165 : ‘Black Victorian Britain’. Paper presented in Wandsworth October 2013

Presented by Jeffrey Green at Northcote Library, 157 Northcote Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW11 6Q on 24 October 2013 as part of Wandsworth Black History Month.


The discovery of letters and documents in South Carolina in 1979 led me to write a biography of Edmund Jenkins, an African American who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music from 1914 to 1921, and died in Paris in 1926. That research led me to veterans in England, often of Caribbean descent. The book was published in 1982.[1] I followed up comments made by those veterans and, finding very little had been written about black people in Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948, I continued to investigate. Some people have enjoyed my books, articles and talks. Let me share some findings with you tonight.

This talk concentrates on the 19th century. The Windrush of 1948 is not the beginning of the black presence in Britain. And we are not dealing with marginalised people, or victims. I will mention some names and I will show images of black Victorians. The images will indicate how wide one must trawl to find documentation – which itself suggests that the black presence in Victorian Britain was widespread. They also show how descendants retain documentation relating to older generations. I will ask some questions. Various locations will be named, including Chesterfield, Chelmsford, Croydon, Chester and Cheltenham to name some of the “Cs”.

 Who was John Frazer? He had been enslaved in Africa, and in London testified to the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Slave Trade, chaired by MP Sir William Hutt November 1847 to September 1848. His comments are on page 82 of the first of the four volumes of the reports.[2] What about John and Henry Murphy? They appeared at Bow Street court on 13 January 1834. Murphy ‘a black man, of most disgusting and filthy appearance, and John Murphy, his son aged about 15 years’ had stolen clothes belonging to a ten-year-old and had been ‘decoying children to an infamous house, which the elder Prisoner kept, in Charles-street, Drury-lane, and sending them out to beg and steal.’ The Times said the lad was ‘copper-coloured’.[3] It was said that in a year two hundred children ‘of both sexes had been turned into the streets, as thieves, prostitutes, and beggars from the house kept by Murphy’[4] The Morning Post headed its report ‘the Black Kidnapper and his Son’.[5] Both Murphies were transported to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). Charles Dickens must have seen the news and possibly investigated in the Charles Street area for here we have the origins of Fagin in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist.[6]

 Joseph Freeman was a slave in New Orleans who settled in eastern England in the 1840s. The 1871 census records Freeman and his Lincolnshire-born wife Sarah with their six children in Chelmsford. He worked as a labourer at the iron works as did his nineteen-year-old Suffolk-born namesake son. His wife seems be Sarah Smith who married him in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1849. Their second child Susannah was a dress-maker born in Morton, Suffolk around 1854 and her brother William had been born there; Mary Ann, Eliza and Sarah had all been born in Chelmsford and were still at school in 1871.  Their father died in Chelmsford in November 1875 aged 45.[7] What happened to these children?

Black children included this lad, photographed near Croydon around 1876. This boy was born in central London in 1875. He was the future composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Another Victorian child was Africa-born Sarah Forbes Bonetta, painted here in 1850-1851. She was presented to Queen Victoria. She married a Sierra Leonean businessman and their daughter Victoria became the Queen’s god-daughter, and married a Scotland-trained West African doctor.

The Powell family arrived in Britain by early 1851. The Dublin Freeman’s Journal of 8 February 1851 noted Powell was ‘a coloured gentleman, who had come to this country to procure for his children that education and means of supporting themselves by the acquirement of trades or professions denied them in Boston on account of their colour’. There were seven children. William Powell Jr, born in 1834, trained in Dublin and became a Member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of London in 1858. The Medical Directory 1859, p 667 also indicates that he had been a temporary surgeon at the Liverpool South hospital and the house surgeon at St Anne’s district hospital in Liverpool. Dr Powell was one of thirteen African American doctors who served in the Civil War (a photograph from August 1863 shows his African descent[8]), and he worked as a doctor in America into 1891. The doctor registered the death, in Liverpool in 1902, of his barrel maker brother Isaiah. Dr William Powell died in Liverpool in 1916.[9] Otherwise little has been uncovered on these children’ education in England. All nine returned to New York in 1861.

Another African American family is that of Robert James Harlan. The Morning Post of London, 1 March 1861 page 8 reported the death at 14 Canonbury Villas, London, from tuberculosis, of Miss Lara Frances Horton, ‘daughter of Robert Harlan, Esq, formerly of Cincinnati, Ohio, America’. Known in Britain as an importer of race horses, Harlan’s horses won two races at Doncaster in 1859 for example.[10] Kentucky-born Harlan, wealthy through success in the California gold fields, seems to have left for the U.S.A. in 1868, where he became active in black politics. He died in 1897.[11] By the way, I found out about Robert Harlan when seeking details on the (white) historian Louis Harlan, biographer of Booker T. Washington.

These Nigerian children were probably orphans. Certainly the missionary Mary Slessor was active in such charity work. She toured Scotland in 1898 with these four. Such actions were quite common.

It is one thing to note from an archive that this or that person qualified in this or that, and another to see the physical evidence. Here from 1899 is the Edinburgh University degree certificate of Trinidad-born John Alcindor who studied medicine there from 1893. He worked in London until his death in 1924. The family retain this.

We can say that the Freeman family in Chelmsford were black and working class. So too, and visible to thousands daily, were street sweepers. London’s Daily News on 8 December 1884 published a lengthy article on crossing sweepers, noting that ‘the old black man’ who swept a crossing in London’s Farringdon Street had bequeathed £800 to the daughter of an alderman who had befriended him, and that another who swept the crossing at Conduit Street and Regent Street was said to have owned two or three houses at the time of his death: ‘There is no doubt that, other things being equal, a black crossing-sweeper would take a great deal more than a white man. A negro is a stranger in a strange land; he is presumably friendless, and, being pretty certainly a native of a hot country, he may be supposed to suffer more from the wet and cold of our climate than an English-man. All these considerations would enable a steady blackman to make a good thing of a well-located crossing’. An idea of the filth on British streets can be seen in the foot scrapers by the doors of houses built into the late 19th century.

 Another working class Victorian was Mary Ann Sysum of 29 Stanhope Street, Cheltenham. Mary Syson or Sysum had lived with a labourer named Joseph Hooper for seven years. Her husband Richard, an itinerant vendor of water cress, had left her years before. Hooper and Syson lived in one of Cheltenham’s slums. She was ‘a mulatto woman’. On the way back from the pub on Saturday 7 May 1864 Hooper stabbed her three times in the throat. When arrested he said ‘If I had not done it to she [sic], she’d have done it to me’.[12] The case went before the assize court on 8 August 1864. Hooper was aged 28, and his victim and paramour was now named Sysum and described as a widow. The jury found him guilty of wounding and he was sentenced to five years. Mary Ann Sysum is recorded as dying in London aged 85 in 1902.

The village of Ockham – near the M25/M3 motorways in Surrey – has a black connection. The register of baptisms records that on 2 January 1853 the rector supervised the baptism of Charles Estlin Phillips, son of William and Ellen Craft, ‘fugitive slaves’. On 26 April 1863 two more Craft children were baptised: Stephen Brougham Dennoce Craft and Alice Isabella Ellen Craft. Their father was noted as being ‘on a Mission to Africa’. Ellen and William Craft had been slaves in Georgia since their births in the mid-1820s. Ellen had the colouring of her white father, which was used to advantage in 1848 when, dressed as man and with William as her slave attendant, they escaped north. In November 1850 they sailed from Canada to Liverpool. The Bristol Mercury of 30 August 1851 (copying the London Morning Advertiser) noted the Crafts had enrolled as pupils at Ockham, and that he was instructing boys in carpentry and Ellen was teaching handicrafts to the girls.[13] In 1860 their booklet (with just his name as author) Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom was published in London and has their address as 12 Cambridge Road, Hammersmith (it became 26 Cambridge Grove).  They had been joined in 1865 by Ellen’s mother Maria. The Crafts left England for Georgia in 1869, with two of their five British-born children staying behind to complete their education until 1873.Their son William returned to live in Britain, married and had four children. He died in Hounslow in 1926.

