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  • Writer's pictureJanet Few

Emma - a truly forgotten woman

Sometimes we come across forgotten women, who are lost to history to such an extent that we can only glimpse their stories; once such is Emma. Emma appears in the 1851 census, living at 6 Middleton Road, Hackney. She is enumerated as 'Emma', with 'no surname' written underneath. Emma was thirty five, born in Africa and her occupation is listed as 'house servant, late a slave'. This is odd as Britain banned enslavement before Emma was born. Enslavers were however allowed to keep existing slaves until 1834, so Emma may have been born to an enslaved mother but then she is unlikely to have been born in Africa.

The householder was sixty five year old James Thornton 'retired from South America'. There is no clue as to what he had been doing in South America and he is not listed in the Legacies of British Slavery Database.

Ten years later, Emma was still with the Thorntons at the same address. James' occupation is still obscure, 'retired from business'. This time Emma is recorded as Emma Emancipated, as if emancipated were her surname and in birthplace column the enumerator has written 'African free'. Her age was recorded as fifty. There is obviously some vagueness about her date of birth; if she were fifty four, she could indeed have legally been enslaved.

Emma's story consists of these two fragments of her life, she nevertheless deserves to be recognised.


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