Obituary: Esther Bruce

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The Independent Online
Josephine Esther Bruce, seamstress: born London 29 November 1912; died London 17 July 1994.

ESTHER BRUCE, one of the oldest black women born in Britain, received public recognition late in life with her best-selling autobiography Aunt Esther's Story (1992).

In this lively, entertaining and informative book Bruce described how her father, Joseph, the son of Guyanese slaves, settled in Fulham at the turn of the century. Until he died in 1941, Joseph worked as a coach painter and film extra, appearing in such productions as Chu Chin Chow (1934) and Sanders of the River (1935) which starred Paul Robeson. A proud man, he always made a defiant stand against racism. For example, in the early 1920s he was responsible for the sacking of a teacher who instructed Esther and her (white) classmates 'not to talk to coloured people'.

A few years later Esther was sacked from her job as a seamstress at Barker's, the department store in Kensington High Street, for, she said, 'being coloured'. She later recalled: 'Dad was very angry and went to the office the next day. He raised the roof. He said: 'You can't do this to my child.' He even wrote a letter to our MP at the House of Commons.'

For many years Joseph and his daughter were the only black members of their working-class community and in the book she movingly recalled how they were accepted and protected by their neighbours. She said: 'In the old days the people of Fulham used to be one big happy family and we helped each other, but today people are selfish. We were poor but people cared about each other. People were friendly and that meant a lot.'

In the 1930s Esther Bruce met two famous black people in London: the Jamaican nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (who also lived in Fulham) and the American singer Elisabeth Welch (for whom she made dresses). She said: 'Marcus Garvey was a nice chap. He told me the English are no good but I said there are some good people in this world.'

A friendly, out-going woman, Bruce integrated easily into the new, multi-cultural society of postwar Britain. But from time to time racism still reared its ugly head. She said: 'After the war many people came from the Caribbean to live in Britain. In 1959 my cousin Lee and his family came here from Guyana. He wanted to see a bit of England so I took him to Windsor Castle. Afterwards we went into a pub for a drink but the barmaid refused to serve us. Lee said: 'Come on, love. They don't want us.' So I said: 'I don't want them. I'll take you to another pub.' '

In 1992 Fulham and Hammersmith's Ethnic Communities Oral History Project published Aunt Esther's Story for which Esther Bruce received the Arts Council of Great Britain's Raymond Williams Prize for Community Publishing. Simon Reade described the book in City Limits as

a personal yet archetypal chapter in the history of working-class London, one which is usually overlooked in the grand catalogue of great men. It should inspire young people to explore the thoughts and observations of an older generation of family and friends, thus discovering shared experiences throughout our multi- racial, culturally diverse metropolis.

An exhibition of photographs from the book - including several contemporary portraits by Val Wilmer - over the past two years toured various venues in London, including the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton and as part of the Museum of London's 'The Peopling of London' exhibition.

(Photograph omitted)