168 : West Country Blacks in Victorian Times

Prepared for but not required by the Black British History conference in Bristol, 7 April 2016.

 The south-west of England consists of three counties – Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset. The ‘West Country’ also includes Dorset. In the 19th century the naval base at Plymouth, the tin mines of Cornwall, and the international trade conducted in Bristol were all of national importance.

The black individual who lived in the region for at least fifty years was Henry Parker, a stone mason in Bristol whose descendants believe he was born in slavery in Florida (see www.sgsts.org.uk/Henry Parker). The British census always states he was born in Bristol. A lay preacher, with many children, he died in Bristol in 1905. A grandson was killed serving in the British army in France in 1918 (www.cwgc.org Edwin Thomas Charles Head).

Moses Roper escaped slavery in Georgia and reached England in 1835. Like other refugees he lectured all over Britain, selling his Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery from 1837 – there were five editions by 1843 plus one in Welsh (1841). He married Ann Stephen Rice in Bristol in late 1839. There were three daughters born in Canada and one on the boat to Canada. Roper, who died in America in 1891, lectured in Yeovil, Exeter and Sturminster.

Perhaps the most well-known of West County blacks was Joseph Antonio Emidy and his descendants. He was active in musical circles in Cornwall until his death in 1835. There were eight children: James Hutchings Emidy died in Bristol in 1884, aged 53, a fairground worker (‘equestrian’ according to the 1871 census of Norwich) and another James Emidy with five children was listed in Truro at that time. He was a labourer. The 1861 census named a female Emdy, born in Truro in 1818, as a greengrocer in Everton. (See Richard McGrady, Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall, Exeter University Press, 1991).

A black American who sold crockery in 1830s Truro was assisted by his son Robert Travers – who as Bob Travers had fame as a boxer in the 1850s. Some say he was born in Falmouth. He fought in Coombe Bottom (Devon) in 1856 and in Appledore in 1858 (Kevin R. Smith, Black Genesis. The History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870 (Lincoln, Nebraska, iUniverse, 2003, pp 146, 193). Another West Country boxer was Tom Rooney from Bristol who won his match in Plymouth on 22 July 1892 (Western Mail, Cardiff, 26 July 1892). Pugilists were often employed in sideshows in fairs, and another employment for blacks included lion tamers – the 1861 census notes the Angola-born Martinia Maccomo.

The Yorkshire-born Jane Foster’s mother Agnes was a Jamaican, married to a farmer since 1848: both were to be active in the Salvation Army. Jane married John Harvey in Bedminster (Bristol) and was listed there in the 1891 census. She died in 1893, leaving a daughter. Agnes Foster died in Manchester in 1910.

A Bristol newspaper reported an inquest on Richard Esdale, cook on the brig Eling from Bristol to Nevis in the Caribbean who returned in such bad health he soon died. Officials insisted the captain and mate came to the inquiry, which resumed on 16 April 1852 (Bristol Mercury, 17 April 1852). Richard Esdale had lived in Bristol for years (the 1851 census states he was aged 36 and born in the West Indies [perhaps St Kitts but the writing is tricky] and lived at 7 Bristol Steps with his wife).

John Brown escaped from Georgia and then worked with Cornish miners in Michigan. Following his arrival in Liverpool in August 1850 he worked as a carpenter in Bristol. Brown went on to Redruth in Cornwall to renew contacts but was frustrated as his major contact had died. His Slave Life in Georgia was published in London in 1855. He lectured on slavery, and considered migrating to Canada and also Liberia. (C. Peter Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol 1 The British Isles, 1830-1865 University of North Carolina Press, 1985, pp 265-266, n 1; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 March 1853 p 8 noted the ‘large and respectable’ audience for Brown in Launceston). He worked as a carpenter, earned a modest living as a herb doctor, married an English woman and is said to have died in London in 1876 (New Georgia Encyclopedia on line. See jeffreygreen.co.uk/133). Dorchester was where a John Brown gave a talk at the Corn Exchange on 4 May 1868 when he was billed as the ‘American Botanist’. The Western Gazette (8 May 1868, p 7) gave half a column to its report. This must be the same individual who worked as a herbalist in Taunton where back in mid-1865 he claimed an unpaid bill, being careful to describe this as for herbs and not medicines (Western Gazette, 23 June 1865, p 5).  Brown had been in Taunton in March 1865 (Dorset County Chronicle, 23 March 1865, p 8.) This must be the refugee from Georgia. His advertisement in the Sherborne Mercury on 30 October 1866, and both 22 January and 29 January 1867 stressed he was a black man, the ‘celebrated American herbalist’ offering pills and tinctures for the stomach, liver, coughs and the eyes. He was based in Durngate Street, Dorchester.

