Tag Archive | "Black British History"

Books about Black British History

Black History BooksA reading list of books related to the ongoing Black presence in Britain, Slavery, colonialism and black Settlement in the U.K
The list is by no means exhaustive!

Books about Black British History

  • Staying Power-The History of Black people in Britain by Peter Fryer
    (Pluto Press 1984)
  • Black England-Life before Emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina
    (John Murray,1995)
  • Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958 by Nigel File and chris Power
    (Heinemann,1981; reprinted 1995)
  • Black Edwardians-Black people in Britain 1901-1914 by Jeffrey Green
    (Frank Cass 1998)
  • Wonderful adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands by Mary seacole
    (1857; reprinted by Falling Wall Press,edited by Ziggy Alexander and Audrey Dewjee,1984).
  • Black Londoners 1880-1990by susan Okokon
    (Sutton Publishing Limited, 1998)
  • The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave
    (1831; reprinted by the University of Michigan Press, edited by Moira Ferguson,1993).
  • The first Black footballer-Arthur Wharton 1865-1930 An Absence of Memory by Phil Vasili
    (frank Cass,1998, reprinted 1999)
  • Colouring over the white Line- The History of Black footballers in Britain by Phil Vasili
    (Mainstream Publishing,2000)
  • Breaking Stereotypes-Perspectives of Selected Black and Asian Leaders Edited by Clinton A.Valley,EdD.
    (Minerva Press, 2000)
  • West Indian Women at War-British Racism in World War II by Ben Bousquet and Colin Douglas
    (Lawrence and Wishhart, 1991)
  • Roots of the Future-Ethnic Diversity in the making of Britain
    By Commission for Racial Equality, 1997
  • England Affric-An Ethnological Survey by Ahmed ali and Abrahim Ali
    (Punite Books, 1995) ISBN 0 9518924 4 4
  • A History of the Black Presence in London (Greater London Council, 1986)
    ISBN 0 7168 1679 2
  • Black and white- the Negro and English Society 1555-1945 By James Walvin
    (Allen Lane, 1973)

For a more exhaustive list of useful Books on Black History, you can download a copy of the the Black & Asian Resources available at the British Library.

Posted in African History, Black Britain, Black History, Black History Month UK, Black People in Europe, Caribbean History, SlaveryComments (3)

Black British History Must Feature throughout the School Curriculum

Black British History Began before the Empire Windrush

When the Government of the day start to role out their ministers, in defence of a topic that they have already managed to largely keep out of the mainstream agenda, you know something’s afoot.  Perhaps they sense that restless educators and equality campaigners see right through their piecemeal offerings on black British history.

In recent weeks much has been made of the forthcoming changes to the National Curriculum, particularly regarding history.  There was a small but significant outcry from organisations such as Operation Black Vote who organised a petition against the changes.

What were these changes to the curriculum and why were some people to opposed to them?  Simon Wooley  of Operation Black Vote and other Interested parties such as Labour councillor, Patrick Vernon,  such as this website, B.A.S.A and many other groups and individuals beleived that the proposed changes amounted to a whitewashing of History.  The changes amount to what is described as the systematic removal of positive reference to the contributions of Black and Asian people to British history. Not only that, but that the proposed history also belittled the revolutionary movements of the working classes as well as denigrating the achievements of women in history.

In the past fortnight, the whole saga played out under the radar of most Britons. The Government managed to keep a pretty tight lid on the whole affair.  I don’t remember once seeing an article about the opposition to the changes on the television news.  Some newspapers picked up on the affair, with articles appearing in the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Mirror  and Daily Mail.

I believe some national and regional Radio stations also carried the story or ran features about it.  By and large though, the nation slept on the whole affair.  Believing as I do that Black British history must Feature throughout the School Curriculum, I wrote a brief call to arms on the matter (Hey, Gove, leave Seacole Alone), but wasn’t hopeful that anything could be done.  After living under Eighteen years of Conservative rule,  I was sceptical about the possibility of a Conservative Minister responding to the will of the people.

Yet, on the 7th of February, I was surprised to receive a newsletter email proclaiming Victory.  The headline read:

Seacole and Equiano to Feature in Curriculum

Whilst being naturally pleased at the news, I doubted that the Government would have climbed down completely and felt that the inclusion of Black history in the British Schools curriculum would doubtless have come at a heavy price.  London Teacher Dan Lydon summed it up best when he wrote in response to the article:

Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 21.42.00

A Pyrrhic victory

Although the inclusion of Seacole and Equiano is welcomed, the new NC proposals are a disgrace. They represent the complete reversal of all the progress that has been made over the last decade in ensuring Britain’s diverse history is recognised and taught in schools. The tokenistic reference to Seacole and Equiano ignores the significant contributions that have been made to this country by people of Black and Asian heritage and wipes out a presence that has been recorded since Roman times. The first time any student will even know of this presence, under the new proposals, will be after studying history for 7 years! and the first thing they will be taught is that Black people were slaves. Gone is the awareness of African civilizations, the Blackmoors in Tudor Britain, radicals such as Cuffay, Davidson and Wedderburn. Where will students learn of the writings of Ignatius Sancho, the performances of Ira Aldridge or Samuel Coleridge Taylor? How can they be inspired by the pioneering efforts of Walter Tull or Claudia Jones? This misguided, amateurish attempt to impose a narrow, Little Englander interpretation of history must be challenged with the same vigour and passion as the campaign to support Seacole.

Since then, more and more people have spoken out against this “pyrrhic victory”.  Pointing to the facts that British history has always been more complex than portrayed by the Schools curriculum, and emphasising that steps should be taken to ensure that the teaching of history becomes more culturally inclusive, from primary school to University. Rather than the current government policy of  narrowing what is already an homogenous soup of vague omissions.

Author, Broadcaster and journalist; Yasmin Alibhai Brown highlighted the very nature of Britain’s longstanding interwoven Black Presence in her article in the Independent on February 10th 2013.  Whilst her article Pay attention Michael Gove, this is the British history we really need to learn about doesn’t reveal any Earth shattering contributions by Black or Asian people, it does highlight the normality of everyday interactions between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Interactions that have been going on for centuries, unnoticed and obscured by indifference.

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Liz Truss hit back this week stating that the Gove led revolution of the curriculum:

Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 21.42.00
captures British history in all its multi-layered, omni-racial glory

The thrust of Truss’s argument is that the new curriculum should be interesting and relevant. I have to ask, To whom is it relevant and interesting? Britain’s Schools, have in their populations today, the sons and daughters of migrants both recent and from the more distant past.  The future population of Britain needs to understand a history that is relevant to them, not a history that is more relevant to their grandparents of just some of the class.

Truss and Gove et al, say that to teach such history is pandering to the left or special interest groups and playing the P.C game. I disagree.

Michael Gove is out of Touch

History can be painful when you tell the truth.  It isn’t enough to say that Britain ended the Slave trade, without admitting that Britain was a major slaving power who grew fabulously wealthy from the profits of trading in human lives.  It isn’t enough to say that Britain brought medicine and technology and granted independence to commonwealth countries, without highlighting the brutal subjugation techniques deployed in acquiring those territories in the first place.

The Government should build an inclusive Curriculum

The government of today, or indeed any government would do far better by seeking to build a curriculum that portrays  a rich and detailed, chronological history of the world, that brings into focus, the ongoing interactivity of peoples who contributed to the country we live in today.  The days when Black and Asian kids are made to feel like immigrants in Britain should be in the past.  We are British through valour and trial, and that has to be recognised. Yet before we became British, we were Africans and Asians, and we had our own vibrant histories and traditions and cultures, that deserves much more than denigration and belittlement and relegation to the footnotes.

What do you think about the changes to the curriculum?  Is Michael Gove correct?  Or, should the history curriculum be far more inclusive?  I’m keen to read your thoughts. Please Leave a comment in the box below.

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Hey Gove, Leave Seacole Alone

Education Secretary Michael Gove, is preparing to axe Black British History figures from the School Curriculum, it emerged last week.

Despite the recent pronouncement from the Coalition Government that they want to engage with minority communities, a leaked government document makes it clear that Black British Historical figures such as Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano are to lose their slot in the British Schools History Curriculum. With the Education Secretary preferring more “British figures” such as such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.

Whilst I personally do not object to Churchill and Cromwell, they are already featured in most decent history lessons anyway, I do resent the fact that Black British History is being axed alongside, prominent figures from working class struggles and Women’s movements.

Changes to the History Curriculum

The new curriculum has been put together by a group handpicked by Michael Gove under conditions of secrecy with no outside consultation. Schools that are still under local authority control will be forced to adhere to the new curriculum.  The new curriculum, set to be announced in January,  will replace the existing one which did at least have requirements to teach the continued diversity of Britain, precolonial civilisations, resistance to slavery and decolonisation.

Given that it took so very long to get any form of Black contribution into the history books at all, why Mr. Gove thinks that it is somehow appropriate to remove key minority figures from what should be the common knowledge and learning of Britain’s children completely defies logic.

Surely any Government that truly wants to foster greater cohesively in society, and form stronger community links via “The Big Society” would want to include minority groups in that vision.  Surely, ensuring that all people are fairly represented in the teaching of the nations history would enable children of all ethnicities appreciate and understand each other better?

