Five Black Lives in the Black Country

by Simon Briercliffe, BCLM Researcher

Black people have been in Britain for thousands of years, and the Black Country is no exception. This blog features five snapshots of lives that suggest that the Midlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were more globally-connected than often thought. People of African origin play an important role in the history of this region: Black history is Black Country history.

This blog also discusses the challenges historians face researching Black lives in the past. For example, as in wider society in these years, women’s lives are even more hidden: hopefully future research will reveal more and more about these histories. To show historical context for the stories that follow, I have included quotations from original sources featuring offensive terms for people of colour and racial slurs. Language like this emerged when different ‘races’ were invented in the colonial world: by describing people of colour as different, inferior or even sub-human, wealthy Europeans justified the cruelty of slavery and racism to themselves as natural. I have included examples here because such language was common, and helps us to understand how we can locate Black people in the historical record when their lives are otherwise hidden.

1. George Africanus – Eighteenth-Century entrepreneur

Painting of George Molineux and George Africanus
George Africanus features in a portrait believed to be of George Molineux, Nottingham Museums

The 1700s were the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Many of the Black Country’s wealthy families had financial links to enslaved labour in the Caribbean, and local industry (including gun-barrel makers in Darlaston and Wednesbury, and “negro cuff and collar” makers in Wolverhampton) was intimately linked to slavery. Britain’s economy was entangled with empire and slavery, and as a result many people of African origin lived in the country – some free, but many still enslaved.

The first recorded Black person to have lived in the Black Country is probably “John, an Ethyopian boy, page to the Lady Pye,” baptised at St Martin’s in Tipton in 1705, according to Parish Registers at Staffordshire Record Office. Others included three men baptised at St Peter’s, Wolverhampton: “Richard Crosby Africanus an adult negroe,” “John Towels a negro man,” and George John Scipio Africanus.

George Africanus was born in Sierra Leone in the early 1760s. His birth name was lost when he was taken from Africa and ‘gifted’ to the ironmaster Benjamin Molineux, to live at his home as a domestic servant – Molineux House, now Wolverhampton City Archives. Molineux allowed Africanus an education, had him baptised at St Peter’s in 1767, and apprenticed him as a brass-founder – this meant that, following a legal ruling in 1772 (that many interpreted as a prohibition on slave-ownership on British soil), Africanus was able to pursue a career beyond domestic service. He moved to Nottingham around 1784 where he married and founded a servant’s agency which lasted until the 1850s.

2. Henry ‘Box’ Brown – Abolitionist Lecturer

The resurrection of Henry Box Brown in Philadelphia, illustration. By Samuel Rowse, 1850.
The Resurrection of Henry “Box” Brown at Philadelphia, by Samuel Rowse, 1850

The 1772 ruling certainly did not mark the end of slavery, in Britain or across the world. The slave trade was not abolished in Britain until 1807, and slavery itself only in 1833: slave-owners like the Earl of Dudley were compensated for their losses, though emancipated slaves had to work unpaid for five more years to pay for their freedom. The push for abolition came from abolitionist groups across Britain, but also from formerly enslaved people who toured the country lecturing and publishing their histories – these included Olaudah Equiano, who lectured in Birmingham, and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, born in Bornu (now in Nigeria) and living in Kidderminster. Chattel slavery persisted elsewhere in the world though, and formerly-enslaved American lecturers visited the Black Country throughout the nineteenth century to campaign for its end. These included Moses Roper, Bermuda-born Benjamin Benson, and Henry “Box” Brown.

Brown was born into enslavement in North Carolina around 1815, and became famous after he escaped by mailing himself in a wooden box to abolitionists in Philadelphia. He fled to England in 1850 (after the US Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, meaning he could be recaptured even in the ‘free’ Northern states). He embarked on a successful publishing and performing career, running shows featuring a large panorama about slavery in association with local ministers, which he narrated with stories of his own before concluding with a song. This was a successful way of making a living, as well as spreading awareness – he earned £50-£70 per week in the 1850s.

When he visited Wolverhampton, however, Brown was met with hostility by the Wolverhampton Herald, who called him a “bejewelled and oily negro” and “semi-baboonish,” and heavily criticised the show, hoping that the public would not be conned into believing him. Brown was forced to leave the Black Country because of the impact on ticket sales, but successfully sued the Herald for libel – probably the first Black person to bring such a case in Britain. He continued to tour successfully for many years around Britain.

3. George Cosens – Britain’s first black pastor

Historic photo of Reverend George Cosens, 1876
Rev. Geo. Cosens, c.1876

George Cosens was born in Jamaica in 1805. His father was a slave-owner, his mother an enslaved Black woman. His father brought him up himself and sent him to London for an education, an extremely rare privilege for someone born in these circumstances. Cosens converted to Christianity while in London and joined the Primitive Methodists, a fire and brimstone denomination popular with the poor and working classes, then switched to the Baptists. After working at Baptist churches in Aylesbury and Stourbridge, Cosens became minister at the New Connexion Church in Cradley Heath in 1837 – the first Black pastor in Britain.

