Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

105: ‘Bogus coloured choristers’, jubilee singers, and a thief: 1890

Sympathy towards the men and women who had been slaves in the U.S.A. was widespread in Victorian Britain even after slavery’s abolition with the defeat of the Confederacy. The 1850s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold by the thousand, and stimulated plays and other entertainments. Choirs of black men and women toured Britain from the 1870s, and their formal presentations as Jubilee Singers were debased when copied in music halls in Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows. [see pages 055, 074 and 085 on this site]

Some choral groups were suspected of fraud – collecting for themselves and not for charities that would improve education and development for blacks back in the U.S.A. The Dundee Courier of 25 February 1890 noted that ‘The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch has taken in hand to expose a troupe of jubilee singers who were recently touring the north of Scotland’. Charles Hermann’s stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the other hand, was above suspicion: it was at the Prince’s Theatre, Preston (Lancashire) for one week from 17 March 1890, and advertised in the Preston Guardian (15 March 1890) that there were 24 Negro actors and jubilee singers in the show.

Scotland’s experience was different with the Dundee Courier asking the Americans to keep ‘their jubilee singers at home’ (17 March 1890) because of ‘a gang of bogus coloured choristers who posed as the original jubilee singers’ in Edinburgh and tricked ‘a large number of clergymen’ into giving donations. That these cheats were so much younger than the Fisk Singers of the 1870s would now be had not been noticed by the duped. The paper noted that one had gone to a pawnbroker in Dunfermline and acquired four revolvers by trickery – and that this ‘wily Ethiopian’ said to be from Washington, DC had been sent to prison for fourteen days. The London showbusiness weekly the Era (22 March) named him as Edward Watson who was ‘described as a musician’. The pawnbroker had sent his messenger boy with the four revolvers to the theatre where Watson said he would take them to the manager, and slipped out through another door. The weapons were supposed to be used as props in the theatre. Watson was again named in the Dundee Courier (2 April and 3 April 1890): a ‘covetous darkey’ of no fixed abode. He had obtained a job at Balbirnie’s paper mill where he stole clothes, shoes and a watch from colleagues. He was arrested in Culpar and was sent to prison again, this time for thirty days.

A group named the Pennsylvania Jubilee Singers toured Britain in 1890, appearing at the Congregational Schoolroom in Wombwell on 27 March and at Doncaster’s Subscription Room on 31 March (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 28 March 1890, 1 April 1890). They were billed as ‘descendants of Freed Slaves’ when they were to give four recitals at the Town Hall in Middlesbrough 22-24 June 1890 and two at the town’s Temperance Hall (North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 20 and 26 June). They were in the Isle of Man in August, where a collection at the door overcame the ban on commercial entertainments on Sundays (Isle of Man Times, 9 August). These men and women numbered four (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 10 March 1891).

There may have been another small group, which was to appear in Selby’s Primitive Methodist Schoolroom on 8 April 1890 (Yorkshire Herald 9 April 1890), and a larger group ‘from Virginia’ which was to appear at Christ Church, Westminster Road, Lambeth, a nonconformist church in London (Daily News 24 May 1890). This was a major church and appearing there would overcome many doubts in the minds of Christian leaders.

As performers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows jubilee singers were at Loughborough’s Floral Hall for a week in June (Leicester Chronicle 7 June 1890) which the Era reported included ‘plantation songs, banjo and bone solos, eccentric dances, &c’ (14 June). A Cabin troupe was at the Rotunda Theatre in Liverpool in July (Liverpool Mercury 8 and 10 July 1890).

An advertisement (in English) in the Welsh language publication Baner ac Amreran Cymru of Denbigh, North Wales on 6 August said that some jubilee singers were seeking a Welsh speaking agent to represent them in Wales.

The venues for non-theatrical appearances included chapels and churches, so clergymen were supportive (despite the Dunfermline experience). Watson found a job in that paper mill, holidaymakers enjoyed the entertainments, and in one way or another these black men and women survived in 1890s Britain.

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