Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

041: A London Colour Bar, 1903

The American In Dahomey show opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in May 1903 and had considerable fame – members performed for King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace in June, and the show toured Britain into May 1904 after redecoration at the theatre closed the London show after Christmas 1903. This success of the “coloured company of 100” attracted black Londoners, who met up in the nearby pubs. On 3 September 1903 another group of black men went into one of those pubs – and were refused service. Some newspapers reported on this: “A Colour Line in London?” (Westminster Gazette, 9 September 1903), “The Coloured Man’s Complaint” (Daily News, 9 September), and “Racial Question in the West End” (Weekly Dispatch, 13 September).

Magistrate George Lewis Denman had presided over the police court, Marlborough Street since 1890 and had considerable experience. It was his legal opinion that was sought by the “coloured man of gentlemanly appearance” who “speaking in a cultured manner” told Denman “that he and some friends had been refused refreshment by a publican simply because of their colour” and they wanted to know “if people with a licence were bound to serve us”. Having looked up the licencing act, the gentleman had “found that a man could be refused on account of bad character or disorderly behaviour”. Denman said he could not force a publican to supply anyone other than food or refreshment as a traveller. The chap persisted: “I merely wish to know what is the status of coloured men in the heart of the British Empire”, adding “So we have no rights in the heart of the Empire” to which Denman said “You have the same rights as others”. Told that the publican was serving whites, Denman added “You cannot have greater rights than others”.

Another reporter based at Denman’s court checked further, and the Westminster Gazette noted “that the incident, while not isolated, must not be taken to indicate that the colour prejudice which is so acute in America is to become established here”. The “educated man” was W. E. B. Du Bois (graduate of Berlin and Harvard universities), and “well known at the American embassy”. The pub “has for some time been frequented by a number of undesirable nigger loafers who have been attracted to the neighbourhood by the presence of the coloured theatrical company now appearing at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Their presence is particularly obnoxious to the members of that company”. The pub manager said they had been getting “more rowdy every day” and he was “obliged to refuse them. Things got so bad (there was a free fight among them here the other morning) that I made up my mind not to serve them at all. It had nothing to do with their colour. It’s just that they won’t behave themselves”. He did not know “if the gentleman who complained at Marlborough-street was refused here. I only know that I gave orders after the row we had the other day that no more niggers were to be served at this house”. The reporter checked in other pubs to find “a number of publicans were adopting the same attitude. ‘We have had so much trouble with them,’ said one, ‘that we have stopped serving them. And the best dressed amongst them are the worst'”.

The Westminster Gazette’s editor wrote “On the facts as they stand at present there seems nothing to be said for the publican and everything for the ‘black man'”.

Magistrate Denman had attempted to answer the questions, citing the case of Lady Harberton who, wearing “rational dress” and riding her bicycle, stopped at the Hautboy pub in Ockham, Surrey in October 1898 for refreshment and was refused although a genuine traveller. The fit and fighting feminist lost that case but Denman was not aware that, as she had been offered refreshment out of public view — a woman in trousers (called “bloomers” or rational dress) was inflammatory in 1898 (and in 1903) — the pub’s landlady had behaved within the law.

In 1923 Royal Academy of Music graduate Edmund Jenkins (born South Carolina), Georgia-born tenor Roland Hayes, the recently-qualified Dr Harry Leekam from Trinidad, and others were refused service in a London restaurant. Jenkins sketched out a letter saying “In my eight years in London I have never been attacked in this manner before, simply on account of the fact that when I go out I generally choose places of decidedly first-class character such as the Criterion”.

By going into a pub in central London on 3 September 1903 a group of black gentlemen were faced with decisions based on ethnicity — not on class, wealth, or clothing.  It was a colour bar  — and it was at the heart of the British Empire.

W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana in 1963, having attended the once-Gold Coast’s independence celebrations in 1960 (independent in 1957, Du Bois was refused a passport by the U.S. government and had not attended then) and obtaining permanent refuge there in 1961. The people noted as “some friends” have not been identified, but composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who was Du Bois’s friend, was surely too well known not to have been identified and named. Dr John Alcindor as a medical practitioner (he was an 1899 graduate of Edinburgh University) would not have given his name for professional reasons.  Perhaps, like the draft letter by Jenkins, surviving documents will enable this story to be fleshed out. The identity of the boisterous “loafers” may never be uncovered.

The details were first published in Jeffrey Green, “The Coloured Man’s Complaint”, New Community (London), Vol 9, Nos 1-2 (Autumn/Winter 1983), pp  175-178.