Black history

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

 

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.

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

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

A personal history of East End Sisters Uncut

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

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

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

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

East End Women's Museum Event: Julie Begum.

Find out more

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.

Archives Matter: recording Black British feminist histories

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a couple of sessions of the Archives Matter Conference organised by the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. I'm posting my very brief notes here for now, and when the audio of the presentations becomes available I'll link it in.

White innocence and the Dutch academy

Anthropologist Gloria Wekker delivered the keynote on 'white innocence' with specific reference to the Dutch academy, but with lessons for anyone involved in creating or sharing historical narratives. I've collected some of the livetweets in a Storify below.

 

Roots & routes: Tracing the tread of Black British feminist genealogies 

The second session introduced some fascinating projects, including Gemma Romain (UCL) on her research into the archival work of Ruth Anna Fisher in the 1920s.  Ruth Anna Fisher signature

Nydia Swaby (SOAS) spoke on diasporic women's activism, drawing on sources including the newsletter of the Organisation of Women of Asian & African Descent (OWAAD) and the Oral Histories of the Black Women's Movement project.

Here's a great video of Swaby speaking about black women's political organising at the Black Cultural Archives:

Freelance archivist, community worker and artist Ego Ahaiwe Sowinkski spoke about the precarity of Black feminist spaces, memorials, and archives with reference to the Lambeth Women's Project and the Remembering Olive Collective, as well as the current situation facing the Feminist Library.

Olive Morris speaking through a megaphone

Although she could not attend in person, visual sociologist Dominque Z. Barron's exploration of Black British women's free spaces in London was shared by Ego: 'By any space necessary'.

Map graphic

Finally Blue Badge Guide and researcher Kelly Foster called on everyone to "Write her article" on Wikipedia, recommending tools such as Omeka and TinyCat to create our own archives.

Foster ended with a quote from artist and archivist Rita Keegan: "If you don't document yourself, no one else is going to do so. A photocopied sheet is better than nothing."

Slide reading "If you don't document yourself, no one else is going to do so. A photocopied sheet is better than nothing." - Rita Keegan