Before the Windrush

Black People in Britain
Before the Windrush by Jeffrey Green.


Boarding the Empire Windrush
Boarding the Empire Windrush

Jeffrey Green argues that to ignore the diverse black presence in Britain prior to the 1940s is to perpetuate a distorted view of British history.`


How do we explain the widespread ignorance of the presence of people of African and Caribbean origin in British history? Black men and women appear, for example, in Pepys’s diaries; in eighteenth-century portaits; sailing with Captain Cook on the Endeavour; not to mention the stories of Thackeray, Trollope, Dornford Yates, W.S. Gilbert, Laurie Lee and Evelyn Waugh. Yet there is a general misapprehension th at people of African descent were absent from Britain until very recently. This misconception has been nurtured by a belief that apparent exceptions can be ignored.

There is a further mistaken belief that those black people who do appear were temporary residents – and often worked in unskilled occupations – and this added to the notion that they made little contribution to British society. In 1998 celebrations were held of the half-century anniversary of the arrival in England of the immigrant ship Empire Windrush from Jamaica, but these often merely re-confirmed the prejudice that the black presence in Britain was recent, alien and working-class.

However, a study of the historic evidence reveals that people of African birth and descent lived in Britain four centuries before the Windrush reached Tilbury.

They and their descendants usually conformed to the prevailing social rules in language, education, style and ambitions, and, accordingly, are to be found at every level of British society. These men, women and children were widespread geographically, even though it is not possible to gauge their overall numbers. But investigations restricted to cities such as London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow and Tyneside only add to the mistaken stereotype of a foreign-born black working class living in urban ghetto communities.

The assumption that black people were largely absent from Britain until the arrival of Windrush cannot be successfully challenged until it is realised that black people had as broad a range of experiences in Britain as others. They were not exotics, even though a proportion worked in entertainment – in music making, theatres, halls, fairs and boxing rings. The partial nature of much recent research has placed blacks in ports or pictured them as musicians (largely in the world of 1920s and 1930s jazz), or has focused on protest and injustice. This misrepresents the wide nature of black activities, ignoring doctors and others of the middle classes, men and women of education.

Thus commentators on the Trinidad-born Dr John Alcindor, who practised as a doctor of medicine in London in the early twentieth century, have tended to mention his work at black-led conferences in 1900, 1921 and 1923, but ignored his published medical research, his charity work, his healing of hundreds of people in Paddington, or the fact that his eldest son was an army officer who fought in France in 1944.

One element that strains both the historical and social connections between blacks and whites in Britain is the Atlantic slave trade. Awareness of Britain’s role in the forced migration of Africans has created another misunderstanding, for those who are aware of Britain’s historic black presence often assume it results from slavery – that blacks were (and still are) victims. This view ignores self-willed migrants, and if we continue to overlook this minority we will be perpetuating an inaccurate picture of Britain’s history.

The lives of four individuals can be taken to show something of the broad range of contributions to British life that have resulted from the black presence.

Joseph Emidy lived in the south-west of England from 1799 until his death in 1835; his gravestone records him as ‘a native of Portugal’, but he was born in Africa and press-ganged into the British navy in Lisbon in 1795 as a musician. A skilled violinist, Emidy was active in Cornish musical circles, playing at balls and concerts, teaching and writing music. One of his sons had music published in the 1850s; another became a Sunday School teacher. Some of his grandchildren migrated to America in the 1890s.

His contemporary Thomas Birch Freeman was baptised in Hampshire in 1809. He worked as a gardener to a titled family in Suffolk – not a labourer weeding and planting in England, but an experienced horticulturalist. His letters contain detailed references to plants and their Latin names. In the 1830s, his Christian faith propelled him into missionary work in Africa for half a century, which had a major impact on Ghana and on Freeman’s Methodist colleagues in Britain who financed the mission, leading to two overlooked biographies of this ‘Son of an African’ (1929 and 1950).