Hiding Black British History

By removing black historical figures from the curriculum, you remove the questions from the minds of pupils, like “There were Black people in Britain in 1750s?” and “When did they arrive, how did they get here?”. Eventually we will  revert we back to the supposition that Black people are all recent arrivals, invited here by an act of British altruism toward the former colonies.  We run the risk of  hoodwinking children into believing that the history of Britain was completely white, and that any interaction with Africans and Asians was about educating and “civilising” them. the truth is that Black history and British history are intrinsically interwoven.  The tyres you drive on, the sugar in your coffee, the wealth of the banks and cities, Gold, Diamonds, Cotton,  all products of Empire, of which Africa and the Caribbean was central.

The current curriculum may not be perfect.  Yet, it is actually closer to the truth than any curriculum in living memory. Patrick Vernon of “100 Great Black Britons” points out that the current curriculum was:

Teaching world history that recognised advanced Black civilisations existed before the slave trade and the European empires. It taught history of Britain would include Roman Africans, 18th century Indian entrepreneurs, 19th century  Black activists at the forefront of movements for social change and Indian fighter pilots in WW2; and that the Black population of cities like London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool was numerically significant and influential long before Windrush.

I grew up in the 1980s when black people were conspicuous by their absence from the school history books.  Back then it was taught that Africa had no history, Black people arrived arrived in Britain after World War 2, and were always moaning, were lazy, oversexed and predisposed to crime.  I was terminally bored by school as I was constantly reminded that I had no place in Britain unless I wanted to be an entertainer or a sportsperson.

Today Britain has made some considerable steps toward combatting such stereotypes, but complacency may quicken a return to the bad old days.  We are already seeing an increase in racism within football, and an increase in Stop and Search of black males under the section 60 rules. Not surprisingly the Conservatives were in power back then too, and it seems as though the main objective of their tenure is to turn back the clock to a time when “blacky knew his place”.

When Tony Blair’s government took office in 1997, Britain began to show a willingness to  tackle some of the deep rooted inequality in society that was a hangover from our colonial past.  The Macpherson report told of “Institutional Racism, not only in the Police but in all the major institutions”, education included.  The report recommended that steps be taken by government to address the massive inequality Black people faced within society.  Of course such changes could not have ever have come to pass without the tireless work of equality campaigners such as Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Lee Jasper, Zita Holbourne and the Late Bernie Grant MP.

There are those commentators who believe that Gove’s moves are just the tonic Education needs. How short their memories are, have they forgotten about the Macpherson reports definition of Institutional racism?  Probably not, but you can bet they are hoping that we have.

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The Machpheson Report

Responding to those who seek to remove Seacole & Equiano


“BOTH Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale played an important role in Helping Troops in the Crimea. So why should Seacole be hidden away for so many years without a mention whilst Nightingale receives ALL the plaudits?  Afterall some 80,000 people turned out to pay homage to her at her benefit concert, organised by the troops she served”.

Phil Gregory,

Today, it falls to us, Britons of every colour and creed to take a stand and say “enough is enough”. Each of us can take a stand against this attempt to drag the country back to the days of “cap doffing” and “forelock tugging” deference.  Teachers, Historians, Bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers, stand up and be counted.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, I want to see a history taught in schools that is representative of the people who live and have lived in these islands, a history that notes Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, Africans, Asians and Eastern Europeans, the men and the women,the rich and the poor,  the straight and the gay. I don’t want to live in a society where part of our contemporary history has been sanitised to fit in with the fantasy of a privileged politicians vision of  “1950’s Little England”. That England, that Britain never really existed.

It is purely a mythical construct used to divide and rule.

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Black History Refreshed by 'Mother Country'

Mother Country - Stephen Bourne

Mother Country – Stephen Bourne

Black British History went through something of a coming out party in the late 1990’s and early naughties. Real interest arose in the contributions of Black people in Britain and The Internet brought forth a whole plethora of sites and snippets of information all with the aim of finally setting the history books straight.

However, during the decline of the Blair Years, the interest in Black British history seemed to wain somewhat. Even BBC History magazine failed to pay much attention to Black History Month, which comes around every October here in the U.K. It seems to have become “P.C” to discuss or to even mention Black History, and so, as a follower of Black History in Britain I was wondering where the next contributions were going to come from. I even considered writing something myself. Fear not though, you can rest easy in your beds because the London raised Author Stephen Bourne has produced yet another invaluable book which is sure to encourage fresh, new, green shoots in the research and reportage of Black British history.

Bourne who is also the Author of such beautiful resources as “Aunt Esther’s Story” and ” A Sophisticated Lady- A Celebration of Adelaide Hall” , has in his latest offering brought together a fair collection of disparate reports, articles and photographs depicting the efforts and struggles of black people on the Home Front.

