130: Black temperance campaigners in late Victorian Britain

Some people in Victorian Britain spoke out against alcohol – they were temperance campaigners. The social impact of booze appalled many and social reformers were involved in anti-drinking campaigns, including orphanage founder Thomas Barnardo who purchased the Edinburgh Castle pub in London’s Limehouse in 1872 and made it a coffee palace for workmen (Barnardo’s coffin lay in state there in 1905). Patrician employers thought booze should not be easily available for their work force (Lever’s Port Sunlight estate on Merseyside has a pub but his intention, rejected by the workers was for a tea- and coffee-palace). I noted people of African descent were active in the temperance movement, first when examining African American refugees from slavery.

Edward Behr’s Prohibition: The 13 Years that Changed America (BBC Books, 1997) notes Americans who supported slavery were opposed to legislation restricting drinking, and as the abolition of slavery loomed closer, prohibitionist progress halted. This might explain why men and women of African descent were active in Britain in the temperance movement in the late 19th century. A wide-ranging campaign against American slavery had led to a war and then legislation ending it – suggesting a similar campaign against the alcohol trade could end with abolition. Another possibility is that in controlling their use of alcohol the disenfranchised would show decision-makers that they were responsible people (the Chartists in the 1840s thought this would encourage the granting of parliamentary votes for working men).

William Wells Brown (1814-1884) was an African American pioneer founder of a temperance society, in Buffalo, NY in the 1830s who returned to that work in the 1860s after years in Britain. There were two major American organizations: the Sons of Temperance founded in 1842 and the Independent Order of Good Templars founded in 1851. The latter refused black members and in 1877 its British and Irish associates broke away because of this. The Sons of Temperance had also drawn the color-line but this reduced in 1866. The British Salvation Army was prohibitionist, and it had African-descent members (see pages 101 and 156 of this website).

I have yet to discover if there were special reasons why people of African descent were active in anti-alcohol work in Britain, but this page presents some evidence of this involvement. Sharing ideals with whites, condemning those who indulged in the consumption of booze, and being speakers at public meetings are aspects of the black presence that need to be addressed. Put in the simplest way, why would an Englishman or woman attend a meeting to be scolded by a black man or woman and encouraged to abandon a habit that was widespread?

A black man took to the platform provided in Lechlade on 29 January 1852 at a temperance meeting. James Walker of London (but late of nearby Faringdon, Berkshire) spoke of his years of alcoholism, living in a pigsty, breaking his bones when intoxicated and having one failed marriage until he took the pledge. Walker had an impact for over twenty people joined the temperance society afterwards (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 7 February 1852). Escaped slave John Anderson was active in temperance circles, addressing the Band of Hope Union in London’s Bloomsbury in October 1861, saying that shoeless Britons were the result of boozing. He spoke in east London’s Stratford at the Temperance Hall on 4 December 1861 (Leeds Mercury, 12 October 1861; Essex Standard, 13 December 1861). See page 107 of this site.

But audiences were found at all social levels. Lady Henry Somerset who inherited a house that was three miles (5 km) from its front gate, met African American women including Amanda Smith who was a temperance lecturer and Christian evangelist (she worked in India for ten years). The pair was in Truro in late January 1894 at a meeting crammed to suffocation. Smith had already appeared in Redruth. She stayed there, and spoke at the Methodist church on her life (born in slavery in 1837, twice widowed). This was her second visit to England (Royal Cornwall Gazette [Truro], 28 December 1893; Royal Cornwall Gazette, 1 February 1894, pp 5, 6). She had been noted speaking to a temperance group in Leeds in November 1878, to Quakers in Darlington and at another Christian event in Romsey (Hampshire) in August 1879, and when on her way back from India she spoke three times in Liverpool in 1881 (Leeds Mercury, 29 October 1878; Northern Echo [Darlington], 11 August 1879; Hampshire Advertiser [Southampton], 16 August 1879, p 7; Liverpool Mercury, 11 July 1881).  In 1894 she was in Bristol and spoke at Clevedon when she was described as an African – the meeting was ‘overflowing’. She went on to Cardiff (Bristol Mercury, 3 February 1894; Western Mail [Cardiff], 13 February 1894). She spoke at a crowded temperance meeting in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk at the end of February (Bristol Mercury, 3 February 1894; Western Mail, 13 February 1894).  Smith’s 255 page autobiography was published in London in 1894. It had an introduction by Bishop James Thorburn of India. The women’s temperance movement had its annual celebrations in London the following year, at Lady Somerset’s home in Reigate where she had established the Duxhurst Colony for Inebriate Women, and at a service at Westminster Abbey at the end of July 1895. Amanda Smith sang to the gathering at Exeter Hall, and the newspaper report noted there were other ‘foreign and coloured delegates’ (Royal Cornwall Gazette [Truro], 1 August 1895, p 6).

