Reflections on Croydon’s Black History

By - Tuesday 1st October, 2013

As Black History Month begins, local historian Sean Creighton looks at Croydon’s African and South Asian heritage

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Croydonian who became Britain’s first successful black composer

October is Black History Month (BHM). It is a month dedicated to the celebration of the contribution of people of African and South Asian heritage in Britain – a contribution which has been being made since at least the reign of Henry VII.

Many Black History activists believe BHM has become tokenistic.  South Asians have become alienated from it. Programmes have become dominated by modern day culture with little historical content. This is the case with this year’s Croydon programme.

For those of us involved in work on British Black History it is a continuing twelve month affair. My involvement includes compiling the British Black History EDigest and co-ordinating the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network. November sees the start of twelve months of commemoration of his friend John Archer’s year of Mayorship of Battersea in 1913/14. As his main biographer I have discussed why he is important on my blog.

Back in 1991/92 Liston Lewis, the project worker for the Local Studies/Black Cultural Archives project on Croydon’s black history, wrote: ‘Black people have been living in the borough of Croydon for more than two hundred years, yet they have not been accorded any place in the history of the development of the area.’ His work resulted in an exhibition. The council published a well-regarded leaflet ‘Black Lifetimes’. Since then there does not seem to have been that much further work carried out, and it is certainly not highlighted in this year’s Croydon BMH programme.

The victorian african-american actor Ira Aldridge’s home at 5 Hamlet Rd, Upper Norwood, has had a blue plaque on it since 2007

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor painting, the photograph of Sislin Fay Allen (1967-71) and the touch screen displays that accompany them give visitors to the museum a hint that Croydon has a black heritage. The earliest Lewis was able to find a reference to a black person was 1762. Other researchers have found additional information, and yet more will be found.

There is the injured ‘Negroeman’ in the Workhouse (1762),  Thomas Chance who died in 1773, Charles Samson, a servant (1774), Jean Baptiste from Guadaloupe who joined the army in 1813 (-1841), and  black musicians housed at the Croydon Army Barracks. Church records show christenings and baptisms of Peter Peterro (1774), John Richard (1775), Lucinda Ham (1793), John Cappen (1795); Diana Terrell Readwood (1809).

The victorian african-american actor Ira Aldridge’s home at 5 Hamlet Rd, Upper Norwood, has had a blue plaque on it since 2007. The Mair Mootos from Madras were footman and nurse to the Mure family in 1861. ‘Black Jimmy’ was a stable lad for a timber merchant in the early 1870s. John Springfield from Zanzibar married in Croydon in 1870 and settled in Guildford. Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, who studied and qualified in law in London (1864-8), sent his children to Croydon for their education. He later joined them. In 1888 he stood for the Liberals for Parliament at Barrow-in-Furness. He was also the first President of the Indian National Congress.

Rev. Thomas Johnson,  an african-american, conducted services in the Croydon area in the 1880s and 1890s

Other figures include Charles Edwards of Penge who ‘appeared in Court for child maintenance’ in 1883. The Fisk Jubilee Singers performed at the Crystal Palace and at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in West Croydon (1884); Indian oculists worked here (1890). Rev. Thomas Johnson, an african-american, conducted services in the Croydon area in the 1880s and 1890s. Later he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Pan African Association along with Coleridge-Taylor and Archer. Other stories include that of Joseph Paul an inmate in Croydon Workhouse convicted for assaulting another inmate who had racially abused him.

In 1906 a black girl worked as a house girl at St Jude’s Home for Girls in Selhurst. The Vignale brothers from Trinidad had to be helped by the Croydon Charity Organisation Society in 1910. In 1911 Belle Davies, the afro-american artiste, was at the Croydon Hippodrome.  That year’s census recorded Croydon’s population was 170,000, of which 171 had been born in Africa and 117 in the Caribbean. The latter figures would have included white people. Mrs A. R. Motley, a jamaican, was in the workhouse in July 1914.

