Stranger Bwoy – a poem by Ralph Ottey

For Black History Month 2023, we present a literary gem that is quite possibly unique: a poem written a black RAF veteran of the Second World War, Ralph Ottey. Ralph volunteered in Jamaica in 1944. He was among the first intake of approximately 5,000 Caribbean recruits who trained as RAF ground personnel at RAF Hunmanby Moor. Thereafter he was posted to RAF Woodhall Spa, then the home of the famed 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron. After the war, Ralph served for some time at RAF Coningsby, before opting to take a bookkeeping qualification at the County Commercial College, Wood Green, Staffordshire. Ralph wrote this poem at the conclusion of his course in 1947, en route to RAF Sealand and repatriation to Jamaica.


Stranger bwoy you come from foreign
You a lion
You a sailor on Nelson’s Column
You a Mary Seacole
You a Constantine, Turpin and Buxton
You a squashed lemon
You a broken pub glass
You an empty bus seat
Stranger bwoy you inconvenient
Stranger boy you black.

The sense of rejection – or at least of the lack of appreciation of the service he and his compatriots had offered to ‘the Mother Country’ during the war – is very strong.

Ralph was not in Jamaica long before he returned to the UK. He married and settled in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he still lives today at the age of 99. His was a different experience to those who congregated together in cities like London, Leeds or Nottingham: there was no Caribbean community in the making in Boston, and as such he had to work hard to adapt to this community in order not only to survive but thrive – which he succeeded in doing.

There are several references to well known black people of the 1940s in his poem, and indeed from much earlier times. A black sailor features on one of Carew’s bronze reliefs at the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. He is one of 27 sailors of African or Caribbean origin known to have served on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.[1]

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was born in Jamaica. She was an intrepid traveller and drew on her hospitality experience (managing hotels, catering) in many challenging settings, including in Cruces, Central America and setting up the British Hotel at Balaclava, during the Crimean War. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857. A statue in her memory was unveiled in London in 2016.

Learie Constantine (1901-1971) was one of the most famous Caribbean cricketers of all time.[2] He was born in Trinidad and played for the West Indies in 18 test matches before the Second World War, as well as pursuing a professional cricketing career in England. During the War, he worked for the Ministry of Labour and National Service, with responsibility for the welfare of Caribbean workers in factories in the UK. After the war he became active in politics, both in Trinidad and the UK. He became the UK’s first black peer in 1969. Ralph met Constantine on at least two occasions. Constantine had been among the party of dignitaries who welcomed Ralph’s troopship to Liverpool in 1944 and attended the passing-out parade of his intake at RAF Hunmanby Moor later that year. At this parade, Constantine stopped to speak to Ralph and gave him this advice:  ‘Very soon you will be rubbing shoulders with English people. Just behave in England as you would in Little London, with your grandparents around, and you will get along fine. The English are a fair-minded people and quite friendly when they get to know you. I say this as someone who has taken a London hotel to court for their refusal to accept me as a paying guest because of my colour.’ Constantine’s successful case against the hotel for racism had only recently been heard in court (June 1944). It attracted much publicity at the time. Constantine also visited the Commercial College in Wood Green while Ralph was studying there.

Turpin and Buxton were both well-known boxers from families of boxing brothers. Randolph, better known as Randy, Turpin (1928-1996) was from Leamington Spa and had already achieved boxing success by the mid-1940s. He became world middleweight champion in 1951.[3] Alex Buxton (1926-2004), whose family lived in Watford, was the most successful of his brothers, making his professional debut in 1941. In the immediate postwar period, he was at the height of his success, winning the British light-heavyweight title in 1952.[4]



[1] See ‘Black History Month’ at Accessed 1 October 2023.

[2] See The National Archives, ‘Sir Learie Constantine’ at Accessed 1 October 2023.

The accounts of the meetings with Ralph Ottey are taken from the latter’s memoir, to be published in 2024.

[3] See Wikipedia entry on Randolph Turpin at Accessed 1 October 2023.

[4] See ‘An interview with Allan Buxton’ on the Sporting Heritage blogsite at Accessed 1 October 2023.

Women in Roman Lincoln


Hope Williard

Women in Ancient Roman society  have been largely marginal in historical studies of the period, even though they were citizens. Unable to vote or hold office, they did nonetheless exercise agency and influence within the private sphere. Of course, enslaved women and those of a lower social status have featured even less in the historical record.

This blog post travels back in time to the period between the mid-first and the early fifth centuries CE, when Lincoln was the Roman city of Lindum Colonia. Today, we can still see an impressive array of remains, especially of the city walls and gates, all around the city. If you are starting from the lower city and are willing to brave the aptly-named Steep Hill, walking a loop of the visible remains of Roman Lincoln takes approximately two hours. This post will introduce you to two of the women you might have met walking that same loop hundreds of years ago.

As you will see, they hidden are in plain sight.

