Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

113: Incidents in Britain in 1898

Reports of the activities of people of African birth or descent in Britain in the first part of 1898 include themes that have been noted elsewhere, in different years, on this website.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of London, 30 January 1898, reported on a boxing match in Birmingham on 22 January. Charlie Simpson of Birmingham faced the African American Joe Elms in a fight, over twenty rounds, for £100. Elms was knocked out at the start of the fourteenth round at the Olympic Club, Birmingham. Boxing reported this on 5 February. The uncertain status of boxing (see page 042 of this site) led the police to investigate the ‘legality of a glove contest’ and the ‘alleged brutality’ and both sportsmen, two managers and five others were found guilty (Daily News, London 18 February 1898; Dundee Courier, 8 February 1898,p 6). The £100 prize money – a working man’s annual income in 1898 – was tempting but perhaps Elms would have been wiser to have applied for work, as did ‘a Coloured Man of Fine Physique, height 5ft. 10in, situation in any capacity at Club, Theatre, or Hotel. Speaks English and French’ in the show-business weekly Era of 2 February 1898?

The modern American cake walk dance was being presented by Billy Farrell at London’s Alhambra but Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 13 March 1898 regarded it as ‘curious rather than stimulating’. One previously docile prisoner in Dartmoor threw a hammer at a warden – an incident that was widely reported (Bury and Norwich Post [Bury St Edmunds] 1 February 1898 p 8; Standard [London] 1 February 1898).

A more dangerous occupation was that of a lion tamer, a vacancy at Chipperfield’s Menagerie at Chorley, Lancashire: ‘Coloured Man preferred’ as their advertisement in the Era 27 May 1898 noted. Life in a circus could be violent, as the American Nathaniel Gibson discovered after some weeks with Sanger’s Circus near Dundee in late May. He used a knife – one of his victims was ‘coloured’. The difference in behaviour between Britain and the US and using knives was mentioned at Stonehaven Court on 8 June. His use was ‘reckless’ and he was sent to prison for two months (Dundee Courier 9 June 1898, pp 4 and 6; Aberdeen Weekly Journal 15 June 1898).

Having a short temper brought all manner of people into court, including John Westley Greenwich, aged 48, who appeared at Wiltshire Assizes on 1 June. He was sentenced to fifteen months for malicious wounding and indecent assault at Knighton Langley on 8 March according to the Bristol Mercury 2 June 1898. A taste for booze also led to court appearances as with Samuel Williams a sailor who was drunk and assaulted a police officer in Middlesbrough. He was sent down for six weeks with hard labour (North-Eastern Daily Gazette [Middlesbrough] 2 September 1898). Alexander Sobers, a sailor from Barbados, was drunk and disorderly in Ipswich and was fined ten shillings plus 7s 6d costs – or would have to spend seven days in prison (Ipswich Journal, 27 August 1898).

A week in prison was the experience of Richard E. Sayers of Alabama, ‘a coloured fortune-teller’ who had been in court in Clonmel, Ireland. He said he was a phrenologist (people who believed a person’s character was represented by the shape of their skull) and ‘had only phrenologised the young man’ and claimed that ‘there was no such thing’ as telling fortunes (Freeman’s Journal, Dublin 13 June 1898).

The London daily Pall Mall Gazette of 8 November noted that Bobby Dobbs ‘an American coloured man’ was to box Dick Burge at the National Sporting Club in London on 12 December 1898. Far removed from that organised violence was Mr D. E. Tobias ‘a negro of the negroes’ who spoke on ‘Black Women and White Women in America’ at the Dundee Y.W.C.A. on 15 December. Not many attended. He was a friend of Mrs Mayo, a local negrophile. She would have been most unlikely to have attended Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie in the city in May, where one of the sideshows had ‘an American negro giantess, who stands no less than 7 feet 1 inch in height’ (Dundee Courier, 16 December 1898 p 6 and 14 May 1898 p 4). This must have been the South Carolinian Abomah (see page 003).

A more refined entertainment was that presented in an afternoon and the evening of mid-May at the Wesleyan chapel in Cirencester where a black choir presented ‘sacred slave songs, solos, melodies, &c’. It was in aid of work amongst negroes (Bristol Mercury 17 May 1898). One month later the London Morning Post of 15 June p 9 reported that during an argument in the Waterloo Road between ‘a negro and a cabman’ a small crowd had gathered and some became victims of pickpockets. Three white women were found guilty. Semi-destitute individuals of colour who were mentioned in the contemporary press included ‘a negro named Charles Broun’ who earned drinks and coins ‘by thrusting needles into his arms’. He was charged with attempting to commit suicide at Southwark court in March 1898 (Leicester Chronicle 12 March 1898 p 8). Nearby, a ‘negro named Henderson, living in Whitecross-street, Borough’ had been picked up unconscious in the street by the police and taken to Guy’s Hospital where his condition was ‘serious’ (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 8 May 1898).

A very sad tale was detailed in Reynold’s Newspaper on 15 May 1898 under the heading ‘Civilizing the Savage. A Black Boy’s Rights’. Edwin French Bartlett, a hunter and trader active in eastern Africa, had been charged at Lambeth Police court earlier that month with assaulting ‘an African boy, known as “Lioney” by striking him with a stick’. Bartlett had come to England on holiday and brought the lad with him (see page 092 of this site for similar tales). The twelve year old lad was a Masaai. A Church Missionary Society missionary who had spent five years in Uganda – at this time what was to become the western region of Kenya, the Masaai homeland, was part of Uganda – had spoken to him. Bartlett said he had been ‘treated as one of the family’ but the magistrate commented he ‘saw no reason why a black boy should be more cruelly beaten than a white boy’. He noted that only Bartlett was able to talk to him in his language. The ‘excessive’ thrashing led to a £5 fine or one month in prison. The fine was paid. The newspaper report ended with a noted that the lad had been sent to the Camberwell workhouse. One hopes that the Church Missionary Society officials were able to get the youngster out and off to Africa. The Times report was on page 4 of its issue of 11 May. Bartlett and the lad lived in Caulfield Road, Peckham, and it was the station master at nearby Queen’s Road railway station who found the African ‘running up the line’ and had taken him to the police. A police sergeant stated ‘he had marks of violence about his body’ and a blood-stained shirt.

Street entertainers had long included black people, but Ipswich had not seen the ‘negro’ John Williams and his white partner George Wicks before they appeared in July. Having failed to be given a large stone by the urban authority they stole one. It was placed on Williams’s chest and Wicks was to break it – ‘in the presence of a crowd’. Arrested, the court heard that Wicks had a criminal record and so he was sentenced to 14 days; Williams had already been in custody for six days, and had no criminal record, so he had just one day of his seven days sentence to serve according to the Ipswich Journal of 6 August.

The newspapers reported on the lynching of black men and women in America and the white riots of Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as the activities of British and French troops in Africa, the attempted assassination of an official in the Bahamas, American military activities against Spain’s tropical empire including Cuba. Entertainers described as ‘negro’ were almost always whites in black face, in the decades-old minstrel traditions, and could be found on stage all over Britain. An error by a judge led to York Crockett, who was ‘as dark as ebony’ and charged with assault in Gainsborough, to be named in London’s Daily News on 2 December 1898.

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