164 : ‘Africans in Britain and the late Victorian historical record’

Part of talk by Jeffrey Green, Senate House, London, 29 October 2015. The first part (here omitted) detailed Thomas Allen in Swansea (see page 088 of this website) and the last part two of the African heirs reported on website page 099.

This paper will attempt to stimulate those who believe that Africans – indeed, people of African descent in general – are absent from the British historical record. Far from being excluded from the historical record, African men, women and children in Victorian Britain are to be found in a wide number of locations and active in a variety of occupations. My paper looks at four people. Just four people, I hear you asking. Of course there were other Africans – I don’t have time to detail the lion tamers, boxers, preachers, students, doctors and so on. This presentation deliberately takes British places and institutions which do not spring to mind when considering Africans in late Victorian times. They were documented in newspapers, memoirs, diaries : the usual sources of information.


The African servant

There were many dozens of African servants in Victorian Britain.[1] The once famous explorer Samuel Baker – of whom it was said he had an ‘incredible inability to understand African aspirations’[2] – was a big-game hunter-turned-administrator who travelled around Sudan and Uganda in the 1860s and 1870s. (He named Lake Albert and was knighted.) He was with his Hungarian wife Florence. Her diary was published in 1972.[3] Among their dozen servants at the end of 1871 was ‘little Amarn, an Abyssinian boy of about ten years old, whose master, an Egyptian soldier, had ill-treated him … Little Amarn was eventually brought back to England by Lady Baker, and was to be a happy member of her household for many years’.[4]

The Bakers moved into a large house near Newton Abbot, in Devonshire, in 1875. They also lived in Cyprus for a year, made a global tour to India, Japan and the U.S.A., and spent winters with his brother General Valentine Baker who headed the Egyptian gendarmerie. The Devon house was their home for five months every year. Their grand-daughter Ida recalled ‘Amarn, the little Abyssinian boy, who Florence had hidden by her skirt when his fierce Arab master was chasing him so long ago, was now a most well-mannered young man … walking behind them when the children were taken to parties, or out to tea’.[5]

Baker died in 1893 and his widow in 1916. I have not come across a photograph of Amarn: but I have not looked hard.

Observations     Tradesmen, those making deliveries, other servants, all saw Amarn. He would have been noticed by people in Newton Abbot, and when he accompanied the Bakers abroad. Grave markers testify to dead African servants in Britain. The historical record includes the census and group photographs: standard sources but you have to look.


 Lady Mary Grey

The eighth Earl of Stamford was born in 1812 and was then known as Harry Grey. An Oxford graduate he became a ‘remittance man’, receiving a regular payment for staying away from England. He settled in South Africa in the 1850s and in the late 1870s was living with Martha Solomons, a ‘Cape Coloured’ woman. In October 1877 they had a son, John. In 1880 they married. Their daughter Mary was born in July 1881. The death of the childless seventh Earl of Stamford in 1883 meant the title went via the deceased’s dead brother to the Cape Town remittance man who was now the eighth Earl of Stamford. His annual income was now £8,000. When the old earl’s widow died the inheritance would be £30,000 a year. The new earl died in Africa in June 1890.

Roman-Dutch law in South Africa recognised as legitimate the children of parents when they married after children had been born. English law required parents to be married before the birth for the child to be considered legitimate. British law defined John Grey as illegitimate; his sister was not, and so she had been and remained Lady Mary Grey (and their mother was the Dowager Countess of Stamford). The title went to the deceased’s cousin, in 1892, after considerable publicity in Britain and a report by the House of Lords (The Times, 4 May 1892, p 3). At this time the family in South Africa had not been in Britain at all.

Mary and John were sent to school in Switzerland in 1897. English relatives arranged for John to have an apprenticeship with an electrical engineering company in Chelmsford, Essex. They visited South Africa and various European cities.

Mary married English novelist Meredith Starr and had two sons in England. She died in the 1940s. Her brother John married a Chelmsford woman named Emily Moore* in mid-1904, and had one son. The old earl’s widow died in 1905 and a trust fund of £125,000 was established for John and his heirs. John’s fate is not known. Their mother died in Cape Town in 1916.

The earldom became extinct in 1976.

Observations  The British education of John Grey, his marriage* and future life need investigating. Lady Mary Grey, who had that title as a small child, died in England around 1944 – one wonders who she knew and what was thought of this dark-skinned aristocrat. The newspaper reports of 1892, over the rights of John Grey and the earldom, seem to have the expected Victorian racist comments of which the St James Gazette of 4 May 1892 might be an example: ‘A peer whose mother was a Kaffir and his grand-parents, not very far removed, ladies and gentlemen, who went about clothed only with chastity, and perhaps occasionally dined off people to whom they owed a grudge, would have been a very striking novelty’.

* Richard van der Ross, The Black Countess (Cape Town: Ampersand Press, 2008) has Caroline Moore but the marriage registration has Emily Moore.


Three of these Africans came to my attention – as they would have done in Victorian times – through reports in the newspapers. The African servant in Devon was mentioned in a couple of books in my own library. Suggestions that Africans in Britain were few in number and that the historical record excludes them should be rejected. Now you have an African in Newton Abbot, an African in Swansea, and an African in Chelmsford.


[1] Bristo Hepworth died in Finningham, Suffolk, in December 1843. An African  from Natal was living rough in Sheffield in 1859 (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent,  1 October 1859, p 6). Explorer Henry Stanley’s Kalulu went to school in Wandsworth in the 1870s; Verney Lovett Cameron and Jacko whose 1876 images are in a painting in Shoreham, Kent’s church.  George Belaney had a servant from East Africa in Croydon around 1880 (Belaney’s son was to be the bogus Canadian environmentalist Grey Owl). Tom Highflyer was buried in Brighton in 1870. A young Masaai named Lioney was ill-treated by his master in Peckham (see Reynold’s Newspaper, 15 May 1898; The Times, 22 May 1898 p 4). George Makippe’s claim to have been closely associated with Livingstone is untrue but he worked for decades as a gardener in Kent into the 1920s.

[2] Robert O. Collins, ‘Samuel White Baker: Prospero in Purgatory’, in Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), Africa and Its Explorers. Motives, Methods, and Impact (Harvard UP, 1970), p 169.

[3] Anne Baker (ed.), Morning Star. Florence Baker’s diary of the expedition to put down the slave trade on the Nile – 1870-1873 (London: Kimber, 1972).

[4] Anne Baker (ed.), Morning Star. Florence Baker’s diary of the expedition to put down the slave trade on the Nile – 1870-1873 (London: Kimber, 1972), pp 99-100.

[5] Anne Baker (ed.), Morning Star. Florence Baker’s diary of the expedition to put down the slave trade on the Nile – 1870-1873 (London: Kimber, 1972), p 226.


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