Profiles

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

 

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

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

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

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 Royal Navy officer from Ebini, in what is now Guyana.

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

Amelia Harris

Amelia Harris (centre) in the 1920s with her sisters Ray (left) and Rose (Right) My grandmother Amelia (Millie) Harris was born on January 23, 1906 at City of London Lying-In Hospital at 228 Old Street, the daughter of Russian immigrants.

From Vilna and Riga to London

Her father, my great-grandfather Meir Shapiro, left Vilna in Lithuania and arrived in England in about 1903, and was followed two years later by his wife, Rivka (nee Jankelson, from Riga, Latvia) who came with their two daughters, Rose and Rachel (Ray.) Another sister, Gittel or Gertie, died en route to England.

My grandmother Amelia was born after her parents reunited; another London-born child, her younger brother David, died of the measles at the age of six months. A week after his death, my grandmother fell into an open fire, almost losing her sight, and her mother, saying “this house is evil,” demanded that they move from their home at 28 Hare Street, Bethnal Green.

The Hoxton seaside

Their new home was at 89 Bridport Place, Hoxton. Though Hoxton today is a gentrified mélange of art galleries, bars and chic boutiques, it was far from that in my grandmother’s day.

Homes were overcrowded—one house could accommodate five families—while prostitution and crime were common. Its one saving grace, my grandmother said, was a canal at the end of their road that her mother’s friends called “the seaside.”

A queenly storyteller

I know these stories because my grandmother told them to me many, many times over the course of her long life. She was the most marvellous storyteller I have ever known. She never wrote her stories down—she simply declaimed them, with the drama and flourish of a queen (her Hebrew name, Malka, or queen, fit her perfectly.)

Fortunately I had recorded many of her tales in the summer of 1993, a decade before she died on January 17, 2004 – her 98th birthday, according to the Hebrew lunar calendar.

Anti 'alien' sentiment

My Shapiro great-grandparents were fortunate enough to arrive in England before the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment, then as now, was rife: in 1904, the Daily News decried “these unwashed, cringing, lying and wage-cutting aliens, who have elbowed thousands of Englishmen out of their homes and out of their employment.”

Even so, my great-grandparents proved resourceful. In Hoxton, the family opened a shop that sold old boots, rubber soles and heels, leather, gaiters, knives, nails, tin tacks and screws, and they lived behind it in a room called a shop parlour.

Scholarships and boot polish

But they were so poor that my grandmother had to leave school in 1920, at the age of 14, as she told me:

“I had already won two scholarships but my mother couldn’t afford the uniform. She said, ‘You don’t need it. You’ll get married, what do you want all that for?’ But it would have been lovely to have had a good education. I left at 14 and there was no work to be found at all.

In the end, my mother put a big box of Cherry Blossom boot polish—little tins—and she said, ‘Go in the market and sell the polish. You’re good, you can talk, you can sell anything.’ So I went to the market. I stood in the street, and I held out my hands, with two tins of polish, like a peddler, shouting out, “Two for tuppence ha’penny!” In the end, I sold 144 tins of boot polish.

I went home with my pockets laden, and my mother and father were so thrilled. And the next day, my mother said, “Go again. You’ll sell another.”

Too insolent

My grandmother peddled boot polish for three months, at which point my great-grandmother consulted "The Ladies", most likely the Ladies’ Conjoint Visiting Committee established in 1884 by the Jewish Board of Guardians, which provided advice and financial assistance to poor Jews.

With their assistance, my grandmother began an apprenticeship at a court dressmakers in Sloane Square for a salary of six shillings a week. But the job didn’t last long.

“So I had this job,” my grandmother said, laughing, “that I hated. The shop was beautiful, court dress making, royalty used to come there, beautifully crafted, lovely sofas and easy chairs. But the back was like Dickens.

The floor was wooden boards, wooden stools to sit on, lit by gas jets, and [the forewoman] constantly sent me for errands, ‘get me a pint of milk, get me a loaf of bread, pick up the pins.’ I had to scrabble about on the bare boards, all in the creases of the boards, the pins, [and she would say] ‘there’s plenty of pins there that you haven’t picked up.’

