A forgotten WW1 disaster: the Barking factory explosion of 1917

The Ajax Chemical Works explosion occurred in what is now the borough of Barking, but most of the victims were working-class residents of Newham. In brief, on 9 August 1917, there was a catastrophic incident at the factory, which seems to have been making some kind of explosive – no doubt part of the “war effort” – in which 13 women workers were killed, 11 of them from Newham.

There is not much history of the event other than contemporary press reports. The Victoria County History of Barking does not mention it. The website of the Imperial War Museum provides some access to the press of the time, and more can be read through the British Newspaper Archive. I have assembled some of it below, hopefully enough to tell the story.

As far as I know, there has never been any memorial to these women workers, and the centenary of the explosion went unmarked in 2017.

I assume that the Ajax Chemical Works was on the marshy area banking the Thames – it is described in one press report as being in “open country”.

The coroner’s inquest seems to have been sympathetic to the victims and their families, but neither the coroner nor his jury seem to have taken any pains to probe the causes of the incident.

A young worker gave evidence that the mixture he had been preparing earlier in the day, and which he had delivered to the room where the fire or explosion started, had caught fire, and that the chemist in charge had told him not to advise the workers that there might be any danger from it. The same chemist was said to have been unable to give an explanation for the incident. The chemist was not examined by the coroner.

The owner of the works asked the coroner not to use the word “explosion” unless it could be proven that an explosion had taken place, The inquest jury concluded that the deaths of the 13 women workers was caused by suffocation caused by “a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown.”

"EXPLOSION IN AN EAST END FACTORY. THIRTEEN LIVES LOST IN A PANIC. STORIES TOLD BY SURVIVORS."

An article in the Birmingham Daily Post on Saturday 11 August 1917 reads:

"Thirteen women lost their lives and three were injured the result of an explosion which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. A small fire broke out in two-storeyed building fifty yards away from the main premises, and was followed by an explosion on the top floor. Sixteen women were working at the benches, and thirteen were immediately overcome by smoke, and their bodies were burned before any rescue could be attempted.

Fire engines, together with, doctors and ambulances, were quickly the spot, which lies in open country, and the outbreak of fire did not last very long. The names of the victims are:

Mrs. Maskell, Caulfield Road. East Ham;

Mrs. Abbott, her sister;

Mrs. England, Washington Road, Upton Park;

Mrs. E. Smith, Bartle Avenue, East Ham;

Mrs. Foley, Hockley Road, Barking Road;

Mrs. Curry, Talbot Road, East Ham;

Mrs. Stevens, Napier Road, East Ham;

Mrs. King, Arthur Road, East Ham;

Miss Knight, Walton Read. Manor Park;

Miss Clark, Parkhurst Road, Manor Park;

Miss Alice Cole, Howards Road, Barking;

Mrs. Webb, Talbot Road, East Ham; and

Miss Rainbow, Hardwick Street. Barking.

The dead sisters were found together in one room. The families of the dead women were attended to yesterday by the firm. There were about 100 women at work when the explosion took place, and it seems that the women on the upper storey ran to the stairs where a jam occurred through one girl falling and the others, due to the volume of smoke, tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes. Most of the girls were working overtime, and several owe their safety to the fact that they had left in order to get water for tea. Although identification has not been definitely established, one of the bodies is believed to be that of Mrs. Stevens, of Napier Road, East Ham. Further enquiries show that two women one of them Mrs. Wales—and a boy named Terry were injured. All three are in hospital. The total casualties were 13 killed and 3 injured.

Little Noise From Explosion.

The noise of the explosion was not very loud, and some people in the vicinity thought that it was merely gunfire, and were unaware that anything serious had occurred until they saw the fire-engines. Work in the main building was not interfered with by the explosion, the premises remaining undamaged. The detached brick building in which the explosion occurred was burnt out, leaving the wails standing. The explosion caused practically no damage to the fabric, and, curiously enough, the glass in the main buildings was not broken.

It stated that this is the third fire that has occurred during the past eight weeks, Mr. A. Rymer, an official at the works, in an interview, said: A fire occurred which caused an explosion in one of the rooms. The girls working at the benches were immediately overcome by the smoke, and before they could be rescued they were burned to death.” Mr. Rymer said in another interview: A fire occurred in one of the rooms, and then there was a dull explosion. A huge volume of smoke was emitted, and gave hardly any time for the girls get out. Thirteen were afterwards found suffocated and three injured. Altogether the works employs 150 persons, 90% of them women and girls. Most the women who lost their lives have families. There were many attempts at rescue. I was not here myself; it was the first day I have been away for twelve months. Everybody was splendid in their attempts bring some of the women down, but really the smoke and the flames were so intense that nothing more could be done. We had a fire here a little time ago, but not in the same room, and knew the cause it. So far I cannot say what was the cause of this fire."

A Woman’s Story.

Mrs- Carr, who worked in the building where the explosion occurred, said in the course of an interview, My daughter, who worked in the same place, had just called me to her. I had gone downstairs to tell her I intended to work overtime, so that luckily I was outside the door when the explosion occurred. After the explosion the doors immediately shut with bang, and I screamed ‘Fire.’ Mr. Cox, one of the staff, came running up with Mr. Reed, the chemist, and Mr. Cox went inside. As he got through the door there was another explosion, and the door slammed on him, leaving him inside. I afterwards heard he got out all right. I shall never forget what I saw. Four women rushed to the windows and jumped through to the ground. The others had no chance. They must have been suffocated straight away. I saw a little girl brought out in flames, and they rolled her on the grass to extinguish her blazing clothing. As soon as I heard the bang the place seemed to fill with dense smoke, which came streaming out of the windows, where the glass was all shattered”

Another woman said that other girls were brought out with their clothing on fire. It seemed to be all over in a minute,” said a workman. “We heard the explosion and saw the flames, and the brigade had the outbreak in hand in no time.” An allotment holder said that, hearing an explosion he looked across to the works, and saw one building amass of flames, which came from every window- “We ran across to render what assistance we could, and the fire was promptly got under by the brigade.”

There was a pathetic incident yesterday, when Mr. King, the husband of one of the victims, went to the factory and learnt that his wife was dead. He had just arrived home after being discharged from the army."

"Many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue"

This article is from the Yorkshire Evening Post on  Saturday 11 August 1917:

"Further details of the explosion and fire at the Ajax Chemical Company's factory at Barking on Thursday night reveal many pathetic incidents and heroic attempts at rescue.

As reported in yesterday's Yorkshire Evening Post, thirteen women and girls lost their lives, and their bodies have been recovered from the ruins, while two women and a boy were seriously injured and are in hospital.

The works are owned by Mr. H. Rymer and gave employment to about 150 women and girls. Every precaution had been taken to avoid accidents, and the escape stairways are unusually wide. About 6 o'clock, just as the women were getting ready to leave for the day, a small fire broke out in one of the filling rooms.

A dull explosion immediately followed, a bluish, suffocating smoke arose, being followed instantly by a fierce blaze which shot outwards through the open windows. Women in the yard screamed an alarm, and Mr. Cox, an official of the works, ran into the burning building. Two girls and a boy jumped from windows, one of the girls injuring herself so badly by the fall that she had to be taken to the emergency hospital. Women from the upper floor escaped by a fire ladder.

Those on the ground floor were all out in a minute or two. The Barking Fire Brigade and members of the St. John Ambulance Association came quickly, but the fire was so intense that it was three-quarters of an hour before they could get inside the building.

The bodies were badly burned. Few could be identified except by chance, such as the recognition of a ring or piece of dentist's work. As all except one who were killed were employed in the room where the explosion occurred, and as the windows were opened and only twelve feet from the ground, it is assumed that they were overcome by fumes before the flames touched them. A pathetic incident is that among the victims were some soldiers' wives.

One man returned home yesterday on leave. When he reached his house, with the trench mud still thick upon him, it was only to be informed that, half an hour previously, his wife's body had been recovered from the ruined building. The husband of another victim left for the front on Wednesday. Another soldier husband came home yesterday, just discharged from hospital, and it was not until he reached home that he heard of the tragedy. A third soldier husband, father of nine children, is expected home Monday.

Two of the victims, Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Maskell, were sisters. "I happened to be in the yard at the time," said a woman worker. "I heard a sort of soft noise, more like a sudden burst of air than an explosion. I saw the smoke pouring out and then the flames. I shouted 'Fire!' And then I saw two girls and a boy jump from a window. One of the girls was picked up and handed to me. Her back seemed to be hurt from the fall. Mr Cox was grand. He went in when the place was blazing, and we heard that he had been closed in. It was a relief to hear afterwards that he was safe. All the people in the first shop must have been made senseless by the fumes or they would have jumped out. Some of the windows on the ground floor were neither broken nor burnt."

Firemen made gallant attempts to rescue the women and girls who had been cut off, and tried to dash up the staircases, but the fumes from the chemicals drove them back again and again, choking and half suffocated. In the end they were forced to give up attempts at rescue in despair. ... The dead sisters were found together in one room. It seems that the women on the upper story ran to the stairs, and then a jam occurred through one girl falling, and the others in the volume of smoke tripping over her. Before they could resume their struggle for safety they were overcome by the fumes."

"It had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight."

This account of the inquest comes from the Birmingham Daily Post on Tuesday 14 August 1917:

"Dr. F. Collins opened the inquest yesterday on thirteen victims of the explosion and fire which occurred at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday evening. Dr. Collins said that he only proposed to take evidence of identification before an adjournment. One body, which had hitherto been unrecognised, had now been identified. The evidence as to how the calamity occurred, what resulted from the first flash, and the rest of the horrible details he would take after the adjournment. He would also have something to say about the heroic conduct of the people who had tried do their best to save life in face of insuperable difficulty.

