Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

NPG D17967; Ira Aldridge as Aaron in 'Titus Andronicus' published by John Tallis & Company, after  William Paine

Ira Frederick Aldridge as Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus’ published by John Tallis & Company, after William Paine stipple and line engraving, published circa 1850.  NPG D17967 National Portrait Gallery, London

Forgotten for so long, Ira Aldridge has in recent years become literally the poster boy for all things Shakespearean. He was the first known black Shakespearean actor and made his fortune on the stage, though he wasn’t always welcome in his adopted country.

Born in New York in 1807 to a free black family, Aldridge received a classical education at the African Free School and was introduced to the theatre (and Shakespeare) through the African Grove Theatre, a theatre run and attended by the free black community of New York City in the early 1820s. The African Grove didn’t last long but Aldridge had already found his calling. It was difficult to find acting work as a man of colour in the US at that time and Aldridge decided to try his luck in Europe, taking the boat to Liverpool in 1824. He met his first wife, Margaret Gill, soon after he arrived in Britain.

With little stage experience, it took Ira a while to find his feet in Britain. He worked as a dresser and created a new persona for himself as an African tragedian rather than American. After some smaller roles, Aldridge made his debut as a lead actor on October 10, 1825 at the Royal Coburg, London (now the Old Vic) playing the lead role of Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge. Aldridge’s most famous role was Othello, but he played a wide variety of characters including Richard III and Shylock, in later years becoming known for his King Lear (interestingly, he wore white face paint to play these roles). He caused a sensation and his fame spread across the country. He also toured Ireland successfully. Audiences loved him but the critics were less kind, usually commenting on his appearance as much as his ability. Edmund Kean, the eminent actor of the time, was very complimentary, and in 1833 Aldridge made his ill-fated appearance at Covent Garden when Kean fell ill.

Immortalised in the play Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, Aldridge was engaged to play Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House), one of the only two theatres in London to be awarded the royal patent to present ‘spoken word’ plays (this patent system was revoked in 1841 – before that, only comedy, pantomime or melodrama could be shown in theatres. The other patent theatre was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Edmund Kean had been playing Othello to his son Charles’ Iago when he fell ill on stage in March 1833. Aldridge was brought in but only performed twice before the production was cancelled. There is much speculation that the cancellation was due to issues of race, that the audiences of Covent Garden were not as open minded as those in the provinces or the lower classes, but there are newspaper reviews commenting that Aldridge was well received. It is known that he did take a few liberties with the standard text, which at the time was very much frowned upon, and it is most certainly a fact that the press were hostile. Either way, his time at Covent Garden was over.

In the 1850s Aldridge began to tour abroad, finding fame and fortune in Germany and Russia in particular, consorting with Leo Tolstoy and performing before the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He is said to actually be the first actor to perform Shakespeare in the Russian provinces. He purchased property in London (his blue plaque hangs at 5 Hamlet Road, Upper Norwood – perhaps it was the street name that attracted him…) and became a British citizen in 1863.

The personal life of Ira Aldridge was as interesting as his professional exploits. He stayed married to his wife Margaret until her death in 1865 but she remained childless. Aldridge’s children were all born to his mistress, Swedish opera singer, Amanda von Brandt. They had five children, though the youngest was born after Aldridge’s death. The pair married after Margaret’s death but it was only two years later that Ira Aldridge himself died, while on tour in Poland. He was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery and today his grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.




Sir Learie Constantine (1901-1971) – The UK’s First Black Peer

NPG x21932; Learie Nicholas Constantine, Baron Constantine by Godfrey Argent

Learie Constantine by Godfrey Argent. Bromide print, 1 November 1967 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London


At 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, London, you will find an English Heritage blue plaque dedicate to Sir Learie Constantine. He only lived there for five years but this is where he wrote the book Colour Bar (1954). In the UK we like to be smug and compare ourselves favourably to the US when it comes to racial history and institutionalised racism. We did not have legal segregation, no, but nevertheless an informal colour bar did exist here, and Constantine fought against it.

Born in Trinidad, Learie Constantine first came to England as a cricketer, part of the touring West Indies team that visited in 1923 and again in 1928. On this second tour, frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Trinidad, he took the opportunity of a contract with the Nelson cricket club in Lancashire. He found great success in England over the next decade, the club winning the league eight times during that period, and he continued also to play for the West Indies.

