Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

082: ‘Coloured’ actors and actresses in Victorian London

The New York-born actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) is well known and a detailed and enlarged study by Bernth Lindfors is getting into print in the USA. There are some details of S. Morgan Smith (see my page 072), another black American actor, died in Sheffield in 1882, and Stephen Bourne has expanded awareness of Amy Height (1866-1913) who worked on the stage and as a music hall artist in Britain.

There are problems researching this subject, for whites in burnt cork/black face were common, and who really believes any showbusiness hype? Thus the ‘African Prince’ who made a very public appearance in Stamford in 1857 was revealed by the entertainment weekly Era on 3 May 1857 to be a white man.

Was Florida Brandon who appeared at the Royal Surrey Theatre’s production of The Woman of Colour of African descent? The Era of 13 November 1853 reported her. We know that Henry Lawson played a role as a slave in A Winter’s Tale at the Lyceum Theatre in October 1887 and likewise John Downes was a ‘mulatto’ in Hypatia at the Haymarket in early 1893. James Simmonds was reported as ‘a full blooded negro’ who played the part of a Burmese thief/robber in A Life of Pleasure at the Drury Lane Theatre in November 1893. We know that because they fell foul of the law and were reported in the London press.

There must have been many others –how did a Victorian theatre recruit ‘slaves’ and African/Asian people for ‘Egyptian scenes’, the coloured people who were usually supernumeries or extras? Some moved between stage work and employment in musicals, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows. So many apparently black/coloured acts were whites in blackface that, even if the allegedly criminal behaviour of some has exposed a few, there is obviously room for more extensive research. Ira Aldridge and Morgan Smith were not unique.

For Amy Height, see BASA Newsletter 58, January 2010.

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