Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

053: Black London, 1895

In late January 1895 The Times reported a case at Bow Street magistrate’s court when Maude Branscombe accused Alexander Hamilton Gunn of using threats. Gunn, a railway constructor, had asked Miss Branscombe to live with him, and she had left her stage career to do that. A popular stage beauty who was possibly the most photographed woman of the 1880s, she had left Gunn’s London home when he was absent in Scotland. Gunn was bound over for twelve months despite the testimony of his “negro servant” Joseph Coleridge who had testified that the couple were most affectionate.

On 9 May 1895 The Times reported that a “negro” aged 20, named Prince Alison, charged with false pretences, had been sentenced to nine months in prison with hard labour. Apparently a West African, he had defrauded innkeepers, “lived in luxury, drove about in hansoms [cabs], and had run up a bill with one-cabman for £1 19s in fares, which he never paid”.

Some days later there were details of the Somalis who had come as living exhibits to erect huts and live in the grounds of the Crystal Palace exhibition centre in south London. 53 men, six women, and six children were to be on display all summer – along with twenty camels, six lions, and other beasts. The central nave of the glass hall had paintings, maps, tusks, a ceremonial umbrella from Nigeria and other items from travellers and the Imperial Institute.

On 9 September the Daily Telegraph had a detailed report, from the Bow Street court, where Daniel Jenkins, a Baptist minister from South Carolina, had been seeking permission for a group of child musicians to play on the streets of London and was thwarted as it was illegal for anyone under 11 years to perform for profit on the streets. The editorial said “to let loose a brass band of thirteen Negro children upon an urban population suffering from nerves is likely to create almost as many orphans as it would relieve”. The magistrate gave the Revd Jenkins one pound. Jenkins made contacts with the Baptist community, spoke at Spurgeon’s church in the Elephant and Castle district (south London), visited orphanages in nearby Stockwell and in Bristol, was reported in the Baptist and had support from Sir George Williams (who had founded the Y.M.C.A.). Jenkins and a band from his orphanage worked at the Anglo-American Exposition in London May-September 1914.

At the end of October 1895 The Times printed a letter from Paulus Moort, M.D. who wrote from 21 Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury, “as a negro” and a citizen of Liberia. He was responding to criticisms of Liberia by the Bishop of Sierra Leone. Moort, ordained in New York in 1883, seems to have been born in the U.S.A. and worked in Liberia as a missionary. His name was to be listed among “self-made strong characters” named in the Journal of Negro History (Vol 8, No 1) many years later.

From early September to late November, three paramount chiefs from Bechuanaland (now: Botswana) toured Britain, visiting 44 towns: their impact has been brilliantly detailed by Neil Parsons in King Kharma, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain through African Eyes (University of Chicago Press, 1998).