In October 1929 an inquest was held into the death of a black baby at her local foster home. Many people in the wider area objected to the ban by the owner of the Locarno Dance Hall on Streatham Hill against black people using the premises. Paul Robeson performed in Croydon in 1930. The 1931 census recorded a population of 233,000: 330 born in Africa, 63 in the Caribbean. An indian airman was welcomed on his return to Croydon in August 1936. The same month an indian wedding was reported. E Brown, a jamaican resided at Purley during the War.

After the US authorities returned his passport in 1958 Paul Robeson had a concert at the Croydon Empire

George Huie, a jamaican artist, exhibited his paintings at the Croydon International Language Club in 1948. Dr Malcolm Joseph-Mitchell, a trinidadian, set up a home for mixed race children in Purley in the late 1940s. Croydon was at the centre of the controversy surrounding the marriage of Seretse Khama and  Ruth Williams, a local Secretary in 1948. The 1951 census recorded n250,000 people in Croydon: 491 born in Africa and 141 in the Caribbean. One of the new arrivals was Joyce Daniels from British Guiana. She was a student nurse at Cane Hill Mental Hospital from 1953-1957, becoming a Senior Ward Sister. After the US authorities returned his passport in 1958 Paul Robeson had a concert at the Croydon Empire.

From then on part of the story of the Black Presence and anti-racism in Croydon can be tracked through the columns of the local papers on such subjects as immigration, racism and anti-racism, community organisation, and anti-apartheid. The 1960s saw hostility to  black tenants and anti-racist activity involving people like Methodist Minister Rev Garth Rogers, David Winnick, MP and Rev Richard Bradberry Vicar of All Saints Church, Norbury.

By 1971 of Croydon’s population of 333,000 people: 2,890 african, 5,910 caribbean. Caribbeans and asians had begun to set up their own organisations to look after their community needs, such as the Croydon Caribbean Credit Union, and the Guyanese Organisation of Cultural Achievement.

Each of these stories can be followed up to build a much more comprehensive understanding of the black and asian presence in Croydon. This should be the focus of work through the year, using 2014’s Black History Month as a showcase for the results.

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.

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  • bieneosa

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for your localised look at Black History Month (BHM).

    My understanding of the month is that it is a celebration which aims to promote and celebrate African and Caribbean contributions to British society. It also an opportunity to foster a better understanding of the history of the aforementioned groups. This tallies with the origins of BHM, which goes back to 1926 when Carter G Woodson established African Caribbean celebrations in America.

    It is only upon further reading of the origins of BHM in the UK that I discovered that Akyaaba Addai Sebbo, who set up BHM in the UK in 1987 under the auspices of the GLA, put together a plan to recognise the contributions of African, Caribbean *and* Asian people.

    It is interesting that today, the perception and output of BHM is focused on African and Caribbean people. Times have changed and moved on since the inception of the month and although each of us has a shared history, we also have our own history. As you know, identity and history are linked. Although we live in an era of multiple identities, people don’t like to be homogenised. It is for this reason that I think the month has evolved. Despite this being the case, we cannot and should not negate the history of South Asian people in the UK. Our collective stories are important for our children and the wider mosaic of British history.

  • Catherine

    Very informative, thank you. I too shared Bieneosa’s misconception. Another piece on this, perhaps with more details about individuals, or about the evolution of multicultural Croydon as a whole would be of great interest. We shouldn’t forget to celebrate all our communities and also celebrate our shared community’s evolution! Looking forward to reading more in the future :)

  • Pingback: Key Croydon Black History Month Events October | History & Social Action News and Events

  • Anthony Miller

    The real problem with “black history” is that there is so little of it because well …many Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Americans heritage is as slaves. I did do a page on Barbados once which has some basic history… on page 2…
    … and its links to the City of London but frankly a lot of the subject matter was too depressing and most of the people it is easy to find facts about are white.
    But it’s not really a history piece it’s a piece with some basic historical facts in.

    On the Asian front there are a lot of links between Addiscombe and the East India Company. The man in the takeway told me