Mrs. Maskell, of Caulfield Road, East Ham, was identified by the false teeth she was wearing. There was considerable difficulty in recognising other victims. Miss Clark was recognised by part of her dress and Miss Cole and Miss Gurry by their teeth. Others were identified by marks on the bodies. When Mr. King gave evidence to his wife the Coroner said that it was a particularly sad case, inasmuch as the unfortunate husband was discharged from the army the day the tragedy happened. King identified his wife by her ring. "l last saw her alive June 25,” said, “when she bid me good-bye at Waterloo Station, when I was going back to camp.” The Coroner said that all their sympathy went out to King. When Mrs. Knight was speaking about her daughter she broke down and had to be led out of court. "I identify her,” she said, "by the way her hair was done. She had the habit of doing it a particular way.” In every case the witness gave some special means by which identification was alone possible. A doctor, who was on the scene within three minutes, said it was impossible to carry out effective rescue work because of the flames.

The Coroner; Was the whole building alight?—lt had blown out the windows and the whole of the upper floor was alight. It was impossible to enter the building in consequence of the smoke and heat. At the earliest possible moment Superintendent Abbott went inside and soon recovered the first body. Were these unfortunate women killed by the flames, or were the bodies calcined after death?—l believe that they were all suffocated, and that the bodies were then burned and charred. And suffocation would practically instantaneous ? —Very rapid indeed.

The density of the smoke in the building was extraordinary, and it would render them quite unconscious. I saw all the thirteen bodies taken out, and they were all suffocated end then burned. There was evidence of struggles in two cases only. The inquest was adjourned until Wednesday. Mr. Du Parcq expressed the sympathy of the company with the relatives. He said that there would be no doubt that all concerned behaved with the utmost resource under the terrible circumstances. Steps had already been taken in cases of necessity to give relief, and in other cases it was only necessary for application, to be made. The Coroner said that the calamity marked an epoch in disasters. He was pretty hardened, but this was one the worst cases had ever seen. He would do all he could to ease and spare the feelings of the relatives, but they would have to see whether anything could done to prevent similar occurrences."

"INQUEST ON VICTIMS. BARKING MYSTERY OF ORIGIN STILL UNSOLVED."

The Birmingham Daily Post speculated on the source of the explosion, on Thursday 16 August 1917:

"A verdict of “Accidental death from suffocation caused a fire, the origin or cause of which remained unknown,” was returned at the resumed inquest at Barking yesterday, on the 15 victims of the fire at the Ajax Chemical Works, Barking, on Thursday last. The jury also recommended that the searching of the employees be more thorough, that the materials completed be- removed as soon as finished and not stored in the workroom, that work of this nature should if possible, be carried out on the ground floor and that the front door on the ground floor should open outwards.

At the commencement yesterday Mr. Walter Lloyd (for the company) asked the Coroner if he would refrain from using the word “explosion” until it was definitely known if there had been an explosion.

The assistant-manager said there had been a fire on the premises previously, and every possible precaution was taken. It was customary to search the employees and nobody was allowed to take in matches. As he was coming from the office he saw a dense volume of smoke issuing from the first floor. He heard no cry and no explosion—only a dull sound similar to a box of matches going off. He got out the building but was overcome by smoke. When he recovered he gave what assistance he could.

When the front door was opened women ran out. There were 80 at work. There was considerable alarm and commotion. He saw a fire on the first floor. The glass had gone from the windows but nobody appeared at them. Two people jumped from windows about 10ft. high.

The Coroner: The place was like a rabbit warren as far doors were concerned—doors all over the place ?—Yes.

Had the occupants been given time they could have escaped?—Yes. They were overcome so quickly by the smoke

Mrs. Ada Walters, a finisher, who was sitting in the room by one of the victims, said she noticed smoke and a slight bang from behind where she was. The noise, witness agreed, was more like matches than a gun. There was dull thud and a lot of smoke, and she was blown downstairs, her clothes catching fire.

A Mixer’s Story.

Charles Panons (15) said he carried chemical from one place to another. He helped to mix the stuff according to directions in a shed away from the main building. About 20lbs. was mixed at time. On the day of the fire a piece caught alight. This was the only occasion had had a piece catch alight. Mr. Pawley, who was present, remarked. “You see how dangerous it is!” When he had finished mixing it, witness took it up into the room where the fire occurred later. He asked Mr. Pawley if he should tell the women it was dangerous, and Mr. Pawlev replied “No, Charlie, that is all right.” He understood that Mr Pawley had put in it something that made it dangerous. Thursday was the first day he had mixed up this particular stuff.

John Pawley, employed as a mixer, said he worked under the direction of the chemist. He did not know what the stuff was made of. The piece which caught alight burned like a match-head. He reported what had happened to the chemist, who reassured him. The chemist said; You mix as I tell you, and it will be all right.” He had not mixed any of that kind of stuff before the day of the tragedy or since.

Captain Abbott, Chief Officer of the Barking Fire Brigade, said that as soon as possible he penetrated beyond the ground floor and recovered three bodies Having got his smoke helmet, he recovered five or six more. Then he was overcome. Water seemed to have little effect the flames.

The Coroner: You consider it to have been chemical fire?— Yes.

Captain Abbott said thought the means of escape were adequate but the women were suffocated, and had no chance from the first. Eight or nine bodies were huddled together near the staircase.

The Coroner asked Mr. Lloyd if the company’s chemist could say how the fire arose.

Mr. Lloyd: No, sir; he says it is impossible- he can only give supposition.

The Coroner warmly commended the conduct of Captain Abbott."

 

Huge thanks to J.J. Plant for giving us permission to reproduce his article about the tragedy here, which was originally posted in the Newham History Society Facebook group on 3 April 2018. 

A few details of the life of one of the victims of the fire have been uncovered and recorded as part of the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War project: find out more about Mary Ann Foley

As part of our Working For Equality project we're hoping to speak to women - or relatives who remember them - who worked in a factory in Barking and Dagenham between 1918 and 1968. If you have memories or family stories to share, please call Fani on 020 8553 3116 or email fani@eastendwomensmuseum.org.

Sarah Chapman: Matchgirl strike leader and TUC delegate

Childhood

Sarah Chapman was born on 31 October in 1862 to Samuel Chapman and Sarah Ann Mackenzie; Samuel was a Brewer’s Servant at the time of her birth but was also known to have worked at the docks in his time.

The fifth of seven children, Sarah’s early life was spent at number 26 Alfred Terrace in Mile End but by the time she was 9, the family had moved to 2 Swan Court (now the back of the American Snooker Hall on Mile End Road), where they would stay for at least 17 years.

For a working-class family to stay in one place for such a long time was uncommon. Other evidence of the seemingly unusual stability of the Chapman family is that Sarah and her siblings received some form of education as they were listed as Scholars in census returns and could all read and write.

Bryant and May

By the time she was 19, Sarah was working, alongside her mother and her older sister, Mary, as a Matchmaking Machinist, so by 1888 she was an established member of the workforce at the Bryant and May factory.

At the time of the Strike, Sarah is listed as working in the Patent area of the business, as a Booker, and was on relatively good wages, which perhaps placed her in a position of esteem with the other workers. Her wages just before the Strike certainly suggest she was paid more than most. This may have been because of her position as a Booker, or because she just managed to avoid the liberal fines.

There was undoubtedly a high degree of unrest in the factory due to the low wages, long hours, appalling working conditions and the unfair fines system, which caused the women and girls at the factory to become increasingly frustrated with their bosses. External influences, particularly the Fabian Society, also provided an impetus for the Strike.

Ultimately, 1400 girls and women marched out of the factory, en masse, on 5th July 1888. The next day some 200 girls marched from Mile End down to Bouverie Street to see Annie Besant, one of the Fabians. A deputation of three (Sarah Chapman, Mrs Mary Cummings and Mrs Naulls) went into her office to ask for her support. While Annie wasn’t an advocate of strike action, she did agree to help them organise a Strike Committee.

"We’d ‘ave come out before only we wasn't agreed"
"You stood up for us and we wasn't going back on you"

The first meeting of the striking Matchgirls was held on Mile End Waste on 8th July and both the Pall Mall Gazette and The Star provided positive publicity. This was followed by meetings with Members of Parliament at the House of Commons.

The Strike Committee was formed and the following Matchgirls were named as members: Mrs Naulls, Mrs Mary Cummings, Sarah Chapman, Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.

Following further intervention by Toynbee Hall and the London Trades Council, the Strike Committee was given the chance to make their case. They met with the Bryant and May Directors. By 17th July, their demands were met and terms agreed in principle. It was agreed that:

1. all fines should be abolished;
2. all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, etc., should be put an end to;
3. the 3d. should be restored to the packers;
4. the “pennies” should be restored, or an equivalent advantage given in the system of
payment of the boys who do the racking;
5. all grievances should be laid directly before the firm, ere any hostile action was
taken;
6. all the girls to be taken back.

It was also agreed that a Union should be formed, that Bryant and May would provide a room for meals away from the room the work was done and that barrows would be provided to carry boxes, rather than the previous practice of young girls having to carry them on their heads.

The Strike Committee put the proposals to the rest of the workforce and they enthusiastically approved.

The inaugural meeting of the new Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall on 27th July and 12 women were elected, including Sarah Chapman (ringed in red below).

