Before Windrush: Black People in Leeds and Bradford, 1708 – 1948, Part I

This week on the Secret Library we hear from researcher Danny Friar, who explores the rich history of people of African heritage making Leeds and Bradford their home over a 300 year period. This is Part I of a four part series during Black History Month: the result of new research, these articles will shed new light on a long forgotten local history.

All four parts of this series are now available on our dedicated Black History in Leeds page.

Stuart Period (1603 – 1714)

The presence of people of African heritage living in Yorkshire can be traced back almost 2,000 years to the Roman period. During the Roman occupation of Britain, Black citizens of the Roman Empire made Eboracum (York) their home. In the early 3rd Century York’s African-born residents included the Emperor Septimius Severus. Black people were also living in York during the Stuart period. John Moore was granted the freedom of the city in 1687.

In the 18th Century, Leeds was a small merchant town with a population of around 10,000. The first know Black person living in Leeds was an unidentified servant working in the house of the West Indies merchant Samuel Kirkshaw in the early 18th Century. He was baptised at the Leeds Parish Church on 1 February 1708. 

An engraving from 1715 showing a view of Old Leeds including St. Peter’s Church (now Leeds Minster) where Samuel Kirkshaw’s Black servant was baptised in 1708. (c) Leeds Libraries,

Georgian Period (1714 – 1837)

During the Georgian Period Black people arrived in Leeds in a number of ways. Some, like Thomas Mawson and Toby Gill,were drummers in the army and were in Leeds for a period in 1749. Others, like Betsy Sawyer, had previously been enslaved in the Caribbean. She lived in Yeadon from 1823 until her death in 1839. There were also British-born Black people such as Sophia Pierce who was born in London and worked at the Greenholme Mill in Burley in Wharedale in 1797. There is evidence to suggest that Black people living in West Yorkshire during this period became members of their local communities. Bestsy Sawyer was a member of her local Methodist church and Thomas Grenada was baptised at St. Peter’s Church, Birstall in 1769. While some, like Sophia Pierce, found work in local mills, others were self-employed like the unidentified Black nut-seller living in Bradford in 1820.

Like many industrial towns in Britain, Leeds and Bradford both had links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Many Yorkshire woollen firms manufactured goods specifically intended to be traded for enslaved Africans. Harewood House near Leeds was built between 1759 and 1771 with the fortune the Lascelles family made from slavery in the Caribbean. People in Leeds and Bradford were also involved in the abolitionist movement. African writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano spoke in Leeds as early as 1791. During the Victorian period, other Black abolitionist also gave lectures in Leeds and Bradford including Moses Roper, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, William Craft, and Frederick Douglass. The Leeds Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1824 and similar groups were founded in Leeds and Bradford in later years. The emancipation of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean was celebrated throughout Leeds and Bradford in 1834.In 1848 the White Leeds abolitionist Wilson Armistead published the book ‘A Tribute for the Negro’.

An 18th Century engraving in colour showing Harewood House built in 1759 – 1771 with profits made from slavery. (c) Leeds Libraries,

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