Forton is a village in Lancashire in the north-south valley that links Preston to Lancaster, now containing the M6 motorway route but in Victorian times with a busy canal and railway. Its population was under 600. The 1871 census records William Henry Massey and his wife Elizabeth at the Congregational parsonage, with their four sons: Ebenezer Thomas (aged 4), William Henry (aged 3), Ernest Arnold (2), and one-year old Arthur Edgar. Ebenezer had been born in Sierra Leone, the others in Forton. Their father an ‘independent minister without charge’ had been a Methodist missionary, born in the Staffordshire potteries in late 1838. The mother’s place of birth was Jamaica – around 1835.
The boys inherited their mother’s complexion – photographs of Arthur published in London in 1934 clearly shows this. In June 1906 Arthur was described in the Shetland Times as ‘a coloured gentleman’. The Hull Daily Mail (20 January 1908) noted he was ‘coloured evangelist’. In the 1930s he described himself as ‘a man of colour’. Massey worked in Jamaica where he met his wife. They moved to Sierra Leone in the 1860s. They left Africa in mid-1866 and he became the minister at Forton’s Congregational chapel by early 1867, departing in 1872. The 1881 census finds them all at Hancock Road, Bow, in east London. There were disputes and shouting in the Medland Hall chapel in August 1890 (London Evening News, 4 August 1890; Guardian, 6 August 1890). It seems the Revd W.H. Massey died in east London in 1900, as had his son Ernest in 1888. William Jr seems to have died in Manchester in 1895 – Elizabeth in Lancashire in 1884. Ebenezer remained in east London where he died aged 54 in 1920.
The youngest son, Arthur worked in London and in the 1890s he went to America, visiting Shaker colonies in Florida and Georgia, and also Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for African Americans, in Alabama, where he talked with its founder Booker T. Washington. The absence of documentation leaves speculation, but Massey hoped to establish a ‘Negro colony’.
Massey joined the Lichfield Diocese ‘Evangelist Brotherhood’, an Anglican Catholic mission order, in Wolverhampton, in 1900, working first for its Barge Mission in efforts to help the canal-using workers and their families, supplying non-alcoholic support including newspapers and letter-writing. Arthur’s listing in the 1901 census has him a visitor in Muxton, Shropshire and described as an unmarried Church of England evangelist aged 29.
In 1906 he moved far to the north, to the Shetland Islands where he moved among the fisher-folk of Lerwick. In 1908 he was working in Hull, then the major English fishing port on the North Sea, promoting a Christian socialist message. His Christian faith led him to be appointed lay-reader in a mission church near Braunton, Devon (near Barnstable) in March 1914. He remained there for five years until dismissed by the Bishop of Exeter because he had been ordained in the Uniate Church (the eastern or Orthodox church). He retained his title ‘reverend’.
He wrote articles and poems for the Epoch, and had one poetry collection published (The Poetry and Beauty of Death, Chichester, 1931). He settled on the Sussex coast in Peacehaven where he was active in both the Labour Party and was the secretary of the local debating society. He corresponded with poets T. S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and Siegfried Sassoon, and with George Lansbury the leader of the Labour Party.
In 1934 Arthur Massey was associated with the London-based League of Coloured Peoples, attending their annual conference and contributing to their magazine. He wrote about the American race leader Booker T. Washington for Nancy Cunard’s Negro anthology of 1934. Massey considered an idealistic life, visiting American and then British communities often with Tolstoyan ideals. He was a Christian in the Anglican Catholic tradition.
A vegetarian idealistic Christian socialist with an inclination towards poetry, Arthur Massey was last reported in the League of Coloured Peoples’s The Keys (October-December 1935), having left for India on a special mission. This conflicts with a possible death registration in mid-1935 in Stockport, Lancashire. There is a strong suggestion he married Edith Dobson in late 1912.
Arthur Massey was a British-born black man active in Christian socialist activity, politics, and literature. The marriage and death registrations for Massey and his three brothers should fill out the family’s story. We do not know how Massey became associated with the League of Coloured Peoples, or known to Nancy Cunard, or anything of his earlier plans for a black settlement in the United States.
Black evangelists were not rare in Britain, although relatively few are known in the Catholic Anglican tradition such as Massey. The lives and achievements of black evangelicals, for example, Celestine Edwards (died 1894), Thomas L. Johnson (died 1921) and Daniels Ekarte (died 1964) have been documented. Others will be detailed in due course.
More information on the four Massey brothers and their mother will be welcome.
David Killingray, who has been working on a biography of Dr Harold Moody who founded the League of Coloured Peoples in London in 1931, generously supplied information from the League’s publications and from his research into black Christians.
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