“Mother Country – Britain’s Black community on the Home Front 1939-45 brings the spotlight to such personalities as Dr Harold Moody, The Peckham Doctor who founded the First Pressure group for Black people in the U.K. Another Gem, is the story of Ken “Snake Hips” Johnson, the charismatic young Guyanese Bandleader who rose to fame during the War years only to be killed by German bombs whilst performing.

This book is different to many others that have mentioned the contribution of Black people people during the Second World War because it focuses solely on individuals who were based here in Britain during the War and not those serving in the Armed Forces. Bourne doesn’t fill the book with celebrity profiles either, he unfurls the stories of ordinary working people from a range of different countries and social backgrounds.

People Such as the Nigerian Air Raid Warden E.I Ekpenyon who was so popular with Local londoners that they would visit him at his home at all hours should they need his help or advice.? Another Londoner profiled is Bourn’es own Aunt, Esther Bruce, who lived through the Blitz hardships and sewed and altered dresses for the American Actress and Singer Elizabeth Welch. Others featured in the book include , Learie Constantine, Adelaide Hall, Una Marson, and many others.

Only in recent years has the effort of non white and non British Soldiers truly been acknowledged by the mass media, and as former soldiers die with each passing year, their story is once again in danger of becoming lost.? So Stephen Bourne’s book is a timely release for historians, helping guide them to further research and giving us all a sound, eye opening introduction to the Sacrifices made by Black Britons and Commonwealth subjects in Wartime Britain. I would fully recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Black history.? This book should grace the shelves of every black household in Britain, and then some.

“Stephen Bourne brings great natural scholarship and passion to a largely hidden story. He is highly accessible, accurate, and surprising. Mother Country is quite simply a home-grown triumph.”

Bonnie Greer, playwright and critic

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Before the Windrush

Black People in Britain
Before the Windrush by Jeffrey Green.


Boarding the Empire Windrush

Boarding the Empire Windrush

Jeffrey Green argues that to ignore the diverse black presence in Britain prior to the 1940s is to perpetuate a distorted view of British history.`


How do we explain the widespread ignorance of the presence of people of African and Caribbean origin in British history? Black men and women appear, for example, in Pepys’s diaries; in eighteenth-century portaits; sailing with Captain Cook on the Endeavour; not to mention the stories of Thackeray, Trollope, Dornford Yates, W.S. Gilbert, Laurie Lee and Evelyn Waugh. Yet there is a general misapprehension th at people of African descent were absent from Britain until very recently. This misconception has been nurtured by a belief that apparent exceptions can be ignored.

There is a further mistaken belief that those black people who do appear were temporary residents – and often worked in unskilled occupations – and this added to the notion that they made little contribution to British society. In 1998 celebrations were held of the half-century anniversary of the arrival in England of the immigrant ship Empire Windrush from Jamaica, but these often merely re-confirmed the prejudice that the black presence in Britain was recent, alien and working-class.

However, a study of the historic evidence reveals that people of African birth and descent lived in Britain four centuries before the Windrush reached Tilbury.

They and their descendants usually conformed to the prevailing social rules in language, education, style and ambitions, and, accordingly, are to be found at every level of British society. These men, women and children were widespread geographically, even though it is not possible to gauge their overall numbers. But investigations restricted to cities such as London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow and Tyneside only add to the mistaken stereotype of a foreign-born black working class living in urban ghetto communities.

The assumption that black people were largely absent from Britain until the arrival of Windrush cannot be successfully challenged until it is realised that black people had as broad a range of experiences in Britain as others. They were not exotics, even though a proportion worked in entertainment – in music making, theatres, halls, fairs and boxing rings. The partial nature of much recent research has placed blacks in ports or pictured them as musicians (largely in the world of 1920s and 1930s jazz), or has focused on protest and injustice. This misrepresents the wide nature of black activities, ignoring doctors and others of the middle classes, men and women of education.

Thus commentators on the Trinidad-born Dr John Alcindor, who practised as a doctor of medicine in London in the early twentieth century, have tended to mention his work at black-led conferences in 1900, 1921 and 1923, but ignored his published medical research, his charity work, his healing of hundreds of people in Paddington, or the fact that his eldest son was an army officer who fought in France in 1944.

One element that strains both the historical and social connections between blacks and whites in Britain is the Atlantic slave trade. Awareness of Britain’s role in the forced migration of Africans has created another misunderstanding, for those who are aware of Britain’s historic black presence often assume it results from slavery – that blacks were (and still are) victims. This view ignores self-willed migrants, and if we continue to overlook this minority we will be perpetuating an inaccurate picture of Britain’s history.

The lives of four individuals can be taken to show something of the broad range of contributions to British life that have resulted from the black presence.