The eighteenth annual meeting of the National British Women’s Temperance Association in London on 9 May 1894 heard Ida B. Wells speak on the lynching of African Americans to an audience of approaching five hundred, when the president said that no crime could justify such retribution – duly reported in the Liverpool Mercury on the same page as its report on parliamentary activities (Liverpool Mercury, 10 May 1894; Reynold’s Newspaper [London], 13 May 1894). On 16 May Wells spoke to a large congregation at the Congregational Church in Eccleston Square in fashionable Belgravia, receiving their support against barbarities and requesting Christians in America to press for proper trials for blacks there. As well as the aristocrats of Belgravia and those around Lady Somerset, Wells moved in London’s progressive circles, receiving the support of the radical Reynold’s Newspaper and speaking to a ‘crowded audience’ at the Democratic Club in Essex Street. Chaired by social democrat and strike organiser Herbert Burrows (whose friend Annie Besant, a radical dissenter numbered several Indians as her friends in London including Dadabhai Naoroji who had met Miss Wells) the meeting’s resolution seconded by wealthy reformist John Passmore Edwards was to be sent to the US ambassador.

Wells’s audiences included members of parliament and their wives at a breakfast gathering at the Westminster Palace Hotel. They heard her plea for full and fair trials in the Southern states, which was reported across Britain. Back in the U.S.A. there were statements that she was making dupes of the British and a Southern governor denied her accusations. Wells had both photographs and newspaper cuttings. Ida B. Wells had created a deep feeling of indignation amongst the British. She seems to have utilized the temperance network in her anti-lynching campaign.

Linked to Wells and to Lady Somerset was the Somerset-based Catherine Impey, whose internationalist dreams of the brotherhood of mankind included temperance: she was a youthful member of the Band of Hope, and the Independent Order of Good Templars. She founded several publications and welcomed black visitors and associates, notably Celestine Edwards who worked as a temperance lecturer in late 1870s Edinburgh, moving on to the Church of England Temperance Society.

Ex-slave Francis Fedric from Kentucky ran a lodging house in Manchester. His Life and Sufferings had been published in Birmingham in 1859 and a second book was published in London in 1863 (Bristol Mercury, 18 July 1863; Peter Fryer, Staying Power, Pluto Press, 1984 p 435 notes his Life and Sufferings of Francis Fedric, while in slavery [1859] and Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky [1863]).  In Sheffield in late 1860 his plans were to establish a temperance hotel (Sheffield Independent, 3 November 1860, pp 1, 8; Sheffield Independent, 10 November 1860, p 10). He addressed a crowded meeting in Edinburgh in early 1861, and in Dundee he suggested teetotalism would aid the ending of slavery and later attended a prayer meeting. In his fifties, he had been a fugitive slave for about five years (Caledonian Mercury [Edinburgh], 20 February 1861; Dundee Courier, 11 March 1861; Dundee Courier, 18 March 1861). A collection was made in Broughty Ferry near Dundee at the end of March, to assist Fedric to establish a business in Bristol (Dundee Courier, 1 April 1861)

A temperance group in Leicester had a picnic attended by one thousand ‘of the working classes’ in July 1870 when Nelson Countee a fugitive slave from Virginia addressed the gathering (Leicester Chronicle, 23 July 1870, p 8). Countee had lectured in Leicester in February that year, when the hall had been ‘crammed’ (Leicester Chronicle, 5 February 1870, p 8). He was in Leicester in 1872 and appears to have died there in 1886. See page 129 of this site.[1]

When Maryland-born ex-slave Lewis Charlton died aged 74 in Sheffield in 1888 his death certificate stated he was a temperance lecturer – see page 138 of this website.

