Roots in Britain – from 1555-1945

From around 1555 there has been a permanent settlement of Black people in this country – a fact that is rarely ever mentioned. While some recognise that Black people were in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they only know of that through the history of slavery. At school we may have learned that many rich families had black slaves working for them, but how many of us know that there were thousands of free Black people living in the major cities of the United Kingdom. This is, in addition to Cardiff and Liverpool, where it is generally accepted that the Black communities have lived for generations.

Many of us know a little of what life is like in the West Indies, India or Africa today, but few of us have any idea what it was like to be Black in seventeenth century England for example. History tends to be about politicians, military men, the rich and the famous. Little is preserved about ordinary working people. As most of the Black people who lived, worked and died in these islands fell into this category, it is difficult to find details of their lives.

Detail of the lives of Black Britons over the centuries can be discovered from old newspapers, parish registers, gravestones, court records, reports of charitable bodies, and in some old books where they are mentioned in passing, as well as biographies written by the more famous Blacks. Old pictures and early photographs are another source of information as they often capture Black people going about their daily lives.

Working Class Black People

Estimated in the 18th century as being 14-20,000 strong in a total London population of 750,000, the majority of those Black people living in Britain were originally slaves brought to England by captain’s of vessels and West Indian plantation owners. Young black slaves became a popular fashion, and anyone who was anyone just had to have one.

The legally free Black people were those who were fortunate enough to purchase their own freedom. Some were given their freedom by their owners, occasionally during the latter’s lifetime, or more usually, as a reward for faithful service, when the master died; for example, Frances Barber, later to become Dr. Johnson’s servant. Added to these few were the runaways, those Blacks who wanted their freedom at whatever cost. Their children added to the numbers of the free Black community, which lived and worked alongside its white counterpart in the slums and poorer districts of cities. Fugitives from the West Indies and North America, particularly after the War of Independence worked their way on ships to British ports and bought new blood to the Black communities in the cities of Britain.

Many of these people worked within the households of the rich or well-to-do as domestic servants. They differed from their slave counterparts only in so much as they received wages on a par with the thousands of white domestics who served in these houses, and that they were free to change jobs if they wanted to.

One way of finding a new place was to advertise in the newspapers. In the news letter the “World” of 6th February, 1788, the following advertisement appeared:

“A BLACK SERVANT, in a family, or with a Single Gentleman that travels; can wait at table; understands taking care of horses, and dressing hair in a plain manner for travelling; can have a good character from his last place. Enquire for W.1. at No. 6 Delahey Street, Westminster.”

It was typical of many of the time. Girls advertised for positions as laundry maids, ladies maids and cooks.

Samuel Pepys was an English civil servant who rose in the naval service to become Secretary to the Admiralty in 1672. He is famous for his written diary, and the many entries made from 1660 to 1669 of every day life. His diary includes descriptions of the fire of London and the Great Plague. In one of his entries, Pepys mentions that his, ‘blackmoor’ cook “dresses our meat mighty well and we are mightily pleased with her”.

Black people worked as domestic servants in large houses until quite recent times. About sixty years ago a Barbadian butler named Bertie Robinson was still working at Harewood House near Leeds and elderly villagers still remember him walking down to the pub for his evening drink.

For runaways guarded jealously their new found independence and were enterprising enough to try their hand at something new, street trading offered them a lifeline. For very little capital, foodstuffs, fruit, flowers, herbs and spices could be purchased and sold at a modest profit. In the 18th century Joseph King, for example, sold flowers from a donkey cart, necessary as he had lost both legs. This type of commercial venture also attracted a number of Indians who found themselves in Britain under similar circumstances to the Africans, Doctor Bokany, an Indian, was a street herbalist, while other Indians sold Christian religious tracts.

Some free Blacks found apprenticeships with traders and artisans, which provided them with a modest, yet regular, source of income. Learning a trade was an enviable state during this period, just as it is today, and very often because of the fierce competition for such apprenticeships, Africans had to be satisfied with very poor working conditions and pay. It is however a tribute to their success in securing these apprenticeships that in 1731, the Lord Mayor and Alderman of the City of London issued an ordinance forbidding the apprenticeship of any ‘Negroes’ to tradesmen or artificers in the City. Thankfully, this proclamation had a limited effect.

Women sometimes became prostitutes out of economic necessity. This has always been one way that women could keep themselves and their children from starving.