Truro and Ipswich are not places where most people would expect to find a black presence. And black Christian missionaries to Africa have also been forgotten by most historians. Yet Freeman, Emidy and his sons were known to thousands of their contemporaries, who supported their efforts.

Thousands also knew Joseph Jackson Fuller, whose photograph appears in the recent History of the Baptist Missionary Society, which praises his role in negotiating the transfer of the Society’s property in the Cameroons to the Swiss in the 1880s. Born in Jamaica in 1825, he moved to Africa in the 1840s. He and his English wife eventually retired to London, where he died in 1908. He toured British churches and chapels, preaching and lecturing. A biography was published in the 1930s. His son spent some time in the Congo mission field, but the third generation included a shoe-repairer in Norwood, south London, who was proud of Fuller’s achievements but aware that there was no advantage in publicly claiming a black ancestor in the 1920s. People across Britain heard J.J. Fuller’s sermons and descriptions of Africa, as well as the story of the event he witnessed at the emancipation of Jamaican slaves in 1838 – the burying of their shackles to the singing of Christian hymns.

Fuller told Britons of his first-hand experiences of slavery and of Africa into the twentieth century. This encouraged fellow believers in their faith and showed blacks in positive roles, as well as underscoring the value of black missionary efforts.

The fourth individual was born in London in 1875. Known to the world of music and musicians after the success of his choral work The Song of Hiawatha (1898-1900), composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a London-trained doctor from Sierra Leone. Raised by his mother in Croydon, he attended the Royal College of Music from the age of fifteen. Hiawatha and instrumental works attracted critical praise. Coleridge-Taylor had no contacts with Africa or black people until his college years, when he began to use musical themes from Africa and the Caribbean, and especially the Negro Spirituals of the United States. Three times he visited America, where he met President Theodore Roosevelt. He conducted choirs and orchestras all over England. After his sudden death in 1912, thousands of admirers attended his funeral.

Coleridge-Taylor’s music touched the hearts of millions. In the 1920s and 1930s the Royal Choral Society’s financial plight was resolved by Malcolm Sargent conducting Hiawatha for two weeks every summer, providing ‘a stamp and flourish … to what may be described as demi-cultural life in London’, according to Sargent’s biographer, who noted the presence of royalty at these

The black thread woven through the tapestry of British history also included individuals who did not conform to the prevailing social rules. Black Britons participated in protest and in seeking reform and were active in the Gordon Riots and the Cato Street conspiracy; later they were found joining groups such as the Chartists, the Fabians and the Communists. Some were common criminals, too, of course.

In the case of Edgar Manning we can see how a bad reputation has stuck to a black man because it fits a stereotype. Manning, a Jamaican, worked in a London weapons factory during the First World War, before moving into London’s criminal world where, during the 1920s, he was arrested for violence, theft and receiving and being in possession of illegal drugs. Both the staid London Times and the sensationalist News of the World reported the story in similar ways, accepting police allegations that he supplied cocaine to the demi-monde and was responsible for the death of a showgirl. Books of the 1950s such as Soho: London’s Vicious Circle and London After Dark (a police officer’s memoirs) described Manning as ‘a dope pedlar and white slaver’, ‘dope king’, and ‘drug trafficker’, and displayed his photograph. A recent study of 1920s crime, relying on these books and contemporary newspapers, accepted these views as fact, although Manning was never in truth charged with – let alone convicted of – drug dealing.

A newer convention, one that presents blacks historically as victims of bigotry, race hatred and violence, is in part a result of the fact that the British documentary record is largely silent about race, or at least colour-blind, except in cases of suffering. Thus we can find out about black sailors when there was severe unemployment and unrest (whether among the black poor of London in the 1780s or in the riots in British ports in 1919), but we do not know the name of the sailor who is shown close to the admiral on HMS Victory in Dighton’s painting, in Maclise’s 1860s mural in parliament and on the base of the column in Trafalgar Square. Likewise, we have almost no information on the ‘native seaman from Natal’ who aided inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell in his research into phonetics and the basis of speech in London in 1867.