Joseph Emidy lived in the south-west of England from 1799 until his death in 1835; his gravestone records him as ‘a native of Portugal’, but he was born in Africa and press-ganged into the British navy in Lisbon in 1795 as a musician. A skilled violinist, Emidy was active in Cornish musical circles, playing at balls and concerts, teaching and writing music. One of his sons had music published in the 1850s; another became a Sunday School teacher. Some of his grandchildren migrated to America in the 1890s.

His contemporary Thomas Birch Freeman was baptised in Hampshire in 1809. He worked as a gardener to a titled family in Suffolk – not a labourer weeding and planting in England, but an experienced horticulturalist. His letters contain detailed references to plants and their Latin names. In the 1830s, his Christian faith propelled him into missionary work in Africa for half a century, which had a major impact on Ghana and on Freeman’s Methodist colleagues in Britain who financed the mission, leading to two overlooked biographies of this ‘Son of an African’ (1929 and 1950).

Truro and Ipswich are not places where most people would expect to find a black presence. And black Christian missionaries to Africa have also been forgotten by most historians. Yet Freeman, Emidy and his sons were known to thousands of their contemporaries, who supported their efforts.

Thousands also knew Joseph Jackson Fuller, whose photograph appears in the recent History of the Baptist Missionary Society, which praises his role in negotiating the transfer of the Society’s property in the Cameroons to the Swiss in the 1880s. Born in Jamaica in 1825, he moved to Africa in the 1840s. He and his English wife eventually retired to London, where he died in 1908. He toured British churches and chapels, preaching and lecturing. A biography was published in the 1930s. His son spent some time in the Congo mission field, but the third generation included a shoe-repairer in Norwood, south London, who was proud of Fuller’s achievements but aware that there was no advantage in publicly claiming a black ancestor in the 1920s. People across Britain heard J.J. Fuller’s sermons and descriptions of Africa, as well as the story of the event he witnessed at the emancipation of Jamaican slaves in 1838 – the burying of their shackles to the singing of Christian hymns.

Fuller told Britons of his first-hand experiences of slavery and of Africa into the twentieth century. This encouraged fellow believers in their faith and showed blacks in positive roles, as well as underscoring the value of black missionary efforts.

The fourth individual was born in London in 1875. Known to the world of music and musicians after the success of his choral work The Song of Hiawatha (1898-1900), composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a London-trained doctor from Sierra Leone. Raised by his mother in Croydon, he attended the Royal College of Music from the age of fifteen. Hiawatha and instrumental works attracted critical praise. Coleridge-Taylor had no contacts with Africa or black people until his college years, when he began to use musical themes from Africa and the Caribbean, and especially the Negro Spirituals of the United States. Three times he visited America, where he met President Theodore Roosevelt. He conducted choirs and orchestras all over England. After his sudden death in 1912, thousands of admirers attended his funeral.

Coleridge-Taylor’s music touched the hearts of millions. In the 1920s and 1930s the Royal Choral Society’s financial plight was resolved by Malcolm Sargent conducting Hiawatha for two weeks every summer, providing ‘a stamp and flourish … to what may be described as demi-cultural life in London’, according to Sargent’s biographer, who noted the presence of royalty at these

The black thread woven through the tapestry of British history also included individuals who did not conform to the prevailing social rules. Black Britons participated in protest and in seeking reform and were active in the Gordon Riots and the Cato Street conspiracy; later they were found joining groups such as the Chartists, the Fabians and the Communists. Some were common criminals, too, of course.

In the case of Edgar Manning we can see how a bad reputation has stuck to a black man because it fits a stereotype. Manning, a Jamaican, worked in a London weapons factory during the First World War, before moving into London’s criminal world where, during the 1920s, he was arrested for violence, theft and receiving and being in possession of illegal drugs. Both the staid London Times and the sensationalist News of the World reported the story in similar ways, accepting police allegations that he supplied cocaine to the demi-monde and was responsible for the death of a showgirl. Books of the 1950s such as Soho: London’s Vicious Circle and London After Dark (a police officer’s memoirs) described Manning as ‘a dope pedlar and white slaver’, ‘dope king’, and ‘drug trafficker’, and displayed his photograph. A recent study of 1920s crime, relying on these books and contemporary newspapers, accepted these views as fact, although Manning was never in truth charged with – let alone convicted of – drug dealing.

A newer convention, one that presents blacks historically as victims of bigotry, race hatred and violence, is in part a result of the fact that the British documentary record is largely silent about race, or at least colour-blind, except in cases of suffering. Thus we can find out about black sailors when there was severe unemployment and unrest (whether among the black poor of London in the 1780s or in the riots in British ports in 1919), but we do not know the name of the sailor who is shown close to the admiral on HMS Victory in Dighton’s painting, in Maclise’s 1860s mural in parliament and on the base of the column in Trafalgar Square. Likewise, we have almost no information on the ‘native seaman from Natal’ who aided inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell in his research into phonetics and the basis of speech in London in 1867.

