Profiles

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.

Nellie Cressall: Suffragette, rebel councillor, and Mayor of Poplar

Nellie Cressall in 1915, photo by Norah Smyth Nellie Cressall was born in Stepney in 1882, and worked in a Whitechapel laundry from her teens. She married George Joseph, and together they had six children.

In 1907 Nellie joined the Independent Labour Party, and remained active in the Party all her life.

Suffragette and Rates Rebel

After meeting Sylvia Pankhurst in 1912 Nellie joined the east London suffragettes, saying:

I had been thinking for some time of the unequal rights of men and women. I could not agree that men should be the sole parent, that a mother could not even say whether her child should be vaccinated or not – or that women should receive half pay and many other things as well. I thought that here is something I can dedicate myself to to help in some way to put things right.

Like many of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes Nellie was a pacifist and opposed the First World War. And like her fellow suffragettes Minnie Lansbury, Julia Scurr, and Jennie Mackay Nellie was one of the Poplar Rates Rebels of 1921.

Mayor and Labour Party activist

After the Poplar rebellion Nellie Cressall continued her work as a Labour Party activist, becoming Mayor of Poplar in 1943.

In 1951, when Nellie was 69 years old (with 26 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren!) she delivered a speech at the annual Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, defending the great strides in living conditions which Labour had brought about since the First World War:

Years ago after the First World War many, many people in my constituency sat in the dark because they had not got a penny to put in the gas. Today what do I find? People come to me creating about the heavy electricity bills they have to pay!... I have young people coming worrying me for houses.... We have got some houses where six families lived once upon a time.... Whereas in the old days people would get married, as I did, and be contented in two nice little rooms, today our young people want a home of their own.

Her speech “roused the audience to prolonged applause and cheering” and drew praise from Aneurin Bevan, who said her speech was the finest at the conference.

Sources

Jessie Payne: Suffragette

Jessie Payne in 1914, photo by Norah Smyth
Jessie Payne in 1914, photo by Norah Smyth

Jessie Payne and her husband Jim cared for Sylvia Pankhurst at their home at 28 Ford Road when she was recovering from being force fed in prison.

Like many east London families the Paynes lived and worked in their two rooms, making shoes and boots. [Update: see comments below]

The Paynes had a daughter with a learning disability, but she had died when she was young. Sylvia described the couple as “the kindest of kind people”.

“We come from the East End and we have the voice of the people”

Jessie Payne was one of the members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes who met Prime Minister Asquith in 1914. She told him about her daughter and the unequal rights of male and female parents:

Once when my girl was taken bad she went into the Poplar Workhouse, because I thought I was compelled to let her go.

When I got there the next morning they had placed her in a padded room, and I asked the doctor why she was there. He told me I had no voice, I was not to ask why or wherefore, only the father had the right…

If my girl had not had a good father to look after her, the same as her mother, I could not have got her out of the workhouse… I think we ought to have a voice in the different laws for women...

We come from the East End and we have the voice of the people, they want us to ask you to give the vote for every woman over 21.

Jessie Payne also played an important role in the suffragettes' war relief work, launching the drive to distribute milk to families with starving infants.

Sources

  • The Home Front, Sylvia Pankhurst
  • The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Voices from History: East London Suffragettes, Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor
  • Letters of Gold, Rosemary Taylor

Julia Scurr: Socialist, suffragette, and Poplar Rates Rebel

Julia ScurrJulia O'Sullivan was born in Limehouse in 1873 to Irish parents. In 1899 she married local Social Democratic Federation activist John Scurr. Sharing the same radical politics and a determination to improve the lives of working people in the East End, they made a formidable partnership.

Women march to Westminster

In July 1905 Julia worked with other socialist activists Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and Dora Montefiore to organise a march of 1,000 women from the East End to Westminster to lobby for jobs and welfare for the unemployed.

Poplar Board of Guardians

In 1907 Julia was elected to the Poplar Board of Guardians, and would remain a Guardian until she died. In June 1912 she presented a report criticising the lack of Day Rooms and recreational space at The Bow Infirmary (later St Clement's Hospital), stating that the residents had no choice but to stand around in unheated corridors. One man was refused discharge because he had no clothes. Julia reminded the governors that it was an infirmary, not a place of detention. Her male colleagues dismissed the report as being exaggerated.

Strikes and suffragettes

Julia became well known and respected throughout east London after organising food for the children of strikers during the 1912 dock strike. She also worked to improve the rights of the working class Irish community and became heavily involved with the women's suffrage movement and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). She was one of the women elected to the deputation who met Prime Minister Asquith in June 1914, and opened the meeting with a speech:

We women of East London are much concerned in regard to social conditions in our district. There is very great poverty around us and the rents are terribly high. There is much unemployment amongst the men and a very large proportion of the women are the principal breadwinners, although they are both the childbearers and the keepers of the home. We want to say to you that, in our view, a woman attending to her home is as much a wage earner as if she went out into a factory.

Poplar Rates Rebellion

On 1 September 1921 Julia was one of the 38 Poplar councillors and aldermen who were arrested and imprisoned for refusing to pass on unfair city rates to their constituents. Following widespread support for their act from the people of Poplar, the press, and other local councils London County Council backed down and the Poplar Rates Rebels were freed.

Last years

Julia Scurr was elected to the London County Council herself in 1925, but died in 1927 aged just 57. She was admitted to Bromley Infirmary in the last years of her life due to her deteriorating health. Her fellow councillor George Lansbury believed that the treatment she received while in prison was directly responsible for her early death.

Sources