252 : Participating in English Social Life in Victorian Times

There are easy-to-overlook buildings in English cities which were the centres for improvement societies and groups involved in the well-being of the general public. Churches and chapels often provided meeting places for black speakers, notably the fugitive slaves from the United States, from the 1830s. Some organizations had views which conflicted with church groups, and as the 19th century aged there seems to have been an explosion in fraternal organizations – philanthropic groups that aided those who were worse off. Several claimed to be secular; others had charismatic leaders who attracted audiences of many hundreds. Few today know much about the evangelist Gipsy Smith (1860-1947) or groups such as the Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers which aided children by providing holidays and hospital accommodation. The Orange Order of Northern Ireland and the Salvation Army are quite well known, as are the Masons (aka Freemasons).

There were hundreds of groups which attacked the brewery and distilling trades, split into those who wanted a reduction in the consumption of alcohol and others who favoured total abstinence. Others organized children – the Band of Hope – or local groups. Documenting these activities is difficult, but black participation has been noticed. Visual proof of African American Isaac Dickerson in ‘missionary work’ in eastern London’s Leyton is due to the chance survival of a handbill from March 1897 [it is in Jeffrey Green, Black Americans in Victorian Britain (2018)]. Frederick Oxley of Liverpool was paid commission on his collections for a gospel mission in Birkenhead, which we know through reports in the press in 1906 [see page 191 of this website]. Henry Sylvester Williams, a law student in London in the 1890s, says he worked for the Church of England Temperance Society, and he also lectured for the National Thrift Society [Marika Sherwood, Origins of Pan-Africanism (Routledge, 2011), p 34].

William Wells Brown, an escaped slave who spent some years in Britain around 1850, wrote about Joseph Jenkins, a multi-faceted black who gave anti-alcohol lectures in London; when Brown returned to Britain in 1877 he lectured for the International Order of Good Templars, an American group which would not permit blacks to be members and so they associated with the British group founded in 1868. Older friendly societies, which often merged and changed their names and also often had ‘International’ or ‘Independent’ in their titles included the Foresters founded in 1834, the Odd Fellows of the 1730s, the Rechabites of 1835, and the Masons. Their halls provided quiet meeting places, and the most active groups established insurance and savings schemes. The Hearts of Oak Benefit Society founded in 1842 was taken over by an insurance company in 2007; the Foresters Friendly Society continues, providing insurance and pensions.

Other organizations provided social assistance, and this website has noted black participation in orphan homes run by Dr Barnardo and the Church of England [page 227]. Old photographs enabled these identifications. There was the work of Jamaica-born Agnes Foster whose daughter was a Salvation Army officer in Edwardian Manchester [page 156]. Other black Salvationists are noted in Green, Black Americans in Victorian Britain pp 115-116.

Black participation in English social life in the 19th century remains an under-researched subject, probably due to the size and distribution of the black presence is unknown to many, and involvement in groups such as the Labour party, trade unions, the Chartists has dominated. There were black people active in all manner of activities in Britain, with Lady Mary Grey from 1892 being perhaps the most unexpected [see page 164]. It seems likely that a close study of Victorian philanthropic groups, especially temperance societies, will reveal this black presence. After all, the Orange Lodge in Ghana was founded by Africans in 1918.

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