Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Caroline Bressey (University College London)
The writings of black working women in London 1880–1920
The experiences of black women in Victorian and Edwardian London remain under-researched. Their experiences of racism and empire ‘at home’ are also little understood. This paper will try to bring a few of these women into sharper focus.
In April 1919 Grace Stevenson killed herself in the bedroom of a house in Ealing, west London where she worked as a domestic servant. Born in Jamaica, the inquest into Grace’s death revealed that she had been suffering from depression seemingly brought on by a broken heart, loneliness, racism and an inability to return ‘home’. A letter found with her body was reproduced, in part, by The Times beneath the headline BLACK WOMAN’S SUICIDE / TAUNTED ABOUT HER COLOUR.
I am black, but I didn’t make myself, people look at me but think I have no feeling. I cannot bear it any longer.
I am a lonely broken hearted girl, and I have no one in England. I tried to go home but cannot do so;
I have not enough money. … I cannot face the world any longer; it is too hard. I have no strength left in me. God Knows.
The inquest archives reflect something of her experiences as a working-class woman indicating, for example, her friendships with white working women. The extract from Grace’s letter itself provides a rare example of a black working woman expressing the pain of racial prejudice. It was written at a time when race relations were undergoing a transformation in Britain, coming to a head in race riots during the summer of 1919. This paper seeks to take Grace’s letter and other small pieces of women’s writing, such as newspaper advertisements, and consider them in the context of a number of ongoing questions. What do these writings reveal about black working women’s lives within the network of empire and the working class experience in Britain in general? What were the relationships between labour movements and racial discrimination in the workplace? How were these experiences recorded and discussed, and can such small literary archives – a few lines here or there – provide a relevant intervention for or even a representation of missing voices?
Caroline Bressey, University College London, email
Caroline Bressey’s research focuses on the presence in Victorian Britain, particularly London. The aim of her research is to recover the experiences of life, and understandings of race and racism, among privileged members of the black intelligentsia as well as men, but especially women of the poorest classes. She is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, University College London, and is currently researching a biography of Catherine Impey who published Anti-Caste, an early form of anti-racist writing first published in the 1880s. She is a member of the management committee of BASA (the Black and Asian Studies Association) and Director of the Equiano Centre, UCL.