I said 'I’ve come to learn the trade, but I’m not learning anything.' Anyway, after a week, she said, ‘I’m not keeping you. You’re too insolent.’"

Sixteen shillings a week

After my outspoken grandmother lost her first job, her mother told her to look for another, saying that she was now an 'improver' with experience to her name. So, my grandmother said,

“I had to do as I was told. We never disobeyed our parents. I went to the West End, and I saw a ticket in a big window, “Improvers For Dress-Making Wanted.”

So I went in, and the forelady said to me, ‘Where have you been working before?’ I said, ‘Oh, in Sloane Square, court dress-making.’ ‘You have?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ She said, ‘When would you like to start?’ So I said, ‘You mean I’ve got the job?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You can start on Monday at sixteen shillings a week.’ A fortune! Sixteen shillings a week.”

My grandmother spent many years as a seamstress, working her way up to 'first-hand' (making the garment from start to finish) and then as a cutter and designer.

In 1929, the year in which both she and her older sister Ray got married (within eleven weeks of each other) she sewed her sister’s wedding gown; her sister Ray, who was also a dressmaker, sewed my grandmother’s wedding dress.

The woman from the Pru

During the Second World War, my grandmother found a coveted job as an insurance agent with the Prudential—a job that before the war would have been reserved for men, my mother Irene Glausiusz notes. “Previously they did not employ women agents, but with the call-up of the men, they had to change the rules,” she says.

For a weekly fee, paid in cash, the company paid out sickness and unemployment benefits, and my grandmother collected the subscriptions and paid out benefits.

“I used to trail about in all weathers, paying sick money,” my grandmother said. “The National Health [Service] hadn’t started yet. It started in 1948. And if somebody was sick, all they got was nine shillings a week.”

She added, “I liked it very much. Very much indeed. I liked meeting people. They were full of humour. Nobody had a bell or a knocker; there was always a hole in the door with a piece of string, and you pulled the string and you went in and they used to say, “Come in, cock.” Anyway, I sold more policies than an experienced agent."

My mother Irene confirms this: “Grandma was good at the job and I do remember the huge ledgers in which all the details were written.  She was always good with figures.” But, she added, “When the war finished, they said, ‘well, tough, we have to give the jobs back to the men.’”

Indeed, the Prudential’s own timeline of history proudly notes that in 1949, “The 'Man from the Pru' a household phrase since the turn of the century, was launched as an advertising image to re-establish the identity of the agent in the post-war world.”

The Sussex seaside

My grandmother weathered this setback and many others. Following World War II, she started her own dressmaking business with my grandfather in Virginia Road, Bethnal Green, which they ran until 1965. In that year they left London to buy a home in Hove on the Sussex coast, which for many years my grandparents ran as a boarding house.

Resilience and resourcefulness

My grandmother was a living testimony to the resilience and resourcefulness of immigrants and the children of immigrants.

In her nearly century long life she lived through two world wars, the Depression, the introduction of indoor plumbing, the creation of the National Health Service, the invention of television and nuclear bombs and much else besides. She survived breast cancer and many illnesses of old age for which she received excellent care from the NHS.

Throughout her life she was strong, almost indomitable; outspoken, independent, stubborn, warm, loving, and a lover of life, invariably friendly and gregarious, and with an impressive command of the English language. When she spoke, people listened. So did I.

 

A huge thank you to Josie Glausiusz for contributing this story and wonderful photograph to the East End Women's Museum.

