Unearthing ‘hidden histories’ of black and Asian women in the City
A new report throws fresh light on the previously hidden histories of black and Asian women in the City of London in the 17th to the 19th centuries.
The research paper, Black and Asian Women in the City of London 1600-1860, was commissioned by the City of London Corporation and draws on parish and court records, newspaper adverts and previously published works.
The report brings together for the first time details of 160 black and Asian women found in the records during that time period to be living or working in the Square Mile.
It was commissioned for Celebrating City Women, set up to recognise remarkable women connected to the Square Mile, and is part of a series of activities aimed at combatting racism, led by the City Corporation’s Tackling Racism Taskforce.
Caroline Addy, Co-Chair of the City of London Corporation’s Tackling Racism Taskforce, said:
“Now more than ever, we see how assumptions about the past shape our beliefs about the present – that’s why this is the perfect time to discuss the unknown or forgotten history of BAME women in the City.
“While the prejudices they faced are shocking to us today, the report reveals a glimpse into the real lives these women lived. I hope it will inspire people to discover more about our shared history – however uncomfortable it may be at times.”
The report, written by Chihyin Hsiao, assistant professor of social history at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, describes the racist attitudes endured by women of colour, some of whom came to London as a result of the slave trade, in an era when their own names were Anglicised or erased and replaced by names denoting their ethnicity, such as ‘Moor’ or ‘Blackmore’.
However, while it finds evidence of women who through hardship fell into crime and prostitution, it also unearths stories of black women living successful lives in middle class households.
Wendy Hyde, Chair of the City of London Corporation’s Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee, said:
“All too often, women were reduced to a mere footnote in history, and black and Asian women are even less likely to feature in conventional histories.
“This report does a fantastic job of drawing together what are at times tantalisingly brief records, to shine a light into who these women were, how they came to London and the lives they lived here.”
The report was compiled drawing on sources from London Metropolitan Archives, the Black Cultural Archive, the British Library, The National Archives and the online archives of the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey.
The report can be read on the Celebrating City Women website at:
Voices from the past – the missing servant
A description of ‘Betty’, referred to in the language of the time as a ‘negro’ servant, was reported missing in an advert in the Daily Post of 26 January 1727.
She is described as ‘17 years old... flat noised, very thick lips, wore a red stuffed gown faced and lined with green, a blue quilted chintz petticoat. Whoever gives info so that she may be had again shall receive a Guinea reward. N.B. whoever entertain her shall be prosecuted according to law.’
The name Ann Blackmore appears three times in Old Bailey records between 1800 and 1847, the first time when she was convicted of stealing butter, the second time for breaking into the house of one Lewis Pesman and stealing household goods.
In the final record, from 16 August 1847, she was indicted for manslaughter of her own baby, who died from a fractured skull, but was acquitted after a neighbour testified the infant lost its life through an accident.
The neighbour, Mary Donavan, told the court: “I saw her in the yard. She had taken a drop, but was not too far gone then – she was able to walk. She had the child in her arms, holding it round, close to her. I took it out of her arms, and said: ‘Take care of your child, and yourself too.’
“I saw her again in about five minutes, going by the thoroughfare that there was – there is a drain there, she missed her footing, and fell down with the baby in her arms. The baby happened to come on its head; it fell under her. I went towards her, she picked herself up immediately, and went through the thoroughfare. I heard the child groan after she rose.
“(She) fell by accident. A sober person might have had just such a fall in the same place, there is no light there – it is an open drain, which a sober person might have fallen over.”
The respectable woman
Elizabeth Dido Belle, illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy officer Sir John Lindsay and a West Indian slave, was born into slavery but brought to England, formally educated and lived with Lindsay’s uncle – the barrister, politician and judge, Lord Mansfield.
Thomas Hutchinson, former governor of Massachusetts, described seeing her during a visit to Lord Mansfield: “A Black (sic) came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other.
"She had a very high cap, and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again.
“Sir Lindsay, having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M, and has been educated by his family.
“He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for shewing a fondness for her. I dare say not criminal.”
- Detail from ‘Chairing the Members’ by William Hogarth, 1758 (London Metropolitan Archives)
- Entry in the baptism records at St Katharine by the Tower in 1687 for Katherine Anker, brought to England by her ‘master’ Robert Rich, a planter from Barbados (London Metropolitan Archives)
- Interior of the Old Bailey during a trial in 1843 (London Metropolitan Archives)
- ‘Black Girl with Fruit’ by Sir John Gilbert (Guildhall Art Gallery)
Notes to editors
The City of London Corporation is the governing body of the Square Mile dedicated to a vibrant and thriving City, supporting a diverse and sustainable London within a globally successful UK – www.cityoflondon.gov.uk
The City Corporation’s Tackling Racism Taskforce was set up by the City Corporation in the summer to look at what the organisation can do to tackle racism in all its forms.