158: Martha Ricks visits Queen Victoria, 1892
Martha Ricks was born into slavery in eastern Tennessee. With her family she emigrated to Liberia in 1830, one of a steady trickle of African American settlers in that region of West Africa. The independence of the black-run Republic of Liberia was recognised by Britain in 1847 (and by the U.S.A. in the 1860s). Its motto was ‘The Love of Liberty Brought us Here’. Martha Ricks (her middle name is given as Ann, and as Erskine; her surname was sometimes Rick) nursed an ambition to meet Queen Victoria, which she achieved in the summer of 1892. The details – with small variations – were in many British newspapers.
She arrived in Liverpool on the Calabar from Monrovia on 11 July 1892, and went to the officers of shipping magnate Alfred Jones. She had brought a quilt to present to the British queen. Described as a little woman aged 76, Ricks’s quilt showed coffee berries that were green, then ripening, and in full fruit, on a white satin base. Jones used his many contacts and she went to London, and it was arranged that she would go to Windsor Castle to meet the monarch. The London Standard (12 July 1892, pp 4, 7) thought she was a shrewd old lady to get interviewed so promptly.
Her quest was widely reported. She had travelled 3,500 miles (4,900 km) accompanied by the widow of Liberia’s first president, the Virginia-born Jane Rose Roberts (see page 051 of this site). They contacted Edward Wilmot Blyden, a Caribbean-born Liberian who was often in London (Leeds Mercury 19 July 1892). The Pall Mall Gazette published an interview with her, with an illustration. Mrs Roberts said ‘she is full of spirits’, and the pilgrim told of her meeting with the Queen and the royal family on 16 July. Blyden, his wife, daughter, and granddaughter had gone with her on the train to Windsor, as had Mrs Roberts and friends. Advised that the queen-empress did not shake hands, Martha Ricks said she ‘really shook hands with me’. She had been shown around the castle, and presented the quilt to an equerry whose task was to pass it to Victoria.
Her stay in England was less than one month. On 21 July she and Blyden were lunch guests of the Lord Mayor of London at the Mansion House (Standard, 22 July 1892 p 5; North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough: 23 July 1892). The Graphic published a sketch of Victoria and the Liberian ladies in its issue of 23 July, entitled ‘A latter-day pilgrim’. She attended a meeting of the Salvation Army, and greeted founder William Booth. The Pall Mall Gazette (26 July) indicated Mrs Roberts was there, and confused the two ladies. Back in Liverpool on 5 August she graced a garden party at Alfred Jones’s mansion, along with a considerable number of Liverpool merchants who traded with western Africa, and used Jones’s ships. Mrs Ricks was to sail for Africa on 6 August 1892 (Pall Mall Gazette 6 August 1892; Liverpool Mercury 6 August 1892). She had stayed with Jones over the weekend, and had met more ‘uninvited’ visitors. She sailed with Blyden’s wife and daughter (Liverpool Mercury 8 August 1892), taking numerous gifts with her. The crowd at the dockside was so substantial that the police had to manage them (Yorkshire Herald 10 August 1892, p 6).
Martha Ricks’s portrait photograph was taken in London, and a copy is now with the National Portrait Gallery in London. She died in Liberia in 1901. Kyra Hicks wrote Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria in 2012, and other works on black quilt makers. Her advice influenced this page – many thanks!
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