Untold lives blog

23 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

10 June 2021

Sobriety and decorum - Passengers on East India Company ships

The movement of people on board East India Company ships to and from Asia was subject to strict rules in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The ships carried civilian employees, maritime and military personnel, non-official inhabitants, women, children, and Indian servants.  Large contingents of troops took their passage, both for the Company and Royal armies, and in 1708 the Company ordered that ship surgeons would be allowed 10 shillings for each soldier delivered alive in India.

 East Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay HarbourEast Indiaman Essex at anchor in in Bombay Harbour by Francis Jukes (1785) British Library P493 Images Online

East India Company commanders were required to keep ‘true and exact diaries and journals of the ship’s daily proceedings’, including the names of passengers with the places where they entered and left the ship.  All passengers were issued with printed regulations established to preserve good order in Company ships, outward and homeward bound.  Commanders were to pay attention to comfortable accommodation and ‘liberal treatment’ of their passengers, setting an example of sobriety and decorum.  Diversity of characters and dispositions on board ship made some restraint necessary for all.  Good manners and known customs should prevail.  Commanders were to mediate in disputes between officers and passengers.

In 1819, the Company stated that the ‘wholesome practices’ formerly observed had been laid aside.  Late hours and the ‘consequent mischiefs’ had been introduced, endangering the ships and destroying propriety.  No fire was to be kept beyond 8pm unless in a stove for the use of the sick.  Candles were to be extinguished by 9pm between decks and by 10pm at the latest in cabins.  Lights must not be visible to any vessel passing in the night.  Passengers and officers were to leave the meal table at the same time as the commander.  One puncheon (84 gallons) of rum marked ‘Captain’s Table’ was sent on board for the commander and his servants, officers, and cabin passengers.  No other spirits were to be drawn from the ship’s stores by these groups.

Any commander carrying out or bringing home a passenger without the permission of the Company’s Court of Directors was fined: £500 for a European or for a native of India who was the child of a European; £20 for a male or female ‘black servant’, native of India or elsewhere.  The Company said it had incurred great expense returning to India servants who had been discharged by their masters and mistresses after being in England for some time.  Commanders must have a certificate of a deposit of £50 made for each ‘black servant’ or refuse to accept them.  Care was to be taken not to take on board European deserters from the Company armies.

Commanders charged those proceeding to India at their own expense for passage and a place at their table.  Rates were on a sliding scale according to rank, from £200 for an Army general to £80 for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, and single women, and £60 for cadets.

Baggage allowances were also given according to rank.  The return baggage from India, exclusive of bedding and a few pieces of cabin furniture, ranged from five tons for gentlemen of the Company Councils and generals, to one ton for writers, lieutenants, ensigns, single women, and other cabin passengers.  Additional tonnage was allocated for wives and families.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:
Charles Cartwright, An Abstract of the Orders and Regulations of the Honourable Court of Directors of the East-India Company, and of Other Documents (London, 1788).
Instructions from the commanders of the East India Company's own ships to their officers, &c. (London, 1819)
IOR/L/MAR/B East India Company marine records 

Servants sailing from India with the East India Company

28 May 2021

Sadi, servant to the Sulivan family

On 11 July 1787 a young Indian servant named Sadi was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey after being convicted of stealing bank notes to the value of £400 from his employer Stephen Sulivan.  William Morris was tried for receiving the stolen notes and was defended by barrister William Garrow.  Morris was also found guilty by the jury, but sentencing was delayed in his case because of a legal uncertainty.

View of the scaffold and gallows outside the north quad of Newgate Prison; a screen on the right leading up to entrance to scaffold  with gallows over platform.‘A Perspective View of the temporary Gallows in the Old Bailey’ 1794 © The Trustees of the British Museum Asset number 765670001 - View of the scaffold and gallows outside the north quad of Newgate Prison; a screen on the right leading up to entrance to scaffold, with gallows over platform.

