198 : William G. Allen, American refugee teacher (c. 1826-1888)

This article relies heavily on information supplied by Bob Fairchild. Many thanks

In January 1851 both the Newcastle Courant and the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette noted the appoint of a ‘coloured young man’ to lecture in Greek and German in a small college in New York state (nearer Lake Erie than New York City). The college – McGrawville’s New York-Central College – had male and female students, both black and white. The new lecturer was William Gustavus Allen, who had been born in or near Norfolk, Virginia to a black mother and white father. Their deaths led him to be raised by a black family – he was a ‘free person of color’. Why English newspapers thought the college post was worthy of note is not clear, but from 1853 Allen’s name was to be found in many British and Irish newspapers, for he had married Mary Elizabeth King, a white student, and they experienced murderous critics and an every-present threat of violence, which led the pair to cross the Atlantic in April 1853. They were advised to contact Liverpool resident William Powell, and they spent two weeks there, no doubt receiving advice and contact details from William and Mercy Powell who had brought their seven children from New York to escape American racial restriction (see page 081 of this website).

Other African Americans in the British Isles published pamphlets (slavery narratives) which were sold at meetings, providing some financial support and always describing the nature of the American attitude of towards black people. Such first-hand account of slavery, combined with the immensely popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had a widespread readership. Allen’s The American Prejudice against Color was published in 1853 by W. and F. G. Cash in London. Allen gave lectures, generally on American slavery and colour prejudice (‘colourphobia’) and tried ‘to keep the wolf from the door’ as he advised the monthly Anti-Slavery Advocate (1 July 1853). He met and sometimes worked with other black speakers, such as William Wells Brown whose Three Years in Great Britain was published by the Cash brothers in 1852. On 16 May 1853 he was on a London anti-slavery society platform with Samuel Ringgold Ward and William Craft (both escaped slaves). Allen was employed by the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association to give three lectures (Leeds Times, and Leeds Intelligencer: both 26 November 1853) and spoke on American slavery at the Mechanics’ Institute in Bradford (Bradford Observer, 8 December 1853; Halifax Courier, 10 December 1853), moving on to Newcastle (Durham Chronicle, 23 December 1853).

By 1855 the Allens had moved to Ireland, lecturing in Belfast (Belfast Newsletter, 27 November 1855), and he published letters of support from Irish people in his 1860 A Short Personal Narrative published in Dublin by William Curry and ‘sold by the author’. The Allen had lived in Dublin for four years, and he had spent three months in Cork. There were children:  Julia Maria Allen (1857), Harriet Aurilla Allen (1858), Richard  Dowden Allen (1859) and then Mary Elizabeth Allen. Richard Dowden was a major figure in Cork, and had befriended Frederick Douglass back in the 1840s. (Patrick Loguen Allen born in London in 1855 has yet to be fully documented). They all moved to London where he founded a school in Islington. The school was not a success and closed by 1869. The British census of 1871 finds them in Islington – he was a ‘professor of music’ and a fifth [or sixth] child (Martha Elmina Allen whose middle name has often been shortened to ‘O’) had been born in July 1865 at 234 Caledonian Road. Her father was declared to be a schoolmaster.

The family relocated to 57 Treverton Street in northern Kensington, and there on 10 March 1876 Richard Dowden Allen, aged 16, died from phthisis [tuberculosis]. His father was described as a visiting tutor. Martha Allen, aged 13, died at Treverton Street on 15 July 1878, from phthisis. Her father was described as a teacher of languages. The 1881 census listed him as a ‘teacher of music and elcn [elecution?] now living at 2 Rackham Street in north Kensington. Mary was aged 48 and there were five children listed – Julia aged 23 was a teacher of music ‘and elcn’, Harriet aged 22 and Mary aged 19 were both Berlin Wool Worker (fancy) – decorative needlework that was popular at that time – and the other two children were William Gustavus Allen aged 12 (born in Shoreditch, London in June 1868) and Helen aged 8, born in Islington.

