Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

111: The False Pretences of Alfred Wood, 1852-1853

George Borrow, author of Wild Wales published in 1862, met a man from Antigua when in Chester, and was told that for coloured men to make a living in 1850s Britain it was only necessary to attend religious meetings and speak against slavery and the United States (Howard Temperley, British Antislavery 1833-1870 (London: Longman, 1972) p 224). It was also possible to obtain money by claiming to be aiding Africa, as was revealed in mid-19th century newspapers which reported on the alleged activities of Alfred Wood.

Wood was said to have obtained £15 (then six months income for a successful labourer) by presenting a letter signed by President Roberts of Liberia. The case, in Manchester in February 1852, was dismissed. Wood told the police he was a Baptist minister and had preached in London. His manner ‘closely resembled that of the coloured preachers who are frequently to be met with on our missionary platforms’ (Liverpool Mercury 6 February 1852 quoting the Manchester Guardian). Seven weeks later the Liverpool Mercury of 23 March warned he had ‘obtained certificates from several clergymen under false representations’. The Blackburn Standard of 31 March 1852 did the same.

That may have led Wood to travel east. Certainly he was in Newcastle in September, giving a lecture on slavery in America, and claiming to be a minister and doctor from Liberia. The meeting was crowded (Newcastle Courant 17 September 1852). Eight days later his downfall was reported in the Newcastle Courant, which advised Wood had been charged in Hull with obtaining money by false pretences – collecting for a new chapel to be erected in Monrovia, Liberia. ‘Alfred Thomas Wood, alias Dr Wood’ had also claimed that he knew Josiah Henson (currently seen as the stimulus for Tom in the massive best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Two receipts signed by Wood were placed before the court. One was for £12 10s deposited in Dublin on 26 September and the other, for the same amount but with Malton (Yorkshire) on the same day strongly suggested fraud. Contact was to be made with Malton. The case continued into the evening, with various complications (Hull Packet 31 December 1852). Wood was aged 35.

The London Morning Post (13 January 1853) declared it was all ‘extraordinary’. A Hull vicar had given Wood one pound on 9 November having seen a book listing subscribers, and a document stating Wood was authorised to collect for a new chapel. Both were alleged to be forged. Wood had told another minister that his congregation in Monrovia numbered two thousand. The British consul to Liberia was to testify that the whole town had 1,500 inhabitants. Then a Manchester police inspector testified that he had arrested Wood in Liverpool in February 1852 and the charge of false pretences was dismissed because there was no evidence that Wood’s claim to be associated with the Commercial Banking Company of Monrovia was false.

A Liverpool merchant who knew President Roberts stated the signature on one of Wood’s documents was a forgery, as was the seal attached to it. The Revd Augustus William Hansen who had been acting British consul in Monrovia for sixteen months, testified he knew Wood whose congregation number two hundred. The Hull jury found Wood guilty on three charges and he was sent to prison for eighteen months (with solitary confinement for the first and last months). Two days later Wood was back in court where he pleaded not guilty to two more charges. This was a formality but the judge remarked that fresh information had reached him since the sentencing, which if he had known it would have led to Wood being transported to Australia. The Liverpool Standard reported the Hull trial, and reminded its readers that it had warned about Wood back in March 1852 which had led Wood to threaten libel (quoted by the Lancaster Gazette 15 January 1853, p 2). Reports of the ‘black impostor’ appeared in other newspapers in January 1853 (Huddersfield Chronicle and Leicester Chronicle both 15 January 1853, the Era (London) 16 January and Berrow’s Worcester Journal of 20 January 1853).

The trial kept being postponed as evidence was sought outside Hull over the authenticity of documents found in Wood’s possession. The Hull Packet of 19 November 1852 said that posters announcing that ‘Alfred Thos. Wood, D.D.’ was to lecture on Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been all over the town. One of the remarks Wood had made to a supporter when seeking £200 for his Liberian congregation was that all two thousand of them were ‘all dressed in jewels’ which struck the listener as very odd. A very full report was published in the Hull Packet on 7 January 1853. As a doctor of divinity Wood should have seen that the Latin on the alleged Liberia seal was nonsense (a British minister spotted it of course), and his claim that he knew, in Liberia, two of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly false as the novel had not been published when Wood had been in Liberia, those characters were invented and the novel was set in the U.S.A. There was no Commercial Banking Company in Liberia.

President Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, was the subject of a wax dummy which went on show at the high-class London museum of Madame Tussaud in 1858 (Morning Post 3 November 1858 p 5 and Era 7 November 1858).

Other black impostors have been traced in 19th century Britain (see this website’s pages 063 and 064). Their lies made it more difficult for individuals with genuine needs to obtain support, but also reveal, through court cases, that Britons were sympathetic.

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