War broke out and Constantine was offered a role as a Welfare Officer for the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Since he had assimilated into life in Lancashire so well with his family, it was hoped that he could help assist with the influx of West Indian migrants to Merseyside. He worked with trade unions to help assuage the concerns of the white workforces and was known to use his influence to overcome the resistance from some companies to employ non-white workers. He had been since the 1930s a member of Harold Moody’s League of Coloured People and was seen as a strong figurehead for the West Indian community. Always he preferred to negotiate rather than taking a confrontational or militant stance.

In 1943 the Constantine family endured a humiliating incident which had important repercussions. Learie took a few days leave to take part in a charity cricket match at Lord’s, and booked his family a room at the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury. Well aware of potential issues, he rang ahead and checked that the hotel were aware that his family were black, and was assured that this was not a problem. However, on arrival, the management made it clear that the family was not welcome (some accounts suggest that white American servicemen staying at the hotel prompted this turnabout of opinion) and the Constantines left, spending a night in another hotel owned by the same company.

At this time, there were no laws against racial discrimination and so Constantine claimed that Imperial Hotels Ltd. was in breach of contract. The hotel had not been able to provide a just explanation for their refusal of accommodation and so the judge found in favour of Learie, though only a small amount was awarded in damages. For Constantine this was acceptable. He had brought the case in order to publicise the plight of his community rather than for financial gain, and the case had also been discussed in the House of Commons due to his prominent position and his determination to have it known that such behaviour was unacceptable. This was the first case to challenge racial discrimination and as such is seen as the initial step towards the creation of the Race Relations Act 1965.

Learie Constantine lived in England until 1954, just after publishing Colour Bar, in which he talked about the racism he’d experienced as well as worldwide oppression. To some, the book was not radical enough, but Constantine had aimed it at a white audience perhaps hoping to change attitudes to the growing black population. Soon after, he returned to Trinidad and became involved in politics and joined the People’s National Movement to help them win the 1956 General Elections. He decided not to stand           for re-election in 1961 and instead was offered the post of Trinidad and Tobago’s first High Commissioner in London.

Back in England once more, Constantine was knighted in the New Year’s Honours List of 1962, also received the freedom of the town of Nelson. In 1963 he visited Bristol during the bus boycott and spoke out against the colour bar, condemning the actions of the bus company in refusing to employ black and Asian bus crews. This ultimately led to the Trinidadian government not renewing his term as High Commissioner as it was felt by both his own government as well as the British that he had overstepped the mark in becoming so outspoken over the issue.

For the rest of his life Constantine lived in London. He was variously involved in journalism and broadcasting, became a founding member of the Sports Council and was appointed to the Race Relations Board in 1967. In 1969 he was awarded his life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords, his official title being Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Ill health forced Learie Constantine to consider a move back to Trinidad but, before he could make the journey, he died of a heart attack on 1 July 1971. His body was taken back to Trinidad for a state funeral. He was posthumously awarded the Trinity Cross of Trinidad and a memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey.




Una Marson (1905-1965)


Una Marson was the first black woman to be employed by the BBC, in March 1941. She was Jamaican but much of her adult life was divided between her native country and Britain. Her accomplishments would be heralded as inspirational today, let alone in her own time, and it is a shame that she is not better known.

Born in Jamaica, the daughter of a Baptist parson, Una’s childhood was typically middle class. She won a scholarship to Hampton high school and afterwards worked in Kingston, becoming involved with the Salvation Army and the YMCA. Her main interest was journalism and in 1926 she was appointed assistant editor of the Jamaica Critic. Two years later she was able to use these skills and founded her own monthly journal, The Cosmopolitan. Marson’s journal had a strong focus on women’s issues, its editorial statement: ‘This is the age of woman: what man has done, women may do.’ She also published two collections of poems, Tropic Reveries and Heights and Depths as well as writing her first play.

Marson first came to London in 1932, partly due to her literary ambitions as she knew that she needed a wider audience. She lodged with fellow Jamaican Dr Ronald Moody in Peckham. Moody had founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 and his organisation aimed to address issues of racial division and prejudice. The league had its own journal, The Keys (based on the idea of the black and white keys on a piano keyboard co-existing harmoniously), and Marson became its editor. As well as continuing her focus on women’s rights, she became interested in discussions on race and the colour bar, common problems for recent black migrants.