Introducing Lindum Colonia

Roman presence in what is now Lincolnshire began well before the conquest of Britain in the year 43 CE. The Roman conquest of Gaul (modern-day France) during the 50s BCE included a brief military incursion into Britain, under the leadership of Julius Cesar, in 55 and 54 BCE, and led to increasing economic, political, and cultural contact. Like other groups on the empire’s borders, the peoples of south-eastern Britain had economic contact with the Roman world for decades before invasion, through trade in iron, salt, agricultural goods, and enslaved people. Empires cultivate and exploit areas beyond their borders for their human and economic capital, but we can also see the peoples of Britain pursuing the economic, political, and cultural assets of contact with their powerful neighbour in support of their own aims.

In approximately 47 CE, Roman forces (specifically, IX Legion Hispana) first reached Lincolnshire and established a series of short-term military camps. A more permanent military presence in the region dates to several decades later–the first stages of Roman fortifications in Lincoln seem to date to the 60s and 70s CE, with the presence of the ninth and then the second legions in the area. The next stage of Roman Lincoln’s development was as a colonia (from which we get the English word colony) the highest status of Roman city.

While the precise date of foundation of the colonia is not entirely clear, archaeologists estimate that it was between 84 and 96 CE, during the reign of the emperor Domitian. The city retained links to its military origins. During this period, the Roman state granted legionaries who had finished their period of service lands in coloniae across the empire. Veterans were permitted to retire to areas where they had served with the expectation that their sons would grow up to become future legionaries. The wooden buildings and walls of the early military occupation were replaced with stone and over the next few centuries Roman Lincoln expanded, eventually coming to have a distinctive presence in the uphill and downhill areas of the modern city of Lincoln.

Lucius Septimius Severus was Roman emperor from 193 to 211. Born in Leptis Magna in North Africa, Severus was the first African-born Emperor of the Roman Empire. His wife, Julia Domna was a Syrian Arab woman who exerted power and influence, accompanying Severus on military campaigns, mediating between her sons and influencing literary and artistic works.

Septimius Severus ordered that Lindum Colonia should have proper stone walls to replace the wooden ones of the early military occupation. For a few years, Septimius Severus ran the whole of his Empire from Eboracum – today’s York. There were other wealthy citizens of African heritage in Eboracum. We know that there were also people of African heritage living in Lindum Colonia. The evidence is from the human remains that archaeologists found on the route of the new Eastern bypass around Lincoln.

The population of Roman Lincoln varied over the course of its history, from perhaps 5,000 during its early days to as many as 10,000-12,000 at its height, making it a moderately sized but not especially big city by the standards of Roman Britain. The city brought together people of a range of different origins and backgrounds. Native British and immigrant craftspeople, local traders and merchants from far afield, government officials, soldiers and ex-soldiers and visitors or emigrants from rural areas, were just some of the many people who lived in or had connections to the colonia over its four centuries of history. Through the evidence of the city’s material culture, and particularly its tombstones, we can meet its inhabitants.

Meet Claudia Crysis

Funerary inscription for Claudia Crysis

The tombstone of Claudia Crysis reads:

To the spirits of the departed (and) to Claudia Crysis; she lived 90 years. Her heirs had this set up.

Ninety is an impressive age in any era and Claudia is currently the oldest woman we know of from Roman Britain. Her brief epitaph, which may date from the second century, was discovered on Lindum Road in 1830, having been built into the east wall of the lower city sometime during the fourth century.

Her second name, crysis, possibly indicates that she had blond hair. The tombstone does not allow us to say anything about her family background or origins. Funerary inscriptions sometimes, but not always, name the person who was responsible for the monument being set up and specify their relationship to the deceased, but Claudia’s heirs chose not to identify themselves by name. Whether this came from an unwillingness to pay for the extra lines on a larger stone, deference to Claudia’s own wishes, or self-effacement on their part, is impossible to say. Although the inscription is brief and nothing else is known about her, her epitaph nonetheless invites us to learn more about Roman experiences of age and aging.

A common misconception about the ancient and medieval worlds is that everyone died young. Demography – the statistical study of population structures – is one of the tools scholars use to draw conclusions about issues like infant mortality and life expectancies in the ancient world. This can come from two sources: analysis of human remains to determine someone’s approximate age at death, and Roman tombstones, which frequently say how old a person was when they died. Due to extremely highly mortality rates among infants and children, the rough average life expectancy was somewhere between twenty and thirty. To compensate for the effects of child mortality on this average, scholars use a method known as model life tables to estimate the proportion of the population in certain age groups. For instance, someone who survived past the age of ten was, on average, likely to live into their late forties; a person who made it to the age of sixty could expect to live for approximately another decade. Demographers have estimated that around six to eight percent of the Roman population was elderly. While this is a lower proportion than in our own society, it suggests that most people would have known older people in their families or social circles.

Based on the evidence provided by their law and literature, Romans regarded sixty as the onset of old age for men. There is some evidence that this varied by occupation: during the Roman Republic the normal age that a man might be expected to perform military service was between the ages of sixteen and forty-six. However, the arrangements made for the settlement of veterans on land around the empire after their period of service had finished indicates that they were clearly expected to have a reasonable span of active years left to them after retirement. For women, it seems that the beginning of old age was associated with the onset of menopause or between the ages of forty and fifty. For both men and women, the onset of old age was strongly identified with its effects on the body and mind, rather than their calendar age.

