Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

117: Black Edwardians in Lambeth

This presentation was for Lambeth Archives, 52 Knatchbull Road, London SE5 9QY on 28th September 2013. Lambeth is a south London borough reaching from the Thames to Sydenham Hill.

Today I will be giving outline details on two dozen people of African descent who were in and around Lambeth a century ago. I believe it is important that such information is available, for there is a widespread belief the black presence in Britain dates from 1948 and the arrival of the Windrush – with the exception of sailors, students, some lawyers and doctors, and entertainers. In discussions with veterans, and then checking newspapers, it became clear to me that there was an older historic presence. The range of activities was broad as you will see from this brief look.

No television, no radio a century and more ago. What was it like? I asked my grandmother’s friend, born like her in the 1880s, what he had done when a teenager, and he told me he and his pals would put on their best boots and go up the West End to see what the toffs were doing. Today we will try to see what he might have seen out and about in London. So put your boots on, and off we go!

Lambeth was a good place for such excursions and one handy destination would have been Richmond Terrace, a street off Whitehall. Number 2 was the London home of Henry Stanley, explorer of Africa. In 1902 he was visited there by two Ugandans. Ham Mukasa told of walking with Apolo Kagwa and missionaries from St Paul’s cathedral to Lambeth Palace. He wrote ‘I saw a great many little English boys following me to see what a black man was like’. Stanley received treatment from Dr James Risien Russell, a respected neurologist and professor. Russell was of African descent, born in British Guiana (now Guyana) and educated in Scotland. Professor Russell attended Stanley’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1904, as did Nigerian churchman Mojola Agbebi. Russell went from Waterloo to Pirbright for the burial. Lambeth residents watched the cortege reach Waterloo, and noted these men.

Moments away from Waterloo station is Christ Church, Kennington Road. This important nonconformist centre was under Frederick Brotherton Meyer who was involved in several groups promoting African welfare, including West African delegations. Some would have been seen at his church. In 1911 Meyer was active in the heated discussions over the planned championship boxing match between Jack Johnson and Bombardier Billy Wells, in which Johnson’s African descent became crucial. Meyer dragged in the ‘colour question’ as anti-boxing groups sought a wider range of arguments. Guarantees that there would be no breach of public order were requested. The promoters were unable to agree to that, and like a bout between two white boxers in Birmingham planned for some days later, the match was cancelled. Jack Johnson from Texas was the most widely-known black person in Edwardian Britain.

Black men were active in other sports. Charles Ollivierre from St Vincent was in the West Indies cricket team which toured England in 1900, and he stayed, playing for Derbyshire until 1907. In 1906 another West Indies cricket team toured Britain, and it included his brother Richard (one of five African-descent players in the team). They played Surrey at the Oval in late June. They played Kent at Catford – not that far away – in mid-July. Less popular was rugby, which also had a black presence. Born in Salford near Manchester James Peters played for Devon and was capped for England. And there was the Folkestone-born Walter Tull who played football in the Spurs team in 1910.

The theatres and music halls of Britain employed thousands of entertainers, including quite a few black people. Walk down Kennington Road. At the time of the 1901 census Robert Cropp lived at number 108. An American singer and dancer who took the stage name of Pueblo he joined forces with Crewe-born Kate nee Bradshaw to become ‘creole star artistes’ working in British music halls into the 1920s. Robert Cropp died at Guy’s Hospital in 1934. He and his wife Kate Cropp were then living at 11 Meadow Place, behind Victoria Mansions in the South Lambeth Road.

Entertainers, sports personalities, and visiting African leaders are not unexpected although that both Tull and Peters were born in England may have surprised some. Professor Risien Russell who treated Henry Stanley was not the only African descent member of a profession in Edwardian England. Around the corner from this building is Paulet Road. It was at number 14 that James Hutton Brew died on 14 April 1915. Family legends in Africa suggest his ambition was to be the first Gold Coast (Ghana) member of the British parliament. Brew was a solicitor, educated in England in the 1850s. He became a newspaper magnate, and pushed African ideas and ideals at the Victorians where he settled in England permanently in 1888. His death registration states he was a Land Company Promoter. Perhaps someone should look to see where Brew was living for best part of thirty years in England.

