191 : British newspapers, blacks and crime 1900-1927

This page is based on part of my paper presented at the History Workshop, Oxford in November 1991.

The twenty British newspapers examined in this research reported criminals of African descent in very similar ways to black witnesses and victims.

Aumore Ashaker, 1902. Charged at Clerkenwell Sessions (London) with threatening to kill a London hotel keeper, the Daily News and The Times (7 February 1902) reported the Nigerian had been sentenced to twelve months, had been living by fraud, and by ‘blackmailing white women’.

Isaac Brown, 1902. and 1907. A Jamaican ex-soldier of the West India Regiment, Brown made several claims including being an African monarch (of Ethiopia and of South Africa) as detailed in my Black Edwardians (1998), pp 53-55. The Finsbury Weekly News and Chronicle  reported on 8 March 1902 that he had been sentenced to twelve months for fraud, having pretended to be Sergeant William James Gordon, a Victoria Cross holder of the West India Regiment. Brown made his royal claims in Grimsby in 1907, and the Grimsby County Times (12 April 1907) said he was ‘a well-dressed dusky personage’ and the Grimsby News wrote he was ‘a smartly dressed negro’. He was sent to prison for three months. Even the London Sporting Times (13 April 1907) reported the case.

Dr Joseph S. N. Nurse, 1905 was fined £500 for breach of promise having agreed to marry Miss Bella Mackinnon of Edinburgh who sought £1,500. ‘A native of Barbadoes’ living in St Kitts, Dr Nurse’s case was reported in the Edinburgh Evening News of 11 October 1905.

Frederick Oxley, 1906. Oxley was collecting in Birkenhead market for the Gospel News Mission which the police suspected ‘was not carried on upon a sound basis’. The Birkenhead News of 24 January 1906 and the Liverpool Weekly Courier of 27 January 1906 reported his Pitt Street, Liverpool address, his arrest under the 1824 Vagrant’s Act, that he was ‘a man of considerable intelligence’ who told the court he was paid commission on his collection. He was released.

John Frankling was reported quite differently when tried for theft in London in October 1906. The South London Observer, Camberwell and Peckham Times of 24 October 1906 had the details under the heading ‘The Darkey’s Smile’. He was sent to prison for one month.

Frank (the Coffee Cooler) Craig, 1912 was at the Bloomsbury party when Annie Gross (see page 102 of this site) had shot her partner’s girlfriend. He was charged with being an accessory. The Times reported on 13 December 1912 that this ‘man of colour’ (an American boxer) had been found not guilty – the revolver he had supplied Gross was for her protection.

Eddie Manning who was often mentioned – often inaccurately – in the London press in the 1920s has been detailed on page 043. He is mentioned in several books including Richard Harrison, Whitehall 1212: the Story of the Police of London (Jerrolds, undated but ca 1948) and police superintendent Robert Fabian’s London after Dark (Naldrett, 1954).

Ekpenyou Bassey, 1923 was a student in Liverpool accused of drugging a nineteen-year-old woman, and was remanded on bail according to the Illustrated Police News of 17 May 1923: he was ‘a massively-built negro student’.

Edward James Felix was the secretary of the British Colonial Club in London’s Whitfield Street and in 1923 was charged with serving alcohol out of hours in August. The Illustrated Police News had earlier reported an affray between Clifford Grandison a ship’s fireman from Trinidad and Charles Rennie – ‘another man of colour’. (Police News, 12 July 1923; 4 October 1923; 22 November 1923). Grandison had also, separately, shot his partner Gladys Clarkenwell on 1 October and was sent for trial at the Old Bailey where he was sentenced to a year in prison, for unlawfully wounding Rennie. The club was closed down and Felix was fined £500.

James Kelson was a ship’s cook from Trinidad who was arrested for possessing cocaine in London on 2 August 1923. He had been followed by the police. His criminal record including stealing a ham (6 weeks) and possessing firearms (two months) and his new offence led this ‘coloured man’ to a three year sentence reported in the Illustrated Police News of 16 August 1923.

Jim Kitten ran ‘a refreshment house known as the Black Man’s Café, White Lion-street, Seven Dials just east of Soho when he was fined at Bow Street for permitting gambling on the premises. The Illustrated Police News of 20 January 1927 said his café was ‘frequented by negroes, some of whom never worked, and also by women of a certain class’.

The gratuitous identification as ‘a man of colour’ also had a sketch illustrating the death of Raphael Thomas Bell aged 39. The Illustrated Police News of 14 July 1927 reported the death of this naturalised British citizen whose white widow told the Paddington inquest he threatened to take his life whenever they quarrelled. He had pulled a pistol from his pocket and ran down the stairs – and gun went off. The verdict was suicide (then a crime). Superficial reporting led to the Police News of 25 August 1927 stating there had been a ‘Serious Fight Between Lascars and Negroes at Glasgow’. The Lascars (East Indian sailors) came from Cardiff, the blacks were both ‘West Indian seamen’ and West Africans. The affray had lasted fifteen minutes and eight people had been arrested and four people were injured. The focus on scandal and mayhem by the Illustrated Police News was not rare, as the Boro’ of West Ham, East Ham and Stratford Express of 14 September 1927 reveals when it reported a razor-wielding incident which led to the appearance at West Ham’s police court on 13 September of ‘a coloured fireman’ named Thomas Miller accused to maliciously wounding ‘another black man, named Alfred Myers’. Myers had been in hospital for eight days. Miller was sentenced to six months and was told ‘he must never use a razor in that way in this country’.

The readership of the Illustrated Police News is uncertain. Linda Stratmann in her Cruel Deeds and Dreadful Calamities: the Illustrated Police News 1864-1938 (British Library, 2011) noted that it ‘is sometimes not regarded as a newspaper at all [and is] omitted from scholarly studies of the popular press’. Whenever I sought other reports in local and national newspapers it was striking that the vocabulary and phrasing were often very similar.

The legacy of these reports must have been to influence the wider British public. It is an uncomfortable subject, perhaps tasteless. It is part of British history, however.

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