Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

054: Exhibits or entertainers? Some black children in Britain 1870s-1910s

Mailed from South Africa to Scotland

courtesy: Charleston Jazz Initiative, Avery Institute, Charleston S.C.
courtesy: Charleston Jazz Initiative, Avery Institute, Charleston S.C.

Showing that efforts to raise waifs and strays were successful, and at the same time encouraging donations and support, charities used children. Barnardo’s Homes had a band, and published “before and after” photographs of inmates. There were singing groups — all proving that the orphaned and destitute had been uplifted.

South Carolina orphanage founder Daniel Jenkins used a band of young males to publicize the Jenkins Orphanage (see page 053 Black London, 1895, and 035 An American Band in London). He also used girl singers, as shown in the American pamphlet (lower, left). On 7 December 1906, as ellisisland.org shows, he, secretary Eloise Harleston (see page 040 A black childhood in Wigan, 1906-1920), and a teacher named Florence Rivers aged 21 reached New York from England on the Celtic along with Justine Reid, Lella Streator (aged 6) and Irene Jones (aged 7). The trio had probably been touring north west England, in the way the Alexander sisters toured America – promoting the orphanage and gathering funds.

A Scottish nurse newly arrived in Johannesburg mailed the Durban image (entitled ‘In her Sunday Best’) to her friend in Stirling, Scotland, describing the voyage and the long train journey from Cape Town.

Black children who appeared before the British public included Africans (see page 006 Balmer’s “Kaffir” Boys) who seem to have accompanied white Christian missionaries. Mary Slessor, a Scot who worked in Nigeria from 1876 visited Britain in the 1900s with “Dan, now six years old, [who] she took with her as a help to fetch and carry”. He attracted attention whenever he participated in meetings across Scotland. There were others who brought young Africans to Britain – Congo Free State administrator Sir Francis de Winton returned Baruti to Africa in 1887, when he travelled with Henry Stanley. The deaf-mute Jacko, baptisted in England as Richard Francis in 1878, had been brought by Verney Lovett Cameron to Kent in 1876 after Cameron walked across Africa. He worked as a servant at Cameron’s father’s rectory in Shoreham where both Camerons are buried. What happened to Jacko is untraced.

Belle Davis, an American of African and European descent, toured Britain and Europe from June 1901 with two sometimes three boys – “Pocket Piccaninnies” or, in January 1902 in the Encore “two Senegambian piccaninnies” who danced and sang, sometimes playing a tambourine and bones as seen in a photograph in the Variety Theatre Vol 1, No 13, page 24. In November 1912 she employed both males and females when working at the Empire theatre, Shepherds Bush, west London. When the children grew she recruited others. Louis Douglas, an early Davis “pick” became a choreographer in Paris in the 1920s and made films in Germany.

Most of these children are obscure. Names and ages on ship’s passenger lists, mentions in church magazines, local newspapers, and in memoirs – images on postcards and theatre posters, advertisements in the press – fragments that strongly suggest that black children were seen by many in Britain. One African boy, brought to England by missionaries, continued at his school in Bournemouth after they died. He became a teacher in Kenya, retired to Bournemouth where he had, at that private school, the only “family” he had known.

Slessor: W.P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary (London: 1917). Baruti: mentioned in most biographies of Stanley. Jacko: illustration 11 in Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black Victorians / Black Victoriana (New Jersey: 2003). The Belle Davis piccanannies: Rainer Lotz, Black People: Entertainers of African Descent in Europe, and Germany (Bonn: 1997). The teacher in Kenya: my thanks to Barbara Ponton.

My thanks to Howard Rye and David Killingray.

See also page 113 of this site.

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