143 : Mattie Lawrence. Jubilee Singer in England 1890-1907


The Jubilee Singers: (from left) Patti Malone, George E. Barrett, Mattie L. Lawrence, C.W. Payne, Ella Shepard (pianist, seated), F.J. Loudin, Maggie L. Porter (seated), B.W. Thomas, Mabel R. Lewis. ‘They were on a noble mission. They sang to build up education in the blighted land in which they themselves and millions more had so long drearily plodded in ignorance; and it was a most striking and yet pleasing exhibition of poetic justice, when many of those who really, in a certain sense, had been parties to their enslavement, were forced to pay tribute to the signs of genius found in this native music, and to contribute money for the cause represented by these delightful musicians.’

Mattie Lawrence is to be seen in this photograph (third from left), posed with others of the Fisk Jubilee Singers around 1882, the fourth Fisk group to take Negro Spirituals around the world.  The Toronto Globe had noted their appearance in October 1881, and after a holiday break in Indianapolis with her mother she was scheduled to travel with the choir to Europe in the summer of 1882 (Indianapolis Leader, 29 October 1881 and 7 January 1882).

The New Zealand Herald (Auckland) of 27 November 1886 (page 5) listed the choir and said ‘Miss M. L. Lawrence’ was the group’s assistant. Australian historian Bill Egan has been tracing her career there and in Australia, and we know that she was ‘a really superb soprano’ according to the Otago Witness (New Zealand) 13 May 1887, p 28 which noted the choir’s final appearance in Otago’s Garrison Hall. In May 1889 she was in Australia (Taralgon Record of Victoria: 14 May 1889, p 2) and that by the time the Sydney Mail (21 September 1889) reported on the last performances of the singers in Sydney, ‘Miss Mattie Lawrence has returned to America’. Bill Egan found the following:

Some of the younger women are almost white, though they have the distinctly negro type of features. They may be seen any day walking about the streets of Melbourne, dressed in the height of fashion.  One of them, Miss Mattie Lawrence, a charming girl and a sweet singer, has been winning the hearts of some of Melbourne’s susceptible youths, who are not proof against her dark loveliness.

The massive scrapbooks of the round-the-world tour (held at Detroit Public Library) contain  countless newspaper clippings and Jay Cook sent copies revealing that Miss Lawrence had joined that troupe in 1879 having been a ‘very successful teacher in Washington D.C.’

On 21 October 1890 she married Henry John Thrift, in Croydon, Surrey, ten miles from central London — his family were well-established provision merchants in that booming town, soon to be a suburb of London. She informed the authorities that her father was William Lawrance, a ‘medical officer U.S.’  At the time of her marriage in Croydon’s parish church she was living in Thornton Heath, a sprawling suburb to the north of Croydon. Her husband lived in Church Street, Croydon. Three of the witnesses were named Miller (D.B., Nellie and Amy) and the other was John Thrift, probably her father-in-law. Sean Creighton researched five Croydon weeklies – all carried a paid announcement that she was the “daughter of the late William Lawrence, of Washington, D.C.” (Croydon Chronicle, Advertiser, ExpressObserver and Guardian: all 25 October 1890). There were no reports from the church, so it seems unlikely that we will find out where the couple met.

The 1891 census places the Thrifts at home in Oakfield Road, Croydon, and has her forename as Marian (and computer indexed as Marion), her birth having been in the U.S.A.

Her husband died in Croydon in 1905, aged 46, and she died at 28 Park Lane, Croydon following an operation aged 44 on 16 February 1907. Local newspaper reports made no mention of her colour. The probate registrations state that her husband left £26,299 and that her estate was valued at £3,809. British documents including the marriage registration indicate her first name was Marion and her surname was Lawrance. There were two daughters – Gladys (1892-1954) and Amy (1893-1931). Amy married a New Zealand soldier named William Geoffrey Boyd and had three children. One son, aged 90, was living in New Zealand in 2014. Gladys married Edward Heffernan in London in 1915 and died in Portsmouth in 1954.

The most famous black resident of Edwardian Croydon was the London-born son of an African, composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). His widow Jessie’s memoirs of 1943 recall that at the welcome home party thrown for him on his return from his first visit to the U.S.A. in 1904 was ‘Mrs. Thrift, at one time a member of the world-famous “Fisk Jubilee Singers” from Ohio, whose manager, Mr. Loudin, was one of our greatest friends’ (Jessie Coleridge-Taylor, Genius and Musician: Bognor Regis: John Crowther, 1943, p 29). Loudin had died just before the composer reached America, but he went to meet Loudin’s widow in Ohio for she too had been known to Coleridge-Taylor and others in Britain. That house was named Otago, after a scenic region of New Zealand known to the Loudins.

Loudin, who spent months in a health resort in Scotland at the beginning of the 1900s, certainly knew Coleridge-Taylor. Perhaps Isaac Dickerson, who lived in south-east London until his death in 1900 (see page 124), and Thomas Rutling another veteran Fisk Singer who lived in Yorkshire where he died in 1915 also knew the composer and Miss Lawrence/Mrs Thrift?  (Loudin, Rutling and Dickerson have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)

This article was possible due to the cooperation of several researchers: in Australia, U.S.A. and in England.

See page 172.


The couple’s grave in Queens Road cemetery in Croydon is noted as plot C/32513 and there is no indication that a marker or memorial was placed on that plot.


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