylight, yet little had seemingly been done about them until this week’s arrests.

“Most women I know didn’t find out about the attacks until this week — why were we not notified of them earlier?” asks Andrews. “It reminds us of what happened to Sabina [Nessa] and Sarah [Everard]. We are so scared.”

It reminds us of what happened to Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard… We are so scared

There is also a wider sense of anger at the misognistic culture that they believe still exists in society and — some argue — the police. Has nothing changed since the outcry around women’s public safety in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder and the swapping of violent and sexist messages at Charing Cross police station?

“It is so clear that women cannot and do not trust the police — this is because the police are part of the problem,” says Rosa Campbell, 34, a feminist historian and writer who lives by Hackney Marshes, pointing to recent figures about police misconduct: that 1,309 police officers were accused of domestic abuse over a three year period; that of those 1,309 officers, 1,080 of them are still working in the police force. “When we look at how the organisation of the police as a whole respond to violence against women we see a dismal picture. Of course, people might say these are just ‘individual’ men or ‘a few bad apples’, but that is absolutely not the case.”

Instead, many are angry that it is women themselves – once again – who are having to keep themselves safe. “The fact that I have to modify my behaviour makes me feel absolutely furious,” says Charlotte Maynard, 36, a brand partnerships manager who lives on the canal in Homerton. “I love Hackney Marshes, it’s great for my mental health and served as a lifeline during Covid. I used to walk on the paths there several times a week, but since hearing about these assaults I think twice before leaving for a walk now, and I haven’t walked there alone. It shouldn’t be this way.”

Charlotta Billstrom

Maynard’s story is a common one: women in the area who previously went alone to the Marshes several times a week, reduced to changing their walking and running routes and only going out in groups during what should’ve been the prime summer months for enjoying the area.

“I can’t believe how many amazing, independent women have been left afraid to leave the house by this one idiot, who’s probably just a child,” says Coe, adding that a lot of women and LGBTQ+ people choose to live in Hackney specifically because of its strong community. “I’ve never seen so many people in the Hackney Wick community come together in such an emotional way before,” she says. “Hackney was supposed to be a safe space.”

Bottici says her 14-year-old daughter now carries a rape alarm everywhere she goes. Not that you’d hear a rape alarm in the Marshes, says Coe. “There’s something funny about the sound around here because of the canal.”

So what can be done, apart from women hoping the correct suspect has been arrested and women taking their own (often inconvenient) steps to protect themselves? The Met Police says it has stepped up police presence in the area, but locals say they’re not seeing this on the ground — and if there are officers in the area, they’d like them to be in uniform. “I can’t help thinking about the police presence at the Jubilee and the Black Lives Matter protests — it was so visible,” says Coe. “Yet I’ve not seen a single bobby on the beat [since these attacks] and I live on the doorstep of the marshes.”

Maynard agrees. “I haven’t seen any officers patrolling, haven’t seen any signs in the local area, haven’t had any leaflets through the door,” she says. Indeed, most women in the area say they found out about the attacks via WhatsApp groups or social media.

Coe says it’s all about reassurance. “I didn’t expect to have to go to Twitter or WhatsApp to feel comforted,” she explains. Chui agrees. “I’m shocked at how little this story is being shared outside of Instagram and WhatsApp groups,” she says. She’d have liked to have seen the Council, the mayor and the police talking more publicly about the issue, to raise awareness not just of the attacks themselves, but “actionable steps” on what to do in the immediate moments after an attack if you find yourself a victim.

I’ve not seen a single bobby on the beat since the attacks – where were the signs, the leaflets?

After all, reporting is important, Helena adds. Everard’s case proved the links between more minor acts of sexual offence such as flashing, and how they can escalate to the worst possible forms such as rape and even murder. “It shouldn’t have taken an [alleged] rape for the police to take these incidents seriously.”

King, one of the victims who was followed and harassed, admits she probably wouldn’t have reported the incident to the police had it not been for so many similar reports in the area around the time. “You shouldn’t, but as a woman, you sort of shrug it off as almost ‘allowable’ male behaviour,” she says. Looking back, she realises how lucky she was. “It wouldn’t take more than a few seconds to drag someone into the bushes around there.”

The mother-of-three says she sympathises with officers. “I can understand how difficult it is for the police. But there needs to be more presence and we need to be better informed [about these cases] as locals.”

Coe agrees. She feels sorry for the police, but also angry at them that this experience has confirmed her suspicions that not enough is being done. She’d like to see officers handing out pepper spray and offering free self-defence lessons, and stricter sentences for attackers. “Even now there’s been arrest, we’re still fearful because we know that sentences for sex attacks are light,” she says. “When does it end for us?”

Campbell believes the answer lies in a wider overhaul of the criminal justice system. “Prisons do not work to rehabilitate offenders: nearly half of adults who are released are reconvicted within one year. We all need to face up to that,” she says. Instead, she’d like to see increased funding in welfare services including the NHS, youth services and specialist services for black women, women of colour and LGBTQ+ survivors for sexual assault and domestic violence. Rehabilitation and transformation groups like Sisters Uncut, No More Exclusions and Cradle Collective are already doing this, she points out. London needs more of them.

Chui adds that it shouldn’t just be down to the police and criminal justice system. Yes, a few men have been sharing warnings about the attacks on Twitter, but she’s disappointed in her male friends for not sharing information about the attacks enough. “Men need to be talking about this more, too,” she says.

She’d also like to see greater physical infrastructure in place to prevent such attacks: better lighting in dark areas, more advanced public security cameras – both improvements that Hackney Council says it is looking into following a consultation over female safety in the area, but yet to be put into place.

Until then, these attacks will keep happening and women will continue to feel unsafe, sighs King, worried for her three children growing up in the area. “The Marshes should be for everybody… We should all be entitled to feel safe.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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