While Romans did celebrate their birthdays, an individual’s exact knowledge of their own age was likely to depend on their circumstances. For example, someone who had received at least some education, or who had strong family or social networks, was more likely to be able to accurately gauge their own age. Uncertainty or best guesses about age also applied to tombstones, where it was common to round to the nearest five or nearest ten, suggesting that Claudia Crysis may not have been exactly ninety years old when she died.


Tombstone of Claudia Crysis – The Collection

Whether she was in her late eighties or early nineties, Claudia stands out in more ways than one. She would have had very few peers in Roman Britain–her tombstone is our only epigraphic evidence of a nonagenarian woman. Possibly the next oldest woman in Roman Britain, Julia Secundina, lived to be seventy-five; she was buried at Carleon with her husband, the legionary Julius Valens, whose tombstone marks him as one of the Roman world’s rare centenarians. Furthermore, the lettering on Claudia’s monument is extremely well cut, indicating that she and her heirs were able to afford a high-quality memorial. This, combined with her advanced age, suggests that she had the wealth and social standing to access the higher standard of living which enabled her to lead such an extraordinarily long life.

Meet Carssouna

Once they had outlived their function as memorials, Roman tombstones were often reused as building materials. (This is how Claudia Crysis’ tombstone ended up being removed from a cemetery and built into a late Roman wall.) The next time you are on your way to Lincoln train station, pause in front of the west tower of the church of St Mary Le Wigford, and look to the right of the doorway.

The west tower of the church of St Mary Le Wigford showing the dedication stone to the right of the doorway. Photo credit Richard Croft, shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

You will see a fragmentary funerary inscription built into the church itself. The inscription was first recorded by the Lincolnshire antiquarian, physician, and clergyman, William Stukeley, in 1722, as part of his lifelong efforts to document and explore Britain’s Roman past. The church itself dates to the late tenth century but what you can see today is newer than this–the tower itself was built in the late eleventh century. The inscription itself seems to have been added at the time the tower was built and to have been in place ever since.

Fascinatingly, it comes in two parts. The lower part is a Latin inscription, which reads in translation:

To the departed spirits (and) to the name of Sacer, son of Bruscus, a citizen of the Senones, and of Carssouna, his wife, and of Quintus, his son…

The bottom edge of the stone is broken off and the inscription appears to be incomplete. If another few lines were present, they may have identified the person who was responsible for setting up the memorial. Carssouna, her father-in-law Bruscus, husband Sacer, and son Quintus provide a very interesting example of three generations of a Roman-British family. The description of Bruscus as ‘a citizen of the Senones’, would indicate that he had come from Gaul (specifically, the area around the city of Sens) to Lincoln. It is a lovely example of how people from outside Lincolnshire have long been a part of its history.

In a world without birth certificates or passports, someone’s name declared their identity and origins, so it is worth considering these names in more detail. They show interesting changes across the generations. Both Bruscus and Sacer have names which echoes the forms of Latin names, even if they are not entirely Roman. However, the youngest generation on the tombstone, Quintus, has an extremely common Roman name. Perhaps his parents hoped he might grow up to be someone who made a place for himself in the wider Roman world? Carssouna stands out on the tombstone just only as the only woman to be mentioned, but also for her distinctly non-Roman name. Unlike the name Quintus, Carssouna is an incredibly rare name, and raises intriguing questions. We might imagine her parents choose a culturally resonant name out of pride in their heritage, much the way that parents might do today.

Fragmentary funerary inscription

We would not necessarily know about Carssouna at all if the stone had not been reused for a later inscription. The individual who commissioned and funded the building of the eleventh century tower where the stone resides today, commemorated his deed in an Old English inscription which reads:

E[i]rtig had me built and endowed to the glory of Christ and Saint Mary, ☧.

The inscription is crammed into the pediment of the old Roman tombstone. It is right side up but slightly confusing in that it is read from bottom to top. Unlike the reuse of Claudia’s tombstone as building materials, this shows a more dynamic engagement with Lincoln’s Roman past. Although both inscriptions are now quite weathered, they would have been plainly visible to viewers, and Ertig himself or other viewers may have seen a connection between the two inscriptions. One theory is that the stone was reused due to a misreading of the words nomini Sacri–‘to the name of Sacer’–as a Christian message about the sacred name of the divine. But then why was the rest of the text, which has no such ambiguities, so prominently displayed? While the full story of the inscription remains a mystery, we can be grateful it left one of Roman Lincoln’s women hidden in plain sight.

Further Reading

Lindsay Allison-Jones, ‘The Family in Roman Britain’ in A Companion to Roman Britain ed. Martin Todd (Oxford, 2004), pp. 273-287.

Charlotte E. Bell, ‘The Autonomy of Power: Epigraphy of Women in Roman Britain’ (MA Dissertation, University of Liverpool, 2020).

Karen Cockayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003).

