059: A black family in rural Surrey in the 1850s

The twelth century church of All Saints is close to Ockham Priory, a grand house rebuilt to an 18th century plan after destruction by fire in 1948. The house and its stables in close proximity to the church is not unusual in England, but the village of Ockham has a fascinating black connection. The register of baptisms records that on 2 January 1853 the rector supervised the baptism of Charles Estlin Phillips, son of William and Ellen Craft, ‘fugitive slaves’. On 26 April 1863 two more Craft children were baptised: Stephen Brougham Dennoce Craft and Alice Isabella Ellen Craft. Their father was noted as being “on a Mission to Africa”. They lived in London.

Ellen Smith and William Craft had been slaves in Georgia since their births in the mid-1820s. Ellen had the colouring of her white father, which was used to advantage in 1848 when, dressed as man and with William as her slave attendant, they escaped north. In November 1850 they sailed from Canada to Liverpool. They made very public appearances in anti-slavery activities around England, often with William Wells Brown: where they must have met Stephen Lushington (1782-1873) a brilliant lawyer, member of parliament 1832-41, and a ferocious anti-slavery campaigner who had lived at Ockham Park from the late 1840s.

The village had benefited from the charity of Lady Ada Lovelace (daughter of poet Lord Byron, and enthusiast for the ideas of Charles Babbage the computer pioneer) in the 1830s when she established a school: not the normal single room village school, but one with workshops and a gymnasium, a pioneer technical school to train children, based on the ideas of Philipp von Fellenberg, a Swiss. It was so popular, despite the fees and rules on clothing, that accommodation was erected for boarders. Her early death left the school to be supported by widower Lord Lovelace, no doubt with contributions from Ada’s mother Lady Byron, also a philanthropist, who died in 1860. The brick buildings, now private accommodation, still stand. Lushington’s daughters Frances (Fanny) and Alice ran the school, and passed it to be managed by the National (Anglican) School in the 1870s. It closed around 1950.

Village historian Mary Watson believes that William Craft worked at the school as the caretaker. He had been trained as a carpenter in Georgia. His entry by Jerome Farrell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests he taught manual skills at Ockham School, and that he and Ellen learned to read and write there. The Bristol Mercury of 30 August 1851 (copying the London Morning Advertiser) noted that the Crafts had enrolled as pupils at Ockham, and that he was instructing boys in carpentry and Ellen was teaching handicrafts to the girls. On 9 October 1852 the Leeds Mercury copied the Anti-Slavery Reporter to note that the Crafts had started a second year of instruction, having studied “various branches of useful knowledge” including reading, writing, and arithmatic and that the school was run by the Misses Lushington.

In 1860 their book (with just his name as author) Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom was published in London. It thanks their friend George Thompson, the recent Liberal M.P. for Tower Hamlets (the same London constituency as Lushington had represented) who is described as ‘the slave’s long-tried self-sacrificing friend’. The 1862 baptism record noted they lived in London, and the ODNB states they lived at 12 Cambridge Road, Hammersmith (that address is in their book. It became 26 Cambridge Grove) from 1857 to 1867, and had been joined in 1865 by Ellen’s mother Maria. The Crafts left England in 1869, with two of the five* British-born children staying behind to complete their education until 1873. In late 1866 Ellen Craft was in contact with the New York-born actor Ira Aldridge, and her papers contain a brief note from him, and a longer one from his wife: they lived in Upper Norwood, near Crystal Palace in south London. [the note is on blogs.cofc.edu/averyarchives/?p=134]

In Georgia the Crafts established a school on similar lines to Ockham – as William, who spent three years in Ouidah, Dahomey (now Benin) 1863-7 had done in Africa. Ellen Craft died in Georgia in 1891. William Craft died in the Charleston, South Carolina home of their daughter Ellen (Alice Isabella Ellen, baptised in Ockham 1863) in 1900. She was married to William Crum who was to be described a year or so later as ‘one of the best citizens of Charleston’. He was one of three black doctors in the city, a leading member of the community. Ellen Craft Crum’s brother William returned to live in Britain, married and had four children; and that family was visited in 1980 by Ellen Crum’s relatives – they also went to Ockham.

Crum had hosted a daughter of William Wilberforce when she visited Charleston. These anti-slavery links take some unravelling – Member of Parliament George Thompson had married the second daughter of the secretary of the British Anti-Slavery Society, for example. With the neat brick houses, built for the estate’s farm workers, scattered around, and the old school buildings, that the Victoria County History of 1911 noted Ockham was ‘very small’ with a ‘scanty population’ does not seem surprising.

Inside All Saints, as well as a small memorial to a man who had worked in Nigeria and the Sudan, and the comment on the ‘especial devotion’ to anti-slavery on Lushington’s larger tablet, there is a brass plate to Thomas Heath Popplestone, B.A. He had died in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 23 July 1872 aged 37, having been the headteacher of ‘Ockham Middle Class School’ for nine years. That was the same school:  he would have known the Crafts for their connections continued despite living in west London. Popplestone became the Director of Public Instruction in Freetown, supervising the government’s Model School there and inspecting others. Surely Ellen and William Craft had been an influence on him?

In September 2018 members of the British Craft family participated in the placing of a new sign at Ockham village as above.

The schools in Ouidah and in Georgia need to be considered too, for the Crafts’ fame is still focussed on their audacious escape in 1848 as told in their book. Robin Law’s Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving “port” 1727-1892 (2004) notes William Craft as a “British merchant” who met the king of Dahomey in June 1863, and was based at Ouidah for the Company of African Merchants from early 1864, living in a house that once had belonged to a famous slaver. His independent school was established by 1865 (page 255), and Crum papers in Charleston S.C. indicate this school for boys ran for 3 1/2 years.

What was the impact of a British birth and education on the five* Craft children, who lived in the United States as conditions for black people in South grew tougher as whites reclaimed the supremacy lost in the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction? And what influences outside anti-slavery circles did the Crafts have on the British?

My thanks to Mary Wilson, and to Harlan Greene and Deborah Wright of Charleston SC.

See pages 107, 118 and 134.

See Christopher Fyfe A History of Sierra Leone (1962) p 360 for Popplestone and the still excellent George Brown Tindall South Carolina Negroes 1877-1900 (1952) for Crum.

*A sixth child, Mary, was born on 26 September 1868 at 124 Stockwell Park Road, London. Her mother said she was ‘formerly Smith’ and that her husband was a ‘general foreign merchant’. The girl died whilst a child. My thanks to Richard Blackett.


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