William junior, aged 15, died on 29 May 1883 from phthisis. His father was present at Rackham Street. In March 1885 Julia Maria Allen, aged 27, died at the family home 64 Hazelwood Crescent (still in the north Kensington area). This ‘teacher and literary writer’ had been killed by phthisis. Three years later William G. Allen, ‘teacher of languages’ died in Paddington’s St Mary’s Hospital, on 1 May 1888 aged 62. Mary Allen the daughter made the declaration registration. Her father had found refuge in Britain and Ireland for thirty-five years. Her widowed mother was living in Kilravock Street when the 1891 census was taken, and also resident were two daughters Harriet and Mary, for Helen had died on 18 August 1890 at 93 Kilvarack Street: registration of the death from phthisis which Helen had suffered from for two years was made by her sister Mary. Mary’s middle name was Edmunson, and two Edmunson sisters had been students at the New York-Central College in the 1850s.

The family would have been seen around the streets of north Kensington, but the patriarch was active in public, being reported at gatherings supporting fugitive slaves and black lecturers as he had done almost from the moment of the ship docking in Liverpool back in 1853. Examples include a talk on slavery in Leicester on 23 February 1854 at the town’s temperance hall under the auspices of the divorced wife of poet Lord Byron (Leicester Chronicle, 25 February 1854). In October 1854 he was at an anti-slavery meeting in Manchester (Dumfries and Galloway Standard, 8 November 1854), and a lecture was announced in the 4 January 1855 edition of the Poole and Dorset Herald. The Halifax Anti-Slavery Society employed him to give two lectures (on American slavery, and on the history of ‘the African race’) at that town’s Odd Fellows’ Hall on 22 May 1855 (Halifax Courier, 19 May and 26 May 1855). By June 1855 he was in Ireland and scheduled to lecture at the Corn Exchange in Belfast, then in Derry’s Corporation Hall (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 20 June 1855 and 23 June 1855; Londonderry Standard, 5 July 1855). In July 1855 the Tyrone Constitution reported he was ‘at present residing in Strabane’ and the end of the year found Allen in Dublin where his lecture at the Rotunda was before ‘a numerous and respectable audience’ (Saunder’s News-letter, 29 December 1855). One month later he was far to the south, in Cork. He was reported in Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal on 7 April 1857 regarding a Dublin lecture, and apart from an appearance in Liverpool – which would have enabled him to renew his contacts with the Powells – in August 1857 he spent many months in Ireland – Dublin Daily Express, 6 November 1857, Waterford Mail, 18 January 1858, Cork Constitution, 4 March 1858, Belfast Mercury, 12 January 1859. The Birmingham Daily Post of 2 June 1859 noted he was ‘now residing in Dublin’ but he still travelled widely, appearing in Downpatrick in mid-June 1859 (Downpatrick Protestant, 24 June 1859), and in Tralee the following summer (Tralee Chronicle, 17 August 1860). In November 1861 he was reported in Bray on the coast near Dublin.

Back in Britain Allen was associated with fugitive slave John Sella Martin and businessman and abolitionist Harper Twelvetrees in 1863. Twelvetrees authored The Story of the Life of John Anderson, and supported Anderson who fled Canada in 1861 and was sponsored to Liberia (see this site’s page 107). Allen was at his farewell celebration in London on 22 December 1862. It seems that family responsibilities and plans for a school took up Allen’s energies from the early 1860s, but the threat and then the reality of the American Civil War left him behind – for he had not lived there since 1853 and even then his life was far from reflective of the mass African American experience. Historian Richard Blackett has noted that Allen ‘preferred the academic to the popular lecture. But even then he spoke to audiences made up “almost exclusively of the working classes”.’ (Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall (Louisiana State University Press, 1983, p 19) Allen’s contacts in Ireland seem to be Protestant, but Dublin’s Rotunda was a neutral and substantial venue. Dublin audiences often included substantial proportions of British soldiers. Cork was an international port for transatlantic voyages, and in these places and others William Allen reached individuals from far away.

That the widow and two daughters seem to have been the sole survivors according to the British census of 1891 needs investigation, as does the possibility of marriages. It has not been possible to document the death of Mary, the mother of the tubercular children, and by March 1901 when the British census was conducted, her daughter Harriet was living in the house of Lucy Latter in Clifton Road, Deptford working as a household servant. Her employer wrote booklets including Cane Weaving for Children (1888) and School Gardening for Little Children (1906). The former was in a 20th edition by 1927 but Miss Latter had died, in India, in 1907. Probate documents (the will is dated November 1906) do not name Harriet Allen. The trail of the Allens has gone cold…after a half century in Ireland and England.


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