This man typifies those black people who are noticed only because they associated with more famous people. Others include the youth employed in mid-Victorian London by the Russian writer and agitator Alexander Herzen, and the young man purchased in the Cape Verde Islands by poet and radical Wilfred Blunt (he settled in Sussex in the 1870s, and married a local woman). In Liverpool in 1901, the painter Augustus John included black people among his subjects. The poet Osbert Sitwell recalled that in the 1900s his brother Sacheverell had bought an exotic rug from ‘an old negro whom he found in the workhouse at Scarborough’. The Jamaican who looked after novelist Arthur Ransome’s daughter in Hampshire in the 1900s was known only as Gi-Gi, but it is intriguing to speculate whether she influenced his story-telling style through her stories of Anansi, the clever spider who features in West African and Caribbean folk tales. One black man whose name is known is John Edmonstone, born in Guiana; he taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin in Edinburgh in the 1820s.

The black presence is not always as clearly identified in British records as in those of the United States, but this does not mean it was not there. Blacks were far from unknown in the major professions from the nineteenth century. From 1850 a steady stream of medical students from Sierra Leone and the West Indies qualified in England and Scotland, working in hospitals during and after qualifying, and sometimes establishing practices. Jamaican-born doctors Ernest Goffe, Harold Moody, Ivan Shirley, J.J. Brown and H.E. Bond all had medical practices in London in the inter-war years, while John Alcindor practised in London from 1899 to 1924. Dr Goffe played in a cricket team with the author A.A. Milne; Moody was a Christian evangelist; Shirley had attended Dulwich College in the 1910s; Brown had been an assistant to Viscount Bertrand Dawson (who became a royal physician after 1907) at the London Hospital; Bond had specialised in tropical mental illnesses but relocated to London when the colonial regime failed to promote him; Alcindor was active in Catholic charities.

Black lawyers included Sir Samuel Lewis (born in Sierra Leone), who died in London in 1903. Edward Nelson (son of a builder of Georgetown, British Guiana) was a turn-of-the-century officer of the Oxford Union and colleague of the son of the future prime minister, Herbert Asquith. A barrister active in Cheshire and Lancashire, Nelson was a councillor in Hale for over twenty-five years. Frank Dove, son of a lawyer from the Gold Coast, was born in London and won the Military Medal in his tank at Cambrai in 1917; he studied at Oxford, then became a barrister. His sister Evelyn attended the Royal Academy of Music, London.

Notable black writers include Mary Seacole, whose autobiography of 1857 told of her life and travels from Jamaica to the Crimean War. She died in London in 1881. Another was Theophilus Scholes, a Jamaican doctor who trained in Scotland and Belgium and was the author of four substantial books on current affairs and imperial questions between 1899 and 1908. He had worked in Africa in the 1890s. Younger black people who knew him included South African law student Pixley Seme, Alain Locke (who in 1908 became the first black Rhodes Scholar at Oxford), and the South African journalist Sol Plaatje.

Before the nineteenth century, black people tended to appear in paintings as background figures. With the advent of photography, black children can be seen in street and school photographs to an extent that suggests that many more black people knew about the British from first-hand experience than vice versa. Dozens of Africans arrived in Britain every year to be educated. Two sons of Lewanika, traditional leader of the Lozi of western Zambia, were at school in Goudhurst, Kent, in the 1900s. There was hardly a year after 1900 that did not have some black presence at Oxford.

Some educational institutions had strong links to the tropics: Edinburgh University from 1850; Wesley College in Taunton from the 1870s; the African Institute of Colwyn Bay from the 1890s, for example. The range of subjects they studied might vary – two Africans studied botany at Kew Gardens in the 1850s; others learned how to assemble and operate boats to be used on the Congo; and Charles Kasaja Stokes, born in 1895, the son of an Irish trader and a Ugandan mother, studied to be a medical auxiliary in Dundee. He later organised the blood transfusion service of Uganda.

Such students formed friendships, and some put down roots in Britain and married. Some never returned to their natal lands. Several of these intellectual migrants have been traced because their activities in Britain touched on anti-colonial politics, as with Dr Scholes or, in the 1930s, Jomo Kenyatta and a little later, Dr Hastings Banda. Kenyatta also followed a common path by boosting his student income by appearing in films and plays.

