Black Londoners In The Dictionary Of National Biography

By Stephen Bourne | 18 May 2006
photo shows woman in white dress

contralto Evelyn Dove. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne

Ira Aldridge, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Marcus Garvey, Bernie Grant, Claudia Jones, Una Marson, Val McCalla, Prince Monolulu, Dr. Harold Moody, David Pitt, Paul Robeson and Mary Seacole are just a dozen of the many Black (African Caribbean and African American) Londoners (and historical figures) who can now be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. You can explore the dictionary online for free in any London library.

Several years ago the volumes underwent their first major revamp since Victorian times. For decades the Dictionary has featured the biographies of deceased men and women who have helped shape British history from the earliest times.

The Dictionary has been periodically updated since it was first published at the end of the 19th century, but the 60-volume edition, published in 2003, and which is regularly updated on-line, contains the most extensive coverage yet of contributions by people of African descent, as well as those from former British colonies and the Commonwealth.

Previously only 17 Black people were listed among the 36,000 entries, compared to several hundred among the 50,000 entries in the new edition. It is the largest co-operative research project ever undertaken in the humanities and involves 10,000 specialists.

photo shows men dressed as cricketers

Norman Beaton in Playing Away 1986. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

The Dictionary had been rightly criticised for overlooking and excluding Black historical figures, but the Oxford University Press editorial team were serious about addressing this oversight in the new edition. I was approached by the OUP because of my membership to the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA). The Association assisted the OUP in locating historians of Black Britain who could write entries on Black historical figures who had been overlooked in previous editions, or who qualified for inclusion in the Dictionary. Several BASA members, such as Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, have made important contributions to the Dictionary.

When OUP made contact with me, I impressed on the editorial team that I would only undertake the work if the entries for Black subjects were properly promoted and publicised, especially in the Black media. My feeling was that (white) academics and historians would have ample opportunities to learn about the existence of the Dictionary, but the wider public would not.

OUP have not given this as much attention as I would have liked, but at least they have made it possible for a wonderful resource of Black British historical figures to come into existence, and this is expanding year after year.

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Edric Connor. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

For my part, I had little resistance to my suggestions and these included a diverse range of Black historical figures with London connections, including the following: singer and composer Amanda Ira Aldridge (1866-1956), the daughter of Ira Aldridge, the celebrated Black Shakespearean actor of the Victorian era; pianist and entertainer Winifred Atwell (1913-83); actor Norman Beaton (1934-94), the popular star of Channel 4’s Peckham-based sit-com Desmond’s who lived for many years in Brixton; choreographer Buddy Bradley (1908-72) who, for many years, ran a famous dancing school in the West End; Trinidadian actor, folk singer and filmmaker Edric Connor (1913-68) whose North London home became an important base for many African and Caribbean performing artistes in the post-war years; contralto Evelyn Dove (1902-87) whose greatest professional success was her work on BBC radio during the war; jazz innovator Reginald Foresythe (1907-58); singer Adelaide Hall (1901-93); Nigerian actor Orlando Martins (1899-1985); and the American opera singer Muriel Smith (1923-85) who made London her home after the war and performed the title role in Bizet’s Carmen at Covent Garden in 1956.

I am currently working on two more entries for the on-line edition: South African filmmaker Lionel Ngakane (1928-2003), whose award-winning short Jemima and Johnny (1966) was filmed on the streets of Notting Hill, and singer Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003), who lived in Knightsbridge and starred on the London stage from the 1930s to the 1990s.

photo shows black child in victorian pinafore dress

Photo shows Esther Bruce as a child. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

The OUP were so open to suggestions that they readily agreed to include my aunt, Esther Bruce (1912-94), who wasn’t famous, just an ordinary working-class seamstress. It was through my aunt that I learned about Black British history, which I couldn’t find mentioned in books when I was a child.

Born in Fulham, Aunt Esther befriended two famous Black Londoners in the late 1930s: Marcus Garvey and Elisabeth Welch, and in 1991 – with the help of Hammersmith and Fulham’s Ethnic Communities Oral History Project – we published her life story: Aunt Esther’s Story.

Aunt Esther’s Story gave my aunt a sense of achievement and pride towards the end of her life. She died in 1994 at the age of 81 and, since that time, I have continued to pursue a career as a historian of Black Britain. In the Dictionary of National Biography Aunt Esther has taken her place among the 50,000 entries that include such figures as Winston Churchill, Elizabeth I, Paul Robeson and Oscar Wilde. She would have been delighted.

You can read the new entries at the Dictionary of National Biography online. Although there is usually a charge for use, you can explore the online version of the dictionary for FREE in any London library.

Stephen Bourne's book on Black Londoners from history in Southwark
Speak of Me As I Am is available from Southwark Local Studies Library

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