Finding Black Histories In Southwark

By Stephen Bourne | 21 March 2006
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photo shows woman in edwardian gown

Belle Davis Courtesy of Rainer E Lotz

The historian Stephen Bourne talks about the experience of looking for Black histories in Southwark and some of the figures in his new book Speak of me as I am

If I have learned anything as a historian of Black Britain, it is not to be surprised to uncover new sources of information about the presence of people of African descent in our country. And yet, while researching my latest book Speak of Me As I Am – The Black Presence in Southwark Since 1600, I was surprised to discover - in W. H. Blanch’s Ye Parish of Camerwell, published in 1875 - a reference to the baptism at St. Giles’s Church in 1607 of “John Primero, a negro.” Primero was the servant of Sir Thomas Hunt, and he was baptized in Camberwell, my place of birth some 350 years later in the London Borough of Southwark.

As a child in the 1960s, the Camberwell in which I was raised was very different to the one John Primero would have known. It had become a racially-mixed community, and included a new generation of children from African and Caribbean backgrounds. Their parents had come to Britain as part of the large-scale post-Second World War migration of Commonwealth citizens. When I was a youngster, what British children of all cultural backgrounds were not made aware of – in schools, in history books, by the media, or by popular film and television – was that there had been a Black presence in Britain since at the least the mid-sixteenth century. Black historical figures from the past had been made invisible, and there was a wall of silence around Britain’s Black history. Regrettably, this is still the case.

photo shows black singers in victorian dress

Fisk Jubilee Singers. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne

However, I was lucky. I had an aunt who had been born Black and British long before the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948 with the first wave of post-war Caribbean settlers. Unlike my contemporaries, my relationship to Aunt Esther, a Black Londoner born before the First World War, gave me, from an early age, an awareness of the pre-1948 Black presence in Britain.

photo shows cover of the book speak of me as i am

Speak of me as I am cover

Where to look for Black Histories in Southwark

At school I was disappointed to find that, apart from the slave trade, there was no mention of Black people in our school history books. As a youngster I realised that my quest for knowledge would have to come from first-hand accounts, so I began to interview Aunt Esther and other older members of the Black community about their lives. I discovered that their stories were more interesting and relevant than the history I was being taught in school, and oral history testimony became an important feature of all my Black history books, including Aunt Esther’s Story (1996), Black in the British Frame (1998) and A Ship and a Prayer (1999).

I have also found useful information in local archives, such as the Lambeth Archives and Southwark’s Local History Library. Local newspapers, such as the South London Press also proved to be an invaluable source of information about the Black community. Other important sources are the newsletters and conferences of the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA).

However, my work would not have been possible without the existence of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), which are housed in Brixton in south London. The BCA records the history of London's Black community and, since the 1980s, the Archives have put together one of the largest collections of historical artifacts and items relating to the Black presence in Britain. BCA have ambitious plans for a Black Heritage Centre that should make their holdings more accessible to all..

photo shows man in university gown

Dr Harold Moody. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne

Black British Historical Figures in Southwark

My interest in Black British history has taken me on an educational journey I would not have missed for anything. I have learned about a 'secret' history not found in conventional history books, or school texts, and it has sometimes been difficult to find information.

I hope that my new book Speak of Me As I Am will help broaden the range of books about Black British history and raise the profile of Black British historical figures who have been connected to the London Borough of Southwark. Some well-known Black historical figures are featured in the book, such as the Crimean nurse Mary Seacole, and the singer and activist Paul Robeson, but a number of books have already been published about their lives. So I have also made a point to include figures whose lives have not been well-documented, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, music hall star Belle Davis and community leaders Dr. Harold Moody and Sam King (Southwark’s first Black Mayor). They are included in the book alongside contemporary figures such as the Oscar-nominated actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste and football star Rio Ferdinand.

I hope readers will discover that the story of Black Britain is much bigger – and richer – than we have been led to believe. The history of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities does not begin with the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948. Neither does it begin with Mary Seacole.

You can get a copy of Stephen Bourne’s new book Speak of Me As I Am by calling Southwark Local History Library (020 7403 3507).

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