There were black professional actors and actresses, among them Ira Aldridge in the 1840s, Amy Height around 1900 and Ernest Trimmingham from the 1910s. Others were only fleetingly in the limelight – a west-London brewery used Victorian photographs to advertise its products decades later, and a black carpenter can be seen among a group of barrel makers. There are, however, no fewer than 596 African names of the South African Labour Corps on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton. This also lists Lord Kitchener, whose fate – death at sea – they shared when their troopship Mendi sank in the Channel in the First World War. They died for Britain.

Such evidence not only restores black people to their proper place within the total picture of British life since the reign of Elizabeth I, it also provokes new questions. What, fo
r example, was in the mind of William Hogarth when he chose to depict non-European people in a large number of his paintings and engravings of life in the mid-eighteenth century? And what did the ordinary white person think of the black medical students who tended them in nineteenth-century hospitals? How many black sailors sailed in the Royal Navy, and where were they recruited? And what impelled Londoners in 1912 to support the American-born black world Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in his planned meeting with Britain’s own champion? A few years later British soldiers gave Johnson’s name to the six-inch shells used by the Germans from 1915 – no doubt because they were black, moved fast, and hit with considerable force.

It is important to detail such people who, except for their visible difference, seem to be similar to other Britons of their class and education, and to correct the enduring idea that blacks were absent before 1948. However, looking into the past with a modern mindset is unwise. If racial prejudice was strong in the past, would a black doctor have had white patients? If there was virulent institutional racism, how can we explain the black people who studied at the Inns of Court and at the universities? The Manual of Military Law (1914) may have declared that ‘any negro or person of colour’ could not be an army officer, yet Walter Tull, Folkestone-born son of a Barbados father, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1917 (he also played football for Spurs; his brother was a dentist in Scotland).

Another aspect of the history of black people in Britain challenges modern attitudes to race relations. Many of the men and women mentioned in this article were not greatly involved with others of African descent. They were known to others of a similar physical appearance, but moved in wider social circles. Councillor Edward Nelson, for example, retained links with the southern Caribbean, and his legal practice included black clients (such as Africans accused of rioting in Liverpool in 1919), but his more general reputation rests on solid civic duties and his success in a murder trial.

In their class, education and ambitions these black men and women were diverse individuals from every social class. Does their historic mix of activities and achievements suggest their experience was different to that of the post-Windrush black population? It would be unwise to assume that our own beliefs about racism are automatically relevant, when we lack any idea of the overall numbers or whereabouts of those who would have experienced it in the past.

We have known little of the world in which black people moved before 1948, simply because often we did not know they were in Britain at all. Some of the men and women who took their shoes for repair at Fuller’s shop in 1920s Norwood, who walked past the brass plate of Dr Brown in Lauriston Road, Hackney, who listened to Evelyn Dove on the radio, or who played Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Demande et Reponse’ at their parlour piano had no idea that these people were of African descent. Those who did know had an additional dimension to their lives.

Further reading

  • *David Dabydeen Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (Manchester University Press, 1987)
  • Peter Fryer Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 1984)
  • Bernth Lindfors Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Indiana University Press, 1999)
  • Phil Vasili The First Black Footballers: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930, An Absence of Memory (Cassell, 1998)
  • Green, Jeffrey Jeffrey Green is the author of Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914 (Cass, 1998)

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Tommy Martin – Black British Boxer

Tommy Martin - Boxer

Tommy Martin – Boxer

Tommy Martin was born in Reading in 1916. In 1917, the family moved to Deptford. At 14 he ran away from home and joined a fairground, working in a Boxing Booth. In the late 1920s / early 30s there was always a token black boxer in a troupe, which helped draw crowds along with the slogan “have a go at the n…..”
Tommy got lots of practice and developed a fast punching style. Hebecame a professional boxer in November 1933 and soon became known as the British Brown Bomber. By Christmas, he had fought and won four bouts. His first full season as a boxer was 1936 when he fought 25 bouts, losing only three.
Despite Tommy Martin’s success as a boxer, he was having increasing difficulty finding fights. Already championship material, he sailed to the colonies in search of suitable opponents. Boxing Magazine already ranked him as the 4th Best Cruiser Weight (between middle and lightweight) in the world.In 1937, after having put on weight, he fought and won his first heavyweight bout. Boxing Magazine reported,
Martin did exceedingly well to give two stones in weight and a boxing lesson to Jim Wilde.
Although he had many victories under his belt, Martin was unable to fight for the British Heavyweight Championship. He was barred from fighting for Britain by a colour bar, introduced in 1909 and not repealed until 1947.  Only Britain and South Africa didn’t allow black fighters to contest Empire titles. Even American segregation didn’t prevent US boxers fighting for their country. As if to prove a point, in 1939, Tommy won every one of his fights.
Then the war and the colour bar stopped his career in its tracks.While he campaigned against the colour bar, Boxing magazine and the local mayor championed his cause. The MP for Deptford raised the case in Parliament. Unable to fight for Britain in the ring, Martin joined the RAF and later, when he was invalided out to the Merchant Navy. After that, he moved to the US, joining the Marines before setting up his own gym in Hollywood.
It was not until 1947 that the colour bar was finally abolished from British boxing. It was too late to benefit Tommy Martin and a shameful chapter that has been hidden from sports history. Without thestruggles of fighters like Martin, today’s black boxing stars like Lennox Lewis and British Olympic boxers, Audley Harrison and David Haye, would have been unable to fight for their country.

