Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves Bag


Krystyna Campbell-Pretty has made significant contributions to the NGV’s historic holdings of accessories with bags from the nineteenth century, including Bag, c.1826. In the early nineteenth century, fashion became politicised and a tool for the dissemination of ideas; silk satin bags were distributed among the aristocracy by abolitionist women’s societies as part of their push for the end of slavery. Such societies existed across the United States and United Kingdom in order to effect change. They were formed due to women being rejected from participation in any existing anti-slavery movement at the time; political involvement by women was deemed unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture. In 1825, the first and most important female abolitionist group in Britain was established in West Bromwich and was known as the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves; later, around 1830, it became the Female Society for Birmingham. The group initially promoted the boycott of sugar, by campaigning in shops as well as visiting thousands of homes. They also created fashionable objects, such as Bag, decorated with abolitionist emblems to sell to wealthy and influential women who used their merchandise to embellish their homes, as well as to distribute their propaganda. Objects included pincushions, jewellery, prints, as well as bags in which the Society placed their pamphlets, newspaper extracts and a card explaining the purpose of the bags.

Bag features an image taken from an engraving by Samuel Lines – an English designer and painter who was one of the founders of the life drawing academy that would eventually evolve into the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and Birmingham School of Art. The image depicts a female slave holding a child in her arms with her hand raised to her forehead as if in distress. It was intended to encourage empathy with the plight of slaves. On the reverse is a poem, which extends the sympatric plea, describing a woman in captivity weeping over her sick child, seen by God, if not seen by the people, but that ‘assuredly, He will hear thee’. A similar bag is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. These bags were powerful keepsakes, poignant and perhaps compelling in eliciting emotion.

The work also typifies the fashionable woman’s bag of the period, which became an indispensable, functional and elegant accessory, as gowns became narrow at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Gowns were no longer able to hide separate hanging pockets within the folds of their skirts and petticoats; therefore, separate handbags became necessary. This new need for handbags led to design innovations between 1800 and 1830, including flat-framed reticules with clasps of silver, riveted steel or gilt metal. Bag has a cut-steel frame at its opening; attached to it is a chain metal handle from which the wearer would hold it against their simply adorned dress. Adhering to the fashion of the day, Bag incorporates the period’s novel design and technology as well as a profoundly relevant political message.

Paola Di Trocchio, Curator, Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria