Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

188 : Edward T. Nelson (1874?-1940), Lancashire lawyer

A decent education, financial support from his builder father, hard work and a sense of purpose led Edward Nelson to St John’s College, Oxford (1898-1902) where he became an officer in the reputable Oxford Union (student debating society), then Lincoln’s Inn where in November 1904 he was called to the bar. He settled in suburban Manchester and in 1910 was the successful barrister in a murder trial. In 1913 he was elected to Hale (Cheshire) council and served until his death in 1940. He was unusual in that he was of pure African descent, born in British Guiana (now Guyana).

My outline of his life was published in New Community (London): Vol 12 No 1 (Winter 1984-85) pp 149-154. This was too late to be known to Peter Fryer whose Staying Power was published in April 1984. I first became aware of Nelson from issues of the British Guiana [Guyana] Argosy  newspaper which often reported the activities of a self-help agricultural group at Cove and John which was led by postmaster John Barbour-James, who was to transfer in the colonial postal system to Africa’s Gold Coast [now Ghana] in 1902. They sent Nelson a congratulatory telegram after his election as secretary of the Oxford Union and the paper soon noted Nelson’s appointment as Union treasurer (Argosy, 31 March 1900; 21 July 1900). These positions were reported in Christopher Hollis, The Oxford Union (London: Evans, 1965) but without reference to Nelson’s ethnicity. Richard Symonds, then working on his Oxford and Empire – the Last Lost Cause? (1986; revised, 1991) at Oxford alerted me to John Joliffe’s Raymond Asquith book: and in it the letter of 4 March 1900 to his father H. H. Asquith the future Liberal prime minister 1908-1916 which announced Raymond Asquith’s election to be president of the Oxford Union. He wrote “The candidate I nominated for secretary was also successful: He is a West African Nigger, called Nelson for some reason, black as pitch and a staunch patriot; I think his voice and teeth pulled him through: the former is a most magnificent organ, like the sound of heavy guns at sea” (Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith, p 64). This was quoted in my New Community article.

In September 2004 Sam Davies wrote his article on Nelson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He quoted from my article and from my Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain, 1901-1914 (London: Cass, 1998), and Pamela Roberts used the New Community piece in her Black Oxford of 2013. None of us traced much on his years in British Guiana, and his wife and daughter were not identified. Preparing a webpage on Nelson I soon observed absences and some contradictions. Davies states Nelson attended St Philip’s School in Demerara (a contemporary name for British Guiana) and Roberts wrote he has been at “the prestigious Queen’s College in Georgetown”. On 21 June 2018 the St Johns College archivist advised their files state St Philip’s School; all these sources confirm that Nelson was born on 22 October 1874 in Georgetown, and that his father Philip Nelson was a builder.

All three published articles missed Nelson’s involvement in the establishment, in London in 1931, of the League of Coloured Peoples. This was noted in my entry on Nelson in the Oxford Companion to Black British History (2007). League founder Dr Harold Moody was followed by seven other speakers, the two other blacks being Edward Nelson and the American singer-actor Paul Robeson. Nelson warned the audience to “not expect wonders in a short time” (West India Committee Circular, London, 25 June 1931, and other London reports: courtesy Moody’s biographer David Killingray).

More information was needed, surely? We may still have to guess that John Barbour-James, who retired aged fifty in 1917 and joined his family in London where he was active in many groups and scheme to promote understanding of black achievements until he left for the Caribbean in 1938, made the link. He was an official of Moody’s League and is probably the individual who informed others of barrister Nelson who had settled in suburban Manchester.

No documentary evidence of Nelson’s marriage has been traced but an on-line listing of 1939 streets shows that his daughter was living at his home, 49 Cecil Road, Hale. The daughter remained there – a visit was made to the Caribbean after the war – and died there on 21 June 1984. Whereas her father left just £49 and no will, his daughter’s estate was valued at £45,609 which suggests he had transferred the property (a five bed house) to his daughter, avoiding inheritance tax. There are two different spellings of her most unusual forename, neither being traced in English birth registrations. Probate was in the name Onassie Agatha Nelson. Her estate was left to Joy Elaine Hawker of St Albans, who was requested to send one piece of her jewellery to Imelda Burgan of Robb Street, Georgetown, Guyana.

Imelda Burgan was the wife of Canon W. Granville Burgan of St Augustine’s Anglican church in Buxton, BG, and mother of Cecile Nobrega a poet and sculptor who died in London in 2013, aged 94. There were grandchildren and attempts are being made to contact them and friends, which may aid recovery of more on the life of Edward Nelson.

Documentary evidence – census 1901, 1911; passenger lists – have been examined and whilst clearing up some matters, have encouraged confusion. Surely an Oxford graduate barrister should be a person of probity and easy to trace in official papers?

Census 1901 listed every living person in Britain and Ireland on 31 March 1901. Edward T. Nelson was described as an ‘Oxford undergraduate’ aged 26, married, born in Demerara-Georgetown (the census officials added ‘B. Guiana’). He was a visitor at 47 Eltham Road in south-east London, the home of 63-year-0ld rector John Pennington, his wife Sarah, and five children (son Cuthbert was an undergraduate at Cambridge). Two servants were listed. Pennington was the rector of St Clement Danes church from 1889 to 1910 – famous for the children’s rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’.

Census 1911 records Edward Nelson, a barrister at law, aged 34, ‘single’ and living at Cecil House in Hale, Cheshire. Born in British Guiana he was a ‘resident’. So we have an 2 year discrepancy on his age, and a lesser difference on year of birth – 1901 census supports a birthday in 1874; the 1911 census suggests 1877.

1939 Register was made on 29 September 1939 and listed everyone in Britain – a wartime necessity of course. There are three names at 49 Cecil Road, Hale (those who may still be alive are blocked: ‘this record is officially closed’) but Edward T. Nelson, barrister-at-law is stated to have been born on 22 October 1879 and was widowed. His daughter Onasie A. Nelson’s birthdate was 21 April 1904 but amended to 1895. She was described as single, and carrying out ‘unpaid domestic duties’.

Death of Onasie Nelson in 1984 has her age as 87 and her birth date as 21 April 1897. But when she sailed from Liverpool on the Empire Bure for Trinidad and on to British Guiana in November 1947 her age was 52. When she returned on the Gascoigne in November 1951 she was 56. So the passenger lists agree she was born in 1895. She was buried in her father’s grave at Altrincham cemetery.

It seems that Edward Nelson had his daughter in British Guiana when he was nineteen. The mother must have remained in that colony – perhaps with the Burgans – when he left for law studies, and their daughter joined her father in the 1910s or later. The 1874 date in the Oxford files shows that Nelson would have been in his mid-twenties when starting his studies, not impossible but sure not as likely as being twenty or twenty-one.

 

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Images of Nelson may be found in:

John Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters (London: Collins, 1980) shows him with colleagues of the Oxford Union Standing Committee, 1900.

Pamela Roberts, Black Oxford. The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars (Oxford: Signal Books. 2013) shows him with ten colleagues at St John’s.

Sam Davies, ‘Edward Theophilus Nelson (1874-1940)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reference 57262 shows him in Sale cricket team in 1912.

This article was supported by the research of Charles Kay who is not responsible for my confusion.