Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

072: S. Morgan Smith, the black actor 1832-1882

from The Era, 24 November 1867

Samuel Morgan Smith worked on the British stage from 1866 until his death in Sheffield in March 1882. Smith is mentioned in Marshall and Stock’s 1958 study of the far-better known African American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Smith, born in Philadelphia, PA on 20 June 1832 moved to England with his wife and child in May 1866 and first appeared in Gravesend before playing  Birmingham then the Olympic Theatre off the Strand, London from 25 August – as Othello. (See the Victoria and Albert Museum’s site “History of Black Performers in Britain 1800-1899” for sight of the London theatre bill – “the Coloured American Tragedian, Mr. S. Morgan Smith”.)

Smith has been studied by William Norris (Black American Literature Forum, Vol 18 (1984), pp 117-8; and Vol 20 (1986), pp. 75-9) and Errol Hill (Black American Literature Forum, Vol 16 (1982), pp 132-5). Norris reproduces a 3″ square miniature of Smith and the text of a letter Smith sent to Moncure Conway, a US abolitionist (pp 76-7). That letter dated 13 October 1866 was sent from 12 Cambridge Road, Hammersmith, west London. That house had long been the home of Ellen and William Craft (and their 5 England-born children), who had escaped slavery in Georgia in 1848 and lived in England for twenty years (see this site, page 059). Within weeks Ellen Craft had a letter from Ira Aldridge’s wife, and a note from the actor too (they were donated to Avery Institute, College of Charleston, Charleston SC in May 2010) and this shows the black network of 1866 London (the Aldridges lived in Upper Norwood near the Crystal Palace).

The Morgan Smiths seem to have lived at 9 Grove Terrace in Hammersmith relocating to Angelo House, Shaftesbury Road next to Ravenscourt Park in October 1867 as the former had been purchased by the railway which was expanding into Hammersmith. That announcement in the entertainment weekly The Era (6 October) noted “Morgan Smith (Coloured Tragedian)” was at the Theatre Royal in Rochdale for 6 nights from 7 October. On 6 October Mary Eliza Smith, aged 27, died in Hammersmith “after a sudden and painful illness” (The Era, 13 October 1867).  The death certificate has the same details – she died of epilepsy at Angelo House. Present and informing the registrar was Ellen Craft of 12 Cambridge Road.

Smith remarried, his new wife being an actress, probably English.The Era reported Smith playing Barnstaple for 6 nights from 21 October and then Rochdale from 27 October, re-engaged at Rochdale from 7 to 11 November and from 12 November at Birkenhead for 5 nights (as clipping, above) moving to Yarmouth to open on 25 November and Dundee for 12 nights from 2 December 1867. Smith had twelve major roles, most being white parts.Touring the theatres, playing different parts each night, was a normal feature of the British stage in the 1860s and 1870s. Smith is said (by Hill) to have spent 12 months 1866-7 appearing in 29 locations. He settled down in Sheffield, where he died at home on 22 March 1882. His death was reported in The Era 25 March 1882 which gave his address as 21 Preston Street, Lowfield, Sheffield and noted he left a widow and a son. The death registration – the cause being pneumonia – was made by his widow Harriet Morgan Smith. The Morning Post 27 March stated Smith was “little known in London, but popular in the provinces”. No probate documents have been located.

 

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