Sadi, also known as George Horne, was a footboy in the Sulivan household in Harley Street, London.  Stephen Sulivan’s father Laurence had been a prominent East India Company director and politician.  Having served the East India Company in Madras and Calcutta, Stephen returned to England in the summer of 1785 with his wife Elizabeth and son Laurence.  The Sulivans brought Sadi with them as he had attended Laurence since his birth in January 1783 and was a favourite of the family.  They wished to preserve Sadi’s ‘simple manners’ and ‘innocent mind’ from corruption by their other servants so he stayed in the nursery, eating and sleeping with his charge.  He had unrestrained access to the private apartments of the house.

However in 1787, Sadi began behaving with ‘repeated irregularities’.  The Sulivans dismissed the young man, intending to send him back to India.  Whilst awaiting a passage in an East Indiaman, Sadi was sent to lodge with Thomas Saunders, the assistant keeper of the East India Company’s tea and drug warehouse.

It came to light that Sadi had been stealing from the Sulivans for two years – muslins, silks, calicos, linen, pearls, clothing, and a special shawl belonging to Elizabeth.  The stolen goods were passed on to other servants in the house who encouraged Sadi to continue with his thefts.  He stole four guineas without being detected and then one bank note for £1,000 and two for £200.  When Sadi showed the £1,000 note to two of his fellow servants, they told him it was too great a sum to pass on without detection.  After keeping it for some days, he threw it under the kitchen grate where it was found by the housekeeper who gave it to Elizabeth.  The notes for £200 were sold by Sadi for a guinea to William Morris, formerly butler to Stephen’s father.

Elizabeth called on Sadi at his lodgings.  He burst into tears and made a full confession, directing her to Morris’s home in Petticoat Lane.  She went there with a constable and Morris’s wife handed over the two bank notes.

Other servants of the Sulivans were also arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods: Thomas Absalom, his wife Martha, and Catherine Smith.  Martha Absalom was apprehended at Maidenhead in Berkshire and found to have property belonging to Elizabeth Sulivan.

On 24 August 1787, the King granted Sadi a reprieve from the death sentence passed on him.  The young Indian remained in Newgate prison but he died shortly afterwards on 9 December.  The death rate in Newgate was extremely high in the late 1780s because of severe overcrowding and an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ (epidemic typhus).

A few days after Sadi’s death, the case of William Morris was finally settled. He was discharged because the judges agreed with his defence counsel that the bank notes he had received could not be classified as goods and chattels, the term used in the charge against him.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The case is reported in Old Bailey Online and in the British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast), for example Hampshire Chronicle 4 June 1787, Bury and Norwich Post 6 June 1787, Derby Mercury 7 June 1787 and 13 December 1787, Kentish Gazette 24 July 1787, Sheffield Register 1 September 1787.

 

29 April 2021

Bhicoo Batlivala, Campaigner for Indian Independence

The names of the leading proponents of Indian independence from British rule are well known, but the fight was carried on by many thousands of campaigners and activists who devoted their lives to this important cause.  One such campaigner was Bhicoo Batlivala.

Bhicoo Batlivala - head and shoulders photographic portraitPortrait photograph by Douglas of Bhicoo Batlivala from The Bystander 16 February 1938 British Newspaper Archive also available from Findmypast

Bhicoo Batlivala was born in Bombay on 1 January 1911.  Her father, Sorabji Batlivala, was a successful mill owner.  When she was only ten years old she was sent to Britain for her education, where she attended the Cheltenham Ladies College, before studying law and becoming a Barrister of the Inner Temple in 1932.  In July that year, the Dundee Courier listed her in its piece on ‘Men and Women of Today’, describing her as ‘dark, slender, and with dark auburn hair and regular features’.  Intelligent with an adventurous spirit, Batlivala was also a pilot, and a keen player of polo and tennis.

Bhicoo Batlivala - article in Dundee Courier 14 July 1932Dundee Courier 14 July 1932 British Newspaper Archive also available from Findmypast

After practising as a barrister in the UK for a few years, she returned to India.  It was reported in British newspapers that she was the first woman to be admitted to the State Service of Baroda, where she held a variety of Government positions, including Inspector of Schools.  On returning to England, she married Guy Mansell in London in 1939.  They set up home in Cobham, Surrey.