This man typifies those black people who are noticed only because they associated with more famous people. Others include the youth employed in mid-Victorian London by the Russian writer and agitator Alexander Herzen, and the young man purchased in the Cape Verde Islands by poet and radical Wilfred Blunt (he settled in Sussex in the 1870s, and married a local woman). In Liverpool in 1901, the painter Augustus John included black people among his subjects. The poet Osbert Sitwell recalled that in the 1900s his brother Sacheverell had bought an exotic rug from ‘an old negro whom he found in the workhouse at Scarborough’. The Jamaican who looked after novelist Arthur Ransome’s daughter in Hampshire in the 1900s was known only as Gi-Gi, but it is intriguing to speculate whether she influenced his story-telling style through her stories of Anansi, the clever spider who features in West African and Caribbean folk tales. One black man whose name is known is John Edmonstone, born in Guiana; he taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin in Edinburgh in the 1820s.

The black presence is not always as clearly identified in British records as in those of the United States, but this does not mean it was not there. Blacks were far from unknown in the major professions from the nineteenth century. From 1850 a steady stream of medical students from Sierra Leone and the West Indies qualified in England and Scotland, working in hospitals during and after qualifying, and sometimes establishing practices. Jamaican-born doctors Ernest Goffe, Harold Moody, Ivan Shirley, J.J. Brown and H.E. Bond all had medical practices in London in the inter-war years, while John Alcindor practised in London from 1899 to 1924. Dr Goffe played in a cricket team with the author A.A. Milne; Moody was a Christian evangelist; Shirley had attended Dulwich College in the 1910s; Brown had been an assistant to Viscount Bertrand Dawson (who became a royal physician after 1907) at the London Hospital; Bond had specialised in tropical mental illnesses but relocated to London when the colonial regime failed to promote him; Alcindor was active in Catholic charities.

Black lawyers included Sir Samuel Lewis (born in Sierra Leone), who died in London in 1903. Edward Nelson (son of a builder of Georgetown, British Guiana) was a turn-of-the-century officer of the Oxford Union and colleague of the son of the future prime minister, Herbert Asquith. A barrister active in Cheshire and Lancashire, Nelson was a councillor in Hale for over twenty-five years. Frank Dove, son of a lawyer from the Gold Coast, was born in London and won the Military Medal in his tank at Cambrai in 1917; he studied at Oxford, then became a barrister. His sister Evelyn attended the Royal Academy of Music, London.

Notable black writers include Mary Seacole, whose autobiography of 1857 told of her life and travels from Jamaica to the Crimean War. She died in London in 1881. Another was Theophilus Scholes, a Jamaican doctor who trained in Scotland and Belgium and was the author of four substantial books on current affairs and imperial questions between 1899 and 1908. He had worked in Africa in the 1890s. Younger black people who knew him included South African law student Pixley Seme, Alain Locke (who in 1908 became the first black Rhodes Scholar at Oxford), and the South African journalist Sol Plaatje.

Before the nineteenth century, black people tended to appear in paintings as background figures. With the advent of photography, black children can be seen in street and school photographs to an extent that suggests that many more black people knew about the British from first-hand experience than vice versa. Dozens of Africans arrived in Britain every year to be educated. Two sons of Lewanika, traditional leader of the Lozi of western Zambia, were at school in Goudhurst, Kent, in the 1900s. There was hardly a year after 1900 that did not have some black presence at Oxford.

Some educational institutions had strong links to the tropics: Edinburgh University from 1850; Wesley College in Taunton from the 1870s; the African Institute of Colwyn Bay from the 1890s, for example. The range of subjects they studied might vary – two Africans studied botany at Kew Gardens in the 1850s; others learned how to assemble and operate boats to be used on the Congo; and Charles Kasaja Stokes, born in 1895, the son of an Irish trader and a Ugandan mother, studied to be a medical auxiliary in Dundee. He later organised the blood transfusion service of Uganda.