Jane Johnson, a 'disorderly' woman of Rag Fair

Jane Johnson, along with her husband John, kept an alehouse and brothel in Shorter Street, just off Well Close Square, Rosemary Lane, and Cable Street. She was a well known thief and receiver of stolen goods around Rag Fair, and was cited in at least a dozen cases heard at the Old Bailey. In 1740, Johnson was accused in court of buying stolen handkerchiefs from small time thieves, John Sharpless and William Disney for half a crown. The handkerchiefs had been stolen from Sarah Stumper who kept a small shop in Leman Street, Goodman’s fields. Johnson was taken into custody but when the trial reached court, she escaped from custody with the help of her friends. (1)

Johnson turns up again in a burglary case in 1741 involving thief John Lupton. The Old Bailey court heard that Johnson had purchased a stolen cup with a silver handle and a silver spoon for four pounds from Lupton and his friends. However, although cited in court as the buyer of the stolen goods, Johnson escaped prosecution. (2)

In 1743 Jane Johnson was indicted once more on two separate accounts. She was charged with ‘feloniously receiving’ 26 pounds of stolen chocolate and a selection of brass ware and steel buckles from thieves John Read and David Shields.

The informant David Shields gave information that he had sold Johnson the goods, telling the courtroom, "she keeps a very bad House – there none resort to the House but a parcel of Boys who go out a robbing and picking of Pockets...there are two Rooms on a Floor, 2or 3 Beds in a Room, and 3 or 4 of these Boys lie in a Bed". (3)

Jane Johnson managed to avoid the death sentence, Newgate prison and transportation, making a living for at least a while from her criminal exploits. She is just one of many ‘disorderly’ women who lived around Rosemary Lane, east London in the 18th century.

Women like Johnson did not accept a life on the margins, and while they may not have been treated as equals to men, they had agency. They got by in whatever way they could.

Their stories are a hugely important component in our understanding of the lives of the ordinary and poorer members of early modern London society.

Thanks to Dr Janice Turner from the University of Hertfordshire for contributing this story to the East End Women's Museum.

 

(1) Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913, (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012),

(Hereafter, OBP), OBP, John Sharpless, William Disney, 16 April 1740, t17400416-25.

(2) OBP, John Lupton, 14 May 1741, t17410514-11.

(3) OBP, John Read, 13 April 1743, t17430413-14.

 

Olive Christian Malvery: journalist, 'lecturer, reciter, and social worker'

 Olive Christian Malvery, seated and wearing a white blouse, face tilted down

Olive Christian Malvery, seated and wearing a white blouse, face tilted down

Olive Christian Malvery was an Anglo-Indian writer and investigative journalist who exposed poverty and terrible working conditions in London at the start of the 20th century.

Early life in Lahore and London

Malvery was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, in 1871. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1898, Malvery came to London to study at the Royal College of Music.

She supported herself by writing fiction for journals and magazines, giving lectures, teaching elocution, and 'drawing room' storytelling inspired by Indian legends. In the introduction to one of her articles, 'Gilding the Gutter', she is described as "the well-known lecturer, reciter, and social worker".

Undercover for Pearson's Magazine

In 1904, Malvery began work on a photojournalism series on London's poor for Pearson's Magazine. She went undercover, disguising herself and working as a flower seller, a barmaid, a factory girl, and a homeless woman so that she could speak more easily to working class girls and women in east London and elsewhere in the capital, and to learn how they were treated.

 Olive Christian Malvery in disguise as a waitress, serving coffee to a group of young men in caps

Olive Christian Malvery in disguise as a waitress, serving coffee to a group of young men in caps

The Soul Market and Hoxton Hall

Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1906 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.

Malvery had become friends with Sarah Rae, who ran a social club for working class girls at Hoxton Hall. Through Rae, Malvery met and made friends with many of the local Hoxton girls, some of whom were bridesmaids at her wedding to Scottish-born US diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in 1905. They had three children before his death in 1911.

Later years

In later life Malvery continued writing, and produced books about child labour, unemployment, and 'white slavery' (there was widespread fear in this period that young English girls were being kidnapped and forced into sex work).

Malvery also paid for two shelters for homeless women to be built in London, inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 43 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.

[Updated 18/9/18]

Sources

Jessie Lavinia Burrows

Middle aged woman and a man in a field, laughing My grandmother, Jessie Lavinia Burrows, was born into a very poor family in the parish of St George's-in-the-East in 1889. She had two sisters and a brother who survived, and two brothers who didn't. Her father walked out on the family when she was about eight and from then on their lives became even more impoverished, if that was possible.