Batlivala was an active member of the India League, an organisation founded in 1916 to promote the cause of Indian independence.  She regularly attended meetings throughout the 1940s, often as a speaker, a fact noted in Government intelligence reports.  She also became associated with Jawaharlal Nehru, at one point acting as his secretary, and campaigning for his release from prison.  In 1940, she embarked on a six month lecture tour in America causing the British Government considerable anxiety.

On 24 February 1943, Batlivala led a delegation of Indian women to the Central lobby of the House of Commons.  Once there they met several women M.P.s, and put their case for the release of Gandhi who had been imprisoned in India at the start of the Quit India Campaign.  The Derby Daily Telegraph reported that the Indian women wore ‘beautiful native robes’, and quoted Batlivala as saying ‘We are urging that the release of Gandhi should be put before the Government as a very urgent matter.  It is not a question only of Hindus or of one particular community.  Indians of all communities here are very deeply concerned about the present drift of the situation as it is being handled by the Government’.

In an article for International Woman Suffrage News, Batlivala highlighted the hypocrisy of Britain using India’s resources to fight the threat of Nazism, while denying India her own freedom.  She concluded; ‘The Indian people have repeatedly declared that they have no quarrel with the British people, but they will no longer tolerate a system of Imperialism.  If the British Government declares that its fight is for the liberation of all nations then it must liberate India.  The world is watching’.


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Information Department file on Miss Bhicoo Batlivala, 1938-1940, shelfmark IOR/L/I/1/1295.

Indian Political Intelligence files:
India League: reports on members and activities, 1940-1941, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/453.
India League: reports on members and activities, 1943-1946, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/456.
Bhicoo Batlivala alias Mansell, India League: activities in USA, 1939-1943, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/12/631.

The British Newspaper Archive  - also available via Findmypast
Dundee Courier, 14 July 1932.
Gloucestershire Echo, 06 November 1936.
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 January 1938.
International Woman Suffrage News, 03 January 1941.
Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 February 1943.

The Open University, ‘Making Britain, Discover how South Asians shaped the nation, 1870-1950’  - Bhicoo Batlivala

Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, Rozina Visram (London: Pluto Press, 2002).

 

05 January 2021

Bevin Trainees now in India Office Family History Search

In 1941 the British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, supported the establishment of the Bevin Training Scheme to provide practical training in engineering for young Indians.  The Scheme was an effort to meet the demand for skilled engineers in Indian industries supporting the war effort.

Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factoryLeo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factory - from Engineering Bulletin September 1941 published by the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Crown Copyright) IOR/L/I/1/978

A previous story on Untold Lives revealed that the India Office Records include lists of the first seven batches of trainees invited to the UK and details of the firms they were placed with and houses they lodged in.

Example of a page from the India Office file showing the details recorded about the traineesExample of a page from IOR/L/E/8/8112 showing the details recorded about the trainees Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As part of the India Office Records team’s efforts to identify records of individuals in our collections who historically have been overlooked, we have now transcribed all the names and details from these lists into the British Library’s India Office Family History Search.

Here are some examples of entries:
Prasad, R. – Placed with the Cincinnatti Milling Machine Company, Birmingham, on 13 Oct 1941.  Lodged at 77 Eachelhurst Road, Erdington, Birmingham.  Trainee reference number 2/42.
Deshpande, H.G. – Placed with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, Crewe, on 28 Sep 1942.  Lodged at Saxon House, Carlton Road, Whalley Range, Manchester.  Trainee reference number 5/38.
Nandy, S. – Placed with Vauxhall Motors, Luton, on 7 June 1943.  Lodged at 21 Ascot Road, Luton.  Trainee reference number 7/5.