Returning to Jamaica for a two year spell, during which she continued to write and worked to raise money for the Jamaica Save the Children Association (Jamsave), she was back in London by 1938. In 1939 she was offered work by the BBC with its Empire Service. During the war she was the full-time programme assistant on Calling the West Indies, later developing this strand into the better known Caribbean Voices, a literary showcase. Collaborators during this wartime period included George Orwell and TS Eliot.

Una returned to Jamaica in 1945 and this is when further details of her life become hazy. That year, prior to leaving Britain, she published another volume of poetry,  Towards the Stars. Her arrival in Jamaica was celebrated with a special lunch organised by Edna Manley, sculptor and wife of the future prime minister Noman Manley. From then onwards little is officially documented of Marson. There is a suggestion that she travelled to the US for some time and several sources claim that she suffered from mental health issues, spending time in institutions. She died of a heart attack in 1965.

In the 1990s, Marson’s work finally began to be recognised in Britain for its pioneering qualities. In 2009 a blue plaque was unveiled in Brunswick Square, Camberwell, where Una Marson lived for a while. At the ceremony local councillor Adele Morris said: Una was a feminist who campaigned for equality, and was politically active at a time when this would have been difficult for a woman, and doubly so for a black woman.’

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

NPG D23441; Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi, published by  John Bowyer Nichols, after  Thomas Gainsborough

Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi, published by John Bowyer Nichols, after Thomas Gainsborough stipple engraving, published 2 July 1781 (1798).

Ignatius Sancho had the misfortune to be born on a slave ship, or at least this is what his official biography states. It is more likely that he was born in Africa and then taken onto a ship with his parents. His mother died when he was very young, and his father committed suicide, unable to reconcile himself to a life of slavery. When he was two years old his owner brought Ignatius to England and he became a servant for three sisters who resided in Greenwich. The sisters were against the education of slaves but Sancho became acquainted with the Duke of Montagu through them and he gave the young man books. In 1749, he left the sisters and became butler to the duchess of Montagu. Under the care of the Montagus, the young man was able to enjoy reading, music and writing, all with their full encouragement.

Sancho married Anne Osborne, a woman of West Indian origin, in the early 1760s. They had seven children and he was a devoted husband, often writing on family life in his letters to friends. In the 1770s, Sancho began to suffer from ill health, developing gout. With the help of the Montagus, he acquired a grocer’s shop in Charles Street, Westminster. This new venture also marked Sancho as a financially independent householder making him eligible to vote. It is thought, therefore, that he is the first person of African origin to vote in a parliamentary election in Britain.

Through his shop Sancho built up quite a circle of friends, both in politics and the arts. Charles James Fox (Whig leader of the time and well known as an anti-slavery campaigner), David Garrick, the legendary Shakespearean actor and theatre manager, novelist Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) and the artist Thomas Gainsborough are among his impressive list of associates.

Ignatius Sancho died in 1780, but his letters were published posthumously a couple of years later in two volumes entitled The Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. It was a popular book and earned much needed royalties for Sancho’s widow, Anne. It is still easily obtainable today, with the Waterstones website offering at least six versions, the latest published in 2015.

Sancho famously wrote on the subject of slavery, and one of his most famous letters is one that he wrote to Laurence Sterne, urging his friend to include a passage in Tristram Shandy which lobbied for the abolition of the slave trade. He was also known for his accounts of the Gordon riots of June 1780 which took place six months before his death. The central location of his shop meant that the mob passed by his door. What had begun as an anti-Catholic protest descended into chaos and looting when the planned march on the House of Commons got out of hand and became a riot.

Ignatius Sancho is today commemorated with two plaques in London. One is near the site of his shop in Westminster, the other is in Greenwich Park close to where Sancho grew up.




Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

PAUL ROBESON, circa 1920s.