Such students formed friendships, and some put down roots in Britain and married. Some never returned to their natal lands. Several of these intellectual migrants have been traced because their activities in Britain touched on anti-colonial politics, as with Dr Scholes or, in the 1930s, Jomo Kenyatta and a little later, Dr Hastings Banda. Kenyatta also followed a common path by boosting his student income by appearing in films and plays.

There were black professional actors and actresses, among them Ira Aldridge in the 1840s, Amy Height around 1900 and Ernest Trimmingham from the 1910s. Others were only fleetingly in the limelight – a west-London brewery used Victorian photographs to advertise its products decades later, and a black carpenter can be seen among a group of barrel makers. There are, however, no fewer than 596 African names of the South African Labour Corps on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton. This also lists Lord Kitchener, whose fate – death at sea – they shared when their troopship Mendi sank in the Channel in the First World War. They died for Britain.

Such evidence not only restores black people to their proper place within the total picture of British life since the reign of Elizabeth I, it also provokes new questions. What, fo
r example, was in the mind of William Hogarth when he chose to depict non-European people in a large number of his paintings and engravings of life in the mid-eighteenth century? And what did the ordinary white person think of the black medical students who tended them in nineteenth-century hospitals? How many black sailors sailed in the Royal Navy, and where were they recruited? And what impelled Londoners in 1912 to support the American-born black world Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in his planned meeting with Britain’s own champion? A few years later British soldiers gave Johnson’s name to the six-inch shells used by the Germans from 1915 – no doubt because they were black, moved fast, and hit with considerable force.

It is important to detail such people who, except for their visible difference, seem to be similar to other Britons of their class and education, and to correct the enduring idea that blacks were absent before 1948. However, looking into the past with a modern mindset is unwise. If racial prejudice was strong in the past, would a black doctor have had white patients? If there was virulent institutional racism, how can we explain the black people who studied at the Inns of Court and at the universities? The Manual of Military Law (1914) may have declared that ‘any negro or person of colour’ could not be an army officer, yet Walter Tull, Folkestone-born son of a Barbados father, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1917 (he also played football for Spurs; his brother was a dentist in Scotland).

Another aspect of the history of black people in Britain challenges modern attitudes to race relations. Many of the men and women mentioned in this article were not greatly involved with others of African descent. They were known to others of a similar physical appearance, but moved in wider social circles. Councillor Edward Nelson, for example, retained links with the southern Caribbean, and his legal practice included black clients (such as Africans accused of rioting in Liverpool in 1919), but his more general reputation rests on solid civic duties and his success in a murder trial.

In their class, education and ambitions these black men and women were diverse individuals from every social class. Does their historic mix of activities and achievements suggest their experience was different to that of the post-Windrush black population? It would be unwise to assume that our own beliefs about racism are automatically relevant, when we lack any idea of the overall numbers or whereabouts of those who would have experienced it in the past.

We have known little of the world in which black people moved before 1948, simply because often we did not know they were in Britain at all. Some of the men and women who took their shoes for repair at Fuller’s shop in 1920s Norwood, who walked past the brass plate of Dr Brown in Lauriston Road, Hackney, who listened to Evelyn Dove on the radio, or who played Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Demande et Reponse’ at their parlour piano had no idea that these people were of African descent. Those who did know had an additional dimension to their lives.

Further reading

  • *David Dabydeen Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (Manchester University Press, 1987)
  • Peter Fryer Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 1984)
  • Bernth Lindfors Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Indiana University Press, 1999)
  • Phil Vasili The First Black Footballers: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930, An Absence of Memory (Cassell, 1998)
  • Green, Jeffrey Jeffrey Green is the author of Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914 (Cass, 1998)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.