William Wells Brown’s Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave, Written by Himself was already in print and a British edition appeared in 1849. ‘The Narrative earned Brown a modest income, was translated for European sale, and launched his successful life of letters as playwright, historian, and the first black American novelist’ (Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers, p 153 n 3). In the winter of 1850 Wells Brown was in Gloucester, Exeter and Plymouth.

Ellen and William Craft, who had known Brown in America before they escaped from slave catchers in 1850, were in Bristol too. A meeting in Bristol on 9 April 1851 noted ‘Mr. Craft is a fine and intelligent young man, but his negro character is unmistakeable; his wife, however, has a complexion very little darker than that of our country-women. She was neatly dressed and exhibited a modest demeanour; indeed, it struck us that she seemed somewhat embarrassed by the marked attentions paid to her’ (Bristol Mercury, 12 April 1851). In April 1862 Craft was in Bristol at an anti-slavery bazaar in aid of fugitive slaves, held at the Victoria Rooms 9 to 11 April. The Crafts, who had six children born in England, left London for America in 1869. He had established a school in Dahomey (today: Benin). Other fugitive slaves – black American refugees – included Samuel Ringgold Ward who was in Bristol in June 1854. ‘He is said to rivet the attention of his auditors by his extraordinary eloquence’ (Daily News, London, 9 May 1854. Bradford Observer, 25 May 1854, p 5; Bristol Mercury, 17 June 1854; Huddersfield Chronicle, 27 May 1854, p 5; Bradford Observer, 1 June 1854, p 6). His experiences and speeches formed the basis of his Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro published in London in 1855.

The Bristol Mercury (6 February 1858) reported the Revd T. A. Pinckney who was destined to work among escaped slaves in Canada had preached at Clifton’s parish church on 29 January. The Nottinghamshire Guardian of 14 January referred to him as ‘a coloured clergyman from Africa’ who worked for the Colonial Church and School Society and had worked in Africa for four years. South Carolina-born Thomas Pinckney had been ordained in 1853 and worked in Liberia until mid-1857. In Chatham, Ontario (Canada) he ran a school for black refugees and married Elizabeth King, an English Canadian in 1860. The couple soon left and settled in Southampton (www.uwo.ca/huron/promisedland).The Southampton street directory for 1863 has no entry, the next extant volume [1871] lists him in Millbrook Road near the docks, and those of 1876, 1884 and 1887 list him at  Brent Cottage/14 Avenue Road on the corner of Rose Road). He was a naturalized British subject. The 1881 census states he had been born in Charleston, his wife in Ashford, Kent. He died aged 70 in December 1887 and his widow in March 1889, aged 72.

The Revd William Troy who spoke at the King Street Baptist chapel in Bristol in September 1860 was said to come from Windsor (Ontario) (Western Daily Press, 14 September 1860, p 2). He was the ‘coloured gentleman’ who headed an escaped slave community in Canada who appealed for funds in Gloucestershire in the summer of 1861. His Hair-breadth Escapes from Slavery to Freedom was published in Manchester in 1861. The 116 page booklet details stories of other fugitives. Troy seems to have been based in Manchester but the booklet does name Bristolians.

Lewis Charlton came to post-war Britain where he spent most of the 1880s lecturing on temperance. Born a slave in Maryland in 1814, he was liberated by the 1840s. He married, worked as a stone mason and as the 1870 U.S. census recorded, was at liberty. He opened a school for black children but it failed. He published a short account Sketch of the Life of Mr Lewis Charlton and was assumed by American historians to have vanished. In fact he crossed the Atlantic, becoming another post-Civil War visitor in England. In 1883 Charlton was informing Britons that he had spent forty years in bondage (Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 23 May 1883).. He has been traced in Liverpool in 1881 when the census states he was a ‘missionary’ born in St Louis, USA, and in Lostwithiel (Cornwall) in November 1882, in Truro in December 1882, and based in Plymouth was reported speaking on foreign missions, slavery and temperance. ‘An aged negro’ he was in the brewery town of Burton on Trent in August 1884. He died in Sheffield in 1888.

Amanda Smith (born in Maryland in 1837) was a temperance lecturer and Christian evangelist who worked in India for ten years. She was in Truro in late January 1894 having already appeared in Redruth. She stayed there, and spoke at the Methodist church on her life (born in slavery, twice widowed). This was her second visit to England (Royal Cornwall Gazette (Truro), 28 December 1893; Royal Cornwall Gazette (Truro), 1 February 1894, pp 5, 6). In 1894 she moved to Bristol and spoke at Clevedon when she was described as an African – the meeting was ‘overflowing’.

We have to guess at the background of the ‘man of colour’ named in the Bristol Mercury, 10 July 1886 as W. Sanders— when the Liberal candidate addressed a meeting at Avonmouth in July 1886, the gathering ended with a vote of thanks proposed by ‘Mr. W. Sanders, a man of colour’. When leading politician William Ewart Gladstone visited Torquay in June 1889 the parade was led by a man on a white horse, ‘his black face beams with delight under his white straw hat’ (Daily News (London), 11 June 1889).

Some individuals met misfortune. Titus Mbongwe’s family were Wesleyan Christian South Africans, and his father met Orpheus McAdoo, whose singers toured South Africa. McAdoo thought young Mbongwe should study further, recommending his old college, Hampton Institute in Virginia. He left South Africa on the Norham Castle reaching Plymouth on 10 November 1890. With forty six other passengers he took the express train to London, and along with nine of them he was killed when that train collided with another at Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton. He was buried in St Mary’s cemetery in Taunton, by two ministers and others of the town ‘who were acquainted with friends of the deceased’ (Somerset County Gazette,Taunton, 15 November 1890, p 7, courtesy Kate Parr, Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton). [see page 212 of this website]

Sierra Leonean Jacob Vivour Pratt went to a private school in Monkton Coombe near Bath, run by the vicar who had worked in Sierra Leone. Four other Sierra Leoneans went there and became lawyers, doctors and a clergyman (Christopher Fyfe, ‘Sierra Leoneans in English Schools’ in Rainer Lotz and Ian Pegg (eds), Under the Imperial Carpet, Crawley; Rabbit Press, 1986, p 31; Robert Wellesley Cole, An Innocent in Britain, London: Campbell Matthews, 1988, p 1. Pratt went on to Christ Church, Oxford to study law, graduating in 1887 before moving to Scotland where he qualified as a doctor at Edinburgh University and in 1895 went to practice medicine in eastern Nigeria.

Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor was the third son of a successful merchant of Freetown. He went to Taunton, Somerset in 1869 and attended Wesley College (it became Queen’s College in 1887: at least ten Sierra Leoneans studied there in the late nineteenth century), then studied medicine in London and qualified M.R.C.S. in late 1874. Dr Taylor was back in Sierra Leone in February 1875 probably unaware that his English girl friend Alice was expecting his child. Their son was born in London in August 1875, registered by the mother as Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who became a most popular composer of concert music in Britain for years after 1900.

Black people working in the field of entertainment included members of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin show which played Truro in 1892. They formed ‘the Louisiana Troubadour Quartette’ and the ‘Darktown Brigade Band’ for their three days at the Public Rooms (Era, London, 7 May 1892; Royal Cornwall Gazette, Truro, 12 May 1892, p 1). A more formal group, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers from North Carolina included Charles and Ida Washington, and a Mr Davis who spoke of his experience of slavery. They were in Williton, between Bridgwater and Minehead, in early May 1878 when both Washingtons were named (Star, St Peter Port, 20 September 1877; Bristol Mercury, 10 May 1878).