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Mixed Marriage 1770

Inter-Racial Marriage

Inter-Racial Marriage

The Annual Register Marriage Record

Record of a Michael Thomas(Black) and? Ann Brandley (White) being married in Southwark on November 5th, 1770.

This Morning Michael Thomas, a black, and Ann Brandley, a white, were married at St. Olave’s, Southwark; but while the ceremony was performing a press-gang interrupted the minister in the celebration of his office;Upon which a contest arose, and the clergyman received a blow upon the breast, but a constable being called immediately, the Lieutenant was secured and carried before a magistrate, but after proper submission, was, by the generosity of the minister, was released without farther prosecution. The poor black, with his bride, made his escape in the fray.

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Dr Harold Moody

Dr Harold Moody

Dr Harold Moody

Was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1882 and came to London in 1904 to study medicine at Kings College.? Despite being an excellent student and the recipient of many prizes – Moody found it difficult to get both work and lodgings.

Eventually he set up his own successful practice in Peckham where he met and married an English nurse.

A devout Christian he was elected to the chair of the Colonial Missionary Society’s board of directors in 1921 and was also involved in other philanthropic bodies. He used his position to assist black people who sought his help and advise. Having experienced difficulties in finding work and lodgings moody could easily relate to their hardships.

Due to the escalating amount of cases he was dealing with there became a need to create a formal organisation to shoulder the workload. On the 13th of March 1931 in the central YMCA, Tottenham court Rd, ‘The League of Coloured Peoples ‘was formed, Moody served as its president from its birth to its demise.

Despite being heavily criticised by more militant pressure groups the League never claimed to be a radical organisation.
Its aims were clearly set out in its quarterly magazine ‘The keys’.

1)To promote and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members
2) To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world.
3)To improve relations between the races.
4)To operate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people.
5)To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.

After the beginning of WWII, radicals and the league collaborated in pursuing the question of the colour bar in the British Armed Forces, and in Particular Commissions for Black servicemen and Women.

Following public and Private meetings the Colonial Office declared on the 19th of October 1939, that, ‘British Subjects from the Colonies, and British Protected persons in this Country , including those who are not of European origin are now eligible for emergency Commissions in his Majesty’s forces’.

To Moody this was a piecemeal offering , and he demanded ‘That if this principle is accepted now, surely it must be acceptable all the time !’- Two of Moody’s children rose to the rank of Major.

Moody also showed great affection for the children of Britain’s Black Community – He organised annual trips to Epsom Downs, and gave them a Christmas party every year.

By 1943 the league had reached the peak of it’s influence as a pressure group, (Fryer,p332) Moody had been precise in his speeches and believed in his convictions . Even though the younger radicals branded him an ‘Uncle Tom’ He was successful in his methods. After a five month visit to the USA Moody returned, a sick man. Ten days later he was dead.the League survived him by just Four years.

Related Links

Untold Lives – Harold Moody

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The Black Radicals – William Davidson

William Davidson was a Co Conspiritor in a plan to blow up Parliament.


William Davison

William Davison

William Davidson was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1786 and he traveled to Britain at the age of 14. He married an English Woman who had four sons and they set up home in Maryleborne. Davidson was appalled by the Peterloo Massacre in which 11 unarmed demonstrators had been killed and over 500 injured.

In response to this he joined the Maryleborne reading society to better educate himself. He held meetings at his house where radicals who opposed the government would gather, talk tactics and practise military drills.

Reports held today by the public records office show that the group was infiltrated by police informants who kept track on the meetings and records of the group. An Agent Provocateur – George Edwards persuaded the group, which was being led by a man named Arthur Thistlewood, to try to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The group fell into the governments trap and were arrested before they embarked.

The Cato St arrests

Arrest of the Cato St Conspirators

On May the 1st 1820 the largest ever crowd assembled for an execution. The crowd was split into 2 groups by ranks of Lifeguard, Blackfriars Bridge was guarded by 100 men, Artillery men and six guns. The men were hanged and beheaded outside the debtors door of Newgate Jail. The crowd reportedly were wild with fury and chants of Murder rung out!

This was the last Public decapitation in England!

Related Links


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