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

If there isn't a page about this person on the web, why not write one? We would LOVE to have a profile on our blog for each star on the map.

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!

And/or you can add an entry for that person on Wikipedia. It's free and easy to create an account and then add a new page.

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.

Telling the stories of four amazing East End girls with a Hackney school

Telling the stories of four amazing East End girls with a Hackney school

Recently we were lucky enough to meet a group of fantastic year seven students at Petchey Academy in Hackney when the history department invited us in to talk about some inspiring women from the East End.

Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl

Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword
Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword

Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age, immortalised in not one but two plays: The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611.

A "boisterous and masculine spirit"

Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, and in The Newgate Calendar, which describes the "boisterous and masculine spirit" which appeared in her childhood:

She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.

Crime and punishment

As she grew up, Mary got into more and more trouble. At 16 she was charged with stealing two shillings. Her uncle tried to send her to America for a fresh start but she jumped overboard and swam ashore before the ship sailed.

Mary got her name, Moll Cutpurse, by stealing purses in the area around St Paul's cathedral. An accomplice would distract the target while Mary cut the strings of their purse, detaching it from their belt.

She was in and out of prison and was burnt on the hand four times, a common punishment for thieves. She also acted as a fence for stolen goods. One of her other roles was as a pimp and go-between, finding young women to be mistresses for men and men to be lovers for married women.

"Indecent and manly apparel"

Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey
Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey

She became a recognisable figure around town, drinking in taverns with men, smoking a long clay pipe, and wearing men's clothing: breeches and a doublet.

According to The Newgate Calendar: "This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off... She was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life."

She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, singing songs and playing the lute.

In her autobiography she records a court case in which:

some promoting operator set on by an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel

As punishment she was sentenced to stand at St Paul's Cross wearing a white sheet during the Sunday morning sermon. However Mary gleefully points out that as she was not ashamed or repentant the punishment was pointless:

They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood.

"Thou shame of women"

Mary's friend the showman William Banks once bet her £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. She accepted the bet, and even bought a trumpet and a banner to go along with.

Riding on Banks' famous horse Marocco, Mary proceeded "undiscovered", and amused herself in imagining she was "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso", until she reached Bishopsgate and faced an unpleasant reminder of the danger she faced:

where passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down'.

I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure...

So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.

"She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her"

At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:

Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet.

She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:

For no communion she had, Nor sorted with the good or bad; That when the world shall be calcin'd, And the mixd' mass of human kind Shall sep'rate by that melting fire, She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.

Sources

Miss Muff's molly house in Whitechapel

A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.
A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.

One of the challenges of uncovering transgender histories is that even where we find stories which hint at trans identities, we can't go back and ask the individuals in question how they would describe themselves.

Even if we could, concepts of gender identity constantly shift and change throughout history, and the question would probably make very little sense to someone who lived centuries before us.

However, the hints we find show us that in the past, just like today, gender was not a simple binary.

Molly houses

In 18th century London a 'molly house' was a coffeehouse, inn, or tavern at which men could meet in secret to socialise and have sex. 'Molly' or 'moll' was a slang term for a gay man, and for a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

Although at this time in England sex between men was punishable by death, molly houses were part of a thriving gay subculture:

The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

One of the main molly districts was on the east of the City, around Moorfields in Shoreditch. What is now the south side of Finsbury Square was a cruising area known as 'Sodomites' Walk'.

Cross dressing

Molly houses are a site where gay histories and trans histories intermingle. It was common for men at the molly house to wear women's clothes and to speak and act in typically 'feminine' ways. Most had alternative names such as Plump Nelly, Primrose Mary, Aunt May, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England, and the Duchess of Camomile.

One very famous molly called Princess Seraphina wore her feminine identity beyond these secret meeting places and into her public life. In 1732 she brought a case against a man for stealing her clothes. Her neighbour Mary Poplet described her in her testimony:

I have known her Highness a pretty while... I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation (salivation was a mercurial cure for syphilis); but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull's Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Raids on molly houses

Much of what we know about mollies comes from court proceedings following raids on molly houses, the most well known of which was the raid on Mother Clap's molly house in 1726, in Holborn. (Incidentally, Mother Clap was a real woman called Margaret Clap.) After the raid several people were tried and three men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of 'sodomy'.

One of the best documented examples from east London is a raid on a molly house in Whitechapel.

"Nine male ladies" arrested

The molly house was owned by Miss Muff - also known as Jonathan Muff - and it stood in Black Lion Yard. The yard no longer exists, but Black Lion House now stands on the site at 45 Whitechapel Road.

On 5 October 1728 The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer includes a news item about the raid:

On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy.

Of the nine arrested we know that two were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one - whose name was given as Thomas Mitchell - attempted to end his life in prison:

he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder; but by the immediate Help of some eminent Surgeons he was preserv’d, tho’ at the Point of Death thro’ the great Effusion of Blood.