Surviving on the streets of Shadwell

They slept for a while in shop doorways and underneath the costers barrows at the market, they went down to the shore of the Thames and scavenged food and fuel that had been thrown away - it wasn't a 'lark' for them in the mud. They ended up in the workhouse, she and her little sister scrubbing the stone corridors with cold water in the middle of winter. Her mother was at the Shadwell workhouse, they were sent to Surrey.

A lady with waved hair and a floral print dress

Hardship in service and marriage

Jessie was trained for domestic service and was frequently cold and starving hungry - she couldn't look at beetroot because she ate an entire stone jar of it when she was hungry and it was the only thing she could get into in the pantry. Aged 19 in 1909 she married a Fred Venning. Family lore says he was violent. In 1911 she went on her own to New Zealand with a baby that was less than a year old, sponsored by the Duke of Norfolk's Catholic resettlement scheme, which I have been able to find no information for.

Work, love, and loss in New Zealand

This baby girl, Isabella Mary, died of pneumonia aged 16 months, in New Zealand. My grandmother had spent two years living in a tent and working as a cook at a sawmill, where there was little medical care available. She had met my grandfather by now, who was also British, and the baby's death is registered in Taumaranui under the surname 'Good', though her name is recorded as Venning.

They were given land in the north island and my grandmother farmed it while my grandfather travelled the country bridge building. My grandmother's mother and siblings joined her in New Zealand in a short time. They lost a four year old daughter to peritonitis caused by appendicitis as they lived 30 miles from the nearest other settlement and though they put her on a horse and cart to get her medical care it took too long and she was buried in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Returning to London, and the war

In 1932, my grandmother brought her children home, though the oldest child and only boy stayed in New Zealand. She, and my mother, lived through the Blitz in Brixton, bombs falling all round them. She managed to buy a house and set up a theatrical boarding house in Brixton, counting Johnny Weissmuller and Benny Hill among her guests.

Jessie's own brother died at 18 in the Dardanelles when his ship went down, he got out but went back to save the ship's cat and they drowned together. This story of William Burrows, Chief Stoker on the HMS Irresistible trying to save the ship's cat is repeated by more than one source.

Always a Cockney

My grandfather died in a flu epidemic in the 1960s and my grandmother left London - she never stopped grieving for him. Jessie died aged 83, always proud of being a Cockney. Everything I know about our family comes from her, the bravest, kindest woman I know.

A huge thank you to Ann Croucher for contributing this story and these great photographs to the East End Women's Museum.

Mary Driscoll: Matchwoman, strike leader and shop owner

Always hold your head up. Remember you're as good as anyone.

A group of matchwomen leaning against a wallMary Driscoll was born to Irish parents in London in 1874.  She had three sisters, Katherine, Margaret (known affectionately as Mog), and Elizabeth. Both Mary, Mog, and their mother worked for the Bryant & May match company in Bow in terrible conditions and for very low pay.

In June 1888 when social activist Annie Besant published an article in her weekly newspaper 'The Link' about the conditions at Bryant & May, the management tried to get their workforce to sign a paper contradicting the article, which they refused to do. A worker was dismissed as an example, triggering a full strike in a single day as around 1,400 women and girls refused to work.

The management offered to reinstate the fired employee but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages. After a week the whole factory had stopped work.  At a meeting with the management on 16 July the matchwomen's terms were accepted and the strike ended in victory. (Find out more about the strike in this talk by historian Louise Raw.)

Mary Driscoll was one of the strike leaders, and at the time of the strike she was aged 14 and living at home with her parents at 24 Cottage Street in Poplar.

Eight years after the strike Mary married a dock worker, Thomas Foster. They had 11 children, of whom five survived infancy. Thomas drank heavily, and could be violent towards Mary, once pushing her down the stairs. She effectively supported herself throughout her marriage as much of her husband's income was spent on drink. Mary took in washing, and took the children hop-picking each summer.

Thomas died in 1916, while Mary was pregnant with their son William, who died a few years later from the Spanish flu. Mary never fully recovered from this loss.