As early as 1594, a Black woman called Luce Morgan (or Lucy Negro) was famous as a courtesan, being in charge of a brothel in Clerkenwell. She was not the only Black prostitute in that district at the time, as there were several near “The Swan, a beer shop in Turnball Street”. Shakespeare probably knew Luce, and it has been suggested by some that she was his Dark Lady of the sonnets. In the 1770’s another famous courtesan held sway. She was Harriot, who came from Guinea. Her lovers were among the highest in the land and she became very rich and lived in a fine house.

Luce and Harriot were the elite of their world, but many other women kept themselves alive in this manner. There is a picture of one of them in one of the scenes from Hogarth’s famous “Rake Progress”.

Unemployment is always an evil. Today it is demoralising and means that a family’s income is reduced and they have to live less well than they are used to doing. However, in the days before the Welfare State, provision for unemployed people was almost non-existent. If the person was unemployed it meant quite literally that they had no money at all. No money meant no food, no home, and no replacements when clothes wore out. Homeless, starving, half-naked families roamed the streets of London and other big cities looking for a crust of bread.

There was Poor Law Relief, but to be able to claim what little help was offered, a person had to belong to a parish, that is, to return to their place of birth. This was very difficult, if for example, you were a Northumbrian and lived in London and useless if you were an ex-slave born in Jamaica.

If a person become unemployed, or a slave ran away from his master, their situation quickly became desperate. Quite often a runaway would take some item belonging to his master with him to sell in order to tide him over for the first few days of liberty. A parcel of linen would be little compensation for all the years of hard work which had been given to the master without payment and could well land the runaway in jail.

R U N A W A Y,
On the 18th of April last, from P R E S C O T,
A B L A C K M A N S L A V E,
Named G E O RG E G E R M A I N F O N E Y

Aged twenty years, about five feet seven, rather
handsome; had on a green coat, red waistcoat and blue breeches, with a plain pair of silver shoe
buckles he speaks English pretty well.
Any person who will bring the black to his master,
Captain Thomas Ralph, at the Talbot Inn, in Liverpool,
or inform the master where the black is, shall
be handsomely rewarded.

All persons are cautioned not to harbour the
Black, as he is not only the slave but the apprentice
of Captain Ralph.

Liverpool City Libraries

In his book “London Labour and London Poor”, Henry Mayhew wrote:

“It is only common fairness to say that Negroes seldom, if ever, shirk work. Their only trouble is to obtain it. Those who have seen many Negroes employed in Liverpool will know that they are hard-working, patient, and too often underpaid.”

The fact that an ever increasing number of Black people had to rely on begging as their sole source of income is indication of how desperate their situation became. Some Black people made a passable living at begging while the exceptional ones even made their fortune. It is reported that one Black beggar returned to the West Indies in splendour, whiles Charles McGee of Jamaican birth, when he died in the early nineteenth century, left several hundreds to the daughter of an Alderman whose kindness to him was never forgotten. Joseph Johnson entertained passers-by with his singing. He was very unusual in the way he dressed, and wore a model of Nelson’s ship, the ‘Victory’, on his head. The ship was a symbol of his past, for he had been in the merchant navy until an accident forced him to become a beggar.

In the eighteenth century it was not unusual to find large numbers of poor people crowded into tiny rooms in poor houses in narrow streets and back alleys. The area of St Giles, East London, was well known for its warrens of tiny streets, sometimes called rookeries. And it is known that a number of Black people lived there, among the large Irish community.

Due to the poor quality of water of drinking water, people in general drank ale. The Taverns within the tiny run down back streets were often referred to by outsiders and the press as ‘thieves kitchens’. There were a number of Taverns that Black people living in the area were known to gather in large numbers, where those who made a living in the streets begging or sweeping crossings for pennies, not necessarily engaged in crime, met up and cooked food and enjoyed a glass of ale around the warmth of a large stove.

In 1821, the illustrators, the Cruickshank’s printed a cartoon of a ‘typical’ thieves kitchen. The caption for the cartoon was, “Tom and Jerry among the cadgers in the back slums of the “Holy Land”. Drawn from life the picture includes portraits of Massa Piebald, so called because of his black face and white curly hair, and Billy Waters, the Black Fiddler, who was the “current, King of the Beggars” and a former sailor. Billy Waters began busking in central London to supplement his mega pension and to support his wife and two children. Having been obliged to pawn his fiddle, he died in the work house in 1823, and was buried in St. Pancras cemetery.

There was also a large number of ‘crossing sweepers’ who were employed to sweep a clean path across the streets for anyone rich enough to be able to pay for the service. In the days when there were hundreds of thousands of horses in the city such a service was a necessity. The mention of Black “crossing sweepers” is made in Thackeray’s book ‘Vanity Fair’.

