134: Ellen and William Craft. A fresh examination

from the Illustrated London News 19 April 1851.
from the Illustrated London News 19 April 1851.

Researching the black presence in Victorian Britain sometimes turns up the unexpected. The two escaped American slaves who lived in rural Surrey in the early 1850s led me to the parish church and its baptism register and a link to Africa (page 059 this site). Descendants in South Carolina told me of visiting that church and their “cousins” in the 1980s. The website page attracted the attention of British descendants and friendly meetings have taken place.

Returning to investigate Ellen and William Craft, those two slave refugees, it became clear that what an American historian termed their “transatlantic exile” had activities that affected many Britons. The baptism register noted in 1863 that William Craft was “on a mission to Africa”, and the detailed work by Richard Blackett (Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History, Louisiana State University Press, 1986, chapter two) described that mission school in Benin (then: Dahomey) and the school in Georgia founded by the Crafts after their return to the U.S.A.

The Crafts escaped slavery in disguise in 1848, a story told in their Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom published in London in 1860. The first person to describe their escape (she, a very light complexioned person, dressed as man; William was her slave servant) was ex-slave William Wells Brown. The three toured halls in the non-slave northern states. Then in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act required all law officers in every state to recover refugee slaves and return them to their owners. Slave catchers were a real threat (John Anderson stabbed one and got away to Canada – see page 107) and in April 1851 Thomas Sims was arrested in Boston and escorted back to slavery by U.S. marines. Even Canada was within reach of the slave catchers, and the Crafts sailed to Liverpool in late 1850 to avoid the slaveholders’ vengeance.

Brown had returned to England, and the Crafts, recommended to British anti-slavery activists, joined Brown on the lecture circuit. British newspapers reported on this for many months. Evidence of their contacts appear in the letters of Victorian worthies including Harriet Martineau (journalist and author) who noted in March 1851 that the Crafts were going to school. Stephen Lushington, a fierce abolitionist, had two daughters Fanny (Frances) and Alice and they ran a school in the Surreyvillage of Ockham. Established in 1836 this was the “middle class school” and required uniforms and payment of fees (there was a standard village school too). Funds collected during their anti-slavery lecture tours helped and John Estlin of Bristol and Lord Brougham also aided the Crafts.

The summer of 1851 saw the Crafts settled at Ockham, where she taught handicrafts and William taught carpentry. In October 1852 they were in their second year there. Described in 1858 as “one of the few successful industrial schools of England. It is nearly self-supporting”, the 1851 census noted seventeen boy boarders (aged 6 – 13) and four girls (aged 5 – 13) and the general teacher was Thomas Wilson. Running a Thousand Miles noted that Wilson had taken “a deep interest” in William Craft and that he was now at Bradmore House, Chiswick. This was a school a few minutes’ walk from 12 Cambridge   Road, the address in Running. It had been purchased in 1857 (and became 26 Cambridge Grove).

On 2 December 1852 William Craft, “cabinet maker” registered the birth of his son Charles Estlin Phillips Craft. He had been born in Ockham on 22 October. Phillips was in honour of Wendell Phillips (a leading abolitionist of Boston) and Estlin after the Bristol family which had sheltered the Crafts. Craft told the registrar his wife was formerly “Collins”. Ellen told the Liberator weekly that he was “our first free born babe” (17 December 1852). In January the baby was baptised at All Saints’ church, Ockham. Craft was noted as a “fugitive slave”.

The Crafts had moved to Hammersmith (next to Chiswick) when on 15 November 1855 Ellen registered the birth of William Ivens Craft. Born at home, Beavor Cottage on 16 October 1855, his mother told the register that his father was a “gentleman” and that she was “Ellen Craft formerly Atwaters”. The change in name supports the idea that although her white father was a James Smith, and her slave mother Maria lacked a surname, they did not want to have Smith – although entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Georgia Woman of Achievement would have that as her mother’s surname. The Ivens comes from the Quaker family usually spelled Ivins who had assisted the Crafts and Brown in 1849.

The children in Ockham who had the Crafts as their teachers, the Lushington sisters (one became a pioneer head of a college for training women teachers from 1878), Stephen Lushington’s enormous collection of papers, the Crafts apart from Running a Thousand Miles, have few clues it seems. We can conclude that the Crafts were not supplicants, seeking charity and donations. That their complex escape still captures the imagination has diverted attention from other less spectacular aspects of their lives – in Britain between 1851 and 1869.

I am indebted to Bernth Lindfors for an original of the London newspaper page from 1851, above.


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