After Thomas' death, Mary was able to set herself up as a shopkeeper, opening a cats' meat shop and a corn chandler's beside each other on the now demolished Parnham Street. Mary could not read or write, but despite this became a successful businesswoman, known for her financial acumen.

It's unclear where Mary found the money to open the shops, it's possible that if Thomas had died in an accident at the docks she would have received compensation as his widow. It's unlikely that her in-laws helped, as she greatly disliked them (she even threw a party when her mother-in-law died in 1930).

Mary retained her Irish Republican beliefs all her life, and displayed portraits of Robert Emmett and Michael Collins in her rooms. Reported to be hardworking, fiercely independent, and typically quiet, Mary Driscoll was prepared to “fight her corner”.

During an air raid in the Blitz Mary once ran through the streets with her newborn grandchild, desperate to find a church in which to baptize him (she succeeded). Mary died in March 1943.

Source

Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History by Louise Raw

Mary Jane Kelly

A sketch of Mary Kelly from 1888Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick in 1863 and her large family moved to Wales when she was young. Her father John worked in an iron works, and Mary had seven brothers and at least one sister She was a tall (5’7”), pretty girl with blue eyes and though she may have been illiterate was reported to be very clever and to have some artistic ability.

When she was about 16 she married a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion. Mary stayed for eight months in an infirmary in Cardiff, before moving in with a cousin and starting to work as a prostitute.

Mary moved to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel. Reportedly, she was invited by a client to France, but returned to England within two weeks, having disliked her life there. Gravitating toward the poorer East End of London, she lived for a time near the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. When drunk, Kelly would be heard singing Irish songs. A friend commented that "she was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

In 1888 Mary moved in with Barnett, they lived in a single room at 26 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Barnett worked as a fish porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, but when he fell out of regular employment and tried to earn money as a market porter, Kelly turned to prostitution again to pay their rent.

She was only 25 when she was found brutally murdered in Whitechapel on 9 November 1888. Mary Jane was a Catholic, and she is buried in St Patrick’s cemetery in Leytonstone.

Damaris Page: The real life Moll Flanders?

17thC cartoon showing a brothel keeper and a fashionably dressed sex worker with the caption "Launching a frigate" Damaris Page was one of the most notorious women of 17th century England. She was born into severe poverty and hardship but rose to fame and riches. She was the subject of several Grub Street pamphlets in 1660, characterised as 'The Wandring Whore' and the 'Crafty Bawd', she may have been one of the inspirations for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders.

Page was born in Stepney around 1610, and worked as a prostitute throughout her teens. In 1653 she married James Dry in a Bermondsey church, and in 1655 she was brought to court for bigamy. She was charged with having been married to a William Baker of Stepney for the previous 15 years, though there is no mention of this marriage in the parish records so it may have been fabricated. Page was acquitted, and after the death of James Dry some years later she remained single.

Damaris Page appeared in court again, charged with the death of an Eleanor Pooley, who had died after Page had tried to perform an abortion with a two-pronged fork. She was convicted of manslaughter, and would have been hanged had she not been pregnant. Page was imprisoned in Newgate Gaol for three years.

Following her release Page became a brothel owner. She ran the Three Tuns in Stepney for seamen and another brothel in Rosemary Lane (now Royal Mint Street), near the Tower of London, for the wealthier naval officers. She agreed to press-gang her dock worker clientele for a fee, which made her very unpopular, and her house was targeted in the 'Bawdy House Riots' of 1668. At this time Samuel Pepys described Page as "the most Famous Bawd in the Towne."

By the middle of the century Page had moved into property speculation, investing the money she had made into building new houses on the Ratcliffe Highway, north of Wapping, and around in residential areas near the Tower of London. The income from these properties supported her for the rest of her life, and by her death in 1669 she had amassed a large fortune.