The African American actor Ira Aldridge settled in Britain in the late 1820s. His second wife was Swedish. This poem (in Swedish) was written by her to Mrs Ellen Craft in London in 1866. This Swedish language document is in Charleston, South Carolina as is a brief note from the actor. Unexpected, and raising all manner of questions.

In 1870 a Barbados-born graduate of Aberdeen University, Dr Christopher James Davis left London to go to France to attend to the wounded in the Franco-Prussian war. At Sedan he attended wounded Bavarians and organised soup for peasants whose property had been destroyed in the fighting. He collected financial support in England. He caught smallpox back in Sedan and died on 27 November 1870 at Pont Mangy. He was buried in France, aged 28 [wikipedia; Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 9 February 1894, quoting from Cassell’s History of the Franco-Prussian War, volume 10; forenames from Roll of Graduates (Aberdeen, 1935), p 761]. What would Dr Davis have done had he lived longer – in Barbados, Britain, France?

Frederick Thomas was born in northern Mississippi in 1872. In 1896-1897 he was in London working as a waiter. He moved on to Paris and Moscow where he became a very successful businessman. Ruined by the revolution of 1917, a penniless refugee in Turkey in 1920, he died in 1928. His Russian-speaking children eventually reached America, and another studied in Prague and settled in France where he died in 1987. His family continues – the lingerie of Chantal Thomass (two s’s) is well known.[14]

People of African descent worked around Britain as ‘Zulus’, appearing in fairs and shows. British military forces advanced into Zululand where 1,200 men were routed at Isandlwana in January 1879. The defence of Rorke’s Drift days later became a Victorian legend and in 1964 was the focus of a successful film, Zulu. Although in the 1870s half of Britain’s adults were illiterate many now associated Africans with Zulus, and Zulus with the destruction of the 24th Regiment of Foot. Being or pretending to be or even looking vaguely like a Zulu became a problem in Britain. In September 1880 a letter was published by the Glasgow Herald: ‘I have the misfortune to be, or rather it has pleased God to create me, a man of colour, and my well-educated wife and daughter are of the same caste as myself. Though I am in a respectable business here my wife and daughter have been subjected to gross insults by crowds of howling men and women, who call them Zulus, & c., even by the very men who ought to protect them – viz., the police – as a young lady in my shop can testify … my wife and daughter cannot go out either by tramway car or on foot without being subject to outrage and insult’.        It was signed ‘A man of colour’[15]. John Williams was charged with being drunk and disorderly in Chesterfield in May 1879. He had been working as a Zulu chief in a circus but had been dismissed because of his boozing. He went to prison for seven days as he could not pay the fine of five shillings. He told the court that a job as ‘a Zulu warrior’ would be open to him when he was released[16]. A West Indian sailor named James Parish was on his way from London to Hull in July 1879 when a crowd in Sheffield accused him of being a Zulu.[17] In 1882 the defeated Zulu leader Cetewayo/Cetshwayo visited London with a small group of elders, impressed the British government, and returned to Africa, the last king of the Zulus. He died in 1884. The house, 18 Melbury Road, Kensington, where he stayed was marked a century later with an English Heritage blue plaque. The origins of the Africans who formed an ‘impi’ or Zulu war party and participated in the Royal Military Tournament in London are uncertain, but the show continued for weeks in 1895, and was to be visited by the British royal family and the future Emir of Afghanistan, and gave even more Londoners a chance to see Zulus or ‘Zulus’ (Standard [London], 24 May 1895, p 3).