Sarah Chapman and Matchwomen's Strike committee

 

The Union of Women Match Makers

An indication of the belief her fellow workers had in her ability, was Sarah’s election as the first TUC representative of the Match Makers’ Union. Sarah was one of 77 delegates to attend the 1888 International TUC in London and may well have attended other conferences. At the 1890 TUC she is recorded as having seconded a motion.

On the night of the 1891 census, Sarah was still a Booker at the match factory and living with only her Mum in Blackthorn Street in Bromley by Bow. By the end of that same year, in December, Sarah married Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker. By this time Sarah had ceased working at Bryant and May.

Family

Sarah and Charles had their first child, Sarah Elsie in 1892. They had five more children, one was my Grandad, William Frederick, born in 1898. By this time they had moved to Bethnal Green.

Sarah’s husband, Charles, and their daughter, Elizabeth Rose, were buried at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. Both graves have since been mounded over and the land reclaimed for reuse so it is not possible to visit them apart from knowing the general area where they were buried.

Sarah’s two youngest sons, William and Frederick lived with her, on and off, into the 1930s. Sarah continued to live in the Bethnal Green area until her death, of lung cancer, in Bethnal Green hospital on 27th November 1945 aged 83.

For reasons that are not clear Sarah was buried along with 5 other elderly people in a pauper's plot at Manor Park Cemetery, perhaps due to lack of money following WWII and trying to make ends meet in a bomb blasted area of London. She was survived by three of her six children, Sarah, William and Fred. A sad end to a life filled with challenges, not least a leading role in a Strike that was the vanguard of the New Labour Movement and helped establish Trade Unionism.

Legacy

It is thanks to Anna Robinson, Poet and Lecturer at the University of East London, who in 2004 chose Sarah Chapman as the topic of her MA thesis, ‘Neither Hidden Nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman’, that I discovered the story of my Great Grandmother.

I contacted Anna in late 2016, having discovered her post on a family history forum dated 2003, in which she had appealed for information. Until then, I had no idea about Sarah’s past. Anna had also discovered Sarah's grave and was able to provide enough information for me rediscover it in early 2017.

Sarah is buried in plot 147/D/114 in Manor Park Cemetery. Regrettably, due to lack of burial spaces in London, there are plans to mound over her grave. Please sign our petition to help preserve the memory of this courageous woman.

To mark the 130th anniversary of the Matchgirls Strike in 2018, I am planning a commemorative walk to re-enact the steps taken by the Matchgirls on 6th July 1888, from Mile End to Bouverie Street where Annie Besant’s office was.

Please sign up, don your Victorian garb and join us to remember this momentous event – contact samdearman0411@gmail.com for further details.

Thank you to Samantha Johnson for this post!
 

Support the East End Women's Museum this Women's History Month

It's hard to believe how much has changed for us over the last year. At the start of Women's History Month 2017 we didn't have a bank account, the banner we were using at events was paint on an old curtain, and we were running out of flyers. Our Women at Watney project was just getting started, and our exhibition with Hackney Museum still seemed very distant. We had some big ideas for 2018, but no firm plans. 

Today Women at Watney: Voices from an East End market is complete. We've got new, professional banners for events, plenty of flyers, and a new logo to boot. Our Making Her Mark exhibition is on display at Hackney Museum right now, and we have a whole programme of events and exhibitions on the way this summer in Barking & Dagenham and Tower Hamlets. And, incredibly, we are working towards opening our doors in late 2019 or early 2020.

Help us reach our Women's History Month target

Donate now

Last year we ran a crowdfunding campaign during Women's History Month. Your contributions made a huge difference to us. You gave us the security, the independence, and the confidence to take a leap into our future. Thank you. 

We're asking people to think of us again this Women's History Month and make a small donation if you can.

Donate now

Although we've secured some grant funding, it has been very, very helpful to have a pot of our own to spend on needs as they arise.

As well as some of the same ongoing costs like transport and printing, we hope to offer payment for speakers and performers at our events this year and childcare facilities to help ensure that parents and carers can attend. These aren't fully covered by our grants. 

If you'd like to make a donation to help renew our fund to cover items like this and any other unexpected costs along the way we would be very grateful.

Thank you so much for your support. Everything that we have achieved so far has been made possible by individuals like you who have supported us and cheered us on along the way. There's still a long way to go before we open our doors, but with your help we will make the East End Women's Museum a reality.

Press release: Women’s Hall project celebrating East End suffragettes receives Heritage Lottery Fund support

 
HLF.jpg

100 years after UK women first won the right to vote, an exciting project in Tower Hamlets supported by a £100,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund will celebrate the little-known history of the radical East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS).

Developed by Four Corners, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, East End Women’s Museum and Women’s History Month in East London, The Women’s Hall project will run from March to December 2018 and include two major exhibitions, a volunteering programme and public programme of talks, events and workshops.

The project’s name is inspired by the Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow, the headquarters of the ELFS from 1914 to 1924, and home of their leader Sylvia Pankhurst and her friend, suffragette and photographer Norah Smyth. Run largely by and for local working class women, the Hall was at the heart of the community’s response to sudden unemployment and rising food prices caused by the outbreak of the First World War, housing a ‘Cost Price Restaurant’ where people could get a hot meal at a very low price and free milk for their children.

The project launches through Women’s History Month in East London in March 2018, inviting local organisations, libraries, venues and women’s groups to explore and celebrate the heritage. There is a drop-in event for anyone interested in finding out more at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives on Thursday 15 March, 6.00pm– 7.30pm.

Carla Mitchell, Development Director at Four Corners said:

“The East London Federation of the Suffragettes were a remarkable group of women, but their story is little known. As the centenary of women’s right to vote is celebrated nationally we aim to help East End communities discover the amazing suffrage stories on their doorstep.”

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: 

“We can rightly be very proud of the role Tower Hamlets and the wider East End played in the suffragette movement. I look forward to joining visitors from across the borough and beyond at these fantastic events. I am particularly proud that the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives team will be bringing history to life with their community kitchen and crèche initiatives – it is the sort of activity that I’m sure the East London Federation of the Suffragettes would have been fully supportive of.  I am also clear that as a council and community we need to restate, revisit and refresh our commitment to gender equality. This centenary will offer a clear opportunity not only for us to look backwards, but to look forwards too.”

Stuart Hobley, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said:

“We’re delighted to support this timely project, which will reveal a significant but untold dimension of suffragette history. Thanks to National Lottery players, the legacy of these extraordinary and community-spirited women will be celebrated through a programme of activities, so we can all learn this both locally and important heritage for the first time.”

Notes to editors

Women’s Hall project activities will explore and celebrate the heritage of the East London suffragettes throughout 2018 through:

  • The Women’s Hall exhibition (Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 29 May-20 October 2018) will evoke the interior of the original Women’s Hall. Visitors will be able to learn about the ELFS and the First World War in the East End, view original materials, handle replicas, and attend events and workshops. A pop up community kitchen will serve hot meals for the public at set times throughout the exhibition’s run, and a crèche facility will be available one day per week.

  • East End Suffragettes: the photography of Norah Smyth (Four Corners Gallery, 26 October-26 January 2019), a unique exhibition of Norah Smyth’s photographs which provide an intimate documentation of the ELFS’ activities, accompanied by gallery talks and local history walks that explore Norah’s story and the work of the East End suffragettes in more depth.

  • The regular ELFS stall at Roman Road Market will be recreated on Saturday 16 June 2018, sharing local suffragette stories with shoppers.

  • A new ‘Suffrage in the East End’ Education Pack will be created for all Tower Hamlets schools, and newly digitized archive materials will be made available to the public at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

  • A Photography workshop for mothers will run at Four Corners in Summer 2018, leading to a final exhibition in autumn 2018.

  • 20+ local volunteers will gain skills in archival research and digitisation, heritage interpretation and curation, public speaking, photography and darkroom practice, events production and customer support.

About the project partners

Four Corners

Four Corners is a creative centre for film and photography, committed to promoting community-wide participation for over 40 years. Its programme seeks to support projects that engage with social and cultural themes, and open up perspectives for audiences, particularly in East London. http://www.fourcornersfilm.co.uk/

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives covers the area of the present-day London borough of Tower Hamlets - the original East End of London which, until 1965, comprised of the boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney. http://www.ideastore.co.uk/local-history

East End Women’s Museum

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest. Find out more at www.eastendwomensmuseum.org

Women’s History Month in East London

Running 1 – 31 March, Women’s History Month 2018 will celebrate women artists, activists, writers and performers, the Suffragette movement and winning the right to vote for some women in 1918 and all women over 21 in 1928 with exhibitions and events across East London. info@alternativearts.co.uk www.alternativearts.co.uk

Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #HLFsupported.

About women’s suffrage

In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women over 30, subject to a small property qualification, extending the right to vote to 8.4 million women in the UK. However, this only represented around 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. In July 1928 the Equal Franchise Act finally gave equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21.

Further information

For further information, images and interviews please contact Sarah Jackson

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Press release: New women’s museum finds home in Barking and Dagenham

A new museum of women’s history is set to open in a permanent home as part of the new Barking Wharf development at the end of 2019.

The East End Women’s Museum was established in 2015 in response to the Ripper Museum which opened on Cable Street, but has since operated without a building, organising events, workshops, and pop up exhibitions with local partners.

As well as highlighting pioneering women with links to east London such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mala Sen, Annie Brewster, Mary Driscoll, and Hannah Billig, the new museum will explore everyday local history from women’s perspectives. The museum aims to challenge gender stereotypes and offer new local role models for girls and young women, creating a resource for schools, community groups, and historians.