Guy De la Bédoyère, The Real Lives of Roman Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Andrew C. Johnson, The Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spain (London, 2017).

Michael J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony, and Capital (Stroud, 2011).

Anthony Lee (2013) Claudia Crysis – Roman Britain’s oldest woman. [blog] The Collection. Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2022].

     –Treasures of Roman Lincolnshire (Stroud, 2016).

–(2016) Roman Lincolnshire in the British Museum. [blog] Roman Lincolnshire Revealed. Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2022].

–(2018) Some women of Roman Lincolnshire. [blog] Roman Lincolnshire Revealed. Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2022].


Lincoln’s First Black History Trail


Courtesy of Historycalroots:

The first Black History Trail ever in the city of Lincoln has been designed by researchers of Reimagining Lincolnshire, a public history project based at the University. It aims to expand our appreciation of the city’s diverse heritage and how we have been shaped by the mobility of people, goods and ideas over the centuries. From African Roman Emperor Septimius Severus to the Caribbean RAF veterans who resided here during World War 2, black people have been part of the everyday fabric of the city. Some have made extraordinary contributions. The trail focuses on Lincoln but will make connections to the region and the wider world.

The trail starts at the intersection of the High Street and Wigford Way and ends at the Cathedral. There are eight stops altogether. This blogpost is set out in the same order as the trail, so that it’s easy to find further information related to each stop.

Stop 1: St Mary le Wigford[1]

We’ll tell stories here about army veterans, industrial workers and football players.

Ann Bishop, a Lincoln woman, was buried at St Mary le Wigford in 1826.  She was 36 years old. (The churchyard has now disappeared under urban development.)   She was married to Peter Bishop, a black man who was born in Barbados in 1792. He enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot in 1806 and subsequently moved to Lincoln with his Battalion. Whether he was free or enslaved prior to enlistment is unknown. He and Ann were married in 1810.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, black soldiers served in many regiments of the British army as military musicians, specifically drummers. Racialised beliefs at the time stereotyped black people as having a propensity for music and their presence in regiments was considered a sign of military prestige.

Regiments often put on parades in which all their musical resources would be focused on promoting regimental image in the hope of ingratiating the regiment with local worthies, or, more seriously as far as the survival of the regiment was concerned, to aid recruitment. [2]

Peter Bishop was such a drummer and his duty was to beat out the drum patterns issued by his commanders to communicate orders to the soldiers. He was soon off to war again and served at the Battle of Waterloo. He survived the horrific conditions and received the Waterloo Medal. After this he seems to  have been discharged. Like many other veterans of the time, Peter and Ann experienced homelessness and spent the rest of their lives in and out of Lincoln’s workhouse. After Ann’s death, Peter remarried but continued to face poverty until his own death at the age of 65. He is buried in uphill Lincoln, in what would have been the grounds of the Union Workhouse.  There were probably several other black army veterans like him, living in Lincoln in the late 18th and early 19th centuries[3].

Along the end of Wigford Way is the Lincoln site of Siemens, the current-day company that started life as Ruston’s, and a reminder of a long history of heavy engineering in the city. Ruston’s and others such as Fosters, Clayton and Shuttleworth and Robeys,  produced agri-machinery, excavators, engines, cranes, tanks and planes. These machines were exported all over the British Empire and beyond. These goods and the people that made and used them are connected to the vast history of Britain’s imperial expansion.

Ruston’s was one of the most prolific Lincoln-based companies and their products were exported to places like Africa and the Caribbean. One could find a Ruston’s saw mill in Senegal, diesel engines and excavator mines in Togo and trains in Ghana[4]. This also meant that trainee engineers and workers from Africa and the Caribbean would regularly come to visit Lincoln’s factories to learn how to maintain these goods[5].  Public history tends to remember the people who invented, designed or owned objects. Much less credence is given to those who made them and kept them going.

Beyond St Mary le Wigford to the south is Sincil Bank, Lincoln City FC’s ground.  Lincoln City was the first club in the English league to hire two black players, in 1899 and in 1909.

Johnnie Walker was the first black footballer to play in the Scottish league. Lincoln signed him in 1899 for £25 and he became the first black player to command a transfer fee in the UK[6]. Guyanese player Willie Clarke was the first black player to score in the English league for Aston Villa in 1901. He transferred to Lincoln from 1909-1912[7]. In more recent times, former English League and international player Keith Alexander became manager of LCFC in 1993, only the second black manager in the English league (after Tony Collins at Rochdale in 1960). He later became the first qualified black referee[8].

Keith Alexander, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Reimagining Lincolnshire project has uncovered another black player as early as 1903 – a goalkeeper for Lincoln Liberal Club[9]. We have yet to discover more about his identity.

Stop 2: Cornhill[10]

Lincoln has various connections with transatlantic slavery. Cornhill is particularly associated with the abolitionist movement and other global movements for social reform.

