Spitalfields Black History

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by S. I. Martin, author, historian, journalist and teacher, specialising in Black British history and literature.

In this piece, S. I. Martin, author, historian and teacher, takes us through the Black history of Spitalfields.

Nestling beside the wealth of the City, Spitalfields has always acted as a doorway to some of the poorer parts of London. For centuries it has been a place of arrival and settlement for new communities. Its ever-changing populations have given rise to new cultures, cuisines and traditions. Its proximity to riverside parishes and the Tower of London link it to the country’s royal and maritime histories.

No area of London has a richer history of receiving new settlers. Spitalfields has been absorbing religious refugees and visible minorities for the last four hundred years. Huguenots, Jews and Bengalis have successively made homes here.

A less recognised aspect of these histories is the presence of settlers an arrivals of African origin. Although the reasons behind their presence may differ, their contributions to local arts, music, culture and politics are equally fascinating. The Black history of Spitalfields and the surrounding areas takes us from the beginnings of the African presence in Britain and serves as a map of pre-Windrush Black history.

Popular histories of Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade start in 1562 with John Hawkins voyage to what is now Sierra Leone. Very soon after this event we find increasing numbers of Black people arriving in London.  East London, and Tower Hill  in particular, is remarkable for the high proportion of Black men and women accounted for in parish records from the Tudor and Stuart periods. The parish of St Botolph Aldgate records several interesting lives from this time, not all of them enslaved. Christopher Cappevert was buried in October 1586. He was a metal worker at the bell foundry in Whitechapel High Street. In June 1597 a 20 year old ‘blackmore’ woman by the name of Mary Phillis was baptised there as part of what appears to have been her conversion to Christianity from Islam. In April 1618 Anne Vause. the ‘Black-more’ wife of Anthony Vause a black trumpeter at the Tower of London was buried. Other Black lives are less detailed. A burial in June 1588 at St Olave Hart Street was simply that of ‘a man blackamore laye in the streete’.

Despite the enslaved status of many of the Black people found in this period we can see that there were unions and even marriages between racial groups. The ‘blackemore’ Paul Peache married Rosamond Key at St Katharine Cree in September 1672. Intermarriage had been occurring in Britain since the early 1500s. In September 1586 Elizabeth, ‘a negro child, born white, the mother a negro’, was baptised at St Botolph Bishopsgate. Elizabeth was almost certainly of mixed-heritage as similar 16th century descriptions of mixed new-born children have been found.

The rise of Britain as a maritime power brought an increase in the numbers of Black sailors arriving in port cities. In London the East End with its profusion of docks was an obvious place to put down roots. Black mariners and their families settled from Tower Hill to Limehouse and Poplar. Sailors,  and increasingly, soldiers were a significant part of  the Black community in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Many were veterans of the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. Stephen Blunham (also known as Stepney Blunham) a Barbados-born Black man described as A Negro of Red Lion Street was baptised at Christ Church, Spitalfields,  5th December 1800. He enlisted in the 3rd Foot Guards (Scots Guards) on 25th December 1802.

Most of these ex-servicemen were living in extreme poverty. By 1786 their presence on the streets of London was objected to and a scheme to ‘resettle’ them in Sierra Leone was drawn up. Many of the Black Poor were in receipt of a daily 6d stipend at The White Raven pub in Whitechapel (there was a corresponding West London pub providing the same service, The Yorkshire Stingo in Lisson Grove). As a condition of their continued receipt of this money they were obliged to agree to be removed from Britain to the colony of Sierra Leone. 350 men, women and children were shipped from England the following year. Four years later only 60 of them were still alive.

One consequence of the Black presence during the time of enslavement was the phenomenon of Black literature in English. All of these early writers had experienced slavery in some form. These publications were extraordinary as they were giving Black testimony to the horrors of slavery in a time when Black literacy was discouraged by severe corporal punishment in some plantation societies. The earliest account of a Black life was that of  the former soldier Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw. He lived in Spitalfields with his English wife Betty in Spitalfields. They were obliged to leave the capital as Betty was unable to find work as a weaver in London due to her refusal to participate in the Spitalfields Riots of 1769. In 1772 his autobiography A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince was published.

The first book of poetry in English by a Black woman was published in Aldgate. The author, Phillis Wheatley, had been kidnapped from what is now Gambia as a seven year-old. She was sold to John Wheatley, a Massachusetts lawyer, who, sensing her keen mind, encouraged her to read. Phillis was soon producing poetry and during a family trip to London it was arranged to have her verse published. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared  in 1773. Shortly after, Phillis was given her freedom.

The Jamaican writer, revolutionary and publisher, Robert Wedderburn, took his first steps in London life by working as a tailor in Shoreditch.

The Black virtuoso violinist and erstwhile friend of Beethoven George Bridgetower (the Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated to him as Sonata per un mulattico lunatico ) had a Spitalfields connection through the Musical Directory for 1794 where he is mentioned as taking part in a concert given by the Prince of Wales in aid of the distressed Spitalfields weavers. Bridgetower died in Peckham in 1860.

As Shoreditch and Hoxton developed as centres of entertainment, Black entertainers of all kinds gained greater visibility. The internationally famous boxer Peter Jackson fought bouts at Hoxton Hall. The lion tamers Sargano Alicamousa and Alexander Munroe were fixtures in Bishopsgate theatres. More cerebral entertainment was on offer in October 1857 at the City of London Theatre, Bishopsgate where the celebrated African-American actor Ira Aldridge was engaged ‘for a limited period’ to perform a daily succession of plays which included Shakespeare’s Othello and Bickerstaff’s The Padlock. Aldridge was most famous throughout Europe for his portrayals of Shakespearean lead characters. Apart from the role of Othello, he was obliged to ‘whiten’ his face for these parts. His daughter, Amanda Aldridge would graduate from the Royal College of Music. She became a composer of parlour music and light classical pieces published under the name Montague Ring.

London’s East End was home to a long-standing and mostly forgotten Black community. With the exception of a handful of 20th century performing artists (Kenny Lynch and Linda Lewis) they have left little trace. Nonetheless, what we are retrieving from the archives attests to the extraordinary variety and impact of their presence.

– S. I. Martin