Going about their daily routines brought these individuals into contact with whites. A novel published in 1910 had this comment: ‘To the average Londoner there is nothing extra-ordinary in the sight of a well-dressed man escorting a little black boy. Passers-by cast a curious glance at the couple now and again – and, two turnings later had forgotten about them’. There was also an observation that in the great public schools ‘Colour is hardly more of a disadvantage to its possessor than red hair or a squint’ (Cullen Gouldsbury, The Tree of Bitter Fruit, 1910). That author was white, born in Africa in today’s Zambia. An African, educated at Cambridge University, wrote a novel published in 1911 which has Africans in London street scenes (J. E. Casely Hayford, Ethiopia Unbound, 1911). He mentions Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer. Born of a Sierra Leone doctor father in London in mid-1875, he lived almost all his life in Croydon. In 1898 the first part of his Song of Hiawathabecame immensely popular. Coleridge-Taylor wrote incidental music for Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre in London, as well as an opera. Choirs often presented his music in their concerts, he conducted concerts around London, his piano and other domestic compositions sold well and were played in homes all over Britain including Lambeth of course, and at the Crystal Palace. Norbury was the nearest to London that Coleridge-Taylor lived (that was in 1909).

On South Lambeth Road were two blocks of flats, dominating the street, leaving it in shadow for much of the day. My father (born in Brixton in 1913) told me they called this the Khyber Pass. Albert Mansions on the north side have been demolished. In 1912 number 55 Victoria Mansions was the home of playwright, actor and journalist Duse Mohamed who claimed Sudanese and Egyptian descent but may have been an African American. With Coleridge-Taylor’s regular contributions to London plays one might expect collaboration between the two, but days after the composer’s sudden death in September 1912 Mohamed wrote from Victoria Mansions to the widow, his letter noting ‘I saw little of him’.

We have seen that Brew, a West African, spent much of his life in England. That was also true of Nannette Boucher, the daughter of Dr Africanus Horton, author of important studies on West Africa. Born in Sierra Leone and educated in England and Germany she married after returning to Africa, and with her widowed mother settled in England. She lived in Tooting, and in the summer of 1913 was living at 87 Elmhurst Mansions in Edgeley Road, Clapham which backs on to the railway from Clapham North to Wandsworth Road stations. In 1913 her West African friend Emma Williams joined a song-and-dance ensemble led by a London-based African American. They moved east into the Russian empire and in Kiev Miss Williams found the Gold Coast/Ghanaian manager John Harris Boehm required her to prostitute herself. The correspondence between the Foreign Office and British consuls abroad contains Williams’s letter and gives the Clapham address. Mrs Boucher wrote to the Foreign Office in London. Mrs Boucher died in 1924. Four children and two grandchildren survived her. This family can represent the several Britons of West African descent who were at home and in school in Edwardian England.

Edwardian England was a society dominated by class. Two Oxford undergraduates with connections to Lambeth were the American Alain Locke (the first black Rhodes Scholar) and the Swazi Pixley Seme. The latter had been educated in America. The two became friends, and in October 1908 they paid a visit to Clapham School for Boys at 71 Clapham High Street. Locke wrote to his mother regarding a whisky flask she had sent: ‘Seme and I got it filled the evening of the day it came – we were going for a long walk to Clapham (outside London) to see the headmaster of the Clapham Boys school – so we both took ammunition along’. Seme had a major role in the founding of the African National Congress in South Africa, and in the U.S.A. Locke nursed the Harlem Renaissance of literature, music and art from the mid-1920s.

Two well-dressed black undergraduates, sipping from the whisky flask, walking up to Clapham Common and on to the school is an unexpected scene, surely? But we should be very careful. An African from Sierra Leone published a book in Brixton in 1909. Augustus Merriman Labor qualified as a barrister in London in 1909. He misleadingly wrote that ‘Negroes in London do not much exceed one hundred’. His book is a humorous guide to his newly-arrived African friend Africanus. He noted that on his first Sunday in London ‘my landlady and her daughters ridiculed me’ for having attended a Christian service. He commented ‘The individual in a London street who seeks the company of an African, is the man who wants to know how well or how badly he can converse in English’.