Glimpsed histories

We can never know at this distance how individuals would define or describe their identities, especially when so much LGBTQ+ history is uncovered through documents produced by a hostile state and media: court records, medical diagnoses, and newspaper reports. What is clear is that both homophobia and transmisogyny have long roots.

It's also clear that throughout history many, many individuals have resisted those forces, sometimes risking everything to be true to themselves. It's up to us to try and tell their story when we find it, even if all we have are hints and glimpses.

Sources

Setting out their Stall: researching women’s work at London’s markets

roman-road-market-western-entrance A new project from University College London and King's College London, funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, seeks to introduce doctoral students to the creative opportunities and challenges of public history and community heritage and contribute to the East End Women's Museum.

Who should apply

Students in the first or second years of their doctoral programmes are eligible to participate. Sessions will be held fortnightly on Monday evenings during semesters two and three and fieldwork will also be required on two Saturdays in May/June 2017.

Targeted at historians of gender and modern London, as well as those wishing to work with oral history or in archival and heritage management as well as cultural institutions, this intensely practical and outcome driven initiative will provide demonstrable methodological and employability skills as well as the opportunity to work with local volunteers and feminists activists.

What's involved

Following an introduction to academic literatures and methodologies surrounding community-based archives, heritage and the practice of oral history, students will participate in a ‘pop up reminiscence project’ examining the history of market stalls in East London.

They will undertake archival research on the economic, social and political dimensions of women’s work at East London markets - such as Chrisp Street, Roman Road or Rathbone Market - then conduct oral history interviews with East End residents who operated or shopped at these markets.

The group will then produce a series of outputs (encompassing blogs/microsites, poster displays and potential exhibitions) to feed these findings back to participants and residents as well as producing a lasting legacy for the intended museum.

How to apply

Please see this document for more information. Applicants for one of the 15 available places should forward their CV and a one page covering letter outlining their interest in the project and its contribution to their career development to alana.harris@kcl.ac.uk by Friday 25 November 2016.

Josie Woods, dancer and strike leader

Josie Woods, dancing in later years
Josie Woods, dancing in later years

Josephine Lucy Wood was born in Canning Town in 1912 to Charles, a Dominican merchant navy quartermaster on the local docks, and Emily, who described herself as a "gypsy girl".

Sailortown and Draughtboard Alley

In the early 20th century Canning Town - known as 'Sailortown' - had the largest black population in London. Crown Street became known locally as 'Draughtboard Alley' because both black and white people lived there.

Although on the whole there were good relations between different ethnic groups, during and after the First World War tensions erupted into violence, and Josie recalled race riots during her childhood.

Sewing in Aldgate to dancing in Paris

At 14 Josie was working for a Jewish tailor in Aldgate. She got her break into show business when music hall star Belle Davis chose Josie and her brother Charlie to train with the Eight Lancashire Lads, a popular clog and tap dancing group with which Charlie Chaplin also started his career.

Later Charlie, Josie, and three other girls went with Davis to Paris as a tap dancing group called the Magnolia Blossoms. They joined La Revue Negre, the show which had made Josephine Baker a star a few years earlier.

In 1932 Josie and her brother joined a group called the Eight Black Streaks and came back to London. The Streaks were the first established black British dance troupe, described as "the world's fastest dancers". Josie toured with them for eight years, appearing at the London Palladium and in two films: Night Club Queen and Kentucky Minstrels, both 1934.

In 1933 Josie escaped an abusive marriage and made a vow never to allow a man to control her again. She formed several successful personal and professional partnerships with male performers, including singer Eddie Williams and Nigerian actor Willie Payne.

Jitterbug jamboree

She also performed several times with comedian and musician Cyril Lagey demonstrating the latest dance crazes from Harlem to British audiences. In 1940 they launched a new dance called the 'jitterbug' in London, in a show called Jitterbug Jamboree at the Astoria Old Kent Road.

Josie told dance historian Terry Monaghan that she was so captivated by the jitterbug sequence in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races that she stayed in the cinema and watched the film several times in a row.

"She learnt it from the screen," Monaghan said. "She featured it in her act, entered jitterbug competitions, and in dance halls she would teach it to anyone who was interested."

Film extra and strike leader

As the popularity of music halls waned in the 1940s and 50s Josie found work in television variety shows and in films. She guest starred in Nitwits on Parade (1949) and appeared as an extra in Old Mother Riley's Jungle Treasure (1951).

When the latter was being filmed she organised a strike for the black extras over late payment, and confronted the film's producer, saying: "Either you pay us what we are owed, or you can kiss my black ass!"

Later years

Josie continued working into the mid 1960s as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In 1956 she had a son, Ralph, who went on to become a successful saxophonist.

In 1997, at 85 years old, her story was covered by the BBC documentary Black Britain.  Josie moved to the USA in 2001 to be near her son, where she died in 2008.

Sources

Adelaide Knight, leader of the first east London suffragettes

Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown
Photograph of Eliza Adelaide Knight and Donald Adolphus Brown

One of the most important figures in the east London women's suffrage movement at the turn of the century was Adelaide Knight. Eliza Adelaide Knight was born in 1871 and lived with her family on Kenilworth Road in Bethnal Green.

