212 : an African’s grave in Taunton, 1890

Titus Mbongwe’s family were Wesleyan Christian South Africans. His father met Orpheus McAdoo, a choral singer and minstrel from North Carolina whose touring group of Americans had an impact on South Africa (and Australia where he died in 1900). McAdoo thought young Mbongwe should study further, recommending his old college, Hampton Institute in Virginia.

Mbongwe is known to have performed in Kimberley with colleagues who were to tour Britain from 1891.[i] 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 decapitated, a detail that found its way into the press reports (which also give his surname as Baylis etc). Fellow Wesleyans in Liverpool were expecting him, for he would have stayed with them before taking an ocean steamer.[ii] One report suggested he was an American missionary returning from Africa.[iii] Wesleyans in Taunton seem to have contacted his father.[iv] There were comments that he was a singer, another that he had been well-liked on the ship and one that gave his name as Titus Obongwee son of a preacher of Grahamstown. He was twenty-two years old.[v] 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’.[vi]

It is not known if there is a gravestone.

See also ‘1890 Railway Disaster Norton Fitzwarren’, which states Mbongwe was 22 years old.

[i] Veit Erlmann, ‘“Spectatorial Lust”. The African Choir in England, 1891-1893’ in Lindfors, Africans on Stage, p 110.

[ii] Leeds Mercury, 12 November 1890; Bristol Mercury, 12 November 1890; Glasgow Herald, 13 November 1890; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 16 November 1890; L. T. C. Rolt, Red for Danger: A History of Railway Accidents (London: Pan Books, 1978), pp 194-197.

[iii] Northern Echo (Darlington), 12 November 1890.

[iv] Standard (London), 13 November 1890, p 3.

[v] Birmingham Daily Post, 14 November 1890; freebmd has him as Titus Mbongive, death registered quarter ended December 1890, Taunton, 5c 262.

[vi] Somerset County Gazette (Taunton), 15 November 1890, p 7, courtesy Kate Parr, Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton.

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