The transatlantic slave trade was the enforced and violent removal of over 12 million people from Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Most Western European powers participated in and benefited from  this trade.  We know of several Lincoln residents who were ‘compensated’ for the loss of enslaved labour when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830s.  Margaret Ashton, wife of a mason,  lived in Newport and owned a plantation in Jamaica; Harman Dwarris likewise lived in Lincoln and owned a Jamaican plantation and 18 enslaved people. These examples remind us that townspeople benefited from the system, as well as those with country estates[11].

There was also a strong abolitionist movement in Lincoln. Women and children across Lincolnshire protested against slavery through boycotting sugar, one of the most lucrative crops grown on the plantations. In one account of a meeting, women ‘were pierced to the heart with the sufferings of the oppressed Africans; and with a fortitude which does them the highest honour, refused to enjoy those sweets, which they supposed to be the price of bIood.’  (Mark Jones 1998: 63)[12]

The movement for abolition continued until slavery was ended after the American Civil War in 1865. Several formerly enslaved people visited Lincoln and addressed huge audiences at Cornhill. Isaac Dikerson,  also a war veteran and member of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, spoke here in 1894[13]. In the video below you can listen to the earliest known recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. Courtesy of Nathaniel Jordan on YouTube.

The movement for abolition was strongly connected to two other global campaigns for social reform, temperance (the trades in people and alcohol were closely connected) and women’s rights.  Rev. John Henry Hector, the so-called ‘Black Knight of the Temperance movement’ addressed the crowds here in 1895 and 1897. Hallie Quinn Brown, a university-educated orator and women’s rights campaigner, spoke here in 1895[14]. Preacher Benjamin William Brown spoke at Cornhill in 1897[15].

Objects from the past tell the story of slavery and abolition, too. Sugar was the hedonic that stimulated the mass consumption of other hedonics like chocolate, coffee and tea. The Usher Gallery has an example of a tea, coffee and chocolate set – cups and saucers, pots, jugs, bowls and tray – that were produced to cater to changing habits and fashions in entertaining. The Gallery also holds a late 18th century Wedgwood trinket box displaying the symbol of the abolitionist movement in Britain: a kneeling enslaved man with his manacled arms stretched out before him, as if begging for freedom. This symbol has long attracted criticism for denying the agency of the enslaved themselves in struggling for their freedom[16].

Stop 3: High Street Waterside[17]

Street scenes of this part of the High Street in the 1860s reveal that black people were an everyday presence[18].

During World War 2, there was an influx of personnel from all over the world. Lincolnshire mostly housed RAF stations (although there were some army units here too).  Among those who came to serve in the RAF were over 5,000 black Caribbean ground personnel. Many would have come into Lincoln when off duty, to cinemas, dancehalls and the NAAFI[19].

The building above Waterstone’s was then a popular gathering place for RAF officers – the Saracen’s Head.  One of them was Billy Strachan, one of the very few black pilots to serve in RAF Bomber Command. Born in Jamaica, he sold his possession and made his way to the UK in 1940. On arrival, he took and passed the Air Ministry tests and trained as a wireless operator. He excelled as a wireless operator, completing over 30 operations in enemy territory. He then trained as a pilot and was based at RAF Fiskerton. Popular with his crew, he always managed to get them home safely.  Yet one night, taking off from Fiskerton,  he asked his engineer for the location of Lincoln Cathedral’s spire.

In his own words Strachan recalled the incident: “He replied, ‘We are just passing it.’ I looked out, shocked that the spire was not where I expected, below us, but just a very few feet beyond our wingtip. I hadn’t seen the spire at all — and I was the pilot!”  He flew out over the north sea, ditched the whole bomb load and returned to Fiskerton. He never flew after that. After the war, he trained as a lawyer and co-founded the Movement for Colonial Freedom. He became a very prominent anti-racist campaigner. He died in 1998[20].

Billy Strachan, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Stop 4: Stonebow[21]

The Stonebow Guildhall has been the civic centre of Lincoln since the 1300s and is the seat of the City Council.

Ralph Toofany was a nurse who came to Lincoln from Mauritius. He was one of the thousands of Caribbean, African and Asian nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers who migrated to the UK to staff the new NHS after 1948, and have been the rock of the NHS in Lincolnshire ever since.

Ralph worked at St John’s psychiatric hospital in Lincoln. In common with many psychiatric hospitals St John’s was a major employer of black and Asian workers.  He was  also a trade unionist and Labour Party activist. He became  Lincoln’s first black councillor, first black mayor (in 1992) and later Lincoln’s first black Sheriff.  He was still serving in the council when he helped to build Lincoln’s Central Mosque, which opened in Boultham in 2018[22].

Other notable people of colour in Lincoln’s civic life include first Sikh Sheriff, Jasmit Kaur Phull and Gregory Yeargood, RAF veteran and mace-bearer in the 1990s[23].

For a time after World War 2, Lincoln City Council was twinned with the city of Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. Pietermartizburg gifted to Lincoln a ceremonial rug crafted by black women in the township of Sobantu, a segregated part of Pietermaritzburg.  Lincoln named some streets after residential areas in Pietermaritzburg, such as Edendale[24].