Source

Wikipedia - Damaris Page

Mala Sen: Writer and race equality activist

Photograph of Mala SenMala Sen was born in Mussoorie in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand in 1947. Her parents  divorced in 1953, and Mala grew up with her father. As member of the military he moved often, taking his daughter with him. In Mumbai, she attended the Nirmala Niketan College, studying home science. When she was 15 Mala met Farrukh Dhondy, and they fell in love. The couple eloped in 1965 when Mala was 17, and moved to Britain where she took up sewing jobs in sweatshops to earn a living. They both became involved in race equality activism and writing, joining the Race Today collective.

In the early 1970s the Bengali community in Spitalfields grew rapidly, but faced intense racism and prejudice, including discrimination in access to housing. Families were forced to live in a single room in slum conditions .

In 1976 Mala Sen, Dhondy, and other activists worked with local families to create the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). They broke into and squatted empty buildings, challenged racism and pressured the council to improve housing. One of the key squatted properties were the Pelham Buildings on Woodseer Street, which were awaiting GLC redevelopment. Within three months 41 families were living there.

Although many Bengali women were not allowed to take part in activities outside the home, they played an important role even so. Housing campaigner Charlie Forman commented: “It has been women who have been most militant about staying in the Spitalfields area. They stand to lose more than their men, and have frequently dissuaded the men from signing for distant flats even when there is apparently no other choice.”

Through the activities of the BHAG and other housing campaigners, the dire situation many immigrant families was highlighted and improvements were made to tackle the racism inherent in the council housing system.

Sen believed that supporting people to claim their rights and empower themselves was the best way to achieve political change. She said: “When you are a political activist, you empower other people to take their chance to empower themselves.”

As a journalist and researcher Mala Sen encountered the story of 'bandit queen' Phoolan Devi, and gained Devi's trust, encouraging her to dictate her experiences in a series of diaries which Sen used to write a book about her story. A controversial film followed, which Devi initially opposed and sued Sen. The case was settled out of court and Devi and Sen remained close up until Devi's assassination in 2001.

Mala Sen withdrew from public life in later years. She began writing a book about women and HIV but died in 2011 before it was finished.

Sources

Milly Witkop: Anarchist, feminist, and union activist

Picture of Milly WitkopMilly Witkop (1877-1955), was a Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant and the life partner of Rudolf Rocker, lived in Dunstan Houses, Stepney Green, London E1. In 1897, Milly and Rudolf were refused entry into the United States because they weren't married. Milly told the officials who accused them off advocating free love: "Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution."

Milly worked side-by-side with Rudolf building the anarchist and trade union movements amongst Jewish immigrants in the east end. They co-editing Arbeyter Fraynd and Germinal. After Rudolf was interned in 1914 as an enemy alien, Milly continued anti-war activism until she was arrested in 1916.

When released in 1918, she joined Rudolf in the Netherlands (where he'd been deported). They moved to Germany after the war and tried to build the FAUD anarcho-syndicalist union.

Milly was one of the founders of the Berlin Women's Union in 1920 and was involved in building the national Syndicalist Women's Union (SFB). They fled in 1933 and moved to the US where they continued their activism.

Thank you to Donnacha DeLong for contributing this story.

Minnie Lansbury: Teacher, union activist, suffragette, rebel councillor

Photograph of Minnie Lansbury cheered by grounds, on her way to prison in 1921

I wish the Government joy in its efforts to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London's rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.

Minnie Lansbury was born in Stepney in 1889, one of seven children in a Jewish family who came to London to escape poverty and persecution in Russia. Her father, Isaac Glassman, was originally a boot finisher but later became a coal merchant. In 1913, Isaac paid the £5 fee to become a British citizen, entitled to vote. In 1914 Minnie married Edgar Lansbury, son of local MP George Lansbury.

Minnie became a teacher in a local London County Council school, earning £7 a month. She joined the National Union of Teachers and became involved in union activism, calling for equal pay for women among other things. She also joined the central committee of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes and played a key role in their campaigns and community actions. During the First World War Minnie became chair of the War Pensions Committee and used her role to protect the welfare of war widows, orphans, and the wounded.

After the War Minnie was elected alderman on Poplar Council. In 1921, she was one of five women who, along with their male colleagues, were sent to prison for refusing to charge full rates from their poor constituents. Although the Poplar Rates Rebellion was a success, while in prison Minnie caught pneumonia and never fully recovered her health.

