Catching a glimpse of Croydon’s black Georgians

By - Friday 8th January, 2016

Sean Creighton recommends a south London exhibition with connections to Georgian life in Croydon

‘Here lieth the body of Scipio Africanus’: the grave of a ‘negro servant’ who died in Suffolk in 1720.
Image by Michiel Jelijs, used under Creative Commons licence.

The excellent Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton is an easy bus ride way for many Croydonians, and well worth a visit.

As the BCA explains: “[When we imagine] the Georgian period, [it] awakens images from Jane Austen’s parlour to Hogarth’s Gin Lane. But this exhibition takes us on a journey a long way from these quintessential English images, away from the all-too-often prettified costume period dramas to a very different existence of hardship, grime, disease, and violence. This was the reality for many.

The exhibition reveals the everyday lives of black people during the Georgian period (1714-1830 and presents “a rich array of historical evidence and archival materials and a surprising, sometimes shocking, and inspiring picture of Georgian Britain”.

Although Britain had been a home to people of African origin for centuries, the Georgian period marked the beginning of a distinct society that in some ways was similar to our own. Throughout the British Isles black people were working in a variety of roles and settling here in increasing numbers. Some were enslaved and worked in domestic service. Others, having worked as free seamen or soldiers, chose to settle here. A third group were British-born freemen, and an even smaller set, here for education, business or leisure, had private incomes which enabled them to become the first black bourgeois.

Black presence in Britain didn’t just begin after World War II

The Black Georgian narrative not only challenges preconceptions of the black presence in Britain being restricted to post World War II, but speaks to us of a growing population that forged a new identity with creativity, adaptability, and remarkable fortitude. It is a complex picture: while there was much oppression and restriction, there was also a degree of social mobility and integration. The exhibition invites us “to explore, consider and take the opportunity to challenge perspectives on the past and how it shaped the Britain we live in today”.

Bearing in mind that there were thousands of Africans all over Britain. I found an overemphasis on London. But there is some coverage of black Georgians in the villages and small towns of North East Surrey, such as Croydon.

The exhibition is on until 9th April 2016, giving plenty of scope for linked activities such as talks in which other Black Georgians not featured in the exhibition can be discussed. Collectively they tell a story which includes acceptance, mix-race marriage, working lives, and the start of families, many of whom have descendants today who often look white.

So what was going on in Croydon? We know from the 30th January 1762 Croydon Workhouse Vestry minutes that “a Poor Negroeman” was taken there for medical treatment after being found in Coulsdon with severe leg injuries.

On 10th September 1773 Thomas Chance, described as “Mr Rider’s black boy”, died

The parish registers and other documents tell us that on 9th November 1765 Charles, an adult “Negro Servant” of J. Althorp was christened with the sponsorship of Revs. Lamb, Smith and Mrs Smith. On 10th September 1773 Thomas Chance, “Mr Rider’s Black Boy” died. On 3rd May 1774 Peter Petrro, “a Negro” servant to Captain John Stables, was christened, as was John Richard, “a Negro Boy Servant” to James Lodge, on 23rd May 1775. On 17th April 1793 Lucinda Ham, “daughter of Richard and Priscilla” and a “Black Servant” to Peregrine Bordieu, was christened, as was John Cappen, “a Black from the West Indies, about 20 years old” on 24th August 1795. 

During the period of the Napoleonic Wars, Terrell Readwood, a “Black Woman” was baptised on 8th September 1809. Already living and working as a labourer in Croydon, Jean Baptiste from Guadaloupe joined the Royal Wagon Train. On his discharge in 1841, he was said to have been a very good soldier, but “totally unfit for the service in consequence of being deaf and debilitated… (arising) from the effects of the service”. Several black musicians “were housed at the Croydon Army Barracks, but with the exception of the drummer Jackson, they all died within a short period of time”. Musicians played an important role signalling instructions on the battlefield, which made them particular vulnerable to being shot.

A lot of research is needed to ascertain whether any more information can be found out about them and to construct a narrative about their lives. It would be so valuable to deepen our understanding about the Croydon area in the Georgian period.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

More Posts - Website

  • Anne Giles

    Very very interesting.