Paul Robeson circa 1920s (Granamour Weems Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

Paul Robeson rose from near obscurity to become a blip on the radar once more two years ago when famed director Steve McQueen announced that he planned to make a biopic of the actor’s life. Like his fellow countryman, Ira Aldridge, Robeson was an African American actor who worked often in Britain, even working with Aldridge’s daughter Amanda.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of an escaped slave. He showed a talent for sports as well as acting, his sport of choice being football. When Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted into Rutgers College, he managed to win a spot on their football team, despite the alleged attempts of others to force him out of the reckoning through excessive on-field violence. Perhaps he had inherited his father’s determination and resilience: Robeson was not one to give up easily. He attended Rutgers on a scholarship earned through his academic ability and was also lauded for his singing talents.

Robeson met his wife Eslanda Goode (Essie) while reading law at Columbia. They married a year later and she later helped push him in the direction of the stage when his law career faltered due to racism within his company. In 1924 he won two roles which brought him fame: the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Brutus in the revival of The Emperor Jones (the pair also worked on The Hairy Ape also)Essie gave up her job to tour and manage her husband’s career.

Showboat at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1928 was a highlight of Robeson’s career. His rendition of Ol’ Man River  is still lauded today and the production was a massive success, running for over 350 performances. The Robeson’s bought a house in Hampstead and settled down with their young son, Paul Robeson, Jnr. Robeson’s next great role was to take on Othello, the first black moor to walk onstage in Britain since Ira Aldridge almost one hundred years earlier. Amanda Ira Aldridge saw him perform and presented him with the gold earrings which her father had worn to play the role. Interestingly, although the play ran at the Savoy Theatre, adjacent to the Savoy Hotel, Robeson was not welcome at the hotel, and in fact was once refused entry to the Savoy Grill.

Robeson was not faithful to his wife, and his most infamous affair was with his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft. She was astonished to receive hate-mail for appearing opposite a black actor and upset by Paul’s treatment by the Savoy Hotel. Essie left her husband for a short time after discovering the affair (publicly the pair kept their private life hidden but their son later revealed certain facts in a memoir).

Robeson was offered a steady stream of work between the US and Britain, and also studied several African languages at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). Paul and Essie were both politically active. Robeson met with President Truman in 1946 to request legislation to end lynching. He was vocal about ending exploitation of African states by colonising powers, and supported the Welsh miners in the late 1920s. He also had many friends in the Soviet Union and it was his perceived status as a Communist sympathiser that ended his career.

Both Essie and Paul were forced to testify before McCarthy committee in 1956 and were from then on condemned. Robeson was blacklisted in the US, and with his passport revoked was unable to work abroad. His crime was to refuse to confirm that he was not a member of the Communist party, despite there being no proof that he ever had been. His attempted comeback on the return of his passport two years later faltered and he attempted suicide in 1961. He survived but was in poor mental and physical health. Essie died in 1965 and Paul became almost a recluse. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.


Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

From the depths of historical obscurity, Mary Seacole has risen to great prominence in recent years. With fame often comes controversy, and there have been several attempts to play down the influence of Mrs Seacole’s endeavours. Certainly her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was the first to be published by a black woman in Britain, an achievement in itself. However, this is a woman of undoubted resilience and determination, unique at a time when women had few rights.



Mary Seacole’s autobiography, published in 1857

Today we would consider Mary to be mixed race. She called herself Creole and was proud of her Scottish heritage. She was born as Mary Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, her father a soldier and her mother the keeper of a boarding-house. Her mother practised Creole medicine – Mary calls her a ‘doctress’- and passed on her knowledge to her daughter once she was old enough. Mary travelled to London as a young woman (coyly, she refuses to give any dates in case they give away her age) and writes the following of her first trip:

Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion’s complexion. I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit.

That wasn’t enough to put Mary off and she spent a good amount of time in London, also visiting Haiti and Cuba on her travels. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836 and the pair set up a store together. Edwin suffered from poor health and Mary nursed him as best she could but he died in 1844. She describes this as her first great trouble and talks of the dull stupor of despair that came over her at this time.


In 1850, Mary’s brother moved to Cruces in Panama. When Mary visited him the following year she witnessed an outbreak of cholera and was on hand to help treat the victims, charging those who could afford her services but nursing the poor for free. There were medical professionals available and so Mary was their only option. The trust placed in her at this time likely gave her the confidence  for her next pursuit.