We hope that this data will help your family history research and reveal stories about collaboration across cultures.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
Bevin Training Scheme: papers not transferred to the High Commissioner for India, including lists of Indian trainees showing firms with whom placed and lodging addresses, May 1941-Sep 1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/E/8/8112]
Indian workmen training in UK (Bevin Boys), 1940-1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/I/1/978]

 

15 October 2020

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in April 1775, the British Army soon realised that it lacked the manpower it needed to prosecute the war.  One action taken was the issuing of the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 which decreed that slaves who joined the British to fight against the American revolutionaries would be freed from slavery.  Thousands of slaves joined the British forces in response where they became known as the Black Loyalists and were formed into a number of military units such as the Black Pioneers and the Ethiopians.   The Black Pioneers accompanied General Henry Clinton to Rhode Island when he was tasked with taking Newport in 1776.

Map of Rhode Island in 1776 marked with the positions of British RegimentsMap of Rhode Island in 1776, Add MS 57715, f.3. The map is marked with the positions of British Regiments. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With the conclusion of hostilities, the future of the Black Loyalists remained uncertain and they were under threat of re-enslavement.  General Washington demanded that the British obey the Treaty of Paris (1783) which had specified that all American property, including slaves, be returned.  The British instead attempted to keep their original promise by relocating thousands of ex-slaves outside of the United States.  Sir Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in North America, oversaw the evacuation of Black Loyalists and many other black individuals living behind British lines – some runaway slaves, some born free men, as well as their families - to British territory including Jamaica, London (where many became known as London Black Poor), and Nova Scotia.

A manuscript record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of IndependenceA record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of Independence. Add MS 21743, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Nova Scotia the Black Loyalists were promised land and freedom, but Nova Scotia proved to be hostile both environmentally and socially.  A description of the relocation to Nova Scotia is given in a report commissioned by Sir Carleton.

Title page of the manuscript report on Nova ScotiaTitle page of the report on Nova Scotia, Kings MS 208, f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Page from manuscript report showing increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arriveThis page traces the increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arrive. Kings MS 208, 24 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report made direct reference to the Black Loyalists settling in Nova Scotia and stated that they numbered around 3000 at the point of writing in 1784.

The following page of the report explains the difficulties that have arisen already with lack of land to cultivate and insists that provisions be made for the new settlers lest they ‘perish – they have no other country to go to – no other asylum'.

Manuscript document giving description of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova ScotiaDescription of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova Scotia. Kings MS 208, f.32 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With many of the black settlers feeling betrayed, an unusual and challenging plan was devised: to relocate these families from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, to form a new colony of free people, who would govern themselves.  The decision to relocate the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia developed upon an earlier project that had relocated a number of the ‘black poor’ of London to Sierra Leone.  Granville Sharp, philanthropist and abolitionist was a seminal figure in the original plan.  The recently formed Sierra Leone Company would orchestrate the new project and instigated John Clarkson - the younger brother of abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson - as the agent in charge of the mission.  However, the figure who was instrumental in devising the plan was the former slave and Black Pioneer, Thomas Peters.

The next blog post in this series will examine Thomas Peters’ role in the establishment of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the letters in the British Library that were composed by him.

A view from the sea of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone 1790 with a sailing ship in the foregroundA View of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone by Cornelis Apostool. 1790, before the re-settlement of the Nova Scotian Black Loyalists. British Library Maps.K.Top.117.100 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

27 August 2020

Collections in the UK on Indian Independence and Partition

The India Office Records and Private Papers, held at the British Library, contains one of the largest archives outside South Asia of records relating to the Indian independence struggle, and the eventual partition of pre-1947 India into the independent states of India and Pakistan.  This includes official government records, as well as significant collections of private papers.

Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for IndiaMahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, 18 April 1946 - Photo 134/2(19) Images Online c13486-31

 

However, there are also a wealth of records on this subject to be found in local archives, libraries, and record offices around the UK.  Here are a just a few examples of some of the wonderful collections available to be explored.

