061: Black Britain, 1869

At the very end of 1868 there was an inquest on John Buckley at the London Hospital. The report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian (1 January 1869) was headed “Alleged Murder by a Negro”. Buckley and Felix Victor “a native of the West India Islands” had fought over a woman in London’s notorious Radcliffe Highway on 10 October 1868. Buckley, stabbed in the stomach, was said to be “a violent character” who had assaulted Victor, and had the habit of insulting then striking “negro sailors”. Victor had later married the girl and they had moved to Liverpool. He was put on trial on 11 January 1869. “A coloured seaman” aged 21, he was sentenced to just six months with hard labour for there had been a “great deal of provocation” as the London Morning Post and the Pall Mall Gazette observed. The Old Bailey transcript noted he was charged with the capital offence of murder as well as manslaughter (the coroner’s court’s verdict) and that the jury recommended mercy in the view of the great provocation. Two women witnesses both said that Buckley had remarked “here comes the black son-of-a-bitch”, otherwise their file is silent on the accused’s ethnicity.

The “man of colour, a seaman” reported in the Standard 7 September 1869 was not named, and he was also anonymous in the report in the Morning Post 14 September and in the transcript of the Old Bailey trial on 20 September 1869 when George Thompson was found not guilty of robbing a London railway clerk named Robinson (the press named him Robertson) on 4 September at the Tam O’Shanter beerhouse. The alleged victim was arguing with “a black man” in that beer house; the landlady’s daughter testified that the “negro” had kicked the victim.

In Glasgow on 12 August 1869 “a man of colour” named Moses Doyle Wallace alias James Kelly had been sentenced to 14 days for fraud. Released, he successfully wooed a fellow lodger and then started to order items from traders who were generally unwilling to give him credit. Wallace told one merchant his father was an African king and that he had £50,000 in a London bank but had not yet transferred it to Glasgow. He borrowed £5, but when he tried to obtain £4 the lender went to the police who told the innocent who Wallace was. The Glasgow Herald of 1 September 1869 used “a mulatto”, “negro”, “darkie” and “Sable Highness”, adding the trial was to be at the Police Court. See page 063 of this site for details of this “African Prince”.

A completely different approach, one of respect, was given by the Pall Mall Gazette (12 January 1870) in its review of “the work of a free negro….a primary school teacher” J. J. Thomas, whose Port of Spain, Trinidad (1869) book The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar was praised.

The “Coloured Tragedian” Morgan Smith toured Britain, playing Macbeth in Wrexham in late May 1869 – the Wrexham Advertiser of 29 May noting he also played Shylock and Othello. In July he was “Fabian, a creole” at the Royal Alfred Theatre in London (Era 11 July 1869), and starred as “Fabin (the Black Doctor)” in The Rising of the Tide as well as Gambia in The Slave in Glasgow in August and September 1869 (Era 22 August; Glasgow Herald 7 September) moving on to Dundee’s Theatre Royal and then to Aberdeen (Dundee Courier 4 October; Era 7 November) and was playing the cardinal in Lord Lytton’s Richelieu in Exeter in December, moving to Belfast in January 1870. Samuel Morgan Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1833 and died in Sheffield in 1882, after a 17 year career in Britain (see this site page 072).

In Birmingham one Christmas entertainment, at the Curzon Hall, was the “American Slave Troupe”, 26 people “most of them genuine ‘niggers'” who presented ballads, instrumental music, and humour according to the Birmingham Daily Post 28 December 1869. However, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (6 February 1870) said they were burnt cork artists and several were well known.

On 8 January 1870 the Manchester Times both reported that “a half-bred negro, named Alfred Frederick Jones” had been sentenced to six months at Bolton police court, for assaulting the woman he had lived with; and that on 31 December 1869 a “negro ‘bus driver” named Henry Codrington [others have Coddrington] had killed his wife and was to be charged with manslaughter. “Wife killed by a Negro at Birkenhead” was its unpromising headline. When the Northern Echo (8 January 1870) reported this, it said he had been bailed, and had left the court to the cheers of onlookers. A week later the Echo noted it was a “supposed murder” – but Codrington was now under restraint at the workhouse where he had twice escaped, injuring himself “apparently being deranged”. The death of Sarah Codrington had affected him so much that  reports indicate he might be taken to the Cheshire asylum. In September 1870 the London Standard reported from Birkenhead that he had recently tried to commit suicide (and that he had been acquitted of his wife’s murder) and “in all probability” would be sent to the lunatic asylum.

These reports that a crowd had cheered Codrington, Felix Victor had been attacked, and a bogus African prince had borrowed money in Glasgow show how this uncomfortable research into reports of blacks and crime reveals many layers within Britain’s social history.


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