There were employment opportunities as animal trainers. Alicamousa, seen here in a 1890s photo taken in Scotland, was a lion tamer. Born John Humphreys in St Vincent in the Caribbean, he was one of several animal trainers active in Victorian England. Another was Macommo. He is thought to have been born in Angola. He died in his bed in Sunderland in 1871.

Working as musical entertainers employed growing numbers of blacks. Here is the American Horace Weston, who worked in London stage presentations in the late 1870s. He died in the USA in 1890. The Bohee brothers had long-lasting fame in Victorian Britain, teaching the future King Edward VII. They ran a touring show, employing others of African descent. The Bohees were born in St John, a small port town in New Brunswick, Canada. Relatives moved to Australia and one lives in Paris.

Generally thought to have been white, most 19th century missionaries in West Africa were black. Joseph Fuller born in Jamaica around 1825 and headed Baptist missionary efforts in Cameroon into the 1870s. He then spoke about mission work, all over England. He died in Stoke Newington in 1908. Twice married, both sides of the family have been put in touch recently. They live in Norwich, Australia, and Rickmansworth.

In 1873 a group of church leaders were photographed at the oak tree where, in the 1790s, William Wilberforce and Prime Minister William Pitt had met to discuss the ending of the slave trade. Bishop Samuel Crowther (centre) was well-known in late Victorian Britain. Why a local printer produced this commercial postcard in the 1900s remains unknown. The tree must have been a site of pilgrimage? Who were the tourists willing to buy a copy of the 1873 photograph? African visitors included this African Choir in the 1890s. They toured widely and went on to the U.S.A. What was the impact on British audiences?

I have mentioned Ellen Craft. A free born American, Sarah Remond, toured Britain 1859-1866 explaining slavery, then qualified as a doctor in Italy where she died in 1894. Anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells was in Britain in 1893 and again in 1894, and was aided by a Nigerian medical student and his friends in London. Amanda Smith went to India as a Christian missionary, visiting England 1878-1879, 1881, and touring from early 1895 to mid-1896. Her autobiography was published in London in 1894. Hallie Quinn Brown was a temperance lecturer who was active in Scotland from February 1896 for over a year, talking on ‘women and the drink question’. She died aged 100 in 1949.

Men and women who had escaped from slavery in America included John Anderson who attracted a massive amount of attention because Americans wanted him to be sent from Canada, where he had lived for ten years, to Missouri to stand trial for killing a slave catcher during his escape. Anderson reached England and spoke at crowded meetings. Kept illiterate during slavery, he was sent by well-wishers to a village school in Northamptonshire for a year, and then was sent to Liberia in West Africa where he disappears from history. Anderson sold photographs of himself at a London meeting days after reaching Britain in 1861.[18] He spoke in London and the south-east, with The Story of the Life of John Anderson, the Fugitive Slave (1863) naming town halls in Brentford, Brighton, Worthing, and halls in Hastings, Folkestone, Deal, Dover, Margate, Ramsgate, St Albans, Luton and Hemel Hempstead (p 88). ‘This man of colour, whose case excited so much interest in England and America a year or two ago, is about to settle in Liberia’, reported the Essex Standard (26 December 1862).