The venue for the museum has been made available through the support of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and housing developer Be Living. The East End Women’s Museum will work with experienced local partner Eastside Community Heritage to open the museum in the new space and local women and girls will be invited to help shape the museum’s collection.

Sara Huws, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum said:

“Women make history too. But without their voices and experiences the history books are only telling half the story. We want to put women back in the picture, and share new perspectives on east London’s rich history.
“We believe Barking and Dagenham is the right base for the museum and we’re excited to start working in the borough this year. Everyone we've spoken to has had a story to share: about a woman from their family, their street, or their community, and we know there are many more still to be told.”

Judith Garfield, Executive Director of Eastside Community Heritage said:

“For far too long female voices have been overlooked. Women’s stories may be very different to men’s, and it’s not just about what is told but how. A history of local women, their struggles, their rights and their victories is a history of Barking and Dagenham.
“At Eastside Community Heritage the social and cultural ties between the past and the present are at the heart of our work and we’re delighted to be a part of the East End Women’s Museum development.”

Councillor Sade Bright, Barking and Dagenham Council’s Cabinet Member for Equalities and Cohesion said:

“Here in Barking and Dagenham we are proud of our history while celebrating our present and future aspirations.
“From Mary Wollstonecraft to the women of the suffragette movement who used to meet at the Three Lamps to the Ford machinists in “Made in Dagenham” who fought for equal pay, our borough has always been at the forefront in the struggle for equal rights. Today is another landmark for our borough.”

Vinny Bhanderi, managing director at Be Living, said:

“We are delighted to support the creation of the East End Women’s Museum at our development. It’s a brilliant idea and will become another landmark at Barking and Dagenham that recognises its role in making our society a better place.
“We’re also looking forward to our part in marking the borough a better place through the homes we’ll be creating that attract a new generation to live in Barking and Dagenham.”

Throughout 2018 the East End Women’s Museum will be in residence in Barking and Dagenham, delivering a Heritage Lottery-funded project, ‘Working for Equality’, in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage. A mobile exhibition, series of events, and volunteering programme will explore women’s fight for equal rights in the workplace, from suffragette equal pay campaigns to the strike at Ford Dagenham which took place 50 years ago this year and inspired the Equal Pay Act.

The East End Women’s Museum’s 2018 programme will also include an exhibition at Hackney Museum celebrating 100 years of women’s activism in the borough, and a programme of exhibitions and events exploring the women’s suffrage movement and the First World War in Tower Hamlets.

Notes to editors

About the East End Women’s Museum 

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest, and delivers events and exhibitions about women's history across east London. https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/

About Eastside Community Heritage

Eastside Community Heritage was established in 1993 as part of the Stratford City Challenge community history project and became an independent charity in 1997. Over the years, Eastside have worked with over 900 community groups, produced over 100 exhibitions, and created the East London Peoples Archive which contains over 3500 oral histories. http://www.hidden-histories.org.uk/wordpress/

About Working For Equality

Working For Equality is a joint project developed by the East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage and funded by National Lottery Players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Taking place in multiple venues around Barking and Dagenham between April and November 2018 it explores 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights, from suffragette equal pay campaigns in 1918 to the Ford Dagenham strike in 1968. Women factory workers in Barking and Dagenham are at the heart of the story.

Local volunteers will be trained to collect oral histories and carry out archive research which will be used to create a mobile exhibition touring summer festivals in the borough and several events making up the Working For Equality programme, including (dates and venues TBC):

  • July: Votes for Women Garden Party. Marking 90 years since women won the vote at the age of 21, this free event will celebrate the ‘munitionettes’ who missed out on the vote in 1918 and the ‘flappers’ who voted for the first time in 1929. Visitors will be able to enjoy some refreshments, try dancing the Charleston, make a suffragette sash, and visit the Working For Equality exhibition.

  • September: Strong Women Family Day. In 1926 boxer Annie Newton challenged people who said women shouldn’t box by asking if it was “half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than in a munitions factory?” An event celebrating strong women and girls past and present with exhibitions, games, activities, and sports demonstrations.

  • October: Girls Do Science Family Day. Inspired by women engineers and scientists during the First World War this family event celebrates women’s contribution to science, technology, and engineering, highlighting role models and exciting innovations along the way. Visitors can enjoy inspiring talks, games, activities and demonstrations, find out about studying and working in STEM, and visit the Working for Equality exhibition.

  • October: Women of colour in labour history. Screening of a documentary about the Grunwick Strike in 1976/77 and panel discussion about the often overlooked contribution of black and Asian women in labour history.

  • Throughout the project: A series of free film screenings about women who challenged discrimination and exploitation in the workplace, including Made In Dagenham, Hidden Figures, and Norma Rae.

What to expect in our 2018 programme

This year marks several important anniversaries, including 100 years some women won the vote and 90 years since all women did. It’s also 50 years since the Ford Dagenham strike that inspired the Equal Pay Act.

We’re delighted that the suffragettes are taking their place in history 100 years on, but we also want to use the anniversary to talk about what happened next. Not only about the women who didn’t get the vote in 1918, but the story of women’s struggle for equality in the decades that followed, and today.

Our programme links 1918 and 2018, and focuses on the experiences of working class women in east London.

Making Her Mark, Hackney Museum

6 February – 19 May 2018

Our Making Her Mark exhibition was created in collaboration with Hackney Museum and takes 1918 as the starting point in a look back at 100 years of women-led activism in the borough, on issues ranging from education, workers’ rights, and healthcare to domestic violence, the peace movement, and police relations.

Making Her Mark explores how local women have brought about change in their community and in wider society through political campaigns, industrial action, peaceful protest, direct action, and the arts.

Working For Equality, Barking & Dagenham

April – November 2018

Our Working For Equality project with Eastside Community Heritage takes 1918 as the starting point in the story of 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights, and connects the dots between the suffragettes’ equal pay campaigns during WWI and the Ford Dagenham strikers.

Women factory workers in Barking & Dagenham are at the heart of the story. We’ll be collecting their histories and sharing them through a mobile exhibition and a series of free, fun events. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Votes for Women Garden Party, July

Join us for a garden party marking 90 years since women won the vote at the age of 21. We’ll be celebrating the ‘flappers’ who voted for the first time in 1929 and the young women who followed them by dancing down the decades: watch demonstrations of the charleston, the jitterbug, rock n roll, and the twist, and maybe try some steps yourself! Enjoy some refreshments, make a suffragette sash, and visit our exhibition about women’s fight for equality in the workplace from the suffragettes to the Ford Dagenham strikers.

Strong Women Family Day, September

In 1926 boxer Annie Newton challenged people who said women shouldn’t box by asking if it was “half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than working in a munitions factory?” Our family event celebrates strong women and girls past and present: from Annie Newton to Nicola Adams, the courage of the suffragettes and the ‘munitionettes’, and every woman who has ever scrubbed a floor. Visit our exhibition and enjoy games and activities, fascinating stories, and demonstrations by sports clubs.

Girls Do Science Family Day, October

You might have heard of the ‘munitionettes’ who worked on the assembly line in factories during the First World War, but did you know women worked as scientists too? Our family event celebrates women’s contribution to science, technology, engineering, maths and manufacturing then and now, highlighting role models and exciting innovations along the way. Join us for inspiring talks, games, activities and demonstrations, find out about studying and working in STEM, and visit our mobile exhibition.

Women of colour in UK labour history: film screening and panel discussion, October

Join us for a documentary screening about the 1976 Grunwick Strike, which was led largely by migrant women workers of South Asian origin. The film will be followed by a panel discussion about the often overlooked contribution of WOC in labour history, as well as interactions of race, class, and gender in industrial action and activism.

The Women’s Hall, Tower Hamlets

May – December 2018

The Women’s Hall project, developed in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Four Corners, and Women's History Month in east London, will explore some lesser-known suffrage stories from east London through two major exhibitions, a series of events, and a participatory photography project.

The East London Federation of the Suffragettes were a radical group who split from the WSPU in 1914 and fought for working women’s rights throughout the First World War. The Women’s Hall at 400 Old Ford Road in Bow was their headquarters from 1914-1924, a women’s social centre, and the home of their leader, Sylvia Pankhurst. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Belle Davis, music hall star and choreographer

In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.

One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star. 

 Belle Davis, 1919

Belle Davis, 1919

I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis' life are scant, it's likely that she was born in born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married  comedian Eddie Whaley. 

According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis "was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful..." Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to "darken down", presumably to fit the stereotype of an 'exotic' African-American singer.

In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as 'piccaninnies' in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different. 

Davis' act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.

Less is known about Davis' movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, and was responsible for the annual revues. It's at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie. 

Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history. 

 

Sources

Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, Jayna Brown

Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, Jeffrey Green

Black women in Britain 1850-1897, Jeffrey Green

"Belle Davis and Her Piccaninnies: a Preliminary Bio-, Disco-, and
Filmography
", Rainer E. Lotz, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal  Vol.25, No. 2, Fall 1994

The Music Hall and Theatre History Site, Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904, Matthew Lloyd

 

Could you be our Treasurer?

Treasurer

  • 3-5 year term (with 3 month trial period)
  • Unpaid company director

We're looking for someone with substantial bookkeeping experience, an interest in history and community heritage, and a commitment to women’s rights and gender equality to join our board of directors in an unpaid role as our Treasurer.