At this time, South Africa had an apartheid regime where discrimination against people based on their skin colour was violently enforced by the state.  Only white people therefore tended to benefit from the twinning arrangement.  In the 1960s, Lincoln anti-apartheid activists called for an end to the connection and it petered out[25].

Stop 5: Clasketgate[26]

It’s fitting that we use the site of one of Lincoln’s oldest theatres, the Theatre Royal, to tell the story of the long association of black entertainers with Lincoln.

Ira Aldridge was a famed Shakesperean actor of the 19th century. He was born in New York in 1806 and began his acting career there, but came to the UK with a friend in the 1820s, tired of the racism he encountered in the US[27]. In 1842 and 1849, Aldridge played at the Theatre Royal. According to the review in the Lincoln Standard,  ‘his talents are first rate, and his conduct gentlemanly, strongly evidencing that mankind all have an equal capacity, if they had but the opportunity of receiving instruction’[28].

Ira Aldridge (1807?-1867) in the character of Othello, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Other black entertainers to appear in Lincoln in the 19th century included Carlos Trower, a tight rope walker, who thrilled crowds in Lincoln in the 1860s[29]. Delmonico, described as ‘a man of colour’ and ‘daring performer’, appeared with lions and tigers at Lincoln’s April Fair in 1870[30].

One hundred years later, 1960s Mod culture was heavily influenced by postwar African American Chuck Berry, the father of rock and roll and singer of Maybelline played at Lincoln’s ABC cinema in 1965[31]. Jimi Hendrix, the world’s greatest guitar player, played there too in 1967[32]. However, a far more famous music venue in Lincolnshire was the Gliderdrome in Boston, where Hendrix also played. Others included Otis Redding, The Equals and Tina Turner[33].

The first film shot on location in Lincoln was The Wild and the Willing, in the early 1960s. It was about student life in a fictional university town called Killminster. Stars Ian McShane, John Hurt, and Samantha Eggar all debuted in the movie[34]. It also starred Johnny Sekka, an African actor from Dakar in Senegal. He had worked in the docks in Banjul, where he stowed away on a ship to Europe. In the 1950s he joined the RAF and started acting as a hobby. A big talent, his breakthrough came in 1959 when he starred in a stage version of the Joyce Carey novel, Mister Johnson. He went on to play roles with some of Britain’s most notable actors, such as Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles[35].

Stop 6: Steep Hill[36]

This stop focuses on the story two thousand years ago: Roman Lincoln’s African connections

This city’s connection with the Roman Empire began in around CE60, when the Ninth Legion built a fort here for around 5,000 legionaries. It was then abandoned as the army moved north. In the late first century CE, a colonia was founded on the same site. A colonia was a self-governing city of the highest status, meant to be a model of Roman civilisation. This one was called Lindum Colonia, which over time was shortened to Lincoln. Its first settlers were retired legionaries. It was one of only four such settlements in the whole of Britain and remained a colonia until the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. The colonia’s wealthy citizens contributed to the development and beautification of the urban environment[37].

Septimius Severus was the first African-born Emperor of Rome. He was born in Leptis Magna in North Africa, which today is the city of Khoms in Libya. It was Severus who, in the late first century CE, ordered that Lindum Colonia should have stone walls to replace the old wooden fortifications. That we can still see remains of walls and gates, connecting us with our Roman past, is therefore due to Severus. For a few years, he made Eboracum (today’s York) his headquarters. He died there in CE 211. Severus’s original walls and gates were enlarged on numerous occasions, although in Roman times, the colonia was never subjected to attack. Construction was more for ceremonial splendour[38].

The panel, from circa AD 200, depicts the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and his family. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We know that there were also people of African heritage living in Roman Lincoln. One form of evidence is the DNA tests conducted on the human remains that archaeologists found on the route of the new Eastern bypass around the city[39].

Stop 7: Castle Hill[40]

We have demonstrated how the coming and going of people to and from Lincoln to the Americas, Asia and Africa and vice versa has been common through the centuries. Black people far before the Windrush (post-1950s generation) spent all their lives or large part of their lives in Lincoln. One such person was Francis Barber in the 1750s[41].

Francis Barber was born into slavery. Colonel Richard Bathurst was the owner of the Orange River Estate where Barber was born. This plantation was one of the largest sugar plantations in Jamaica. Bathurst had strong ties to Lincolnshire and owned a home in Lincoln in The Close. In the 1750s he returned to Lincoln with Francis Barber who was seven years old at the time. There is some evidence that he was baptised here, at St Mary Magdalene Church.

Bathurst sent Barber to boarding school in Yorkshire. In his will in 1754, he ended Barber’s enslavement. Francis Barber joined Samuel Johnson’s household as a high-ranking servant. Johnson was a famous writer and the compiler of the first English dictionary. Barber continued to work for Johnson until Johnson’s death in 1784. Barber was at his side even at death and was a beneficiary of Johnson’s will. Francis Barber and his wife Elizabeth and their children then moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire. There they faced much hardship, but Barber died in 1801 as a free man. Image from page 220 of "The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works, in chronological order; a series of his epistolary correspondence and conversations with many eminent persons" (1859)

This Image is of Francis Barber and Samuel Johnson from page 220 of “The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works, in chronological order; a series of his epistolary correspondence and conversations with many eminent persons” (1859) . Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Image on Flickr (Public Domain).

