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Living together in Victorian Britain

Blog • • Caroline Bressey

The spike in racial attacks following Brexit has reminded many of the racist street insults and violence which faced Afro and Asian migrants and their British born children in the 20th century. Stories telling the complexity of our island story are not usually seen in the traditional news media, but if we are to understand how we have lived together in the past and thus how we might live together now and in the future, making an intervention in these historical narratives is more important than ever.

For over a decade I have explored the lives of black women in 19th-century Britain, particularly those who lived in the capital of Britain’s Empire. When I completed my PhD on the forgotten geographies of black women in Victorian and Edwardian London I believed that 10 years later, black history would have a strong presence in historical scholarship in Britain, our museums and popular history programmes, but it has remained in the margins.

So during my British Academy mid-career fellowship I will be revisiting the lives of black women, but also writing about black men and the multi-cultural communities among which they lived and worked; making the lives of black people a lens through which to re-examine working class culture. I’ll be tracing the lives of their white mothers and grandmothers, their Caribbean brothers and African grandfathers as well as individuals whose families came from Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Their stories, along with those of their Irish and Jewish neighbours will give us a sense of how people in Britain lived together in an earlier time. There will be tales of love, family, companionship, friendship and solidarity as well as stories of conflict, prejudice and grief. To tell these histories I will be investigating spaces from public houses and theatres to streets and chapels alongside a wide variety of archives including print media, medical records, private letters and diaries.

The Victorians were great record-keepers, creating a mass of data, often in very clear, neat handwriting which is useful for researchers, but it is not always easy to find black histories in these big sets of data. This is because though, for example, the national census provides important information for many researchers and family historians, a person’s ethnicity was not regularly recorded. In my research I use photographs to help me see ‘colour’ in the archives and these sepia images have taken me to the archives of children’s homes, prisons, and asylums and to people such as Mary Matthews who was living with her husband James in East London’s Bromley-by-Bow before she was diagnosed with an attack of ‘chronic melancholia’ at Colney Hatch Asylum in November 1898. Mary stayed in the asylum for about a year before being released and returning to her family. Although pulling narratives from asylums or prisons can create difficult and harrowing stories, they challenge historical knowledge in a way that can be difficult to do with archives such as census returns.

The archives of Barnardo’s are an important source of black history, as the charity’s founder Thomas Barnardo established a photography studio which made portraits of the many thousands of children who came into the charity’s London base during the late 19th century. Among them is Alfred Collings, who came to Barnardo’s from Plymouth when he was nine. His father, Fred, was a black dockworker and a well-known temperance activist. Fred and his wife Lillie had 10 children together, but eight died at an early age. Like many children in Barnardo’s care, their family situation became difficult when Fred died from pneumonia in July 1901. Not long after his father’s death Alfred had a bad fall, which led to a diseased bone in his foot, though this was not treated early enough for him to avoid having his foot amputated. Alfred had remained in hospital for two years, and his mother struggled to look after him once he was discharged. But, while he was away in various Barnardo’s homes and hospitals she kept in touch, regularly writing to him – and asking the staff at Barnardo’s to try and get her son to write back. Alfred returned to his mother and sister in Plymouth in September 1914, and finding out how he spent the war years on the home front will be part of my research.

One big change that has occurred over the last decade is the digitisation of archives including 19th-century newspapers. Previously I would never have been able to search local and national newspapers on the off chance I might find a story about a black man or woman – it just would have taken too long. But now, being able to search newspapers with key words has brought me to characters I never imagined, from barmaids in Sheffield to touring lion tamers and into the very ordinary lives of men and women looking for work as domestic servants, from kitchen maids to cooks and handymen to valets.

This project will bring to the fore previously untold histories of black life and multi-cultural working class culture and in doing so suggest ways to radically re-think the history of multi-culturalism in Britain from the place of black history in museums and archives to ‘colour blind’ casting in television dramas. The many stories of these men and women, their family and friends will confront the still widely held perceptions within political, policy and popular arenas that ‘multi-cultural’ Britain began with the arrival of Caribbean migrants after World War Two and challenge us to think about how we live together today and especially in a post-Brexit Britain.

Caroline Bressey is Reader in Cultural and Historical Geography at University College London and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow.  Her research focuses on the black presence and anti-racist communities in Victorian Britain who were the focus of her award winning book Race, Empire and the Politics of Anti-Caste (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). During her fellowship she will be researching 19th-century archives to trace the histories of multi-cultural Britain.