The East End Women’s Museum is an exciting public history project established in 2015 to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. We put on events, exhibitions, and make resources for schools and researchers to use.

In 2016 we became a Community Interest Company and currently have a board of three company directors. We are seeking to expand by recruiting another director who will act as our Treasurer, taking the lead in overseeing the financial affairs of the organisation and assisting with day to day financial management.

The role requires attendance at directors’ meetings in person or via Skype once a month and at least 8 hours available per month to carry out tasks in between meetings.

Treasurer role description (PDF)

To apply, please submit your CV, details of two referees, and a short personal statement saying why you would like the role and showing how your skills and experience match the role description.

Send to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com with ‘Treasurer’ in the subject line.

Deadline: Wednesday 10 January

If you have any questions about the role please contact Sarah on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com

We're hiring! Volunteer Coordinator, Working for Equality Project

Volunteer Coordinator, Working for Equality Project

  • 17.5 hours per week
  • £17,300
  • Fixed term contract for 14 months
  • Based in Barking & Dagenham and Ilford

In 2018 the East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage will develop Working for Equality, a Heritage Lottery Funded exhibition and programme of events focusing on working women’s activism, in particular the contribution of women factory workers in Barking and Dagenham from the suffragettes to the Ford Dagenham strikers.

As part of the project 20 volunteers from the local area will be trained by Eastside Community Heritage in oral history, archive research, learning facilitation or heritage interpretation skills. Volunteers will conduct oral history interviews, contribute to a mobile exhibition, and work with a videographer to make a short film.

We’re looking for an enthusiastic individual with experience of working with community groups and volunteers to recruit volunteer participants and manage their participation and training throughout the project.

Project Volunteer Coordinator job description and person specification (PDF)

To apply, please submit your CV, details of two referees, and a personal statement of fewer than 1,000 words saying why you would like the role and showing how your skills and experience match the person specification.

Send to Sarah Jackson at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com with ‘Volunteer Coordinator’ in the subject line.

  • Application deadline: Wednesday 10 January 2018
  • Interview date: Thursday 25 January 2018

If you have any questions about the role please contact Sarah on eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com.

East End Women’s Museum and Eastside Community Heritage win National Lottery support for women’s workplace rights project in Barking & Dagenham

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The East End Women’s Museum in partnership with Eastside Community Heritage has received £80,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an exciting new project, Working For Equality, which will run in Barking & Dagenham from April to November 2018.

Made possible by money raised by National Lottery players, the project focuses on 50 critical years in the struggle for working women’s rights in Britain, 1918 to 1968.

Beginning with suffragette equal pay campaigns during the First World War and ending with the Ford Dagenham sewing machinist’s strike that inspired the Equal Pay Act, women factory workers are at the heart of the story.

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A woman’s place

In 1918 many wartime ‘munitionettes’ found themselves pushed out of ‘men’s jobs’ when the War ended. There is a pattern in this 50 year window: women factory workers were hailed as heroic in wartime, but in peacetime met intense pressure from politicians, employers, and union leaders to go ‘back to the home’.

Women workers routinely faced sexual harassment and discrimination, were expected to resign or were dismissed when they got married or became pregnant, and were paid half a man’s wages to boot. Women of colour often faced additional challenges and discrimination, whether through a formal ‘colour bar’ or casual racism.

Despite this, factory work offered successive generations of young working class women freedom and camaraderie, as well as opportunities to organise for better pay and conditions.

About our project

Our project will explore changing ideas about the ‘proper place’ for a woman and celebrate the economic, cultural, and political contribution of women factory workers.

With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund we will create a mobile exhibition, put on a range of accessible public events, run workshops with local schools, and collect oral histories from women in the area. Volunteers from the local area will help to shape the exhibition and receive training in oral history, archive research, or heritage interpretation skills.

About us

The East End Women’s Museum is a public history project aiming to record, share, and celebrate women’s stories and voices from east London’s history. The project was established in 2015 in response to the 'Jack the Ripper Museum', as a positive, sustainable protest.

Eastside Community Heritage was established in 1993 as part of the Stratford City Challenge community history project and became an independent charity in 1997. Over the years, Eastside have worked with over 900 community groups, produced over 100 exhibitions, and created the East London Peoples Archive which contains over 3500 oral histories.

Thanks to National Lottery players, the Heritage Lottery Fund invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. Follow HLF on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #HLFsupported.

For further information about the project please contact Sarah Jackson at the East End Women’s Museum.

Edith Cavell: Nursing in London and Belgium

“Someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful...something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”1

Edith Cavell is probably best remembered for her death during the First World War, executed by the Germans for suspected espionage activities in Belgium where she helped many Allied soldiers to cross back home.

Celebrated as a martyr, used as an example of patriotism for the War propaganda and, more recently, revalued as an intelligence agent, Cavell had a great impact as a nurse both in London and in Brussels before the War broke out, implementing new practices and working in close contact with local communities. Her work, particularly in the East End, is exemplary of the role women had in reforming nursing in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Early life

Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, near Norwich, in 1865, the first of four children born to the local vicar, Reverend Fredrick Cavell and his wife Louisa Sophia. Life at the vicarage of St Mary the Virgin was frugal and simple, but the family deeply cared for their parishioners, sharing Sunday lunches with the poorest ones. As a young girl, Edith enjoyed ice skating and painting, often choosing nature as her favourite subject and putting her art to good use to raise funds for the Sunday school.2

After completing her education, Edith worked as a governess in various households, both in England and in Brussels, where she worked for the François family between 1890-95, although she had already developed an interest in nursing by visiting a free hospital managed by Dr. Wolfenberg in Bavaria.3

Training in London

“I have no hospital training nor any nursing engagements whatever”4

Her interest in nursing was reawakened in 1895, when she went back home to care for her ailing father. She then decided to train as a nurse. Both her younger sisters, Florence and Lilian, were nurses. The latter had trained at St Thomas's under Florence Nightingale, one of the main innovators during the Victorian period. Before Nightingale, nurses were usually older women who had had smallpox, typhus or other contagious diseases so that they were immune to them.5 This profession was not highly regarded in society and poorly paid.6

Nightingale managed to reform nursing practices through her efforts during the Crimean War and then through the nursing school she founded at St Thomas' in 1860, guaranteeing a better care for patients and stricter hygienic measures on the ward, where trainees followed more experienced colleagues to learn.7

In December 1895, aged 30, Cavell started to work at the Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, South London, which had been built two years prior to deal with a burst of scarlet fever. Edith worked there for 7 months, living in the nurses' quarters and carrying on mostly unskilled tasks on the ward.8 She then applied at the Royal London Hospital to formally train as a nurse.

Opened in 1740 as an infirmary and later converted in a hospital in 1748, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel mainly catered to the population of sailors and factory workers of the East End.9 The institution's nursing school, inspired by Nightingale, opened in 1873, initially offering a 3-years course to probationers (the students), who had a chance to work in many different departments and learn alongside other students.

The training programme was reduced to 2 years under Eva Lückes, who was the matron there between 1880 and 1919. Lückes went on to redesign the syllabus, introduce exams, and reform nursing practices similarly to what her friend Nightingale had done at St Thomas'.10 Probationers had long hours, working from early morning to late at night, caring for patients, praying with them, making sure that the ward was always clean, and attending lessons during breaks.11 Edith made good friends with some of the other trainees like Eveline Dickinson, who later published an article on how to cure lupus based on her experience in Copenhagen.12

When a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone in 1897, Lückes chose Cavell and other 5 nurses to help in an effort to contain the disease that had affected about 1700 people.13 Edith mostly worked with children and frequently during night shifts for 8 weeks. The epidemic was successfully dealt with and Edith was awarded a silver medal for her services. She then returned to the Royal London Hospital to complete her training. In her final report in 1898, Lückes criticised some traits of Edith's personality while recognising her strengths:

"Edith Cavell has plenty of capability when she choose to exert herself, but she is not much in earnest, not at all punctual […] She did good work during the typhoid epidemic in Maidstone, and had sufficient ability to become a fairly good nurse by the end of her training. Her theoretical work was superior to her practical work."14

The matron recommended Edith for work as a private nurse, something that disappointed Cavell, even though she still looked up to Lückes and often confided in her about her career in the following years.

St Pancras and the Shoreditch Infirmaries

In 1901, Cavell started to work at St Pancras Infirmary, an institution that welcomed the poor from the borough, guaranteeing a bed to everyone and cleaner conditions than workhouses, even though still very crowded with more than 1000 paupers to take care of, particularly pregnant women, and those suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory diseases.15 Edith was night superintendent with Emma Berridge there.

She went back to the East End in 1903, when she started as Assistant Matron to Miss Inglis at the Shoreditch Infirmary (St Leonard's Hospital in Hackney now). Cavell began to visit patients at home in follow-up visits after discharge, an innovative practice, and introduced a 4-years course in maternity nursing.16 Miss Inglis, despite a quite cold relationship between the two, praised her qualities as a nurse, writing: “I admired her unswerving sense of duty.”17

Innovating nursing in Belgium

Cavell moved to different institutions in other parts of the country in the following years, until she moved back to Brussels in 1907 upon a request by Dr Antoine Depage. In Belgium, Edith opened a pioneering nursing school, L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, working alongside Marie Depage, Antoine's wife. Up to that moment, nursing in Belgium was mostly done by nuns, while now Edith offered a chance to young women to enter the profession through a curriculum she designed and a diploma, drawing from her previous experiences, especially in Manchester.18

At first, qualified nurses from London taught the trainees, who went on to work in 3 local hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. It was a great improvement, as Cavell noticed:

“The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still think they lose caste by earning their own living.”19

In 1910, Edith founded a nursing journal, L'infiermière, and by 1914 a new building had been built for the school, where she gave lectures to doctors and nurses alike.