The Crimean War began in late 1853 and Mary decided that she should volunteer as a nurse. Florence Nightingale had already been despatched with a detachment of nurses, and when Mary arrived in London and applied to the War Office she was turned away. Even today, the thought of embarking on such an endeavour as Mary’s would take some courage and determination. She  used her own resources to establish the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava with a little help from her acquaintance Thomas Day. She did meet with Florence Nightingale at her hospital on her way to Balaclava and reports a friendly encounter. Her hotel opened in March 1855. She provided catering, supplies and accommodation there as well as attending casualties. She may not have advanced healthcare, true, but she gave comfort and support to those who needed it and left Crimea in 1856 with next to nothing, having given all that she had.

Back in London and now destitute, Mary’s plight was taken up by the British press and  fund set up which helped her and Day free themselves from bankruptcy and she went back to Jamaica in 1860. Further fund-raising in 1867 (patrons included the sons of Queen Victoria) helped Mary to buy property in London and she returned to these shores permanently until her death in 1881.


NPG 6856; Mary Jane Seacole (nÈe Grant) by Albert Charles Challen

by Albert Charles Challen, oil on panel, 1869

On 30th June 2016 a statue honouring Mary was unveiled in the garden of St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Over a decade of fundraising in conjunction with a donation of £240,000 courtesy of the government. The statue has not been without controversy: supporters of Nightingale have claimed that she wasn’t a proper nurse and therefore should not be honoured as such. Less savoury complaints have focused on Mary’s identification as ‘Creole’ and stated that since she didn’t call herself black then she should not be held up as a black icon.

It really does not matter what people think of Mary’s statue. Just as she was in life, her likeness stands opposite the Houses of Parliament today, striding onwards.




The Tale of Mary Prince


Bronze plaque on Senate House, Bloomsbury

On the wall of the University of London’s Senate House is fixed a bronze plaque, commemorating a woman who lived in a house on that site in 1829. That woman was Mary Prince, the first black woman to publish an account of a life in slavery.

Mary Prince was born into slavery in Bermuda in the late eighteenth century. Her early childhood was spent with her family, all of them owned by the same family, but Mary’s life changed for the worse when she was sold at the age of twelve. She passed between several owners, treated no better than an animal, before finally ending up with John Adams Wood who took her to Antigua. It was in Antigua that she joined the Moravian Church, where she learned to read. It was also through the church that she met Daniel James, a free man who worked as a carpenter. Mary and Daniel married in December 1826 but this caused her no end of problems with the Woods who had not given permission for the marriage, and weren’t happy either about having a free man around their slaves. Mary was beaten, but this was nothing new to her. They already treated her badly, especially when her rheumatism played up and she was unable to work.

In 1828 the Woods travelled to London bringing Mary with them. They claimed that she came at her own request, and she did hope that the air might alleviate her rheumatism. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Mrs Wood threatened to throw her out. By this time, slavery was no longer recognised as a free woman, but Mary had nowhere to go, was unable to work, and had a husband in Antigua. She was able to take shelter with the Moravia church in Hatton Garden, then went to the Anti-Slavery Society.

The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was founded in 1823. One of its founding members was Thomas Pringle, whose house lay in Bloomsbury in the area where the Senate House now sits. The abolitionists were more than happy to help Mary’s cause, and began a petition to win manumission for her so that she could return to her husband in Antigua without being enslaved again. They also asked the Woods to sell Mary’s freedom but this request was repeatedly refused.


Mary Prince’s book – still in print today

In 1829, Thomas Pringle offered Mary a job in his household and suggested she tell her story. Her ghost writer, Susanna Strickland, transcribed Mary’s words, and the book was then edited by Pringle before publication in 1830. It is thought that much of Mary’s tale was toned down or omitted, specifically passages that related to sexual abuse and the worst of her physical torture. Even in its sanitised state the book was found to be shocking, with some readers disbelieving of the level of violence meted against slaves. Three editions of the book were produced and of course it is still widely available today.

In 1833 Pringle successfully sued a pro-slavery magazine publisher who ran an article calling aspects of the book into question. He won, but when Wood brought a libel case against Pringle the court found in favour of the slave owner. Mary testified at both trials, and this is the last we know of her. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 would have allowed her theoretically to travel back to the West Indies as a free woman once the law came into effect (1834 for her birthplace of Bermuda, 1838 for most of the other colonies). It can be hoped that her story had a happy ending, and that she was finally reunited with her husband in Antigua.