There were many slave narratives – pamphlets – published in Britain by African Americans, from the late 1830s into the 1860s. James Watkins had his story published nineteen times. In October 1851 Watkins gave two lectures in Wigan, both ‘numerously attended’.[19] In April 1852 in Lancaster Watkins ‘a fugitive slave’ spoke at two meetings, telling of the horrors of slavery. A collection was made to help redeem his parents from slavery. The second lecture was extremely well attended.[20] Watkins had escaped from Maryland and was well known in Britain’s provinces through the 1850s.[21] His Narrative of the Life of James Watkins was published in 1852 (a third edition was printed in Birmingham in 1853). The nineteenth edition of his memoirs notes British support had enabled him to purchase the liberty of a brother and two sisters. His children (no names) attended the grammar school in Birmingham where he lived for several years. A Birmingham newspaper published his letter dated 18 May 1854, which also advised ‘I intend to commence some little business in this town’.[22]  His wife was with him in Barnsley in June 1854. Watkins was ‘quite popular’ and ‘a great attraction’.[23] He lived in Birmingham for six years then his free-born wife returned to America as she was unwell, and he moved to Liverpool then Manchester. In 1856 he was at the Wesleyan chapel in Stoney Middleton (north of Bakewell, Derbyshire) addressing two hundred people. The 1860 edition of his autobiography says this was at the invitation of Lord Denman (son of a Lord Chief Justice of England). Watkins had ‘the manners of a gentleman’ and ‘a satisfactory collection was made’.[24] He spoke in Belfast in mid-November 1856 to a crowded audience and received ‘loud and continual applause’. He was to speak elsewhere in Belfast.[25] On 12 May 1859 at the Methodist chapel in Pepper Street, Chester, James Watkins, now in his tenth year touring the British Isles, addressed one thousand people; the lecture to be repeated in another Chester hall the following week. His autobiography went into a nineteenth edition in Manchester in 1860.[26] He was in Yorkshire in mid-1861 having been registered in Manchester in the census earlier that year.[27] Page 56 of the 1860 edition stresses Watkins’s appreciation of ‘the thousands and tens of thousands of the poorer classes … who have received me with unexampled kindness’. Over a dozen pages list places where he had spoken, from Altrincham to Beeston, Bridlington to Crewe, Matlock, Nottingham, Pickering, Shrewsbury, Warrington, to Wigan. His three lectures were ‘crowded every night to excess’ in Stockton on Tees in September 1863.[28] He had not been traced in Britain after that, and was in Baltimore, Maryland when the U.S. census was taken in 1880.[29] A professional lecturer perhaps with a small business that paid enough for his children’s school fees, Watkins surely had a steady income from all those editions of his autobiography? He must have been seen by many thousand Britons, and in places far from the big cities and ports that have long been assumed to be the locations where black folk could be found.

The documentation tends to show the fugitives being supported by men and women of substance, but Anderson’s photograph-buyers from ‘the poorer class of the community’ and Watkins’s appreciation of the ‘tens of thousands of the poorer classes’ hint that Britons in every walk of life were sympathetic to black fugitives and that they had seen and met them.

From the ex-wife of the itinerant seller of watercress, Dr William Powell, waiter Frederick Thomas, village school teachers, Zulus and lion tamers, the activities of black people in Victorian Britain continue to surprise me.

The eighth Earl of Stamford, a remittance man in Cape Town, inherited his title from his uncle in 1883. He had married a Cape Coloured woman named Martha Simon in 1880, and their daughter Mary (born 1881) was thus Lady Mary Grey and her mother the Countess of Stamford. The countess never came to England where marriage and inheritance laws had barred their son John from inheriting the title when his father died in 1883. Cape law legitimised all children when their parents married whereas English law legitimised those born after marriage. The legal arguments were in the London press. The children were educated in England. Lady Mary married an English novelist in 1917, divorced him in 1930, and died in 1945. She travelled to and from South Africa and her two sons were born in England (1918 and 1923).[30]

In presenting these details to you my intention has been to broaden our focus on Britain’s history. People I have named were born in Britain, in West and South Africa, Angola, in the Caribbean, the U.S.A. and Canada. Some travelled to France, Benin, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Switzerland, Russia, Poland, the U.S.A., India, Italy and Australia.

The supporting paper for this talk – let me have your e mail address so I can send it free of charge – also has information on black people in the Salvation Army (in Rotherham, Bridgwater, Notting Hill, Colchester, Scarborough and Worksop). I detail two black men in the Royal Navy in the 1850s, a beggar known as Black Jack in the Isle of Man, and an African sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders.

[1] Jeffrey Green, Edmund Thornton Jenkins. The Life and Times of an American Black Composer, 1894-1926 (Greenwood Press, 1982).

[2] Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade. The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (London: Papermac, 1998), p 713.