There are of course many libraries in London which hold collections relating to Indian Independence, including the National Archives, the Parliamentary Archives, the Marx Memorial Library, and the London School of Economics Library. There are also a great many important collections to be found at Oxford and Cambridge, for instance:
• The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the papers of Clement Richard Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-1951, along with the papers of several British politicians who were involved with Indian affairs and Indian civil servants.
• Cambridge University holds the papers of many British politicians involved in the administration of British India, while the Centre for South Asian Studies holds the private papers of many members of the India Civil Service and their families, and officers and other ranks who served in the Armed Forces in India at the time of Independence.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, SimlaPandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, Simla,  11 May 1946 - Photo 134/2(28) Images Online c13486-35

 

Elsewhere around the UK are wonderful collections on this subject, here are just a few examples:
• The Keep Archive Centre in Brighton, which holds a collection of letters from Gandhi to Madeleine Slade (often known as Mirabehn), many written while he was at Yeravda Prison and during his period of fasting; and a collection of official papers and reports accumulated by Major-General Thomas Wynford Rees, Commander of the Punjab Boundary Force, August and September 1947.
• Correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and Eleanor Rathbone, May-Nov 1941, at University of Liverpool, Special Collections & Archives.
• The Mountbatten Papers and the papers of Lieutenant Colonel Nawab Sir Malik K H Tiwana (relating to the Punjab and its partition), both collections at the University of Southampton.
• Papers of Dr V.N. Sharma, Director General of Hospitals in India which include photocopies of letters and photographs sent to him by Subhas Chandra Bose at Hull History Centre.
• Quit India poster (Bombay, 1942) at West Glamorgan Archive Service.

Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947 - Maps MOD OR 6409 Images Online B20151-85

In recent years there has been many fascinating projects to collect oral histories relating to independence and partition.  To name just three:
• The Memories of Partition Project Archive, a project to record the memories of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India is held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, University of Manchester.
• The White Line - Here, There, Then, Now Oral History Project, in which interviews were carried out with people who eventually migrated to Huddersfield to record their memories of pre-Partition, the Partition era and what happened afterwards, is held at Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield.
• India: A People Partitioned Oral Archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Indian Independence Collection Guide 
Archives HUB 
AIM25 
The National Archives (TNA) Discovery
Scottish Archive Network 
List of UK archives 
Chris Cook (ed), The Routledge Guide to British Political Archives: Sources since 1945 (Routledge, 2006)

13 August 2020

‘Black Peggy’ and the Foundling Hospital

In 1793 the London Foundling Hospital received a petition from ‘Black Peggy’, a native of Bengal.

‘Being a poor unfortunate girl just arrived at the age of fourteen was on my voyage to England with Mrs Harding, unhappily seduced by my fellow servant James Murray by a false promise of marriage, but on our arrival at Ostend he knowing of my pregnancy left me friendless and unprotected.  Nothing but the kind humanity of my mistress could have supported me through this scene of misery and repentance and who is still inclin’d to be my friend could I conceal my disgrace by your benevolence.  This gentleman urges me in the most supplicating manner to entreat and solicit your generous aid and protection to the unhappy infant of your very humble petitioner.’

Peggy’s mistress, Mrs Elizabeth Harding of 2 Buckingham Street, recommended acceptance of the child because of the girl’s penitence and past good conduct.  On 4 May 1793 Peggy’s two-month-old daughter was admitted to the Hospital as Foundling No.18142.  She was baptised with the name Jane Williams and sent as a nurse child to Dorking.  Sadly Jane died a year later and was buried at St Martin’s Church in Dorking on 11 May 1794.

Foundling Hospital Chapel with children filing in.sFoundling Hospital Chapel – British Library Crach.1.Tab.4.b.3. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is not clear whether Peggy was of Asian or African descent.  African slaves were brought to Bengal in the 18th century.

I believe that Peggy’s mistress was the wife of Thomas Harding an officer in the East India Company’s Bengal Army.  In May 1794 Elizabeth Harding was granted permission by the East India Company Court of Directors to return to her husband in India.  At the same time Thomas Parry Esq, (the Company director?), was authorised to return a black servant named Peggy to Bengal on the Royal Admiral with no expense to be incurred by the Company.

Extract from East India Company Court of Directors' Minutes for 7 May 1794IOR/B/119 p.93 East India Company Court of Directors' Minutes 7 May 1794  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the passenger list for the Royal Admiral, Peggy is recorded as the servant to Mrs Anna Maria Freeman who was returning to her husband in Bengal.  The ship sailed from Plymouth in August 1794 and the two women landed at Calcutta in February 1795.