Death and commemorations

When the First World War broke out, Cavell was back in Norfolk to visit her mother, but instantly decided to go back to Brussels, remaining even after the Germans occupied the city and caring for soldiers regardless of their nationality.20 She soon began to hide British and allied soldiers and civilians, providing means for a safe return home. Growing suspicions from the Germans led to searches and ultimately her arrest for treason in August 1915. The court martial sentenced her to death. A firing squad executed her on 12th October 1915.

Cavell's death caused an immediate outcry and celebration of her patriotism. A memorial service took place at St Paul on 30th October 1915. As reported by The Guardian, the church was crowded, with nurses from all of London sharing the pews with dignitaries and politicians like the Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Robert Cecil, the Lord Mayor, and foreign representatives:

Often before has the glorious elegiac ritual of St. Paul’s expressed a national emotion, but never has there been a memorial service so touched with strangeness in tragedy as the nation’s tribute of pity and indignation to Miss Cavell’s memory this morning.21

Her body was then transported and buried at Norwich Cathedral. On that same day, an article in the Cologne Gazette reported the German response to her death in the words of the undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Alfred Zimmermann:

“Miss Cavell in her actions displayed a thoroughly masculine force of mind and decision. It was therefore only her just due if she were treated no differently than a man.”22

Her legacy

To this day, Cavell is still remembered through many memorials all over the world. Just in London, among others, her statue in St Martin's Place, the street named after her running along the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, a plaque at St Leonard's Hospital.

Her image was also widely used during the rest of the War for propaganda as in leaflets and postcards.23 Many films and plays immortalised her patriotism. While some silent features are now lost, Dawn, a 1928 film with Lady Sybil Thorndike playing Cavell is still available as well as the later 1939 movie Nurse Edith Cavell with Anna Neagle.

Perhaps more significantly, it is her work as a nurse before the War that is still highly valued both at home and abroad with associations like the Edith Cavell Trust, founded in 1917 to help nurses in their financial struggles, that carry on her legacy.

Thank you Eleonora Sammartino for contributing this article!

Sources

  • Butcher, Catherine. Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad. Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015.
  • “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”. The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528
  • “Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”. The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service 
  • “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”. https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/
  • London Royal Hospital Museum
  • Heggie, Vanessa. “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”. The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy
  • Pickles, Katie. Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  • Souhami, Diana. Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine. London: Hachette, 2011.
  • “World War I Postcards”. https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/edith-cavell.php

Media

Footnotes

1 As quoted in “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”, in The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528

2 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/

3 Ibid.

4 As quoted in Catherine Butcher, Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 72.

5 London Royal Hospital Museum

6 Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine (London: Hachette, 2011). GoogleBooks. https://books.google.it/books?id=_qphBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=it#v=onepage&q&f=false

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 London Royal Hospital Museum

10 Ibid.

11 Butcher, 79.

12 Souhami.

13 Butcher, 80.

14 Ibid., 81.

15 Souhami.

16 Katie Pickles, Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 96.

17 As quoted in Butcher, 86.

18 Vanessa Heggie, “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”, in The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy

19 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/

20 Ibid.

21“Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”, in The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service

22 Ibid.

23 https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/edith-cavell.php

Help us put women’s history on the map

Have you seen our women's history map of east London? We've been adding women's histories from the Middle Ages to the modern day.

We know women make history, and yet just 2.7% of UK public statues feature historical women who weren't royalty. In fact there's just one statue of a named black woman in the entire country. And only 13% of English Heritage blue plaques in London honour women.

We want to balance the history books, starting with east London. By marking women's stories on a map we can show in a simple, visual way the rich history which is yet to be discovered. It also gives us lots of leads for our own research!

Send us your suggestions for stars on the map

Our map is a work in progress. We want to add even more East End women's stories and we need your help. Please send us your suggestions using the form below.

We just need a name, rough birth and death dates, a street or building they are associated with, and a link to a webpage for more information if there is one.

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Help us tell a woman's story

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Just write 300 - 800 words in an email or a Word doc and send it to us at eastendwomensmuseum@gmail.com. You don't need to be a historian, everyone can join in!

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Mary East (aka James How) and Mrs How of the White Horse, Poplar

 Pub Interior by Léonard Defrance (1735–1805) Wikimedia Commons.

Pub Interior by Léonard Defrance (1735–1805) Wikimedia Commons.

One of the challenges of uncovering LGBTQ+ histories is that we can’t go back and ask the individuals in question how they would define or describe their identities. Concepts of gender and sexuality have changed throughout history, and the labels we use today would probably make little sense to someone from the past.

However, what is clear from the glimpses that have reached us - from Princess Seraphina, who was assigned male at birth but lived as a woman, to Mary Frith, who dressed in men's clothing but retained her female identity - is that then as now, gender was not a simple binary.

Dressing in men's clothing

Many, many stories of crossdressing women were reported in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There was even a craze for ballads, chapbooks, and plays about 'warrior women'.

Phoebe Hessel and Hannah Snell apparently disguised themselves as men to follow their lovers into the army, several 'female husbands' were reported to have married women for either money or love, and many people who lived and worked as men were only discovered after death to have been assigned female at birth.

Whether they lived as men purely to access opportunities for work, travel, pleasure, love, civic participation, or personal safety which were denied to women, or as a form of gender expression, or a mixture of both, in most cases we'll never truly know.

Mary East to James How

The story of 'Mary East, the Female Husband' was reported in the London Chronicle in August 1766 and retold by Bram Stoker in 1910.

 The White Horse, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street

The White Horse, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street

The Chronicle begins by explaining that in the early 1730s Mary East (aged 16) and her sadly unnamed female friend (aged 17) decided to throw their lot in together after unhappy love affairs with men. They devised a plan:

being intimate, they communicated their minds to each other, and determined to live together ever after; after consulting on the best method of proceeding, they agreed that one should put on man’s apparel, and that they would live as man and wife in some part where they were not known; the difficulty now was who was to be the man, which was soon decided by the toss up of a halfpenny, and the lot fell on Mary East... Mary, after purchasing a man’s habit, assumed the name of James How...

Who knows how much of this is true. The love affairs with men, the coin toss... It may be completely accurate, but it also conveniently frames the following story in a non-threatening heteronormative and cisnormative way, in line with the dominant ideas of the time. It is perfectly possible that the two women were lovers, and that Mary took on a male identity because she wanted to.

The White Horse pub on Poplar High Street

However they got started, Mr and Mrs How lived together for over three decades, and ran a succession of taverns at Epping, then Limehouse, and finally the White Horse on Poplar High Street, where "James Howes" is recorded as the landlord in 1745.

An archaeological dig in 2004 revealed that a tavern existed on the site in Poplar from at least 1690. It was rebuilt in 1870 and 1928 (here is a photograph from the 1930s) before finally closing for good in 2003 when it was demolished.

On the site of the pub, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street, there is a block of flats and a post with the white horse from the pub sign which you can see in the picture above gazing towards Canary Wharf.

Mr and Mrs How

Apart from a quarrel with a young gentleman at Epping which left James with an injured hand and £500 in damages, Mr and Mrs How's lives were largely peaceful and prosperous. As Bram Stoker puts it they "throve exceedingly", managing to save money and buy more properties, and winning the respect of their community:

James lived with his supposed wife in good credit, and had served all the parish offices in Poplar, excepting constable and churchwarden, from the former of which she was excused by a lameness in her hand, occasioned by the quarrel I have mentioned; the other she was to have been next year, if this discovery had not happened; she had been several times foreman of juries; though her effeminacy indeed was remarked by most.

(Although women did hold parish offices in the 18th century, they were not permitted to sit on juries in England until 1919.)

Despite their good standing and friendly relations with their neighbours, for many years Mr and Mrs How lived a quiet, private life:

It is remarkable that it has never been observed that they ever drest a joint of meat in their whole lives, nor ever had any meetings or the like at their house. They never kept either maid or boy, but Mary East, the late James How, always used to draw beer, serve, fetch in and carry out pots always herself, so peculiar were they in each particular.

Extortion and exposure

In addition to the mysterious quarrel in Epping, there were other troubling incidents which disturbed their peace, as the couple were blackmailed by confidantes and old acquaintances.

According to the Chronicle, in 1766 Mrs How became gravely ill while staying in the country, and on her deathbed confided in her friend the truth about her relationship with James. The friend promptly visited the (presumably grieving) James How, and "insisted not only on their share of the whole effects, but more."

Shortly after his wife's death, James How was targeted by a Mrs B. who had been blackmailing the couple on and off over the years for sums like £10 and £5. This time Mrs B. hired two male accomplices who pretended to be heavies working for Justice John Fielding.

The pair accosted James at the pub and pretended to take him into custody for a (fictional) robbery committed decades before, making it clear that they knew James was really a woman, and demanding £100 or else he would be hanged.

Terrified, James turned to one of his neighbours for help:

an intimate acquaintance, one Mr. Williams, a Pawnbroker, happened to be passing by, she called to him, and told him the business those two men came about, and withal added this declaration to Mr. Williams, 'I am really a woman, but innocent of their charge': on this sincere confession he told her she should not be carried to Fielding, but go before her own bench of Justices, that he would just step home, put on a clean shirt, and be back in five minutes

While Mr Williams was gone the heavies dragged James back to Mrs B., who forced him to write out a bank draft for £100, to be collected from Mr Williams. However, when Mrs B. and one of her accomplices went to Mr Williams to collect the money shortly afterwards, they found that they had walked into a trap and were taken into custody themselves by a real constable.

