269 : ‘Lady and Negro Girl’: Charge of Cruelty October 1908

Individuals in Britain and Ireland who aided black people have been detailed in biographies and other publications so that today many know of Wilberforce, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Granville Sharp and even reports in the Anti-Slavery Reporter. Presentations at public meetings were held all over the British Isles in a decades-long campaign against slavery in America, and thousands purchased the narratives by escape slaves. Many if not most of the black people in Britain kept their public statements and publications within the bounds expected by white associates – making slavery narratives very similar. The actions of some British individuals, who lacked status or were absent from any network, have been overlooked. Alfred Stevens, a cow keeper who worked for a major-general Bigge on a farm at Bricket Wood between St Albans and Watford to the north of London, might represent such individuals.

Stevens challenged the high-status Mary and Algernon Willoughby Osborne and their treatment of four African girls who lived in semi-slavery in a bungalow close to Stevens’s otherwise isolated cottage. Osborne had been educated at the elitist Winchester and Hertford College, Oxford, qualified as a solicitor in 1897 and was called to the bar in 1902/1904. He worked in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and moved to Nigeria where he was the Chief Justice of Southern Nigeria – and grand master of the Freemasons of Nigeria. Having befriended two of the African girls, Stevens took action when he heard one of them screaming, reporting to the police who called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and so an officer and an inspector of the society called on the Osbornes the next day, 25 September 1908. The police constable confirmed that he had heard Mrs Osborne tell the inspector she would flog the girls until they obeyed her.

The details of the court hearing (over four days) took over a column in the Watford Observer of 17 October 1908. The girl who had been thrashed testified ‘very intelligently’, saying Mrs Osborne had used a walking stick. She confirmed she had never been to school in England nor had she received wages. She admitted gossiping with the coachman about Mrs Osborne’s behaviour when her husband was absent. One of the medical witnesses was a doctor educated in Pennsylvania.

The Osbornes had lived at Bricket Wood for eighteen months. One assumes he returned to Nigeria in those months.

Stevens had told Mrs Osborne he thought the girls were not being fed adequately. Osborne, annoyed by the tittle-tattle about his wife’s morality, had said that ‘the only way to correct black people was to flog them’ according to the London weekly African World. The court found her guilty of cruelty but as she had been provoked the costs of the case were to be paid by her victim (and thus the N.S.P.C.C.).

The matter had led to questions in parliament and when reported in The Times (23 October) it was said the four girls would be returned to Africa – which led to cheering in the house.

Osborne retired by 1914 and died aged fifty in a Newmarket, Cambridgeshire nursing home on 20 March 1915. His widow inherited £5,700 – but the probate index has her name as Emma Willoughby-Osborne. The four African youngsters had an untraced future.