The homeward passenger list for the Royal Admiral shows Anna Maria Freeman and her black servant, now named as Peggy Harding.  This link to her previous mistress surely confirms that this is the Foundling Hospital’s ‘Black Peggy’?  What had happened to cause Mrs Freeman to leave again for England on the Royal Admiral in August 1795?  Did she discover that her husband had died in her absence?  Frustratingly I have been unable to identify with any certainty who her husband was.

Passenger list homeward of ship Royal Admiral 1795IOR/L/MAR/B/338G Passenger list homeward of ship Royal Admiral 1795 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Mrs Freeman and Peggy left the ship in the Bristol Channel on 8 January 1796.  Less than a month later Anna Maria Freeman, described as a widow, married William Fairfax in Bristol.  Fairfax had been first mate in the Royal Admiral on the 1794-1796 voyage to India and back.

For now, the story of Peggy ends here.   Perhaps she is the black female servant called Peggy who sailed on the Houghton to Bengal in the spring of 1797?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/338G Journal of Royal Admiral for 1794-1796 voyage with passenger lists.

London Metropolitan Archives Foundling Hospital records - Petition of 'Black Peggy' is in A/FH/A08/001/001/018 Petitions admitted to ballot 1792-1793.

Forgotten Foundlings: black lives and the eighteenth-century Foundling Hospital.

16 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 2: 1849-1950

The 19th century saw women in Britain campaigning for the right to the same access to education as men.  In 1849, Bedford College became the first higher education college for women and more colleges would be set up in its wake.  Women would soon study for degrees in the sciences.  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake became some of the first women to qualify as doctors in the country.  An increase in formal education across scientific subjects meant an increase of women in the fields of chemistry, engineering and biology.  Among the correspondence within the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58447 – 37201) we find countless letters of professional women across many spheres in the early 20th century, including letters from surgeon Dr. Ethel Vaughan-Sawyer and engineer Hertha Ayrton.

Bedford College in York Place LondonThe second home of Bedford College in York Place, London - Illustrated London News 21 May 1949 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

Prospects for finding manuscripts relating to women working within the sciences improve as time goes on, but it is not a level playing field for all women.  Opportunities evidently improve for some women within the 20th century as more women gain qualifications, but there are very few collections relating to BAME women in science before the later 20th century.  On top of the combined pressures of both sexism and racism within society which denied the opportunities of many professional careers to BAME women, the scientific arena itself engaged in theories of racial superiority.  Just as opportunities were opening up for women in science, eugenic theories first postulated in the 19th century became mainstream. Physicians like Marie Stopes actively engaged in eugenic societies and with ideas of racial purity.

This systemic racism from both inside and outside of science meant opportunities to break through into professional scientific research were few and far between for many women of colour.  However, in the field of medicine, we can find some collections relating to BAME women.  Dr Rukhmabai travelled from India to gain a degree in medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women and went on to practise in India.  There is a file concerning her early life in the India Office Records (IOR/L/PJ/6/202, File 729) which concerns her seminal legal case contesting her arranged marriage.  The London School hosted many Indian students providing scholarships to exceptional students to train in London.

Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920
Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920. British Newspaper Archive

There are also papers within the Sylvia Pankhurst Papers (Add MS 88925) concerning the legacy of Princess Tsahai Haile Selassie who trained as nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Ormond Street with two other nursesPhotograph of Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Orm0nd Street Hospital - Illustrated London News 5 September 1936 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

The collections explored over these two blog posts demonstrate how factors of gender, wealth and race have affected how different women have been able to contribute to science in Britain up until 1950.  Despite the evident, and varied, obstacles women faced over the centuries – which have influenced the type of material we hold in our collections – there is still a lot to explore.  Buried within the archives, the collections relating to women in science contain many examples of ingenuity against the odds, many accounts of controversy, innovation and discovery, and many more stories yet to be told.

Jessica Gregory.
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts.

Further Reading:
Subhadra Das, Bricks and Mortals: A History of Eugenics Told Through Buildings
Voices of Science 

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

 

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