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Can you help solve the mystery of this Black flower seller in 1800s Hastings?

A group of artists hopes to tell her story as part of a new exhibition documenting the role women of colour have played in British history

The flower-seller is wearing a bright white skirt, a flat, wide hat, and a knitted shawl. She stands next to her stall between two pillars on the St Leonards seafront. It’s buckling slightly under the weight of the flowers. And that’s about as much as we know about her.

For nearly 150 years, her picture sat in an archive, gathering dust. But now a team of artists has set out to discover her untold story. Who was this Black woman selling flowers in 19th century Hastings?

It’s a task that could involve spending hours in local history archives and poring over public records, but at the end will hopefully form part of a new exhibition on the roles women of colour have played in Britain’s history.

The exhibition, put together by artists at Collage Arts, aims to fight prejudices and share a part of Britain’s history that has been neglected for so long. And they’re asking for your help to track down the woman in the picture.

“There’s something about the expression on her face I find fascinating. The location of where the photo was taken is on the seafront, so it’s most likely she’s gazing into the sea,” says Sarah Buller, Collage Arts’ project lead for They Came Before Us, who believes the photo was taken in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

“I love that she’s selling something beautiful, whilst looking at something beautiful and that she must have been such an unusual sight to see for passers by. I’ve looked at a lot of old photos of Hastings and St Leonards, and none have been so emotive for me.”

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Alongside the story of the Hastings flower-seller, the exhibition, They Came Before Us, will showcase the stories of nine women and non-binary people of colour.

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Among the stories being researched is that of Mary Prince, a woman born in 1788 who escaped slavery in Bermuda and became the first published Black female author in the UK when she wrote an account of her life.

So too is Sophia Duleep Singh, the god-daughter of Queen Victoria who was nicknamed the “suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace”, and of “Beachy Head Lady”, who died around 250 AD, was discovered in 1959, and was from a sub-Saharan background.

“We were just like: ‘Why is there no representation of women of colour throughout history?’. Why do we not know about anybody other than Mary Seacole, for example?,” Buller said.

“There’s tons and tons of figures and it’s just a bit disappointing that we get such limited information.”

A previous iteration of the exhibition took place in London in 2019, attracting around 3,000 visitors.

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Working with 50 volunteers, Collage Arts created an interactive bedroom. The audience walked through the exhibition, discovering a film in the wardrobe or a piece of spoken word poetry in the bath.

“A big part of it was, yeah, you feel like you’re learning, but you really understood that women of colour have been present in the UK not just since the ’50s and ’60s but for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Buller.

“The volunteers really understand that they’re not outsiders and they are British and part of British culture. And then people who come to see the exhibition realise, oh wow, this isn’t Black people’s history or people of colour’s history – it’s our collective history.”

Collage Arts also works to support artists and creative businesses, and communities accessing arts and creativity.

For the past decade, it has been working with Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of the Big Issue, which has provided investment and support, including funding for Collage Arts’ studio building.

“Without the support of the Big Issue Invest team we wouldn’t have been able to do half the things we’ve done over the past decade,” said Preeti Dasgupta, deputy director of Collage Arts.

“There’s also been non-financial support which has been really good. It’s unusual, I think – you do get other investors, but the Big Issue has always taken an interest.”

This time, they hope their exhibition will reach 10 times as many people – and answer their questions.

Buller adds: “Who is she? What’s her story? Even if we find nothing it’ll still be really interesting to kind of speculate by researching other places and flower sellers.”

Know anything about the woman in the picture? Email info@collage-arts.org and use the subject line ‘Flower seller photo TCBU’, or call 0800 0092 970

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