Tag Archives: Westminster Council

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.


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!



“It’s a lovely job – I’ve been so lucky”

Jennifer, library assistant at Maida Vale LibraryMeet Westminster Council’s longest serving staff member:
Jennifer is a Library Assistant at Maida Vale Library and has worked for the council for 46 years.

Having grown up in Weston-super-Mare, Jennifer was working in Bristol Libraries until a friend got a job with Westminster City Council in 1970. Inspired to write “on the off chance” that there might be library work available, she was offered an interview in Marylebone and then a job, returning to Bristol to work out her notice. That done, she moved to London and started work at Mayfair Library the very next day.

While the change from Bristol to London took some getting used to, Jennifer found being in the centre of the capital with all its opportunities really exciting and has never looked back. She soon moved from Mayfair Library to Maida Vale Library and there she has stayed.

Maida Vale Library“Maida Vale Library is so full of character, it used to be a Methodist Church and has appeared on television in Minder, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and lots more”.

Of course, working life was quite different 46 years ago. One of the main changes that Jennifer has noticed is a more egalitarian environment:

“I remember how formal it was. There was no calling anyone by their first name,  we were all Miss, Mrs or Mr and then our surname”.

And libraries themselves have changed and grown.

“The job has changed significantly from when I first started. Back then it was just books. Now we are a one-stop shop, social centre, we offer pension advice, English classes, toddler groups and we are the only council department where anyone can come and see us.”

Books by Ruth Rendell in Westminster LibrariesOf course there are still books too, and Ruth Rendell, who visited Jennifer’s former workplace of Mayfair in 2013 and lived locally until her death in 2015, is a particular favourite.

“She describes her characters so well and the places she sets her books are ones I know.”

When talking to Jennifer her enthusiasm for her work and workplace is palpable. It’s great to know that the library service can inspire such dedication that we have the longest serving employee in the whole of the council.

“Do I enjoy it? Well I would have to, to stay this long! I love the work, the people, and the environment. I love seeing my regulars and having a chat whilst building relationships within the community.”

Thanks Jennifer.


Explore Your Archive

Explore your archive badges

The now annual UK and Ireland Explore Your Archive week, co-ordinated by the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association, falls this year on 14-22 November. In  2015, Explore Your Archive takes democracy as its theme, chiming in with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and Parliament in the Making 2015.

Explore your archive: democracy

Westminster City Archives is rich in records of representative politics in Westminster, at parochial, metropolitan, and national levels. We hold the records of the Westminster parish vestries, the organs of local government prior to 1900, and those of their successors the metropolitan boroughs of Paddington, St Marylebone, and the City of Westminster. The three boroughs were incorporated as the new City of Westminster in 1965.

The Common Garden Orator by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800. Image property of Westminster City Archives

“The common garden orator – or aut Caesar aut nullis [either Caesar or nothing]  …, My Dear Friends & Constituents, had I not possessed Principles suited to all occasions I never could have sat so long in the House as I have done …”, by Isaac Cruickshank, 1800, a satire on Fox’s alleged opportunism and lack of integrity. Image property of Westminster City Archives

During the late Georgian period the parliamentary seats of Westminster were the most important in the country, carrying great prestige and influence. Voting patterns and public debates in the borough were viewed as a barometer of national political opinion and temper. Given the importance of the seats and that they were largely the preserve of the aristocracy and family favour, Westminster became the home of several veins of radical politics, challenging the old oligarchy and the commonplace corruption, bribery and intimidation that accompanied elections.

The Westminster elections of the period are illuminated in an engaging and entertaining way by the fine collection of contemporary political caricatures and cartoons held at the Archives Centre. The prints depict those occupying or aspiring to Westminster borough parliamentary seats variously as wild and dangerous revolutionaries/courageous reforming statesmen, brazen rogues/ heroes of the people, dishonest charlatans/righteous tribunes – all depending on who the satirical artist was attacking or promoting.

A Great Man in Distress, or how to grow rich... by William Dent, 1793. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

“A great man in distress or, How to grow rich & avoid becoming chargable to the Parish.  A subscription experiment” by William Dent, 1793, a satire on Fox’s fund-raising. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Prominent among the Westminster reformers was Charles James Fox, by far the most caricatured figure of his age and a favoured victim of the graphic satirists James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, William Dent and others. Fox was a powerful orator, an advocate of parliamentary reform, opponent of the transatlantic slave trade, rake, gambler, hairy, corpulent – and the butt of countless satirical prints.

A selection of satirical prints together with other drawings, photographs and documents revealing the city of Westminster’s representative politics over the centuries is currently on display at the Archives Centre. Do come and explore!

Explore your archive


Are you registered to vote?

National Voter RegistrationDay

It’s National Voter Registration Day today, Thursday 5 Feb, and the Council’s Electoral Services team is taking to Twitter to answer questions from Westminster residents about registering to vote.

The team will be taking questions until 5.00pm today using #askwccvote. Please let the people you work with know about it to help as many people register as possible. People must be registered in order to vote in the General Election on 7 May 2015.

The deadline for registering to vote is 20 April and for the first time people can register online at gov.uk/register-to-vote.

The Council wrote to all households at the end of January to let people know who is registered at their address. If the information is correct, people don’t need to do anything. If someone is missing, they should register at gov.uk/register-to-vote or contact Electoral Services to request a paper copy.

If the information is incorrect, the Council are asking people to let them know so their details can be amended.

Your vote matters, make sure you’re in!

Email:  electoralservices@westminster.gov.uk or telephone: 0207 641 7500 (Monday-Friday 9.00am to 5.00pm).