Prosperous Black People

The fact that the majority of Black people living in Britain between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were as poor as their white neighbours is indicative of the social and economic forces which prevailed at that time. The ladder to success from poverty to riches was generally one which could only carry these people with particular gifts or who had more than their share of good luck. The Black man seldom had a father of note who could hand down to the next generation skills, property, business, social standing or money.

Whether a political refugee from the American War of Independence, a fugitive slave from the West Indies, America Africa or Britain, he had to compete with thousands of others for a decent standard of living.

There were, however a number of Black people who because of their usefulness to white society managed to achieve reasonable success. At first, these were primarily Africans and later, Indians who were seen by the managers and traders of such companies as the Royal Africa Company or East India Company as being essential elements if exploiting the wealth of these lands. From very early on the sons of chiefs and influential people in these countries were sent to England to be educated.

Hence began the tradition of western education of the sons and later daughters of the rich and influential in colonial or developing countries. At the same time, it was not unusual for the mulatto sons and daughters of West Indian plantation owners to be sent to England for their education. Fiction of the day shows how common this practice was. In Thackery’s Vanity Fair, Miss Swartz, “the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitts” is much sought after, as on the death of her father she had inherited an extremely large fortune (£200,000). She was entertained in the most fashionable homes and fathers encouraged their sons to court her in the hope that her money would come to their family.

Those without Miss Swartz’s money to recommend them often found the patronage of a rich person, or members of the nobility opened doors for them.

It is known that the 18th century the Duke of Montagu assisted the son of a Jamaican free Black to come to England to study. The Duke and his protégée, Francis Williams, successfully proved that Black people were not akin to apes, and that with equal opportunity a Black man could achieve the same as any white. After studying literature, Latin and mathematics at Cambridge University, Williams was launched into fashionable Georgian Society.

His ballad “Welcome, welcome, brother debtor” became the rage and his fame spread. Later he was remembered as an able poet. He eventually left England and returned to Jamaica, where, because of the prejudices of Jamaican plantocracy, he ended up running a school in Spanish Town, expressing his frustration at not having achieved more.

Portrait of Francis Williams, artist unknown, oil on canvas, circa 1745

The Duke of Montagu was also the patron of another accomplished Black man, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (also known as Job ben Solomon and Job Jalla). As a scholar Job ben Solomon was well renowned during the 1730’s. He translated works from Arabic and it is said that he wrote down the complete Koran from memory three times during his stay.

As stated earlier, a number of young people from Africa and the West Indies came to England to study. Not all of these returned to their native land. That was also true of the increasing number of well-to-do- Afro Americans, sent to England and Scotland by their parents because racism in America was more obstructive than it was in Britain. The famous actor Ida Aldridge studied in Scotland but the call of the stage was eventually to provide Europe with one of its greatest actors.

Daniel Hugh Taylor’s greatest claim to fame is that he was the father of one of Britain’s greatest composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. However the elder Taylor was quite remarkable in his own right. Born in Sierra Leone he came to England to continue his studies. He became a qualified member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians by the age of 22. Despite the now more obvious prejudices against Black people in the Britain of the 1870’s he decided to reside and practice in London and not to return to Freetown. He found a place as an assistant with a doctor in Croydon but when his white employer left, his register of patients decreased dramatically. Heartbroken and disappointed, Taylor left his young family and returned to Africa.

Daniel Taylor was only one of several Black people engaged in various branches of the medical and dental professions over the years. For example, Mary Seacole, the famous Black nurse of the Crimean War was buried in North West London in 1881. An earlier arrival was Sake Deen Mahomed, an Indian from Patna, who had been employed as a Surgeon. He arrived in Ireland, at Cork, in the 18th century. There he met and fell in love with an Irish girl, Jane, with whom he eloped. The pair arrived in Brighton and set themselves up in business as proprietors of “Mahomed’s Baths”. Sake Deen Mahomed had long been interested in steam baths and massage as a cure for various ailments and in Brighton he put his theories to the test. Assisted by an English masseur he successfully proved the value of his treatments, and his visitor’s book, which are kept at Brighton Library, gives the names of his many illustrious patrons together with their testimonials of the effectiveness of his treatment and their thanks for being cured. George IV set him up as superintendent of his baths in Brighton Pavilion, and gave him the title of “The King’s Shampooing Surgeon”, ‘shampooing’ meaning massage in those days.

