Migrant

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.

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

Louise Raw on the Matchwomen's Strike

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

Nadia Valman on Jewish women's activism at Cable Street and beyond

Women at the Battle of Cable Street

Cable Street Mural Today is the 80th anniversary of the 'Battle of Cable Street', one of the East End's proudest moments.

The Battle of Cable Street

On 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts attempted to march from Tower Hill, through Aldgate and Shadwell, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood at that time.

When they arrived at Gardiner's Corner, a huge crowd (estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000) gathered to block their path, roaring “They Shall Not Pass!” After 6,000 police failed to clear the area, the march was diverted via Cable Street.

However, three sets of barricades, including an overturned lorry, had already been set up there. Broken glass and marbles had been strewn across the street, and thousands of local people massed behind each barricade, chanting anti-fascist slogans and fighting back fiercely against the police.

Eventually the Police Commissioner instructed Mosley to march his troops west and out of the area, in a humiliating defeat. Thousands of the anti-fascist protestors gathered in Victoria Park to celebrate their victory.

Milk bottles and other weapons

Local communist activist Phil Piratin recalled:

“It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.”

Although the image of housewives throwing rubbish down at the police and the fascists has become an important part of Cable Street mythology, women were also in the street, fighting alongside the men.

Joyce Goodman (née Rosenthal) said: "the police... were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses hooves.”

Out of the 79 anti-fascist protestors arrested on the day, 8 were women.

Sarah Wesker

Mick Mindel was a union leader who was there on the day, and in an interview years later he commented:

“women leaders like Sarah Wesker set an example and at the time of the Cable Street battle she was a real inspiration to all of us.”

Sarah Wesker has been all but forgotten now, but in the 1920s she gained a high profile in London as a formidable union organiser, leading famous strikes at the Goodman's, Poliakoff's, Simpson and Rego textile factories. In 1932 she was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 12th Congress.

Fluent in Yiddish and English, she had a reputation as a fiery speaker, “as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers” (she was less than five feet tall).

'I am not afraid of you'

Jack Shaw, another Cable Street battler interviewed in later life makes a compelling reference to a young woman he saw in the police charge room after they had both been arrested.

“While he was there, he saw a huge policeman drag in a young woman, rip off her blouse and hold his truncheon as if to strike her in the face.

She stared straight at him and, with defiance in her voice, said: "I am not afraid of you". As the room went quiet, the policeman called her a Jewish bitch and put her in a cell.

Jack says she typified the courage and spirit of the women in the anti-fascist struggle.”

Love on a lamp post

Charlie Goodman was just 16 when he was arrested and savagely beaten by the police after climbing a lamp post and shouting to the crowd: "Don't be yellow bellies, forward, we are winning!"

Later he married a woman who was also there on the day. Joyce Rosenthal was only 12 in 1936 but was nonetheless in the front line - they met four years later and she asked him if “he was the nutcase up the lamp post. When he said he was, she knew he was just her type.”

The spirit of Cable Street today

The best way to keep the spirit of Cable Street alive is to keep fighting fascism, racism, and intolerance wherever we find it. Next time the EDL come to East London, join the counter protest and show them that our community is prepared to stand against them, then as now.

This weekend there are a whole host of events taking place to celebrate the 80th anniversary. Here are two we're really excited about:

Saturday 8 October - Women's voices

Author Kate Thompson interviews women veterans of the Battle of Cable Street Come along and listen to Mari Butwell, Marie Joseph, Millie Finger, Beattie Orwell, and Sally Flood.

Idea Store Watney Market, 2.30pm-4.30pm

Sunday 9 October - March and rally

The march will assemble at Altab Ali Park at 12 noon and proceed to the Cable Street Mural for a rally in St George Gardens on Cable Street.

There will be speeches from national and local organisations including Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Frances O'Grady General Secretary TUC, music from marching bands along the route, and stalls at the rally. Here's the main Facebook event.

Join the women's history bloc and march with our museum banner! Meet us beside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1DY at 11.45 am and we'll walk down to the park together.

East End Women's Museum Banner (work in progress)

For more information about the Battle of Cable Street and the women who fought there take a look at the In Her Footsteps projectEast End Walks, and this great article by Nadia Valman.

 

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.

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

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 either 1877 or 1882. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1890, 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, she was hired to do a photojournalism series on London's poor for Pearson's Magazine. Malvery went undercover in south and east London, 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, and to learn how they were treated.

The Soul Market and Hoxton HallOlive Christian Malvery in disguise as a waitress, serving coffee to a group of young men in caps

Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1907 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.

While she was writing the book she 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, likely inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 37 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.

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 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.

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.

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.

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