James How to Mary East

The extortionists appeared before Justices of the Peace in Whitechapel and after "the strongest proof of their extortion and assault" were denied bail and detained in Clerkenwell Bridewell prison to await trial. Bram Stoker records that the male accomplice at least was imprisoned for four years.

James How attended the hearing (with Mr Williams) as Mary East, dressed in women's clothing, which apparently caused a stir among the crowd:

the alteration of her dress from that of a man to that of a woman appeared so great, that together with her awkward behaviour in her new assumed habit, caused great diversion to all...

After the hearing Mary East apparently lived the rest of her life as a woman. She died on 8 June 1780,  leaving money to relatives, friends, and the poor of Poplar, and was buried in the churchyard of St Matthias'.

Although all that survives of the White Horse is the sign, and there are no remnants of the pub as Mr and Mrs How knew it, their bittersweet story still fascinates and inspires.

Songs From The Howling Sea, a musical project by R.M. Anderson drawing on east London's history, includes a song about the couple. An imagined portrait of the couple  also appears in Ria Brodell's fantastic Butch Heroes series of paintings. They look peaceful, fat, and contented, which is how I like to think of them too.

Sources

Annie Brewster, the London Hospital's 'Nurse Ophthalmic'

Annie-Brewster-photo.jpg

I recently visited the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel for the first time. It's small but well worth a visit, and it's free.

The museum contains a lot of interesting artefacts relating to the hospital and the wider story of public health in the East End.

As any fan of Call the Midwife will know, this is a story in which women have played a critical role - from the more well-known London Hospital alumnae Edith Cavell and Eva Luckes to the countless unknown nurses, midwives, and doctors who treated and cared for local patients.

The museum contains displays about Cavell and Luckes among others. One story which particularly intrigued me was that of Annie Brewster, one of the earliest identified nurses of African descent working in London. Here's what the exhibition panel says about her:

Annie Brewster, known as 'Nurse Ophthalmic', worked at the London Hospital from 1881 to 1902. She entered The London Hospital as a probationer nurse in 1881 and was appointed to the nursing staff in 1884. She worked on female medical wards before being promoted to nurse in charge of the Ophthalmic ward in 1888.

Matron Eva Luckes remarked that Annie became very skilled in treating patients with eye conditions. According to the Matron's report in the register of sisters and nurses she was known for her 'quick intelligence and kindness to old people' whom she treated.

She was one of the first Afro-Caribbean nurses to have been identified as working in Britain during this period. Her father, Phardour Chaderon Brewster, was born in Barbados in c.1836 and is listed in various Censuses as a 'merchant'. Her mother and sister were born on the island of St Vincent in the West Indies.

Annie died due to poor health in 1902, aged 43, in Mayer Ward at the London Hospital and was buried in Ilford cemetery.

If anyone has any further information about Annie we would love to know more about her! Hopefully we'll have a chance to explore the hospital's archives ourselves at some point.

I was also impressed that although the Royal London Hospital Museum has a few objects relating to the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, it seems to have resisted ghoulish Ripper tourism.

Jane Savoy, "the best woman in Old Ford"

Suffragette Deputation to 10 Downing St
Suffragette Deputation to 10 Downing St

As a young girl, I grew up hearing stories about my maternal grandmother’s great aunt, Mrs. Jane Savoy (known in the family as Aunt Jinny). A suffragette, she chained herself to the railings, but managed to avoid prison.

With an interest in family history, my curiosity has deepened concerning this lady, and it is only in recent years that I have become aware of the important part Jane played in turning around the Government’s attitude towards women and their suffrage.

Born within the sound of Bow bells

Hannah Wakefield smiling at the camera
Hannah Wakefield smiling at the camera

The East End was the birthplace of my grandmother, Connie Hargrave (née Wakefield), great grandmother, Hannah Wakefield (née Major), and Hannah’s sister, Jane Savoy (née Major).

They lived in the Old Ford Road, Roman Road, Sutherland Road and St. Stephen’s Road, Bow – Connie was always proud to say that she was a true cockney what with being born within the sound of Bow Bells.

As a child and on a Sunday afternoon, Connie (born in 1911) often used to accompany her Aunt ‘Jinny’ to have tea with Sylvia Pankhurst, who was a close family friend and neighbour.

Another close family friend and neighbour was the local MP, George Lansbury, who supported women’s suffrage, and it was his granddaughter, actress Angela Lansbury, whom Jane and her nieces often used to wheel out in her pram around the streets of the East End.

Jane Major, Jane Savoy, Jane 'Hughes'

Jane Major was born on 14 January, 1861 at 14 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, Whitechapel. She was the eldest of six children born to shoemakers, Jane Hughes and John Major. Her father later had a shop towards the top end of Romford market where he made surgical boots for Old Church Hospital. She also had a half-brother, Benjamin, who lived with his mother, Charlotte.

In 1871, Jane was still living with her parents and younger brother, John, at 7e Virginia Row, Bethnal Green. She appears to be missing from the 1881 Census, which may be the period when her interest with the suffragettes was ignited. (Many suffragettes walked the streets on census night, or later defaced 1911 census returns, in support of the fight for votes for women).

On the 1911 Census, which has only just been released regarding members of the suffragettes, it states that Jane and Alfred Savoy (a brush finisher) had been married for 30 years, although a marriage doesn’t appear to have been registered until 25 February, 1924 at Poplar Register Office.

Living in four rooms, they were recorded as having two children, one of which died. The surviving child, Thomas (born 17 August, 1885), was recorded on the 1901 Census aged 15 as a stonemason’s apprentice. He later moved to Wales, living in Cross Keys, Rhondda Valley, Mid Glamorgan. He married, but it is believed there were no children. Thomas was baptised in 1885 with Jane and Alfred as parents, though the family always thought him to have been adopted by Jane.

It was when Jane became an active member of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS) that she went under the pseudonym of ‘Mrs. Hughes’, being her mother’s maiden name, as Alfred wasn’t keen on Jane’s suffragette involvement and did not take kindly to his name appearing in the papers.

Jane lobbies the Prime Minister

As a young lady, I remember a television programme being aired about the suffragettes in the early 1970s and my family saying that Jane was depicted in this (‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ episode six, actress Maggie Flint). This historical moment evolved from Jane being elected as one of the six women who formed a deputation to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in June 1914.

She was a short and stout woman with a very good heart, but as she reached into a bag to take out a specimen brush she had worked on so as to explain to Prime Minister Asquith the process of what her work involved, it sent him and others running for the door, as they apparently believed Jane was reaching for a bomb!

Coming across Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor’s book Voices from History: East London Suffragettes in 2015 allowed me, for the first time, to see a picture of Jane, as my family do not have one. [Sarah: and we learnt for the first time that Mrs Savoy's first name was Jane!]

The ELFS newspaper The Woman's Dreadnought records Jane's speech to Asquith:

“I am a brush maker, and I work from eight in the morning till six at night making brushes ten hours a day, and while I work I have to cut my hands with wire, as the bristles are very soft to get in. I have brought brushes to show to you. This is a brush I have to make for 2d, and it is worth 10s 6d.

As I have to work so hard to support myself I think it is very wrong that I cannot have a voice in the making of the laws that I have to uphold. I do not like having to work 14 hours a day without having a voice on it, and I think when a woman works 14 hours a day she has a right to a vote, as her husband has. We want votes for women.”

Asquith was apparently moved by the stories of the deputation, and indicated that he would consider their demands.

Suffragette neighbourhood

I am told by my first cousins once removed that the whole of our East End family were involved in the suffragette movement and attended many rallies.

Arthur Wakefield, holding a baby.
Arthur Wakefield, holding a baby.

Hannah and Connie lived above their shop - on the corner of Ranwell Close and Old Ford Road - with the rest of their family.

A short distance away from Hannah’s shop at was the Women's Hall at 400 Old Ford Road which acted as ELFS headquarters from 1914 to 1924. It was known as Elizabeth’s House.

At the time there was a pub called the Eleanor Arms located opposite to Hannah’s shop at 460 Old Ford Road which she apparently swapped positions with, and one building away was where Sylvia Pankhurst opened a mother and baby clinic in an old pub called the Gunmaker’s Arms, which ELFS renamed the Mother’s Arms located on the corner of Old Ford Road and St. Stephen’s Road.

At the junction of Alice Lane and St Stephen’s Road was where Jane Savoy lived at both 141 and 143, her neighbour was George Lansbury and his family at 101-3, being his home and timber business. The Lansburys were good friends with Hannah and Jane, George Lansbury even said that Jane was:

“the best woman in Old Ford... ever ready to share her last crust, or perform any service for a neighbour, from bringing her baby into the world to scrubbing out her room, or minding her children at need.”

Among other things, Jane organised a Peace Party in Norman Road in 1919 to celebrate the end of the First World War.

Jane and Hannah both took in children left both on the doorsteps of the Women's Hall and Hannah’s shop by unmarried mothers. They were also both the local midwives and helped many people in need. Hannah allowed quite a number of customer tabs at her delicatessen/sweet/general store shop in an effort to assist the poor community.

It can and will be done

Unfortunately, Jane did not enjoy good health as she suffered from dropsy and palpitations and died on Friday 13 January 1928 aged 67 (a day before her 68th birthday) from acute kidney disease. My only sorrow is that she never got to see the passing of the Government’s bill in June 1928 allowing all women over 21 to vote.

