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006: Balmer’s “Kaffir Boys” in Britain
There are at least six poses, on postcards, of Jas H Balmer’s “Kaffir
Boys” or “Singing Boys”. Balmer is known to have taken a troupe of males and females to the U.S.A. in the 1890s where, failing to earn sufficient money, they were abandoned – and famously, rescued by black Americans whose support allowed some to attend college and to return to South Africa able to help their people.
In Britain Balmer took another group around the country in the 1900s, presenting them on stage in aid of good causes. The theatrical press was concerned with mainstream theatres, so it is through advertisements and, possibly, reviews in more restricted publications, that they might be traced. When postcards have been franked or comments on them can be read, more details can be obtained. The oldest card (lower) is dated and franked 20 April 1904 and sent to Bedford Road, Ilford. “I heard these boys sing at the Edinburgh Castle on Monday evening. They are about 7 years old”.
Presentating African Song Lectures may have made money for Balmer. Their two appearances at the Corn Exchange in Newark in 1907 was in aid of an indebted Sunday School. In view of Balmer’s U.S. experience we assume the school received an amount after deductions for his expenses.
This is the oldest card. The Edinburgh Castle was an East End (London) ex-pub, which had been purchased by temperance groups and rebuilt as a 4,000 seat centre. In 1905 orphanage home founder Dr Thomas Barnardo lay in state there before being taken to Ilford for burial.
One card mailed in Liverpool to Clissold Road, Stoke Newington (north London) on 10 December 1907 makes no reference to the image of the four except for a block-letter line written under the image “4 little nigger boys”. On 31 July 1908 another of that card was mailed in Eltham to Fremont Street in Hackney (north London). The message side of the card has a rubber stamp noting J H Balmer F.R.G.S was at 55 Reads Avenue, Blackpool. “Hannah will tell you whose Photos these are (not us of course)” is part of the message, hinting that Flossie and Hannah had seen them.
From south east London on 17 June 1908 another of these cards was mailed to Wimbledon (south west London). “We had these clever Kaffir Boys at the Orient in London and they sang Kaffir Hymns beautifully you must hear them when you go”, was probably a reference to the missionary exhibition Africa and the Orient. Finally a card mailed in Carnforth, Lancashire, in mid-December 1917 to Amersham (Bucks) has the message “These four African boys come from Auntie Frankie and Uncle John, to say how sorry they are to hear that Gulie is so poorly”. The date suggests the card had been kept for a while until it was used in this manner.
Balmer was touring and exhibiting the Africans from 1904 into 1908. Who saw them and what they thought is almost unknown: and we do not know the names of the “Kaffir Boys”, where they found accommodation, and what they thought of the natives of Britain.
In 1910 the Aborigines’ Protection Society of London arranged the repatriation of the five lads who originated in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa (Neil Parsons, Clicko. The Wild Dancing Bushman (University of Chicago Press, 2010, page 70).
The library of the University of Iowa has copies of programmes from Balmer and the five touring the USA with a white Rhodesian woman. These seem to be after 1908.