Having described to Africanus the nature of the Inns of Court the author said he had been a Sunday worker at the ‘Railway Orphanage at Stockwell in South London’ where over many months he got to know nearly two hundred white boys. This orphanage’s buildings were in both Jeffreys Road near Stockwell and Guildford Road, three streets away closer to South Lambeth Road. He organised a celebration, placing wreaths on the tombs and memorials to abolitionists at Westminster Abbey. He remarked ‘I am still here, suffering from some people’s dislike of my colour, especially when I visit a low class suburb in Britain’. Merriman Labor died in July 1919, at the Lambeth Infirmary, from tuberculosis.

What is now the Stockwell Park Estate was once Spurgeon’s Orphanage, which opened in 1869 and was active there into the 1940s. Charles Spurgeon was an immensely popular Baptist minister. His Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant and Castle was often packed but following his death in 1892 some moved to Christ Church where Meyer presided in the 1900s. I know of black people who visited Spurgeon’s church and his orphan homes in the 1890s, and some attended his funeral in West Norwood and his widow Susannah’s funeral in 1903. Virginia-born Thomas Johnson was one. He had been a 1870s student at Spurgeon’s College (relocated to be near Crystal Palace in 1923). Johnson was a Baptist evangelist, based in Bournemouth from the 1890s: where he died in 1921. His Twenty-eight Years a Slave was published there in 1909.

Thomas Brem Wilson was another West African who was seen out and about in Lambeth in Edwardian times. Born in the Gold Coast (today: Ghana) around 1866, he was involved in the sale of land in Africa, developing trade in rubber and timber, and the purchase of consumer goods. Some of his diaries have survived. They name other Africans in London, and a developing involvement in the Pentecostal Church. The 1906 diary shows that Brem Wilson was preaching in London streets and at Holiness meetings in Akerman Road (just round the corner from here). Wilson helped establish the Sumner Road Chapel. That road runs south from the Old Kent Road to Peckham High Street and the meetings were held in different halls including a spell opposite the town hall at the Elephant and Castle end of the Walworth Road. It was known as the Black Man’s Church and was mentioned in the press, along with the loudness of its services and the mixture of black and whites in the congregation. Wilson died in Dulwich Hospital in March 1929 and was buried in Nunhead. His diaries were used by Clive Parker-Sharp in The Box of 2012. That redeems itself by printing photographs of Brem Wilson, his wife, and their children.

John Richard Archer was born in Liverpool in 1863, his father a sailor from Barbados. Archer moved to Battersea by the late 1890s. He ran a photographic business and became active in municipal politics, becoming mayor in 1913. His wife Margaret was Canadian. She was darker than her husband. Little is known of her life. We have photographs of them when mayor and mayoress of Battersea. Their household in Brymaer Road near Battersea Park included the elderly Jane Rose Roberts, whose husband had been the first president of Liberia in 1847. She had lived in England since the 1880s, moving in with the Archers after 1900. She died on 9 January 1914 aged ninety-five. Her grave at Garratt Lane cemetery has no marker. The descendants of her sister, who did not leave Virginia for Africa, have plans to mark the grave.

Battersea had other aspects of the black presence. A showman employed John Brown as ‘a wild man from South Africa’ who, clad in skins and apparently shackled by heavy chains, would conduct a sham fight with the showman. In April 1903 when appearing ‘in a Battersea show’, in order to disperse the crowd, the ‘desperado’ broke free and ran through the audience which departed in haste. A youth named Potts was injured and had to be treated at Bolingbroke Hospital. A fine of forty shillings (£2) or 21 days in prison was the decision of the South Western Magistrates Court. A valet named George Decashmare was charged with stealing articles belonging to Rachel Hurst in September 1903. ‘A West Indian negro’ aged 34 he had taken lodgings at her house in Solon Road (between Clapham North and Brixton stations) and disappeared the next day with the items. Found guilty, and with two former convictions, he was described as ‘a very plausible swindler’ who wooed servant girls and borrowed their money, leaving before the promised wedding day. The court also had a petition from ‘another black man’ asserting he had been robbed by Decashmare of 19s 6d playing draughts. Decashmare was sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour.

Dulwich College had colonial students, including Ivan Shirley from Jamaica who was there from 1912-1914. He became a doctor and worked in London for several decades.

