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

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 II 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. An exhibition on the same theme can be seen in the Local and History department of Leeds Central Library from October 13 – November 13. Danny is also delivering a talk exploring his research at the Central Library on October 22.

Once published, all four parts of this series will be available on our dedicated Black History in Leeds page.

Victorian Period (1837 – 1901)

Marshall’s Temple Mill where Abraham Johnson was employed in the 1860s. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Many of the Black people living in Leeds and Bradford during the Victorian period were working-class people. Charles H.W. Francis was employed as an ostler at the Brunswick Hotel in 1865 and Abraham Johnson worked at Marhsall’s Temple Mill during the same period. Some Black people were employed as servants. This was the case with Eliza Gray who was employed by Rev. C. Lemoine on Moorland Road in 1894 and George ‘Bertie’ Robinson who was employed at Harewood House from 1893 – 1922. Others were self-employed such as William Johnson a flower hawker living in Bradford in 1877. Some Black people were wealthy enough to dress well and have their photograph taken in a studio such as the unidentified Black man photographed by J. Lister in Bradford in the 1890s. Some Black people struggled financially and there is evidence of a Black homeless man begging on the streets of Leeds in 1839. Another Black man, William James, died in the Bradford Poor House in 1843. Some Black men struggling to find work turned to a life of crime such as the notorious criminal William Leng.

Vicar Lane in 1891. On the left is the Brunswick Hotel where Charles H.W. Francis was employed as an ostler in 1865. (c) Thoresby Society, www.leodis.net

The majority of the Black people living in Leeds and Bradford during the Victorian period where men but there are some records of Black women living in the area as well. One notable example is Louisa Wild who lived in Bradford at the beginning of the Victorian period. Black men in Leeds and Bradford often married White women. This was the case with John Williams who lived in Leeds during the 1840s and of William King who lived in Bradford in the 1870s. Interracial marriages in Victorian Leeds and Bradford resulted in the birth of mixed-race children as early as the 1830s. Elizabeth Magnas, a mixed-race woman born in London, was living in Leeds in the 1830s. She married a local man and had three children. Joseph Downie, a Jamaican man living in Hunslet in the 1880s married a local woman in 1890 and had two children with her. There are even some accounts of women from Leeds leaving their husbands for Black men. One Leeds woman, Elizabeth Heaton, travelled to Doncaster in 1897 in an attempt to marry a Black man, Mr. Crockett, but the marriage was unable to take place because Elizabeth was already married. Another Leeds woman called Agnes moved to Hull to marry Adolphus Meheux at the beginning of the 20th Century and they had five children together. One Leeds couple, Edwin and Emma Smith of Roundhay, adopted an Ethiopian boy named Said Enovy in the 1830s. He was raised in York and later lived in Lincoln.

The most remarkable Black residents of the area were perhaps the African Princes who made Leeds and Bradford their home. Richard Umhala was a young South African prince ‘adopted’ by the 90th Regiment of Foot in the late 1840s. He was in Bradford with the Regiment between August and December 1848. Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia was living and studying in Leeds before his untimely death in 1879. Other African royalty also visited Leeds during the Victorian period including Prince Ademuyiwa of Lagos who visited the city in 1894. There is also the case of Charles Alexander Edwards, a West Indian conman who claimed to be an African prince to gain sympathy in a Leeds court in 1888.

Construction of the South Leeds railway junction in 1894. In the background a large crowd of people includes Prince Ademuyiwa of Lagos. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Many Black performers visited Leeds and Bradford during the Victorian period. African-American actor Ira Aldridge performed Shakespeare in Leeds numerous times during the 1850s. The American group The Fisk Jubilee Singers made numerous appearances in Leeds and Bradford as did the British-born circus owner and performer Pablo Fanque. Pablo Fanque’s circus was extremely popular and his funeral procession in Leeds in 1871 attracted large crowds who lined the streets. In 1901 the Black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor conducted ‘The Blind Girl of Castel-Cuille’ at the Leeds Musical Festival. The piece had been especially written for the festival.

Black Victorians sometimes appeared on stages in Leeds and Bradford in a degrading and humiliating context. Between 1834 and 1840 Elizabeth Magnas was displayed at several Leeds fairs as a ‘Hottentot Venus’. Conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, enslaved children from North Carolina on a tour of Britain, were displayed in Bradford in 1856. 

Black minstrel shows were another form pf popular entertainment in Victorian Leeds and Bradford. While these shows did occasionally use Black performers, they usually used an all-White cast in blackface. A few amateur minstrel troupes were formed in Leeds in the late 19th Century. One White performer, George Henry Elliott, began his career in Leeds in the 1890s and remained popular into the 20th Century, performing in brown face paint in Leeds as late as the 1950s.

Stage adoptions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ were also popular in Leeds and Bradford during the Victorian era. Bradford even had a music hall, opened in 1861, named after the novel. Leeds also gave refuge to fugitive slaves from North America such as William and Ellen Craft who lived with the Leeds abolitionist Wilson Armistead in 1851. Another fugitive slave, John William¸ was living in Leeds in 1858.

Black men and women living in Victorian Leeds and Bradford were often the victims of racial abuse and violence. Joseph Simmonete, a mixed-race resident of Leeds, was violently attacked and thrown off a train during a return visit from Liverpool in 1888. There are a number of cases reported in the local newspapers of Black people sticking up for themselves in such scenarios. In 1876 the Leeds Mercury reported how a Black labourer in Leeds had fought two White men who had insulted his wife and called him ‘Blackie’. A letter printed in the Leeds Mercury in 1888 shows how some White people in Leeds were disgusted at the racist behaviour they witnessed. Some White residents showed kindness to their Black neighbours. In 1893 a Black man in Leeds was taken in off the streets and given lodgings at the Little Wanderers Home on New York Street.

Occasionally Black people fought for justice, and received it. When William Brown was accused of theft in Bradford in 1885 witnesses were called to the court to prove his innocence. In 1896, when Sam Wilson was refused entry into a workhouse in Bradford he took the case to court and won. Black people in Leeds also fought for their working rights. In 1896 a Black builder was reported to have been involved in a strike over a building trade dispute.

Despite the racist attitudes of some White people, Black people in Leeds and Bradford were welcomed into their local communities. In the 1880s Alexander Harris was the leader of the Salvation Mission Army in Bramley and when a well-known flower-seller Edward Walton died in 1898 at the age of 26 his death was reported in the local newspaper.

African influences helped shape the local landscape during the Victorian period. Many famous Victorian buildings, including those in Leeds and Bradford, incorporate Nubian and Egyptian inspired pillars. Obelisks and stone African lions are also a common sight, such as the lions that guard the Leeds Town Hall, opened in 1858. Marhsall’s Temple Mill in Holbeck was built between 1836 and 1840 by the Egyptomaniac John Marshall. It was modelled on the Temple of Edfu in Egypt. Leeds also became the resting place for an Egyptian mummy, Nesyamun, in 1823.

The Leeds Town Hall in 1914 where stone African lions lay in front of Nubian-inspired pillars. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

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