William IV continued the appointment, and Mahomed’s business grew, so that he opened a second Baths in the heart of fashionable London in St. James’s Street. His grandson, Fredrick Henry Horatio Akbar Mahomed, continued the medical tradition in the family, and become a well known doctor in his day. “Who was Who” lists his degrees and appointment to various famous hospitals in London and the Continent.

The teaching profession attracted its share of the Black middle class. Many black people came to England to train as teachers in order to go back to Africa and teach there, but several remained and made a career of teaching in this country.

Julius Soubise taught fencing and riding at Eton College and Francis Barber taught for a while in Burntwood, near Lichfield, after the death of Dr. Johnson. Francis died in 1801, and in 1810 it was reported that his wife and one of their daughters, Ann, kept a day school for children in Lichfield. One black woman started the first school for blind children in 19th century Cardiff.

England has been called a nation of shopkeepers; Black people also made their mark as members of the merchant classes. In his “Worthies of England”, Thomas Fuller says that during Queen Mary’s reign “the first fine Spanish needles in England were made…in Cheapside, by a Negro, but such his envy, that he would teach his art to none; so that it died with him”. Other self-employed Black people ran shops like Ignatius Sancho, or inns. Bill Richmond, on his retirement from boxing, ran an inn and boxing academy in Martins Street, near Leicester Square, while another descendent of Sake Deen Mahomed ran a fencing academy in Brighton.

The Black middle class managed to lead a better life than that of their poorer brother, but their sense of belonging to the larger Black community is clear. That Cugoano, Sancho and Equiano interested themselves in the fate of their less fortunate fellows is documented in many books on the abolition of slavery. Black people stuck together as the following report on a ‘Ball of Blacks’ in the London Chronicle of 18th February 1764 indicates:

By the middle of the 19th century the numbers of Black people living in Britain had been severely reduced due primarily to inter-marriage. Apart from areas such as London, Cardiff and Liverpool indigenous Blacks were few. However, charities such as Barnardo’s who kept recorded details of the children in its care can also provide us with additional insight into the lives of individuals who would otherwise be invisibly lost in time.

The First World War brought many people to Britain to assist in the war effort and some like the singer jazz musician Cleo Lane’s father settled in England. Sikh peddlers also became a more common sight, especially in the north of England.

Middle class parents from the colonies continued the tradition established in the 18th century of sending their children to Britain for their education. For the most part, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and London were their choice in England or Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. Recent research has identified at least nine student organisations founded for or by overseas students during the period
1900 – 1945. The first organised group of Afro-Caribbean’s appears to be the Afro West Indian Literary Society at Edinburgh University at the turn of the century. In 1906 at Liverpool University, the Ethiopian Progressive Association was formed. By 1945, the Burmese Association and the Ceylon Students’ Association were also taking part in international Afro Asian concerns. Some of these groups circulated newsletters to their members and a few notably the West African Student’s Union; (WASU) published their own journals and also set up a students’ hostel, which acted as a social centre as well as providing accommodation for the fraternity.

Other organisations founded during this period varied from those, which were overtly political and sought to unite the Black peoples of the world in their struggle against colonialism and others, which restricted their concern to the welfare, and development of the Black communities in Britain. By 1945 there was already a Federation of Indian Associations.

In 1931 Dr. Harold Moody, a Jamaican by birth, who came to England in 1904 to study medicine and remained after he was qualified, founded the League of Coloured Peoples. Moody was a successful doctor who practised in Camberwell. Among the members of the League was the famous Black British composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, and an East African Asian, R S Nehru, was on the Executive Committee and showed the early co-operation and empathy between Asian and Afro-Caribbean’s living in Britain. Paul Robeson also assisted the League in its fund raising activities by donating the proceeds of a least two concerts. The organisation held their first Christmas party for Black Londoners in 1933 when a total of 350 of their members’ children were entertained. The following year 275 children were taken on a day trip to Epsom.

Involvement in local and national politics was an important aspect of Black life. Henry Sylvester Williams was a local Councillor in Marylebone, London in the early 1900’s, and the first Black Mayor, former Cllr. John Archer, was elected in Battersea in 1913. The fact that three MP’s of Indian origin were elected to Parliament before 1945, one in the 1890’s, further demonstrates the achievements and positive contributions made in the past.

The Second World War brought thousands of Black and Asian people to the UK to join the Forces and to work in munitions factories, etc. They formed the base of the later settlement of Black people in Britain, whose post war arrival marked the threshold of the present era of Britain’s multicultural history.

Roots in Britain – Black and Asian citizens from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, was an exhibition put on by Brent Library Service in the late 70’s early 80’s.