055: Black London, 1890

The Afro-Canadian Bohee Brothers recorded in London in 1890
The Afro-Canadian Bohee Brothers recorded in London in 1890

On Friday 3 January 1890 a lighterman named Alfred Campbell was shot by Charles Higgins, who was then chased by Campbell and a man named Cross onto Southwark Bridge where Higgins was arrested by City of London police. The Times reported the next day that Campbell “a negro” was an American sailor residing at the Sailors’ Home in Well Street, Poplar. A later report said he had been in England for one month, had been robbed of £10 (all he had), sought work as a stoker on a ship to America but was refused as he was not a union member, and so had been working at the power station at Bankside (Tate Modern is on the site) for two days. When he left it a group of “loafers” attacked him trying to steal his watch and chain. He had not intended to discharge his revolver. The trial took place at the Old Bailey on 13 January. The 29 year old American had a revolver and a knife, but Campbell had not been seriously injured. Higgins indicated that he was being robbed. The judge spoke with the prosecuting lawyer, and they agreed a not guilty verdict as there was no evidence of intent to murder or to do grievous bodily harm. He was found guilty of common assault “under great provocation” and was discharged having been bonded for £25.

In January James Sweeney “a man of colour” aged 26 with John Wood, 27 were accused of robbing Charles Benson of 8 shillings (£-.40) in the Oval, Hackney Road: Sweeney having knocked him down. They were found not guilty at the Old Bailey where the court transcript does not mention his colour.

Charles Taylor and his wife “Madame Howard, the African Lion-Faced Lady” were prohibited from carrying on her exhibition in a shop in Stoke Newington Road in February 1890.

It was in London in February too that James and George Bohee (see photographs), born of African descent in New Brunswick, Canada, recorded banjo duets for the Edison company. It and others have not been traced, but the Bohees continued as banjoists – they taught the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) – and toured Britain widely.

Present in London was Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was described as the “President-Elect of Liberia” when he was the guest at a formal dinner on 10 April held by the Liberian Concession Company. (Liberia’s first Africa-born president 1884-1892 was Hilary Richard Johnson; Blyden represented Liberia in England for many years, and wrote numerous articles and books. He had been born in the Danish West Indies).

On 16 April the Royal Humane Society gave its silver medal to Isaac Rose, a sailor and “man of colour” who had climbed off the cliffs on the Isle of Wight to rescue a boy in the rigging of the Irex which had collided with the Needles on 27 January. The rope had been fired by rocket and connected the steel three-master to the cliff top. The ship had been bound from Glasgow to Rio de Janeiro when fearsome winds forced it to shelter in Totland Bay.

On 26 April Christie’s auction house sale of paintings included A Negro Boy, a watercolour by “W. Hunt” (possibly William Holman Hunt?). It sold for £63. Edwin Landseer’s Uncle Tom and his wife for Sale went for £1,400. This was a painting of two dogs, not connected to the 1850s best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On 27 June at the Pelican Club, 33 Gerrard Street in London’s Soho the sporting crowd watched Canadian-born “Little Chocolate”, George Dixon (1870-1908) beat Nunc Wallace and win the world bantamweight title. The fight started at 11.20pm and lasted over 100 minutes. At a later court case, regarding noise and nuisance, noted: “The Pelicans were persons of late habits”. Dixon won £500 too.

On 5 July a man of colour named Leopold Gass was attacked with an axe by a fellow lodger and was still in hospital weeks later.

On 12 July an often-convicted pugilist, a “man of colour” and “of powerful build” named John Davenport, aged 28, was arrested with a married couple in Tolmer’s Square near Hampstead and Euston Roads. He was charged with attacking a sculptor with a poker. The alleged victim was in hospital with cuts and fractures. When the case came up at the Old Bailey Davenport was noted as “a black”. Found guilty, it had once required 16 police constables to convey him to a police station. He was sentenced to eight years. The married couple – she seems to have enticed the sculptor to her home, promising sex – were acquitted as there was no case against them.

In the early morning of 11 November a special train, of three carriages, was taking 47 passengers from Plymouth, where they had arrived on the Norham Castle from South Africa, on to London. Most were miners returning to the north of England. A signalman’s error at Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton led that train, at 60 mph (96 kph), into a stationary goods train. The pile up was 30 ft (10 metres) high. Ten passengers died. Burned and scalded, six were still alive when rescuers reached them. Four had already died – one mutilated body was reunited with its head some hours later. This victim was Titus Baylis, a black missionary on his way to America. He was a Wesleyan, expected in Liverpool, and based in Kimberley. News of the disaster appeared in many newspapers of course, with the Leeds Mercury (12 November) saying “The negro boy who was killed was the son of a missionary at Kimberley, and was on his way to Virginia to learn medicine”, and the Glasgow Herald (13 November) noting “The Wesleyan body of Taunton are taking an interest in the young African…father a native Wesleyan missionary”. The Guernsey Star of that date said Baylis “is stated to have been a singer of some celebrity” and the Hampshire Advertiser (12 November) said he was “a singer”. The Sunday Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (16 November) said he was “a missionary”. The son of a Wesleyan minister, Titus M. Bongwe had been encouraged to go to the USA to study at Hampton Institute in Virginia by one of its graduates, choir leader Orpheus McAdoo who met the Bongwes in Kimberley (see this site’s page 049). The 22 year old African was buried in St Mary’s cemetery in Taunton by two ministers and others of the town ‘who are aquainted with friends of the deceased’. Titus Mbongwe’s father lived in Grahamstown. See website page 212.

The mass of black people in London, like everybody else, led lives that were less exciting and lacking in notoriety. This article shows blacks as victims and criminals, as subjects of high art and cheap entertainment, and in the case of Baylis/Mbongwe, a piece of evidence that reveals black missionary efforts in South Africa and how such men and women transferred through London en route for home or Africa.


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