After a childhood injury she used crutches or a stick for the rest of her life, and endured repeated poor health.

She was described as highly intelligent, with a love of poetry, music and history.

Adelaide and Donald

In 1894 Adelaide married a sailor, Donald Adolphus Brown, the son of a Jamaican Royal Navy officer.

He shared Adelaide's political beliefs and supported her activism. They both joined the Independent Labour Party and he took Adelaide's surname and was widely known as Donald Knight.

As Adelaide found some tasks difficult and painful because of her injured hip, the couple shared domestic chores, including the weekly laundry.

Donald became well known in his own right in 1921 when he was awarded a medal after his quick thinking and bravery prevented an explosion at Woolwich Arsenal where he worked.

An early London suffragette

The first London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was opened in Canning Town in 1906, and swiftly followed by branches in Poplar, Bow, Stepney and Limehouse.

Adelaide was secretary of the new WSPU branch in Canning Town in 1906. In a letter from the same year her friend Dora Montefiore refers to her as the “leader” of the working women in the WSPU.

In June 1906 she was arrested alongside Annie Kenney and another woman, Mrs Sparborough, when they tried to gain an audience with Herbert Asquith.

The women were sentenced to prison for six weeks unless they agreed to be 'bound over' for one year, that is, to behave themselves and give up their campaigning.

It was a difficult decision for Adelaide as she was in poor health, and the couple had two small children to care for, the youngest just 18 months old. In her biography their daughter Winifred Langton records an exchange between Adelaide and Donald:

"'What can I do Daddy? To draw back will encourage this intimidation. Can I count on your full support? It will be agonising to be away from you and our children, but with your help I can face this.' 'My dear Mama we have supported each other for many years we must not fail now that we are to be put to the test.'"

In the end all three women chose prison. Adelaide said: "I refuse to barter my freedom to act according to my conscience, while my health permits me to fight on."

Although the prison conditions were terrible and her health suffered Adelaide maintained her resolve. She sang The Red Flag every morning and evening, and used her hair pins to scratch the lyrics on to the window sill.

After the WSPU

Despite her commitment to the cause, Adelaide resigned as branch secretary in March 1907 after becoming increasingly dismayed with the lack of democracy in the WSPU.

The following year she was elected to the West Ham Board of Guardians where she served until 1910. The family later moved to Greenwich.

Adelaide retained her socialist ideals and her friendship with Dora, in 1920 they both became founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Sources

East End women take action: 1888 to 2016

EEWact-activism-objects.jpg

In September we held an event with East End Sisters Uncut at St Hilda's East community centre, bringing together some fantastic speakers to talk about about the different ways east London women have challenged sexism, racism, exploitation, and injustice then and now.

Watch talks from the day online

Thanks to filmmaker Bea Moyes we have videos of all the talks on the day, take a look:

Around 70 people attended on the day. We've made a Storify collecting some of the tweets from the event which you can see below.

What is your activist object?

We also had some sheets of flipchart paper up on the walls asking some questions for our guests to answer about their activism:

What object is essential for your activism? answers on post it notes include pen, bike, phone, friends, tea How does activism make you feel? answers on post its include powerful, tired, happy

Lend us your histories!

We planned to have some time at the end of the day for the audience to share their stories, whether about their own experience of activism or a story about their friends, family, or the wider community.

Sadly we ran out of time, but we'd still love to hear your histories. Please feel free to share them in the comments or use our contact form to tell us more.

We would especially love to hear any stories about Bengali women's housing activism in the 1970s or black women's organising in the 1980s, as we had speakers lined up to talk about these movements that had to pull out.

Raising money for East End Sisters Uncut

On the day we had donation buckets and a cake stall raising money for East End Sisters Uncut which raised £235, and around 25 people made a donation online when they registered for the event.  Thank you everyone!

If you would like to support the brilliant work of East End Sisters Uncut you can donate via Paypal on their website.

A personal history of East End Sisters Uncut

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 two members of East End Sisters Uncut - Sarah and Saskia - spoke about the history of the organisation and the importance of intersectionality in feminist organising. Watch the video of their talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: East End Sisters Uncut.

Louise Raw on the Matchwomen's Strike

Janine Booth on the Poplar Rates Rebellion

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 Janine Booth gave a talk about the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921 and the women who took part. Watch a video of the talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Janine Booth.

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Sarah Jackson on how the East London suffragettes used the media

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 I gave a talk about the East End Federation of the Suffragette, founded by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914, and how they used the media to support their activism. You can watch a video of my talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Sarah Jackson.

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Julie Begum on how Women Unite Against Racism took on the BNP

At our East End Women Take Action event in September 2016 Julie Begum spoke about her experiences setting up Women Unite Against Racism after Derek Beackon of the British National Party was elected as councillor in Millwall by just eight votes in 1993. You can watch a video of her talk, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.

East End Women's Museum Event: Julie Begum.

Find out more