Category: Black London

Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

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 … Read More Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

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

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

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 … Read More Una Marson (1905-1965)

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

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 … Read More Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

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, … Read More Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

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, … Read More Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

The Tale of Mary Prince

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 … Read More The Tale of Mary Prince

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess in Victorian England

Few people know that Queen Victoria had a black goddaughter, named Victoria after her patron. The mother of this girl had been under the protection of the queen since arriving in England as a young child. Her name was Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Sarah’s story begins with tragedy. Born into a royal family in West Africa, as a five year old child she was orphaned, her parents … Read More Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess in Victorian England

Thomas Birch Freeman – a black Christian missionary

Usually when we think of the Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century, we think of white men, sometimes with their wives, going out to Africa to save the natives. Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-1890) was different: he was black. Freeman was born in Hampshire in 1809, his father black, thought to be a freed slave, his mother white. In his younger days Freeman worked as … Read More Thomas Birch Freeman – a black Christian missionary

Fanny Eaton – the forgotten Pre-Raphaelite model

You may not have heard of Fanny Eaton but, if you are an admirer of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, you may have seen her without realising. She is the forgotten model, though she was used by many artists of the time and admired by them. Fanny Eaton was born in Jamaica in 1835. Her mother, Matilda Foster, came to London at some point … Read More Fanny Eaton – the forgotten Pre-Raphaelite model

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15 August 1875 in Holborn, son of a Sierra Leonean doctor and an English mother. It is thought that his father had already returned to Sierra Leone before Samuel’s mother, Alice, knew that she was pregnant (the couple were not married) and so he never knew he had a son in London. Alice named her son for the poet, … Read More Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The daughters of Ira Aldridge

Until recently many people hadn’t heard of the actor Ira Aldridge, a black Shakespearean actor. Aldridge was at one point, in the mid-nineteenth century, the highest paid actor in Russia. I came across his story when I started researching my novel, set in 1850s London, and decided to use his experiences as a template for my fictional family,  the Johnsons. After successful runs of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play … Read More The daughters of Ira Aldridge