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A Magazine for Sheffield

Dig Where You Stand: Speak Story to Power

Désirée Reynolds has been the Writer In Residence at Sheffield Archives for six months. Using a style which combines archival material, documentary prose and fiction, Désirée weaves together her creative responses to what she has found and not found in them. This is the last piece for Now Then, in her serialisation of ‘Dig Where You Stand’. 

Shirley Campbell WEB Banner


When thinking about the collisions of the archives, it is this story which typifies that. I’ve included Shirley in this iteration because her loss became mine. And because I don’t want us to lose sight of her or the stories like hers.

Bits and pieces run alongside facts and pictures. We haven’t heard the last of this story and what this story will be.

But where was her protection? Her childish thoughts wondering where her mother is? Where is her home? The headline tells us about the time and speaks to a life beyond this picture. What do you see when you look at her face?

The picture is grainy. Part of the front page of the newspaper that also has a visit from Mae West, a conflict in Hong Kong, a…

Her hair looks like an aunty did it, too old a style for her. Her coat with bright buttons. A three year old. Being three and not an adult to care for her. Shirley Campbell, three, but looks much, much older, and the photo is staged to show how happy she is.

She’s already used to being placed, posed, arranged. She’s been handed in like an umbrella or a bag, lost and not quite found, and then lost again. How long had she been alone on the streets? Been called ‘it’. She smiles as hard as my other girl doesn’t. Her face is looking up at someone. Who? And she was incidental. Someone again, knew she was here, came across here. Her family, a campaign to free her mother from Strangeways. Her grandfather, Augustus Simeon Campbell, living in Sheffield. What a name. Surely someone with that name would claim all his kin?

She’s given a toy to play with and then watches as it’s taken back. I can’t stop looking at her face.

I tweet / Insta thinking maybe someone could tell me something about her…

More tales from the archives.

How do stories come to you?

These lost and alone Black children of Sheffield have been finding me. So I must hang on to them as they are hanging onto me.

Here is Shirley “the three-year old tap dancing piccaninny”. She was abandoned on the streets of Liverpool by her mother in 1938. Her grandfather from Jamaica, living in Sheffield, married a local woman in 1874. Their daughter is Shirley’s mother.

“A few hours previously the child had been brought to the shelter by a coloured woman who asked that it should be taken in while she went to work… This request was denied, had to be refused”.

It? Refused?

She is put into Grenoside Institution.

The questions are, as ever, a part of the story. What happened to her?

Was she really a performer? Was she 3? The adultification of Black girls continues to this day. What do they mean by piccaninny? Did she perform? Where? Did she? I will probably never find out enough.

Look at that smile.

It looks like a new coat.

I’m claiming Shirley now. She’s living in my chest with the other children. I have room. I think we should all have room.


The photographer got her just right. Perhaps she smiled out of habit. She likes rocking horses. Found on the streets, she gets taken to Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Islington Square, Liverpool.

“I’m sorry but we’re full”.

“What! Aren’t you supposed to be looking after girls like her?”

“She can’t stay here”.

“But I’ve got to get to work, I can’t be late again”.

“Sorry we can’t help. Her mum must’ve gone to the shops”.

“But she’s not come back, has she?”

“Are you sure she’s not yours?”

“What, well look at her. She looks nothing like me”.

“You’re both coloured, aren’t you?”.

“We’re not related. I don’t know where she’s from but she’s not from round here. She needs help, I thought this was the place to come”.

“We’re full”.

“Can’t she sit in a corner until her mum calls in”.

“I said we’re full. You’ll have to take it to the police”.

“Can’t one of you..?”

“Sorry no, you’ll have to take her to the police”.

“But what will they do with her there?”

“They’ll find her mum. I’ll call, tell them you’re on your way”.

“Go on then”.

The adults around her smile down at her and pat her hair.

“Springy, isn’t it?”

People talk about her as if she isn’t there.

We did find her mum. I don’t know if they did at the time, when she was lost. The story is far more complicated than we thought. Her mother was troubled. She is brought back to Sheffield and put into an institution. That trail goes cold but we now take Shirley into our hearts.

Shirley is still smiling and I don’t know if I like it.

The Nameless

Inventory of Goods of Reginald Wilson 1694

And then I get an email. A man doing his own research has come across this - an inventory of goods in the will of Reginald Wilson 1694. If it’s in his will then these are the people, some with names some without, that he wishes to pass on, as part of his wealth, his pistols and other ‘goods’.

“From now on your name will be…”

Like choosing a name for a pet, looking around you as your eyes glance over a chair, a mantlepiece, a window, a rug. My name could’ve been ‘window’, an opening I could run out of.

Put it on your tongue, let your teeth and gums hold it. Hold it.

“From now on your name will be…”

Listen to how that sounds. You are nothing unless I name you.

“Oh I know!...”

My names contain lifetimes.

I think about how I must deliver this story and Insta post:

Enslaved names
More tales from the Sheffield Archives.

Sometimes when looking at this stuff as a Black creative we often have to ask ourselves ‘Is this something that is useful?’
Why do we always look at Black pain porn and not at the other stories?
Our history is not only slavery, but also the centuries before, why root it in this?
Why is it that these are the stories that are funded? Delivered? Written about? I get that. I get that it often feels that this is all anyone wants to engage with. I get that we are more than this. I agree.
I think about the silences. The structured absences.
I think about what it means for a writer like me to look at this. I know I may never find their real names but since these are the ones that I’ve found, then this is what I have.
I need to say to these people, with names that aren’t theirs,
‘I see you’.

Speak the unspeakable.

We must see archives as a source of reparative justice. We were always here.

Next in series

More Dig Where You Stand

More Equality & Social Justice

More Equality & Social Justice