Revealing hidden Norwich history
- Credit: Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN
A walking tour tracing the history of black people linked with Norwich reveals stories of children freed from a slave ship, paintings in a Tasmanian art gallery and segregated pubs in the Second World War.
Norwich: A Black History was put together by Paul Dickson at the suggestion of Norfolk artist, and chairman of Norwich Black History Month, Danny Keen. Paul's lockdown project has already proved so popular it will become one of his regular tours through 2021.
"I have learned that Norwich really had a central role in the abolition of slavery and that it has a continuing black history dating back to the 17th century. I hope people come away from the tour understanding just how important the city’s black history is," said Paul.
The tour begins close to St Peter Mancroft, where three freed slave boys were baptised in 1813, and takes in Norwich characters including one of the world’s greatest anti-slavery heroes, a freed slave, a boxer, a weaver, and a circus acrobat and owner who once walked the lanes of Norwich, before finishing in Timberhill with some shocking facts about segregation in the city in living memory.
After taking the tour Black History Month committee member Michael Gyapong, who works as a mortgage advisor and is also a salsa DJ and charity fundraiser, said: “I really, really enjoyed it. I didn’t know any of this – even though I worked just around the corner from some of the statues and plaques for years.” Carol Stephenson was also fascinated by the tour and said “It’s interesting to put a local perspective on a very topical subject.”
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Just a few of the people you meet on a tour of Norwich's black history are:
Three little boys bound for slavery who were rescued by a British naval patrol set up to free slaves captured and trafficked by other countries. It was led by Captain Frederick Irby of Boyland Hall, Morningthorpe, near Long Stratton. Some freed slaves began new lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but Paulo Loando, Edward Makenzie and Charles Fortunatus Freeman, were brought to Norwich and baptised at St Peter Mancroft in May 1813. However, their story ends here for now. “They disappeared into history,” said Paul. But another character who steps into Paul's tour has left a remarkable story, in his own words.
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The first freed African slave to write his life story and see it published in England was Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, also known as James Albert. Born a prince, he was stolen from his family in Nigeria and sold into slavery. His arduous route to freedom is described in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself. He lived in Norwich as a weaver and labourer in the mid 18th century. Two more black men working in the Norwich Market area were painted by artist John Dempsey. Their portraits are titled Cotton and Charley and show one man selling fabrics and threads and the other, Charles Willis Yenley, selling shoes and boots. Both portraits now hang in the main museum and art gallery in Tasmania.
Continuing his journey through the black history of Norwich Paul tells the story of Thomas Fowell Buxton who led a 13-year campaign to end slavery throughout the British Empire. An MP, he toured the country getting tens of thousands of signatures on petitions and spoke in Norwich at both the Friends Meeting House and St Andrew’s Hall. He married Hannah Gurney of Norwich, sister to prison reformer and anti-slavery campaigner Elizabeth Fry. Despite personal tragedies including four of their children dying of whooping cough within a single month, he not only tirelessly campaigned against slavery but also persuaded Parliament to reduce the number of crimes for which someone could be hanged from more than 200 to six, campaigned against the burning of widows in India and was the founding chairman of the RSPCA. The family lived in Cromer Hall and then Northrepps Hall and he is buried in in Overstrand church. “He’s quite a man Thomas Fowell Buxton, we need to remember him,” said Paul.
Opie Street was named for writer Amelia Opie who once lived here. She founded the women’s branch of the national Anti Slavery Society and her 1826 poem The Black Man’s Lament, or How to make Sugar, tells of the suffering and injustice of the sugar plantations.
Nearby is Norwich Castle, which has important artefacts related to Lord Horatio Nelson. In a letter to a friend who owned more than 2,000 slaves, Nelson is said to have written that he would fight against the abolition of slavery. But Paul asks whether his letter, with many alterations, was doctored to change the meaning? And could he even have been the father-in-law of pioneering black nurse Mary Seacole? She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole - godson, and possibly illegitimate son, of Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton.
In recent years William Darby, born in a Norwich workhouse in 1810, the son of a black butler, has become increasingly prominent in retellings of the history of Norwich, and in its skyline. He became famous as circus performer Pablo Fanque and was the first black man to own a circus in Britain. His circus career began in Norwich where he was an acrobat, specialising in horse-riding stunts. He ran his circus for 30 years, often staging benefit shows for fellow performers. Almost a century after his death his fame was revived with a mention in the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And more than 200 years after his birth he is remembered again in the new city centre student accommodation on All Saints Green, close to where he lived as a child. A poem telling his story in the style of one of his circus posters is reproduced as an enormous carving in the entrance hall.
Towards the end of tour Paul reaches events within living memory, and the shocking discovery that the American Army and Air Force brought racial segregation to Norfolk. During the Second World War Norwich pubs were divided into those for white servicemen and black servicemen. The Bell Hotel, and the Castle, which used to be across the road, were designated black pubs. “The locals found it quite strange to tell the truth” said Paul, showing a picture of a Norfolk community hall packed with black and white servicemen being served teas by local women. “A Norwich woman stood up and said if they were good enough to fight they were good enough to mix with.” Black American servicemen also changed East Anglian music, particularly jazz and blues. “Their influence was really strong in Norfolk in the 1950s and 60s,” said Paul. One of the black musicians who arrived with the American air force and settled in Norfolk was soul singer Bruce Lucas, who, as Lucas, has been a much-loved fixture of local pubs and clubs for decades – as well as touring with Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops, appearing alongside James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Ben E King and singing with the Mike Cotton Sound and Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.
To find out more about Norwich: A Black History visit pauldicksontours.co.uk