Tag Archives: Mary Seacole

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.

IgnatiusSancho

You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!

[Nicky]

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Who Lived Where: The London Blue Plaque Scheme

William Ewart's blue plaque at Hampton Public LibraryWith over nine thousand plaques mounted on buildings scattered throughout the capital, the London Blue Plaques scheme is well known. In some streets of central London, almost all the buildings display a plaque, or even more than one. What you may not be aware of is that the interesting scheme celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Here’s a short history:

William Ewart, a Liberal MP, suggested that the government should start this scheme to honour significant London residents in 1863. The idea was rejected due to cost, but three years later in 1866 the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) took the scheme on.

Napoleon III's blue plaque in Kings Street, St JamesThe first two plaques were erected in 1867. The first commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street off Cavendish Square, but was later destroyed with the demolition of the house. The second plaque in Kings Street, St James was erected to the exiled French emperor Napoleon III London residence.  This has survived.

William Ewart is in the select group who are commemorated with more than one plaque. English Heritage, the current custodians of the scheme, now restrict the scheme to a single plaque per person however many addresses that individual had. William Ewart is commemorated in central London but also his former house which is now Hampton Public Library in south west London (see picture above). This is a particularly fitting commemoration as, whilst an MP, William Ewart introduced a bill that became Britain’s first Public Library Act setting up a network of free public libraries..

The London Blue Plaque Guide by Nick RennisonI think it is fair to say that for many years this scheme has favoured establishment figures and there has been a definite bias towards males. Currently only 13% of the total commemorate women. Recognising this, English Heritage is making concerted efforts to get proposals from the public for female candidates.
Westminster is home to plaques for several ‘non-establishment’ figures, including Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole and, unusually, one commemorating an event rather than a person: The Cato Street Conspiracy, which was a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1820.

Mary Seacole's blue plaque in Soho Square, London   Blue plaque for the Cato Street conspiracy, 1820

Biographical details for these and other blue plaque entries can be found on the English Heritage website. You can find out more in one of the many Blue Plaque guides available from your library. However, for a more comprehensive, detailed biography why not use your library membership to consult the Oxford Dictionary of  National Biography online? Nearby, Kensington Central Library also holds a Biographies special collection of approximately 80,000 books, to which annually over 1,000 new titles are added.

[Francis]