During the coronation celebrations of King Edward VII and his queen, Alexandra, in August 1902, more than 2,000 representatives from the British empire’s colonial forces took part in a procession that lined the streets of London. Among them was a contingent of black soldiers from the recently raised King’s African Rifles, which had been formed to bring together the various imperial regiments in east Africa. So as the crowds cheered the procession as it passed through the capital on that August day, black faces were visible en masse. And as the coronation had been delayed by around six weeks due to Edward falling ill, the soldiers had already become something of a feature in London as they spent their time seeing the landmarks.
But it was not just those who visited from around the world that gave Edwardian Britain a black presence. There was a small but significant population of black Britons, consisting
of people who had travelled to the ‘mother country’ of the empire themselves, along with the descendants of those who had made the journey over the past few centuries: formerly enslaved people looking for a new life, troops who had fought in the wars in America, and wealthy elites who had come to the centre of British imperialism in order to study or work.
In fact, small, multicultural communities had already begun to develop in port cities such as Liverpool, Cardiff and, of course, London (congregating in Canning Town, north of the docks), as they had been the places most strongly connected to the transatlantic slave trade and the commerce around slave-produced goods. And when black seamen had been abandoned by their employers, they had often decided to stay and set up homes, or simply found themselves with no other choice. Indeed, the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders, located in the Limehouse area of east London, had been established in the mid-19th century to house unemployed and destitute sailors.
By the end of the Edwardian era, the black population in Britain was around 10,000. Although this figure is far from absolute, since skin colour is not often mentioned in historical records, it is likely that at least part of this population was among the country’s poor. Poverty in Britain was still rife; according to a study by economic historian Ian Gazeley and economist Andrew Newell, at least 23 per cent of urban working households had incomes insufficient to meet “minimum needs” in 1904.
Yet there were some people who had opportunities to participate in pursuits like entrepreneurship, politics, sport, the arts and the military. Walter Daniel John Tull, for example, made his professional football debut in 1909 for Tottenham Hotspur, making him the first black outfield player in the English top flight. Having joined up in World War I, he made history again by being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1917 and becoming the first black officer to lead white British troops into battle.
Black Edwardians are so much more than historical footnotes
Scientific racism still clung to the view that black people were inferior (as recently as 1899, entertainment venues like Earls Court had offered visitors the chance to have “a peek at the natives”), but there were figures in Edwardian society presenting a very different image. There were respected black members of the Salvation Army, and bandsmen of the West India Regiment were regular, popular performers at Crystal Palace during the summer of 1905.
With the era also seeing the growth of the women’s suffrage campaign, at a time when the British empire was at its peak, it would not have been unusual for imperialist views to be echoed in the movement. Again, the role of women of colour has proved difficult to trace in the historical records, but in 1911 a suffrage march included people of Indian descent, intended to demonstrate the need for British women to have the vote as it would serve to ‘help’ those in the overseas colonies.
One field where it is possible to see a black presence in Edwardian times was medicine. Doctors of African descent were employed in hospital wards and pioneering medical advances, including James Samuel Risien Russell. A physician and neurologist, he became one of Britain’s first black consultants and could be heard speaking on epilepsy at the British Medical Association’s annual conference in 1910. Allan Glaisyer Minns, born in the Bahamas, was a successful doctor who went on to be elected to the town council of Thetford, Norfolk, and, in 1904, was the first black man to become a mayor in Britain. In dentistry, Walter Tull’s brother, Edward Tull-Warnock, became one of the first black qualified dentists in 1912, which, considering that the average person at the time would have rarely seen a qualified dentist at all, was a remarkable feat.
The black people who lived, worked and advanced Edwardian Britain are so much more than historical footnotes. They contributed heavily to the innovations that defined the period, and beyond – adding to the story of Britain in a way that has often gone unacknowledged, yet can no longer be ignored.
During the Edwardian era, the cause of Pan-Africanism – a movement encouraging all those of African descent to unite – was championed by a number of key figures. By then, the African Association (formed in 1897) had become the Pan-African Association, and had held, in 1900, its inaugural conference in London.
A momentous event over three days, it laid foundations for a global movement as eminent activists gathered to discuss the inequalities faced by black people. Members established the association’s objectives as, among other things, securing “civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world”, and working to “ameliorate the condition of the oppressed negro”.
Here are some of the figures who were instrumental in the growth of Pan-Africanism in Britain…
A Trinidadian lawyer, activist and writer who travelled widely to promote solidarity among black people, Williams co-founded the African Association in 1897. In 1903, he became the first black lawyer to practise in Cape Town, South Africa, and, three years later, one of the first two black councillors in Britain
Along with Williams, the South African activist was a co-founder of what would become the Pan-African Association and organiser of its first conference. She was an influential figure in British politics at a time when it was not seen as ‘a woman’s place’, but, as was the fate of many women, her deeds were written out of history and nearly lost altogether.
Earning his medical degree in 1899, the Trinidad-born doctor carried out and published vital research on cancer, tuberculosis, influenza and syphilis, which suggested links with poverty, unbalanced diets and health inequalities. He went on, in the 1920s, to be president of the African Progress Union.
In 1913, Archer became the first black man to be elected mayor of a London borough. In his acceptance speech before taking up the post in Battersea, he said: “I am a man of colour… I am proud to be… My election tonight marks a new era. You have made history tonight.”
Lola Jaye is a historical fiction writer and public speaker. Her latest novel is The Attic Child (Pan Macmillan, 2022), partly set in Edwardian Britain
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed