Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

171 : A ‘black’ presence in Victorian English folk culture

One aspect of the history of black people in Britain is the impact of an apparently-ancient custom of folk dancers blackening their faces, creating an image that many find uncomfortable, insulting and – as with nineteenth and twentieth century minstrels (see page 137 ‘Minstrel Shows in Britain’) – outmoded.

Customs of the common people: that is, ‘folk’ or ‘vernacular’ activities, are famously difficult to document. An activity which continued over decades if not centuries might be noted by visiting strangers. If and when it ceased, it would be mourned by few who were literate. Folk songs were not noted in England until the late nineteenth century, and it was not until photography became widespread that costumed dancers were documented. The magazine Folk-Lore founded in 1889 published (Volume 4, 1893) a photograph of May Day celebrations in Cheltenham – some of the participants appear to have blacked up. That is, white men blackened their faces. Explaining this phenomenon has led to various suggestions and beliefs.

Were such dancers enlisted from chimney sweeps with sooty faces? Were the dances and costumes due to northern African (Moorish) elements, an opinion encouraged by the name ‘Morris dancers’? Was there a desire to disguise the performers so that the powerful had problems in controlling the often-ribald and usually drunken activities? The revival of Morris dancing, with local traditions including costume, dance styles, and melodies added a romantic ‘historic England’ image to what is known to have been far from rare back in the seventeenth century. And to the chagrin of deeply Christian late Victorians, how could their modern society accept the fertility symbols, the pagan images, and the bacchanalian celebrations?

In these complexities there remains the matter of what black-faced dancers were suggesting. Sweeps were welcome as guests at weddings in England and elsewhere in Europe, but why darken faces to present ‘Moors’? The modern witness may regard the matter as embarrassing.

The Lancashire town of Bacup has their ‘Coco-nut Dancers’, dated to the mid-nineteenth century. See Wikipedia notes the link between the revival of Morris dancing and black-face groups, but does not draw a conclusion between the expansion of colonialism in the late nineteenth century and the presentation of black-face groups. Perhaps there wasn’t one?

An unexpected source is the 1957 memoir of Ernest Shepard, born in London in 1879. His Drawn from Memory was later published by Penguin Books (1975). Probably best known for his Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations of the 1920s, Shepard’s small book tells of life in London in the late 1880s. On 1st May ‘a motley group of men rigged up for “Jack-in-the-Green”’ appeared near his house. One was ‘completely covered with greenery … only his legs were showing’; another was dressed as a clown; and ‘a third, in striped cloth coat and trousers, with a huge collar and a blackened face, was beating a tambourine’. Another was dressed as a woman. They cried out to Shepard ‘what have you got for Jack-in-th’-Green, little gentleman?’ His sketch of the four shows these outlandish individuals.

Perhaps the black-face performer had copied theatrical minstrels? The Jack-in-the-Green fertility image seems to have been centuries old. But Shepard’s clear memory of late Victorian St John’s Wood, London with these apparently rustic ‘folk’ celebrants of spring both reminds us that black-face entertainers were not restricted to the theatre and that these four men were performing in the street in the hope of coins (the ‘woman’ had an umbrella to catch donations thrown from windows). A quick scan of Victorian newspapers, and later editions carrying letters and articles describing events of the recent past, shows that the May Day celebrations with a performer clad in branches and leaves were widespread. The Illustrated London News 27 May 1843 (p 21) shows a Jack-in-the-Green group with some darkened faces. In May 1875 a bare foot London child was injured and died when following a Jack-in-the Green group. The Gloucester Echo (25 April 1938, page 4) reported that Cheltenham chimney sweeps had been active in the May Day celebrations ‘years ago’.  May Day was also called Sweeps Day it seems. The Wells Journal (7 May 1937 page 8) commented that years before ‘you could come across half-a-dozen “Jack-in-the-Green” parties in any suburban area’ and that the leading dancers were always known as Black Sal and Dusty Bob. Recollections of May Day in rural Kent were published in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 2 May 1939 (page 6) when ‘the central figure, Jack in the Green, [was] surrounded by boys with blackened faces – why blackened, I wonder?’

It seems safe to conclude that the sight of black-face performers was not restricted to Victorian fairs and theatres.

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African Americans in New Orleans, producing a parody of white society’s floats and balls for Mardi Gras, picked a King of the Zulus and in 1946 trumpet star Louis Armstrong rejoiced to have that role which included men and women in black face, and throwing coconuts to the spectators. ‘Jazz fans and black leaders were dismayed and attacked Armstrong for allowing himself to appear in public playing the fool’. He thought it was ‘great fun’ (James Lincoln Collier, Louis Armstrong London: Michael Joseph, 1984, pages 311-312). Armstrong was from New Orleans and knew the role of the Mardi Gras Zulus.