One of the most fun elements of my research to date has been trawling the British Newspaper Archive for references to my study area – mostly because you just never know what you might find. There’s likely to be plenty of property sales, perhaps reference to the grand annual event which was the municipal licensing day, occasionally some wild complaint about the horrific state of certain streets. But mostly what comes up are crimes – small or big, they all make the local papers and like modern crimes, addresses of plaintiffs and defendants are made common knowledge.
Wolverhampton did see a number a murders – there were several in the Canal Street area in the 1850s – but most common are small-scale burglaries, assaults in the street and so on. Very often in this district the assailant is described as an Irishman or similar (sometimes “a son of Erin”) – an early form of the trope in modern news reporting where suspects who are, say, Muslim or black will be picked out as such whereas those who are white are not.
Newspapers tended to get their information from the same sources, and you’ll find a lot of overlap when stories are told by different people. Sometimes though, stories get somewhat mixed up as the two reports of the same incident below show, both appearing on 21st September, 1861. These also show how interpretation can differ quite substantially.
The Staffordshire Advertiser‘s take is very serious. A “man of colour” giving the name Sambo appears to have entered a house on Canal Street “burglariously” and stolen some clothing. On being apprehended at the local lock-up (possibly the branch police station opened in the 1850s around the corner on Little Berry Street, the town police force considering that they required a permanent presence in this area), he attempted to escape but was spotted and moved to a more secure position. Apart from the relative unusualness of a black man in Wolverhampton at the time, this is a very matter of fact telling of the story.
Aris’s Birmingham Gazette takes a somewhat different approach. It even involves a different protagonist, as Mrs Hannah Hassell has here morphed into Mrs Lewis. I’m more inclined to believe Aris actually, as there were two Lewis’s in Canal Street in the census just five months previously and no Hassells. We have more detail here too – our burglar broke in by removing part of a back window after the Lewis’s had gone to bed, and stole some women’s clothing. In trying to get away, Sambo assaulted a policeman but was taken in wearing the stolen items – a pair of drawers and a chemise (at this point, this could be either an undergarment or a more functional outer smock). I should think it’s more likely that these were worn to conceal them and speed up his getaway, but the implication here is certainly more titillating. The idea that the facts should never get in the way of a good story seems to have lengthy roots – a cross-dressing black man was certainly more colourful journalism than a well-organised small-time burglar!
The soubriquet ‘man of colour’ sounds remarkably modern, but seems to have been a common description for the Victorian era. I’m no race historian (I’m still learning even on the Irish front) but it doesn’t seem to have implied anything pejorative in itself – most of the uses I find with a quick Google are a purely physical description. In 1871, a man of colour who had been living rough was admitted to Heath Town workhouse (check out Jeffrey Green’s article on minorities in crime reports). In 1863, ‘man of colour’ was recorded under Complexion for Thomas Jenkins, tried in Bedford for being part of gang who had beat a solicitor to death in the street. He was a ship’s cook from Louisville, Alabama – a point should certainly be made here about the differences in racial perceptions throughout the century between Britain and the USA (source – beware, it’s the Daily Mail).
But on the other hand, it was equally applied to William Darby of Norwich, an extremely successful circus proprietor better known as Pablo Fanque, who performed in and ran circuses from 1821 to his death in 1871. He was an “artiste of colour” and a highly successful performer and entrepreneur. His colour was no barrier to his success in this profession. John M Turner’s chapter is the place to go for Fanque.
There are so few references to people with a non-white skin colour in my searches that it’s impossible to suggest an overall opinion from the press. Here’s one that balances the story though – no trace of the comical here. It’s interesting that Peter Dawson is a well-known figure, and it clearly took no great imagination to nickname him Peter the Black. He was a drummer, perhaps something of a street entertainer around the pubs of Wolverhampton. On this occasion, in the Raven & Bell (close to the canal bridge – this bridge was replaced in 1871 by the way, with one taken down 100 years later and removed to the Black Country Living Museum), a boatwoman by the name of Ann Fairclough assaulted Dawson by smashing a jug on his head. It sounds like something straight out of a cheap western, but if Fairclough’s testimony was to be believed, Dawson insulted her and made some sort of accusation – “a most opprobrious epithet” and a “particularly offensive” charge.
This is not an unusual event in this part of town. Fights over perceived slights were commonplace – this is only unusual because we have a rare mention of skin colour. Replace Dawson with an Irishman, and this sort of thing is reported almost weekly. It seems Dawson was part and parcel of the social life of Eastern Wolverhampton, from entertainment to arguments. The distinction here is signposted by “blackamoor”, as with “negro” for Sambo, or “Irishman” for one of the area’s hundreds of Irish immigrants.
That’s not to say that people of colour weren’t considered unusual. In the early 1860s, from which all these examples come, black men took their place as spectacle as well. At the grand fete organised by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in summer 1862, The Brothers Ray, “the two funny blacks, in their unrivalled impersonations of Negro Life and Character” featured just below the Wolverhampton Junction Works Reed Band (with dancing) and Harry Baker, the “celebrated Irish comic singer”. This came up in my search because tickets could be bought at the Dog & Partridge, Canal Street; it actually took place at Molineux’s Grounds, now well-known to Wolves fans as the Molineux stadium (and well-known to West Brom fans as the Custard Bowl).
Who these “two funny blacks” were, I can’t say. It’s even possible that they were blacked-up impersonators, but even presuming they were not they were there as comic spectacle and light entertainment – likely playing to the audience’s expectations of “Negro Life and Character.” This is in contrast to others who had gone before – just 16 years previously, Ira Aldridge, certainly the most famous black actor of Victorian England, appeared at the theatre in High Green road, and in 1852, Henry Box Brown brought his lecture to town. Brown was an escaped slave who toured Britain decrying slavery – illegal in Britain, but very much alive in America. His story is recorded because he sued the Wolverhampton Herald (successfully) for £100 for a bad review which spoiled his takings (more info here). Indeed, one of the most famous black men known to Georgian historians was lived and worked in Wolverhampton: George John Scipio Africanus. He was brought to England (probably from modern-day Sierra Leone) in 1766, a slave to Benjamin Molineux – how things change in 100 years.
Racism and public opinion of black people in Victorian England is clearly a huge subject. What is certain is that even provincial, industrial towns like Wolverhampton weren’t as mono-chromatic is we might imagine – there has been a black presence in the town for at least 250 years (the anniversary of Africanus’ arrival is this year, in fact). Alongside the Jewish shopkeepers, the Irish hawkers, labourers and publicans, the Welsh and Scottish visitors and many more besides, individuals like Peter Dawson and ‘Sambo’ took their place in the rough-and-tumble of life in the neighbourhood of Carribee Island. Who can say what hindrances or advantages their colour brought them; but it certainly didn’t stop them being found in the criminal reports alongside their many fellow migrants.