Cosens was hugely popular. The whole town turned out to see him arrive, and to hear him preach: he was described as “a mulatto of strong emotions, of great eloquence and a man of generous disposition.” (“Mulatto” is a dated term for someone of mixed heritage). He was not just known as a religious campaigner, but as a social and political activist too. He was so successful that he was invited to a larger church in Brierley Hill, where his successes included the conversion and baptism of none other than the local Methodist minister and his wife, a major triumph in a time of great competition between churches! He moved to other pastorates around the country, back to Messiah Baptist Church, Netherton, in 1864, then finally to Fourways Baptist Church, Cradley Heath, where he healed a split in the church and again swelled the numbers.

George Cosens was, by any measure, a successful and popular minister. He sometimes found himself defined as a novelty by the colour of his skin – some church members in Cradley Heath were believed to have left because of this – but he clearly loved the Black Country. He ministered and preached across the region, and only retired reluctantly when the church faced financial problems in 1879.

4. Peter Dawson – the musician

an excerpt from the Staffordshire Advertiser, 11 Jan 1862.
Excerpt from Staffordshire Advertiser, 11 January 1862

For many people – especially in working-class and marginalised communities – historical references are fleeting, if they exist at all. Often, the only record of someone’s skin colour is if they are involved in a story reported by a newspaper. As only a small proportion of Black Country people ever featured in a newspaper, it is safe to assume that there were probably many more Black people in the Victorian Black Country than we might think.

Peter Dawson is one such individual. In January 1862, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported an assault on Dawson in the Raven & Bell pub, Canal Street, Wolverhampton, by a boatwoman named Ann Fairclough. She had taken offence to something Dawson had said, and “struck him a violent blow on the head with a jug, causing a very severe injury” – he had to be taken to hospital for the wound to be dressed. The newspaper referred to him by his local nickname, “Peter the Black,” and titled the report “A Blackamoor Assaulted By A Woman.”

Dawson was an itinerant drummer and dancer living in Wolverhampton. Using this information, it’s possible to find him in the 1861 census, where we learn that he was born 1819 in America, and married Caroline Instone in 1860. They lived in Wolverhampton until Peter’s death in the Workhouse in 1873. Using online genealogy tools and newspapers, it’s possible to find out even more. Dawson was arrested for vagrancy near Stoke-on-Trent in 1846; was falsely accused of theft in Worcester in 1851; and fined for petty offences while living in Kidderminster in the 1850s.

Newspapers used terms common to the time to describe Dawson, like “man of colour” or “a black.” Some used intentionally offensive language, however. The Worcester Journal described him as “A ‘Darkie’ in trouble” who was “well known in this town for his eccentricities [such as] singing the air of a n—— song, and dancing the ‘refrain’ in clogs of monstrous proportions.” Dawson was accused of theft from a lodging-house, seemingly based on his skin colour as there was no supporting evidence.

The lives of working-class Black people in the Black Country can be difficult to recreate: evidence of working-class lives in general is often fragmented, and the details of what made Black lives distinctive is further obscured by the way records were created and news reported. Black people faced particular hardship because of their skin colour; as Peter Dawson’s life shows he was accused, accosted and ridiculed. He certainly faced direct racism, but the way he was described in the press also suggests that the media and judicial world of the nineteenth century made England a difficult place for a person of colour to make a living.

5. Henry Ross – the edge-tool maker

Brothers Henry and Joseph Ross also lived in mid-nineteenth century Wolverhampton, and faced the same kind of prejudiced reporting. Henry Ross was – like many of our working-class ancestors – not a model citizen, but his many appearances in front of the magistrates again give us some idea of how Black people in the Black Country were treated.

Henry and Joseph were two of five children born in Birmingham to James and Maria Ross. Joseph married Mary Ann Ecclestone in Wolverhampton in 1845. He was described in the Wolverhampton Chronicle as a “Creole” – another archaic term for mixed heritage – when he was charged with poisoning his neighbour’s pigeons.

Henry Ross, an edge-tool maker at Monmore Green Ironworks, married Elizabeth Penrice in 1856, at St George’s, Wolverhampton. Their marriage was not a happy one. He was repeatedly charged with neglecting the family, leaving them to claim relief at the workhouse. While Henry claimed to have been seeking work, Elizabeth claimed he was “co-habiting with another woman.” Elizabeth was correct: birth registrations show that Henry had at least four further children with a “watercress woman” named Sarah Platt. By 1871, Henry and Sarah were living together as husband and wife (although there’s no indication that they ever married). Elizabeth eventually married again.

Henry was described as a “man of colour,” a “coloured man,” “apparently a Malay” and even “Harry the Black,” terms for what would now be called mixed heritage or biracial. The Rosses certainly weren’t the only Black people to appear in the court records of the nineteenth-century Black Country, and this is a useful way to find out more about the region’s diversity in that era.

The prejudices of the past mean that the lives of Black people have often been hidden in the historical record. As these examples have shown, however, Black people have been part of Black Country history for hundreds of years.

Find out more