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]

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

Chris Norton supplied a photograph of the grave in 2022. It states he was eighteen and Brian Willan advised its short text is in Xhosa:


[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.


One thought on “212 : an African’s grave in Taunton, 1890

  1. Hi Jeffrey
    I lived in Norton Fitzwarren from about 1986 -1992. I am a ‘local historian’ and , while I lived in the Taunton area did many talks to the public on local history. One of the talks I did was on the Norton Fitzwarren train crashes . Titus’ grave is in the Wellington Road Cemetery in Taunton. I have a picture of the grave stone which I took before the local Taunton Council took headstones down in the cemetery so as to make their grass cutting cheaper. I don’t know if they took Titus’ stone down but I pleaded with them not to at the time. I left the area for the North shortly after. I can provide you with a copy of the photo if you wish so that you can up date your web page. I have it on slide so need to find it first and digitalise it before I can send it.Just give me a convenient e mail address to send it to. Thanks.

    Chris Lunn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.