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 other than the latter being named May. Preparing a webpage on Nelson for this website 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 around 1950 – 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.

Her mother remains nameless. The British census of 1911 is being examined as Nelson is listed and so should his wife and perhaps the daughter.

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.





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.