One delegate to the British Wesleyan Conference in Liverpool in 1896 was also a temperance lecturer. John Henry Hector’s story may have been muddled by journalists, who noted he was a coloured minister ‘said to be an eloquent speaker and preacher’ who was certified as a representative at the conference. In the temperance movement he was ‘popularly known as the “Black Knight”’. ‘Left an orphan in early life, he passed several years of hardship. Later on he fought in some of the battles of the great Civil War, having been five times wounded. Subsequently, as an engine driver, he had many a perilous experience’ (Yorkshire Herald [York], 12 November 1896. p 6). In March 1899 he was at the Wrexham Temperance Union, saying he planned to go to Australia and New Zealand after that year’s Wesleyan Conference. The newspaper of that coal mining town described him ‘as black as coal fresh from the mine’ and said he had been born of escaped slave parents in Canada. This military career seems unlikely. Hector may have been a sham, or badly reported: or both. In late 2016 information shared with Gifty Burrows led to a well-illustrated page on his activities in Yorkshire: http://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/rev-john-henry-hector.html.

Hallie Quinn Brown lectured and sang, presenting British audiences with stories about African Americans. In Dundee in February 1896 she spoke on ‘Women and the Drink Question’ at the Gilfillan Memorial Church, at nearby Broughty Ferry she gave a ‘dramatic and humorous recital’ on 18 February, and later her talk was on ‘Negro Education’ at a Congregational church, which she ended by singing ‘Steal Away’ (Dundee Courier, 8 February 1896, p 1; 18 February 1896, p 4; 26 February 1896, p 3). Born in 1850 she had been educated at and currently worked as professor of rhetoric at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and had worked at Booker Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (Susan Kates, ‘The Embodied Rhetoric of Hallie Quinn Brown’, College English, Vol 59, No 1 [January 1997], pp 60, 62). The Era of 22 February 1896 reported her dramatic and musical recital and found great favour. She recited at a gathering for the United Temperance Council in Glasgow on 22 April, and was still in Dundee in October, met with a spell of illness, and was back on stage in mid-November. Proceeds of these concerts were for the education of African Americans. She was in Perth at the end of January 1897 and in Aberdeen in March 1897 (Dundee Courier, 1 February 1897, p 3; Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 24 March 1897).

On 17 February 1900 the Kentish Independent of Woolwich reported the ‘death of the coloured evangelist’, a temperance lecturer named Isaac Dickerson who had lived in Plumstead for ‘the last ten years’. Dickerson experienced slavery, in the U.S.A. and spent much of his adult life in Britain (see this site’s page 124).

Celestine Edwards, said to have been born in Dominica but recorded in Britain’s census as born in Antigua, died in 1894. In 1891 his biography of Maryland-ex-slave Walter Hawkins followed Bishop Hawkins’s visit to England that year in which he participated in the annual meeting of the British Temperance League (From Slavery to a Bishopric, London: Kensit, 1891, pp 170-174). The next West Indian-origin temperance lecturer who has been traced is Henry Sylvester Williams, Barbados-born and Trinidad-educated. He was raised under Anglican (Church of England) influences and he was to speak for the Church of England Temperance Society – his English wife worked at their book depot in Westminster. It is possible payments as a lecturer enabled Williams to survive as a law student in London (where he was called to the Bar in 1902). The latest biographer Marika Sherwood found nothing in the society’s records, and added ‘Furthermore, most people I consulted thought that it would have been highly unlikely that a Black man would be employed by the imperialist state church in order to proselytize to the working class on the evils of drink’ (page 34).

The various lecturers noted above may have received expenses, perhaps more if there were collections, and as with most public speakers, would have felt positive as a result of these contacts. Those who were deeply Christian would have met others of similar faith, and patronage would be bestowed. How much was collected for Fedric’s hotel project, and who paid for the accommodation and travel expenses of Smith and Lady Somerset and the impact of John Anderson who once had been accused of murder in Canada are unresolved matters.

What is easy to overlook is that these men and women moved within a white society. They had status, audiences, and self-respect. Their focus was wider than just skin colour: Wells Brown wanted escaped slaves to settle in Jamaica not England, the Salvationists wanted self-respect and a Christian life to be normal in British towns, and Smith wanted Indians to become Christians. Williams and Wells concentrated on the uplift of African people. Edwards was an internationalist. All of them took advantage of opportunities that were not available in the British West Indies or 19th century U.S.A. That we are surprised that people of African descent were involved in the British temperance movement on – it seems – the same basis as whites suggests that our understanding of Victorian Britain may be at fault.


Further reading:

 Catherine Bressey, Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Charles van Onselen, ‘Randlords and Rotgut, 1886-1903’ in Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914, Vol 1 New Babylon (London: Longman, 1982).

Marika Sherwood, Origins of Pan-Africanism (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[1] The very unusual surname Countee continued in Leicester and also Barnsley into 1945. Leicester’s large nonconformist population had enabled future tourism maestro Thomas Cook to start his travel empire with a temperance outing by train in the 1840s.

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