Jane’s funeral procession passed through the streets of the East End with many an onlooker (her carriage was taken all round the roads of the East End) and George Lansbury led the way. In his 1935 book Looking Backwards and Forwards he paid tribute to Jane as "a woman of the people", and wrote that:

“One day the women of England will lead us out of the misery and degradation of slumdom and poverty, and will do so because millions of Mrs Savoys have shown by their lives that it can and will be done.”

Jane was buried in Woodgrange Park Cemetery. My daughter and I have never been so proud to learn that we are related to such a kind, strong willed and determined woman as Jane Savoy, who has become such a prominent part in changing English history.

Jane's funeral carriage, 1928
Jane's funeral carriage, 1928

By Michelle Ballard (neé Girling), mother Jean Hargrave, grandmother Constance Wakefield, great grandmother Hannah Major, sister to Jane Savoy.

Thank you Michelle!

Phillis Wheatley: the first published black woman poet

Etching of Phillis Wheatley posed with pen and paper book frontispiece
Etching of Phillis Wheatley posed with pen and paper book frontispiece

Although Phillis Wheatley never lived in east London, and may only have visited it once, the area is associated with her groundbreaking literary achievement.

When her book of poems was published in Aldgate in 1773, Phillis became the first known African American woman to see her book in print. (The earliest known African American woman poet is Lucy Terry, but her work was published later.)

The girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, most likely in modern day Gambia or Ghana. She was enslaved, and when she was seven or eight transported from Africa to America on the torturous journey known as the 'Middle Passage'. She arrived in Boston in 1761 and was bought by merchants John and Susanna Wheatley. She was given their surname, and for her first name they chose the name of the ship she was brought on: the Phillis.

Phillis was taught by the Wheatley's children, Mary and Nathaniel, and by the age of 12 she was reading Latin as well as English. She wrote her first poem aged 14. The family recognised her talent and encouraged her to write. Her first published poem 'On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin' appeared in the Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767.

Most of Phillis' poetry is concerned with Christian themes, but she makes repeated references to her African identity, and subtly reminds readers about what she had endured. For example in 'To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.' she refers to her story to explain why she strives for the "common good":

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song, Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung, Whence flow these wishes for the common good, By feeling hearts alone best understood, I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat... Such, such my case. And can I then but pray Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

After the Wheatleys failed to find a publisher for Phillis' work in Boston they looked across the Atlantic to London, and approached Archibald Bell, a bookseller based at "No. 8 Aldgate-Street". Bell agreed to publish her book, with Phillis receiving half of the sales. He also helped her gain the patronage of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, who had supported other black writers to publish their work, including Olaudah Equiano.

Phillis (now 20) and Nathaniel Wheatley travelled to London, arriving on 17 June 1773, just as the publicity campaign for Poems on various subjects, religious and moral was getting underway in the London press. During her six week stay Phillis met many individuals from high society, including Benjamin Franklin and the Lord Mayor of London. In a letter to David Wooster sent in October when she had returned to America she listed some of the sights she had seen:

Westminster Abbey, British Museum, Coxe's Museum, Saddler's wells, Greenwich Hospital, Park and Chapel, The royal Observatory at Greenwich, &c. &c. too many things & Places to trouble you with in a Letter.

She also wrote that:

Grenville Sharp Esqr... attended me to the Tower & Show'd the Lions, Panthers, Tigers, &c. the Horse Armoury, small Armoury, the Crowns, Sceptres, Diadems, the Font for christening the Royal Family.

This was a significant meeting, as Granville Sharp was an abolitionist campaigner who had been instrumental in the success of the Somersett case just the previous year. The Lord Chief Justice ruled in June 1772 that James Somersett, an enslaved African man brought to England from Boston by his master, could not legally be forced to return to the colonies.

It's likely that Phillis knew about this ruling, and was aware of the opportunity she had in England to secure her freedom. We have no record of their conversation at the Tower, but in his introduction to her Complete Works Vincent Carretta argues that Sharp would almost certainly have advised her:

It is very difficult to imagine Wheatley and Sharp looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, without the subject coming up of Sharp's recent judicial triumph in extending British liberty to American slaves. Not to have encouraged Wheatley to seek her freedom would have been completely out of character for Sharp... A slave owner could not have thought of a more dangerous tour guide than Granville Sharp for a slave newly arrived from the colonies.

Certainly, Phillis did seek and secure her freedom. In the letter to Wooster she writes:

...Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom. The Instrument is drawn, so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the Executrs. adminstrators, &c. of my master, & secure whatsoever should be given me as my Own...

She urges him to promote her book to his circle, "as I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine, & it is the Chief I have to depend upon."  However it wasn't until 1778 that Phillis was legally freed from slavery following her master's death.

In the intervening years she stayed with the Wheatleys and continued to write and publish her poetry in various newspapers, becoming more outspoken about her opposition to slavery. In 1775 she sent a copy of a poem entitled, 'To His Excellency, George Washington' to George Washington, who invited her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she did in March 1776.

Shortly after she was freed Phillis married John Peters, a free African American man. Her last years were characterised by struggle and loss as the couple fell into poverty and endured the loss of two infants. Phillis wrote another book of poetry but couldn't afford to publish it and was unable to find patrons to support her.

When her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784 Phillis was left without resources, caring for their new baby alone. She found work as a scullery maid, but died in December that year, followed by her son just a few hours later.

It's impossible not to wonder what works Phillis would have created if her life hadn't been cut short so tragically, and whether as a free woman she would have been able to speak more about and more openly against the "tyrannic sway" of slavery.

Sources

Review: Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum

"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791
"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791

At the moment I spend a lot more time sending emails about museums than I do getting out to visit them. But I was determined to get to the Emma Hamilton exhibition at the National Maritime Museum.

It sounded so promising: a major exhibition about an individual woman! At a prestigious institution! And, as a bonus, in a field in which women generally appear bare-breasted on the prow of a ship.

I braced myself for disappointment, but this time it never came. In fact I'd like to applaud the team behind the exhibition - especially curators Quintin Colville and Sarah Wood - for delivering a sumptuous, sensitive, intelligent exhibition which aims itself squarely at balancing the history books while still telling an enthralling story.

Emma Hamilton as survivor

It's an enthralling but painful story. Emma's early treatment at the hands of Harry Fetherstonhaugh and Charles Frances Greville is particularly unpleasant. The former took her as a mistress aged just 15 and abandoned her within a year when she fell pregnant.

Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney
Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney

The latter agreed to take her under his protection as his mistress but only if she agreed to give up the baby, change her name, cut ties with all her former friends, and live according to rules which he issued to her.

After a couple of years Greville also abandoned her, sending her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton in Naples to be his mistress, although she was half his age.

However he didn't let Emma in on the plan, and instead pretended he would soon be joining her. When Emma discovered the truth she was heartbroken and furious at the idea she should simply transfer her affections from nephew to uncle.

Often cast as a gentle rescuer who generously 'educated' Emma, in this exhibition we see another side of Greville: a cowardly, controlling hypocrite. And although her relationship with Hamilton - a famed connoisseur of art and antiquities - eventually developed into a genuine affection, it's clear he initially viewed her as another object in his collection.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition is that it even-handedly shows both Emma's vulnerability and her agency. She is passed from man to man, and each seems to have a different idea of what kind of woman he wants her to be. But rather than presenting her simply as a victim of sexual exploitation locked in a ruthless double standard, the exhibition shows Emma as a survivor.

Emma Hamilton as artist

Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop
Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop

She seized every opportunity to educate and express herself.  We see how she used her intelligence, experience, and talent as well as her beauty to live her life as fully as possible, and to expand the edges of her freedom.

For example the exhibition talks about her early experience working behind the scenes in the theatre, and connects it to her remarkable ability to adapt to and embody different roles.

This is apparent in her work with George Romney - more than a model, she was a collaborator in the creative process which resulted in the extraordinary portraits at the heart of the exhibition* - but also in her famous Attitudes.

In her Attitudes Emma Hamilton effectively invented a new form of performance art combining theatre, dance, and tableaux which is brought to life in the exhibition through video. She sparked a new craze, and her performance became a key ingredient of the Grand Tour (a kind of aristocratic gap year). On display is a tea set decorated with Emma in her Attitudes: a sure sign that you've made it.

Emma Hamilton as political agent

A section of the exhibition is devoted to the critical diplomatic role she played in the wake of the French Revolution. After developing a close friendship with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (the sister of Marie Antoinette) Emma effectively became the chief liaison between the Neapolitan royal family and the British government.

As well as securing vital assistance for the British navy in the region, Emma personally managed the evacuation of Queen Maria and her family, and arranged for food to be delivered to Malta when its people were being starved by French blockades. For this she became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross.

But sure, let's keep describing her as Nelson's mistress.

Out of the shadows

The exhibition has some flaws, of course. For instance 'Seductress' is an awkward choice of title for the section about the time a 14 year old Emma probably spent working in a Covent Garden brothel.

And the last object in the exhibition is Nelson's famous bullet-torn jacket, which is so detached from the narrative it seems to have been included just to keep the naval history fans happy.

But overall I found it a fascinating, moving, feminist representation of Emma Hamilton's incredible story, a story which has been overshadowed for so long by the men in her life. This is the big, rich, beautiful exhibition that she deserves, and I hope it places her firmly back in the spotlight.

* The exhibition also includes a striking portrait of Emma by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun among many other representations.