James Peters was born in Salford in 1879 and reached the West Country at the end of the century. He played rugby in Bristol, then for Plymouth, Devon county and was capped for England. He seems to have worked at the Plymouth docks but spent years back in Lancashire before returning to Plymouth where he died in 1954. He has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and is on several sports-focus websites.

Joseph Denny spent much of his life in prison including several years in Dartmoor. He was thirty when he appeared at the Old Bailey on 12 January 1881 when he pleaded guilty of stealing £25 and clothing from a house. The Morning Post reported on 5 February 1881 he had ‘a very extraordinary career of crime’ and The Times of that date noted this and that the ‘black man’ was sentenced for eight years. An earlier sentence had seen him serve seven years for his conduct ‘was so bad that he was required to serve the whole sentence’ (no remission for good behaviour). He was to be flogged but ‘on account of the state of his health this was not carried out’. He had been on a bread-and-water diet for 720 days. Denny asked ‘Why don’t you send me to the gallows right away? I shall be sure to do something. I shall commit murder before I am done!’ (The Times, 5 February 1881 p 11). The census (3 April 1881) listed him in Pentonville prison in London, aged 30 and born in the West Indies.

A rope was found inside Dartmoor prison in August 1890, which led to a search when the warders found Denny, who had been released a year before and had gone to sea where he brooded on his treatment by the chief warder. He broke INTO the prison aiming to murder that man and to rescue two prisoners. He got tangled up in the rope that pulled the entry bell, hence the search and the discoveries (Birmingham Daily Post 18 August 1890). He said he had been put in irons because he was a man of colour and spoke his mind. The magistrate warned him to be careful of what he said in the court (Pall Mall Gazette 20 August 1890). The Times (18 August 1890 p 8) said he was Joseph Denney a coloured man (who said he was actually Gordon) of Barbados and that he had served eight years for felony in London (mainly in Dartmoor) and seven years for manslaughter in Liverpool. He was sent back to prison for a year (Daily News 3 December 1890). Denny was charged with stealing a sheep, in December 1890.

The 1891 census listed him as a patient in Broadmoor (the asylum for the criminally insane) and indicated he was born in 1846 in Barbados, and had worked as a cook and baker. Later that year the Hampshire Advertiser reported that ‘an old friend’ Denny had been charged with stealing a coat from the Sailors’ Home in Southampton. Denny ‘enjoyed the scarce privilege of having broken into Dartmoor’. He had served seven and fourteen years and ‘constantly broke the prison rules’. Aged 45 he was returned to prison for nine months – to be followed by five years’ supervision – obliged to report his whereabouts to the police. An Uncle Tom’s Cabin theatrical show in Bishop Auckland in October 1895 employed Robert Hedley who was Joseph Hedley Denny or Denney, aged 49. The authorities in Southampton wanted him. The court was informed he had served eighteen years in prison including eight for attacking a prison warder in Dartmoor. The nine months sentence in Southampton was noted, and it was suggested he had set fire to a coffee plantation in the West Indies, possibly in Jamaica (Northern Echo, Darlington, 11 October and 15 October 1895; Yorkshire Herald, York, 15 October 1895).

As a career criminal Denny was a failure. His violence led to lengthy spells in prison. A full list of his trials and a comparison between his punishments and those of whites would be interesting. The written evidence is often without mention of colour or ethnicity although a photograph taken in Pentonville shows he was clearly of African descent.

James Bond, a boatman born in the West Indies aged 76 when resident in the workhouse in Bridgwater in the 1881 census (and dying in 1888) might represent those – unlike Denny – who seem to have left just a shadow in the records of Victorian Britain’s West Country.

All these items show people of African birth of descent were out and about in Britain in the 19th century, and were active in all manner of occupations. As we cannot believe that every dark person was reported in the press, are we seeing just a small selection of people?


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