[3] The Times (London), 14 January 1834, p 6.

[4] Morning Post (London), 16 January 1834.

[5] Morning Post (London), 21 January 1834.

[6] The prison records of Australia tell more about the Murphies. Sticking to John for the older man, who was aged 60 when the transport ship reached Hobart, Tasmania (then Van Dieman’s Land) on 4 September 1834, the trial had taken place on 3 February and the sentence was fourteen years. A labourer born in Guadaloupe (French West Indies) this ‘man of color’ [sic] had pierced ears, had lost several front teeth, was black, and 5ft 9 1/2in tall. His file number was VDL 1249. File 1251 was for Henry, who travelled on the same ship as his father. Almost five ft tall, a ‘mulatto’ aged 14 who had been born in St Giles [the rookery in London] he had ‘H’ tattooed on his left arm and ‘HM’ on the right arm. The Murphies sailed from Portsmouth on 23 May 1834. Both had been in prison before. Henry’s trial had been on 3 March 1834.[6] Ian Duffield provided evidence from Australia and suggested that the tattoo may have been done on the voyage, to confuse the authorities. John Murphy died shortly after landing in Tasmania. His son spent years annoying the authorities, for misconduct that as a prisoner left him liable to punishment. Assigned to a free settler, Henry Murphy was soon returned to prison, having bread and water and being fettered. The ledger ran out of space in 1840, and the following years are in an undigitised file in Hobart.

[7] Information from Geoffrey Gillon whose illustrations are on findagrave ref 50858108.

[8] nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/bindingwounds.

[9] Nothing has been traced on the British educations of his siblings, but his brother Isaiah’s registration of death on 9 June 1902 is clear. Isaiah (sic) Amos Powell died aged 59 at 46 Prescot Street in the West Derby district of Liverpool. The cause of death was ‘asthma (probably)’ and the informant was ‘Wm Peter Powell, brother’ who was staying at Prescot Street and witnessed the death. His late brother had been a ‘cooper – journeyman’ (working for another). Dr Powell died in Liverpool in 1916. His death registration was made on 13 April 1916, and it states he was a doctor of medicine of 1 Cotton Street, Liverpool, and had died on 12 April at the Kirkdale Home in Kirkdale [now Liverpool 4, between Bootle and Everton].

[10] York Herald, 23 July 1859, 2 August 1859 and 27 August 1859; Newcastle Courant, 1 April 1859.

[11] www.blackpast.org/ Robert James Harlan.

[12] Reports appeared in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent on page 6 of the issue of 10 May 1864; and in the Liverpool Mercury (12 May), North Wales Chronicle (14 May) and the Birmingham District Post (19 May).

[13] On 9 October 1852 the Leeds Mercury copied the Anti-Slavery Reporter to note that the Crafts had started a second year of instruction, having studied ‘various branches of useful knowledge’ including reading, writing, and arithmetic.

[14] Vladimir Alexandrov, The Black Russian (London: Head of Zeus, 2013).

[15] Glasgow Herald, 24 September 1880

[16] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 31 May 1879, p 2; Liverpool Mercury, 2 June 1879.

[17] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 15 July 1879, p 3).

[18] The majority of the purchasers ‘were of the poorer class of the community’ (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 23 June 1861).

[19] Preston Guardian, 25 October 1851.

[20] Lancaster Gazette, 1 May 1852, p 5.

[21] Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall, p 216.

[22] www.search.connectinghistories.org.

[23] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (Sheffield), 24 June 1854, p 6.

[24] Derby Mercury, 9 April 1856.

[25] Belfast News-Letter, 19 November 1856.

[26] http://www.docsouth.unc/neh/watkins.

[27] Huddersfield Chronicle, 22 June 1861, p 8.

[28] York Herald, 19 September 1863, p.5.

[29] http://www.revealinghistories.org.uk/james-watkins-abolitionist.

[30] R. E. van der Ross, The Black Countess (Cape Town: Ampersand Press, 2008).

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