On 1 January 1922 she died, aged just 32. Her death was announced at a thousand-strong meeting at Bow Baths Hall: "The audience for a moment was stricken silent... Then out of the silence came a woman's cry of grief, followed by the weeping of many women." The meeting was abandoned.

A few days later a crowd of thousands of mourners, mostly women, stood in the streets as her coffin passed by. George Lansbury wrote a moving tribute to his daughter-in-law in the Daily Herald:

Minnie, in her 32 years, crammed double that number of years' work compared with what many of us are able to accomplish. Her glory lies in the fact that with all her gifts and talents one thought dominated her whole being night and day: How shall we help the poor, the weak, the fallen, weary and heavy-laden, to help themselves? When, a soldier like Minnie passes on, it only means their presence is withdrawn, their life and work remaining an inspiration and a call to us each to close the ranks and continue our march breast forward.

Sources

Mary Fillis: Baptised at St Botolph's, Aldgate in 1597

Portrait of an Enslaved Woman, Anibale Caracci 1580s You might not think it judging from period dramas and popular history books, but there has been a black community in Britain since long before the 20th century and the arrival of the Windrush.

Black British history before the 20th century

The presence of Romanmedieval, TudorGeorgian, and Victorian people of African descent in Britain and Europe is slowly becoming better known, thanks to the work of Onyeka Nubia, David Olusoga, and many others. But many popular representations of London's past are effectively whitewashed.

It can be tricky to find the voices and experiences of black people in the archives, especially if your search is restricted to one area, and if you are particularly seeking women's stories.

However sources like parish records can offer us tantalising glimpses. For example, one woman's story is hinted at in the record of her baptism at St Botolph's Church in Aldgate.

'Mary Fillis of Morisco, being a black more'

Described as a "black more" of "Morisco", Mary Fillis was most likely dark-skinned and probably lived in Spain before she came to England. She was almost certainly Muslim before her conversion.

She was of late servant with one M(ist)res Barker in Marke Lane, a widdowe. She said hir father’s name was Fillis of Morisco, a black more, being both a basket maker and also a shovell maker.

This Marie Fillis being abowt the age of xx yeares and having beene in England for the space of xiii or xiiii yeares, and as yt was not Christned, and now being becom servant with one Millicent Porter a seamster dwelling in the libertie of Eastsmithfield, and now taking some howld of faith in Jesus Chryst, was desyrous to becom a Christian.

Wherefore shee made sute by hir said m(ist)res to have some conference with the Curat of this the parish of St Buttolphees without Aldgate London...

So that I do say that the said Mary Fillis a black more at this tyme dwelling with Millicent Porter a seamester of the libertie of Eastsmithfield was christned on Fryday being the third day of June, in the presents of the undenamed [sic] and dyvers others, viz William Benton, Margerie Barrick, Millicent Porter, M(ist)res Magdalyne Threlkeld, Mathew Pearson, M(ist)res Young, Gertrud Ponder, Thomas Harrydance, being the parish Clarke, Thomas Ponder, being the sexton, and dyvers others.

Although we can only glimpse a few details about Mary's life here we can see that she was living as a free woman - a servant, not a slave.

We can also see evidence of her agency, she is not a passive character in this story. Mary makes the decision to convert, and she asks her mistress to arrange an appointment with the curate of St Botolph's. The list of witnesses also suggests that Mary has friends and supporters in the church congregation.

Unofficial histories

One of the challenges of recording women's histories from centuries ago is that many women's lives were lived in the margins of official documents. In many eras women have been less likely than men to own property, to hold office, to conduct financial transactions, or to pursue a legal case. This is especially true in the case of women of colour, particularly in poor areas like east London.

Because of this women tend to appear less frequently in the financial or legal records which are a vital source of information for historians. Where women are present they frequently appear as property, or as criminals, giving us a distorted picture.

Black women have been part of London's history for centuries. It's up to us to stitch together what we have, and work to uncover more information where we can to fill in the gaps.