Black members of the Salvation Army would have attended the Army’s meetings at Crystal Palace along with many hundreds of fellow-believers. Lambeth folk would have attended Coleridge-Taylor concerts there. Small fairs and circuses as well as larger events at the Crystal Palace would have involved exhibitions of animals, and there is a long history of black animal trainers in Britain. Crystal Palace also had shows of Africans, such as the Amazon Warriors from Dahomey who were there in 1893. In the summer of 1905 forty-one bandsmen of the West India Regiment performed there. They were accommodated in the Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace. Their final performance was on 2 September 1905.

The ‘Great Somali Animal Camp’ was there longer, being advertised in The Times on 9 June and 19 September. This was all part of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. The practice was for ‘African villages’ to be built by their inhabitants, and for the human zoos to live there. They could be seen cooking, dancing, and going about their affairs. There are numerous postcards of such scenes.

Edwardian Britain was an imperial era. There must have been many south Londoners who lined the streets around Westminster and Trafalgar Square to see the coronation parade in mid-1902. Jack London noted it contained ‘all the breeds of all the world’ including soldiers from Bermuda, Fiji, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Uganda, Jamaica, Trinidad and St Lucia. (See page 123 for the 1897 black and Asian soldiers in the jubilee procession.)

American sources reported incidents, for their society was drawn on colour lines (whereas Britain’s was class-bound). The editor of the African-American monthly Crisis was Berlin-educated W. E. B. Du Bois (he was no stranger to England), and his contacts sent him clippings and comments. Thus we see in the November 1913 edition ‘The Camberwell poor-law guardians of London, England, refused to appoint a colored physician whose qualifications were about those of the other candidates, on the grounds that the fastidious poor would refuse to be attended by a Negro’. (This was Dr Harold Moody from Jamaica.) From 1917 the Trinidadian John Alcindor was a Poor Law Medical Officer for the Paddington guardians, and in the 1920s he was the secretary to the Poor Law Medical Officers Association.

Doctors of African descent were working in British hospitals at this time, as well as walking the wards as students. We have noted James Risien Russell the neurologist and professor at University College London. His patients included novelist Mrs Humphry Ward and, as noted, explorer-author Henry Stanley. Russell spoke about epileptics at the British Medical Association’s conference in July 1910 and was on the board of the London Hospital for Nervous Diseases until 1928. African American George Rice qualified in Scotland in 1874 and moved to Sutton (now south west suburban London) and was treating epileptics at the nearby Belmont Asylum in the 1900s.

The black presence in Edwardian London is complex. Nowhere were the ghettos and segregation that were normal in America and so American views on race in Britain need to be treated with care. Of course our evidence is skewed towards those who achieved in law and colonial politics, as authors, entertainers and musicians, or to those named in reports of crime (victims, witnesses and transgressors) such as John Brown the alleged South African ‘wild man’. If John Archer had not been active in Battersea’s municipal politics what would we know of his wife and their guest Mrs Roberts? As almost nothing is known of Margaret Archer, she could represent this near-invisible presence.

British sources do not necessarily report on the ethnicity of the individual. A newspaper report might indicate that a ‘coloured man’ had been tried at the Old Bailey, but that court’s transcripts (www.oldbaileyonline.org) may make no mention of it (and vice versa). For those educated in Britain such Locke at Hartford College, Oxford the indicators are later fame. That is why I would strongly recommend that you take a good look at group photographs, no matter whether of Freemasons, orphanages, the Salvation Army, sports teams, hospital staff, workhouses, street scenes and so on – as I hope that in this overview I have shown that black people were out and about all over Edwardian Lambeth – and merely have to be identified. Once found, do take care with the labels.

We could have Merriman Labor as an author, or as a West African student, or as a charity worker. Those West India Regiment musicians may have studied music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham. We might take Dr Moody’s rejection in Camberwell to be an example of British racism, but when Dr Alcindor’s role in Paddington is known, that label might need adjusting. And who was the ‘African’ midwife who had a successful practice in Nunhead in the early 1920s?

You can take off your best boots now. Thanks for coming with me down the Khyber Pass in South Lambeth Road, to the archives of a missionary society opposite Kennington Park, stumbling in a cemetery in Bournemouth, checking on Battersea’s radical traditions, poking into letters written in Oxford and London in 1909, and turning the pages of the weekly Boxing. This talk has tried to focus on some people of African birth or descent who were in the Lambeth area of south London between 1900 and 1915. Those who believe that the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 was the start of Britain’s black presence will find this evidence demolishes that theory.

Thanks for listening.