After years of research into the black presence in Britain a century ago I was not surprised to come across a reference to ‘Professor Edgar B. Knight, “the great Abyssinian herbalist who died at Wombwell in Yorkshire in the early thirties”‘ in Colin Holmes, John Bull’s Island. Immigration & British Society, 1871-1971 (Macmillan, 1988, p 153). His source was the autobiography of the Sierra Leone seaman Ernest Marke’s Old Man Trouble (London, 1975, p 99). Herbalists and unorthodox healers were normal in Britain and some were of African descent, such as the American John Brown who worked in Dorchester in the 1860s (Green, Black Americans in Victorian Britain, 2018, illustration).
Knight, whose middle name was sometimes Errington (Probate) and also Moses (cemetery file, Sheffield newspaper reports November 1930) was said to be 33 at the time of his death on 12 November 1930. He was also said to be 34 and 35; the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 13 November 1930 p 3 referred to his complexion (‘Will Knight (34), coloured’) and its issue of 27 November 1930 (p 3) stated he was ‘an Abyssinian herbalist’ aged 35.
He lived at 7 Church Street in Wombwell, Barnsley, the address appearing in Probate records and cemetery files. He left £30-0s-4d to his widow Nora nee Lynard, and they had been married in Chorlton (Manchester) in late 1923. No trace of his birth has been found in British records, and his origins remain uncertain. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery (grave 5325 U/C 1) on 15 November 1930.
Examination of the South Yorkshire Times has uncovered information. On 13 December 1929 p17 he was said to have a treatment for baldness with his Abyssinian Hair Paste, claiming baldness ‘is not a natural condition’. The issue dated 19 September 1930 (p 7) included his photograph which clearly shows an African descent, described him as ‘the marvellous healer’, and that he had testimonials from people he cured of eczema. Reports that he had died on his way back from court in Barnsley led to a report of the ‘tramcar incident’ and a dispute with a coal miner (South Yorkshire Times, 14 November 1930, p 12). One week later the paper reported the inquest of 14 November, stating that Knight was an Abyssinian aged 33 who had worked as a herbalist in Wombwell for two years. It mentioned the £5 fine for common assault he had been charged following the tramcar dispute. He was said to have remarked ‘they have poisoned me’ when dying. He and his wife Gladys Veronica Knight had visited the Barnsley-based black boxer Sam McVea and his wife, and all had eaten the same meal. Sam McVea the American boxer had died in 1921, so this was another individual. That was not noted by the newspaper, which did report (28 November 1930, p 8) that the Mrs Knight and her testimony at the inquest had been challenged. She was a ‘coloured woman’ named Gladys Douglas who had married an Arab named Said Key. The legal Mrs Knight (who was at the inquest) had separated from the herbalist six years before. The inquest was later resumed and no trace of poison was found.
The funeral was well-attended. Names are listed in the South Yorkshire Times of 21 November. Knight had served in the army, a Union Jack covered the coffin and the veterans association the British Legion was represented. The man known as Sam McVea was there – and named as Bernard Lester – as was Ernest Marke (which explains why Marke recalled Knight in his memoirs).
Herbalists whose treatments were dangerous were often reported in the newspapers, and ‘a coloured man’ named Lewis Samuel Allen was charged at Lincoln with causing a woman ‘to take a substance for a certain purpose’ (surely an abortion?) in mid-1927 which was reported in the South Yorkshire Times of 16 June 1927 (‘coloured herbalist charged’) which stated he was aged 68; and 17 June 1927 (‘a coloured man’) whose discharge was ‘greeted with applause by a small crowd outside the court’ (Yorkshire Post 17 June 1927, p 11).
Did dark strangers in Britain have medical cures in their folk heritage? The story of the bogus Dr Bennett and umckaloabo (see page 052 of this website) is an extreme example of herbal medicine in Britain. What John Brown in 1860s Dorset and Edgar Knight in Barnsley supplied has yet to be researched, but yet again we see a broad participation in British life by black people a century ago.