Stop 8: Cathedral[42]

The cathedral contains several objects related to British settlement, exploration and empire.

The cathedral library contains the so-called Massachusett Bible, the first Bible to be published in an indigenous language in British North America. Puritan missionary John Eliot translated the Bible into the Wôpanâak language in 1663[43]. The Wôpanâak language subsequently disappeared due to colonial expansion and violence. The Eliot Bible has recently become instrumental therefore, in assisting Wôpanâak people to relearn their language.

The St. Blaise chapel contains a painting of Jamaican World War 2 veteran Patrick Nelson. Duncan Grant, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, was commissioned to paint the mural which he completed in the 1950s. Patrick Nelson and Duncan Grant met in the late 1930s when Nelson had moved to London to study law, funded by working as an artist’s model[44]. They had a romantic relationship and Grant wrote to Nelson when he was captured as a prisoner of war during his service in the British Expeditionary Force. The painting of Nelson is problematic as it fetishizes the black male body. However, the cathedral hid the mural away for many years for a different reason: Grant used as models several others, men and women, with whom he had complex sexual relationships[45].

Duncan Grant Mural based around St Blaise, the patron saint of the wool industry. Patrick Nelson is depicted to the far right. Lincoln Cathedral. (Courtesy of Joshua Sewell, the University of Lincoln Libary Blog and the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral).

There is a sculpture of Nelson Mandela’s head on the southwest turret of Lincoln Cathedral, installed after his death in 2013. It is sited next to the stone head of an unknown African man[46].


[1]Location of St. Mary Le Wigford, 3 St Mary’s St, Lincoln LN5 7AR,

[2] John Ellis, Drummers for the Devil? The Black Soldiers of the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot, 1759-1843. Journal for the Society of Army Historical Research 80, 323, 2002, p. 193

[3] For more information on Pete Bishop see John D. Ellis, ‘Peter Bishop, 1792-1851: Soldier of the 69th Foot and Veteran of Waterloo’ at The HistorycalRoots blog also has a wealth of information about other black veterans of the time.

[4]  Bernard Newman, One hundred years of good company. Gateshead on Tyne, Northumberland Press, 1957.

[5] Imagery of Ruston & Hornsby Engine Assembly Works from c. 1945. John Wilson Collection, Saxilby History Group.

[6] For more information on Johnnie Walker see Andy Mitchell, ‘John Walker, a black professional in the Scottish and English Leagues’ at

[7] For more information on Willie Clarke see Andy Mitchell, ‘Willie Clarke – Scotland’s second black internationalist’ at

[8] For more information on Keith Alexander see Paul Elliot, ‘Keith Alexander was a true pioneer in the fight for racial equality’ at

[9] Lincolnshire chronicle, 25 September 1903

[10]Location of Cornhill, 1, Exchange Arcade, Lincoln LN5 7HJ,

[11] UCL Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, Database.

[12] Mark Jones, The mobilisation of public opinion against the slave trade and slavery : popular abolitionism in national and regional politics, 1787-1838. PhD thesis, University of York, 1998.

[13] Based on data collected from Lincolnshire-based newspapers digitised in the British Newspaper Archive from 1837 onwards including: Boston Guardian (wkly), Grantham Journal (wkly), Grimsby Daily Telegraph (daily), Horncastle News (wkly), Lincoln Gazette (wkly), Lincolnshire Chronicle, Lincolnshire Echo (daily), Lincolnshire Free Press (wkly) Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian (wkly) Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser (wkly) Market Rasen Weekly Mail and Lincolnshire Advertiser (wkly) Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph (daily) Skegness Standard (wkly) Sleaford Gazette (wkly) Stamford Mercury (wkly)

[14] Ibid.

[15] For more information on Black Temperance campaigners see Jeffrey Green, ‘Black Temperance Campaigners in Late Victorian Britain’ at

[16] The Collection and Usher Museums:

[17] Location of Lincoln High Street Waterside, 297A High St, Lincoln LN2 1AF,

[18] Lincoln High Street scene, 1880s. Front cover of Maurice Hodson, Lincoln Then and Now, Volume III. M. B. Hudson, Lincoln.

[19] For more information about African Airmen in the RAF see Heather Hughes, ‘African Airmen in RAF Bomber Command’ at

[20]  Frost, Peter, ‘Billy Strachan – just ‘another bloody immigrant’. The Morning Star, 2 April 2018

[21] Location of Stonebow, Guildhall Saltergate, Lincoln LN2 1DH:

[22] Editorial in, 14 March 2006:

[23] From the Stonebow Tour:

[24] From the British Pathé historical collection, ‘Lincoln Links Up With South Africa 1947’:

[25] Roger Fieldfhouse, Anti-apartheid: A History of the Movement in Britain: a Study in Pressure Group Politics. Merlin, 2005.

