268 : Where did they live?

When a document has a street address relating to a person of historic interest it can be valuable albeit time consuming to check out the details of others who are linked to that place – owner, occupier. associate of the main person of interest. Tracing black people in Britain, notably Americans, using published research can sometimes reveal contacts. Between the invention of postal services (which might be dated with the invention of the postage stamp in 1840) and airmail, the addresses on letters may well be for use as a poste restante, where mail is held until the addressee returns – so we cannot say of 22 Cecil Street, Strand, London, for example, was the residence of escaped slave William Wells Brown or his contact address. But what has been found is interesting:

The address appears on letters republished in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume 1: the British Isles, 1830-1865 edited by C. Peter Ripley and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1985. Pages 161-162 has a letter of Brown’s dated 2 September 1849 sent to the Revd William Allen in Massachusetts, and one to The Times dated 3 July 1851 (pages 283-284).

http://www.umbrasearch.org/catalog/726b66b1164b4fd9eeaa7b29b7b6d457 has the Boston Public Library’s letter of Mary Anne Estlin to Caroline Weston, from 22 Cecil Street. Miss Estlin (1820-1902) was the daughter of fierce anti-slavery activist John Bishop Estlin, a eye surgeon of Bristol (1785-1855) and she was based in that city; Caroline Weston, of an American anti-slavery family, lived in Boston. There are archived letters from Miss Estlin with the address as 21 (sic) Cecil Street – dated 1853. Cecil Street was south of the Strand, and its southern end became part of the Embankment in the 1860s. Its northern end was opposite the Adelphi Theatre. Respectable lodging houses were common in the area in the mid-Victorian period.

One of Brown’s letters (20 December 1850) has the address ‘Kingshead Hotel Hortlepool’ (Ripley p 239) which must be Hartlepool on the north-east coast of England. Spelling errors are another hazard.

Small and inexpensive accommodation suited the anti-slavery speakers, as well as small theatrical groups, singers and performers. Some individuals provided accommodation in their homes – William Thomas Blair of Bath is said by Ripley (page 310) to have ‘developed a close relationship with black abolitionist Alexander Crummell … [who] frequently resided at Blair’s house during his stays in the city’. Black residents were useful contacts for the newly-arrived, notably the Everton (Liverpool) home of William and Mercy Powell and their children in the 1850s. Ripley (page 255) says ‘More than any other black abolitionist, Powell hosted newly arriving fugitive slaves’. Escaped slaves Ellen and William Powell from Georgia established their London home in Hammersmith (the street name and house number have changed from 12 Cambridge Road, but an English Heritage blue plaque is to be mounted on 26 Cambridge Grove) where it seems they ran a boarding house into 1868. Two of their children’s birth registrations have different addresses, perhaps those of accoucheurs.

It was normal for middle-class families to have house servants in Victorian times, and the servants would have observed their employer’s black guests. Just as with the numerous individuals who attended public halls to see and hear black testimonies, and purchased the slavery narrative booklets, this nameless aspect of the British experience of African people suggests many thousands of Britons had opportunities to learn of the black experience.

A study of William and Mercy Powell in Liverpool would be a useful contribution to the subject. Their eldest son (William Peter Powell, jr) qualified as a doctor in Dublin and Liverpool, served in the Federal armed forces in the civil war 1862-1864, and died in Liverpool in 1916. The British Medical Journal (vol 1, 963, 14 June 1879 page 919) had a note from his mother asking for news of her doctor son who was believed to be in either Australia or New Zealand. She had not heard anything since July 1872. The British census of 1881 has her listed as a widow, a shopkeeper at Gwydir Street in Toxteth with her invalid daughter Sarah (aged 35) and a nephew William P. P. Stowe, aged 16.

Who was young Stowe? What did the shop sell? Where did Sarah and her US-born siblings go to school? Where did the Craft children go to school? We really do not know much about these men, women and children.