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

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 III 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.

Edwardian Period (1901 – 1914)

By the 20th Century both Leeds and Bradford were multicultural cities. Immigrants arrived in the cities from across the world including Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Ireland. Migration worked both ways and between 1905 and 1915 the Tomlinson family sent almost 400 postcards from the Caribbean, where they lived, to their family in Colton.

A number of Black people were living in Hunslet, Leeds during the late Victorian period and the Edwardian period. Jospeh Downie was living in the area before his death in 1897. By 1905 the boxer Billy Benker Johnson and his family were living in Hunslet. The Johnson family lived on Pontefract Road until 1914. In 1912 Billy Johnson was employed as a waiter at the Prince Albert Hotel and his sons attended local schools. Rugby player Lucius Banks was also living in the area in 1912.

The Prince Albert Hotel in Hunslet where Billy Benker Johnson was employed as a waiter in 1912. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

African-American men such as Lucius Banks and comedian Benjamin Iris Mercer made Leeds their home for short periods of time. Lucius Banks returned to America in 1913 and Benjamin Iris Mercer lived in Leeds between 1905 until 1906 when he died of tuberculosis. Mixed-race people, such as George Yorke who lived in Bradford between 1836 and 1910, were born in Yorkshire. George Yorke’s family had lived in Yorkshire since the 1770s.

Leeds and Bradford also saw a number of Black entertainers visiting the cities during the Edwardian period. The Kaffir Boy Choir came to Leeds in 1904 and The Kingston Choral Union of Jamaica performed in Bradford in 1907. Local Black people also became entertainers such as Caroline Coffee from Bradford. She was born around 1887 and by 1913 she was living at 49 South Parade, Manningham Lane in Bradford. She was a member of Will Garland’s ‘Negro Troupe’ called ‘A Journey in Negroland’ that toured Finland, Berlin, Budapest, and Russia in 1913.

Black people in Leeds and Bradford during the Edwardian period were very much members of their local communities. Pastor H. Smith of Leeds was preaching, singing and giving lectures in Wesleyan Chapels across Yorkshire as early as 1913. He was friends with John Archer, the first Black mayor in London. Despite this Black people continued to be victims of racism. Len Johnson, the son of Billy Benker Johnsonwould later recall how he was racial abused as a child at school and how his White mother was physically attacked in the street for being married to a Black man.

Depictions of Black people in Leeds and Bradford during this period were often degrading caricatures. Some lasting examples can still be seen today, including the Park Row frieze and the Atlas House sculptures. It was racist attitudes of the time that allowed Black people to be exhibited in outdoor public displays. One such display, ‘The Somali Village’ was held at the Bradford Exhibition between May and October 1904. Around 100 Somali men, women and children lived in the makeshift village built in Bradford’s Lister Park. One resident of the village, a 32-year-old woman named Halemo Abdi, died in September and a child was born in the village later the same month. The following year, a group of six “pygmies” from central Africa were displayed at the Assembly Rooms on Briggate in Leeds.

World War I (1914 – 1918)

During the First World War, Black men from Leeds and Bradford were among those who joined the armed forces. After returning to America, Lucius Banks served in the United States Army during the war and Billy Benker Johnson joined the navy in 1914 after moving to Manchester. There is also evidence of Black men avoiding service. Such was the case with Norman Harry, a Jamaican living in Leeds with his wife between 1917 and 1919. Another man Harry Spencer was charged with failing to report for military service in 1916. Other Black men, such as Thomas Morris, were employed at the Leeds Steel Works during the war years.  Women also aided in the war effort by working in factories. An unidentified mixed-race woman was photographed working in a munitions factory in Bradford in 1917. Leeds also attracted at least one African student, Kwamina Annan Sey, who studied at Leeds University between 1916 and 1919.  

The Leeds Steel Works in Hunslet where Thomas Morris worked during the First World War. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Although race relations improved during the war years, Black servicemen were less welcome in Britain after the war as is evident by the race riots that took place in other parts of the UK in the summer of 1919.

Interwar Period (1919 – 1939)

Five Africans were recorded as living in Leeds on the 1921 census. Among them were Kwamina Annan Seyand his relative Mr. G. P. Sey who both lived in Hunslet until they returned to Africa in 1923. A labourer, Mr. Hill, was also living in Hunslet during this period. He was married to a White woman and they had one child. Another Black resident of Hunslet was Joe Mitchell, an ex-boxer who was employed as a watchman at the Hunslet Feast in 1924.

Hunslet Feast in 1905. Many of Hunslet’s Black residents would have been familiar with the annual Hunslet Feast.Joe Mitchell was employed as a watchman there in 1924. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Beyond Hunslet, Leeds was also home to Louie Walton and her family. The Walton family had moved to Leeds from Manchester in 1924. They were a family of street entertainers whose act including singing, organ playing and dancing. Clem Foster who had been part of a travelling ‘freak show’ in the early 20th Century was also living in Leeds by 1927. The University of Leeds also had numerous Black students during this period.

While most Black men in this period did manage to find work, there is some evidence of a few turning to crime to make a living. Norman Doushong, who lived in the Camp Road area in the 1930s, was sentenced in 1933 for “living on the immoral earnings” of a White woman named Margaret Smith. By the end of the 1930s Leeds was home to Frederick Harold, a mixed-race man born in Wales and raised in Hull. He was a notorious criminal who had been arrested numerous times in Hull. His crime spree continued in Leeds until the mid-1940s. During one court case in 1941 he stated that racial prejudices in employment and housing opportunities had led him to steal in order to survive and that racist insults had been the catalyst for his numerous assault charges.

Another account of racist insults leading to violence was reported in the Yorkshire Post in 1928. It was reported that James Johnstone of Bradford had got into a fight with the doorkeeper at the Trades Hall in Bradford after he called him ‘Darkie’. The 1920s and 1930s saw an increase in British Fascist groups such as the British Union of Fascists founded in 1932. However, the Battle of Holbeck Moor, when 1,000 fascists led by Oswald Mosley were met by 30,000 anti-fascist demonstrators, in 1936 made it clear that fascism was not welcome in Leeds.

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