[26] Location of Clasketgate, Lincoln LN2 1JJ:

[27] Folarin Shyllon, Black People in Britain 1555-1833, Institute of Race Relations, 1977.

[28] Lincoln Standard & General Advertiser 9 February 1842; Lincolnshire Times 30 January 1849

[29] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23 November 1866

[30] For more information on black performers in Lincoln see Andrew Walker in the Reimagining Lincolnshire 2021 Heritage Open Days blog:

[31]Chuck Berry 1965 UK Tour setlists are available at:

[32] Interview with Jimi Hendrix, Lincolnshire Echo, 21 April 1967

[33] Jane Keightly 50 years of the Starlight Rooms at Boston Gliderdrome. Lincolnshire Life, April 2005. Available at:

[34] The Wild and the Willing (1962), British Film Institute database of films:

[35]Johnny Sekka Obituary, The Guardian, 29 September 2006:

[36] Location of Steep Hill, 50 Steep Hill, Lincoln LN2 1LT,

[37] Michael J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital, The History Press, 2002. p. 34.

[38] Anthony R Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. London: Routledge, 1999.

[39] Ancient Burials and Artefacts unearthed beneath Lincoln Eastern Bypass Site, The Lincolnite, 17 February  2017:

[40] Location of Castle Hill, St Mary Magdalene, Bailgate, Lincoln LN1 3AR,

[41] For more information on Francis Barber see Heather Hughes ‘Francis Barber’s Lincolnshire Connections at:

[42] Location of Lincoln Cathedral, Minster Yard, Lincoln LN2 1PX,

[43] For more information on the links between Lincoln Cathedral and the USA see the Lincoln Cathedral Foundation website at:

[44] Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963, Bloomsbury Press, 2017.

[45] For more information about Duncan Grant’s imagery of Patrick Nelson see Rianna Jade Parker ‘Black in Bloomsbury: What Duncan Grant’s Portrait of Patrick Nelson Reveals’ at:

[46]Lincoln Cathedral appeals for Publics Help to Raise 10K for Turret Restoration, The Lincolnite,  29 October, 2015:

Mahomet Thomas Phillips Part 2

Robert Waddington and Heather Hughes

“There is so much of his work in churches, chapels and schools all over the world that one could say of him what was said of Wren – ‘Those who seek his monument, look around’”. [1]

Training to be a sculptor

Following on from Post 1, this post takes up the story of Mahomet Thomas Phillips’s life in the UK. According to the 1891 census, he was living in Camp Street, Broughton, Salford with his father and cousins, Paul and Ernest Harrison. Richard Cobden Phillips was listed as the head of the household and his profession was given as photographer. He died in 1912. [ii] Mahomet’s sister Nené is listed in the 1901 census as a student in Southport, in the Ormskirk registration district. She was a boarder at Portland Street. Her name is transcribed as Ada Nina Phillips. She married in 1907 and settled at New Earswick, York, a model village founded by chocolate manufacturer and philanthropist Joseph Rowntree.

Mahomet attended the Manchester School of Arts, studying textile design under the eminent decorative artist, Walter Crane. Crane taught him for three years, and advised to him to continue his creative career in sculpture. [iii]  Mahomet’s uncle, John Searle Raglan Phillips, later the editor of the Yorkshire Post, introduced him to George Walter Milburn, a well-known sculptor in York. [iv] Between 1896 and 1909, Mahomet studied under Milburn and at the York School of Art. [v]  A fellow pupil was W.P. Horridge, who would become head of the carving department at E. Bowman & Sons in Stamford and would later bring Mahomet to Bowman. [vi]

While at York, Mahomet demonstrated a sporting prowess. He was a three times rowing champion, played football for the Ebor Wanderers and excelled at boxing, wrestling and ju jitsu.[vii]  He shared this interest in combat sports with his cousin Ernest Harrison, who was a black belt in Kodokan judo and one of the first westerners to write about Japanese martial arts, publishing a number of guides on judo and karate. [viii]

Family group
Phillips family and friends, early 1920s. Courtesy Phillips family

During this time, Mahomet also met his wife, Mary Ann Morley. [ix] She was born in Heworth, York, in 1875 to Thomas and Jane Morley. Her father was a boot maker. Mahomet and Mary married in 1899 and had three children; Nene Doris (b.1900), Lancelot Barros (1902) and Francisco Morley (1904). [x] Around 1910-11, the family moved to 11 York Villas, Dowsett Road, Tottenham, London. They are listed there in the 1911 census. He studied at the Polytechnic and London County Council School of Art and became a member of the Polytechnic sketching club. A figure that he had hurriedly modelled was entered in a national competition without his knowledge and won a bronze medal. He also won the Gilbert Garrett modelling prize. [xi]


By 1916, the family had moved to Peterborough. [xii]  Mahomet worked on a number of projects independently and for companies such as J. Thompson & Sons of Peterborough. One of these was the Edith Cavell memorial tablet in Peterborough Cathedral, dedicated in 1916. [xiii] This was of course during the First World War and in 1916, Mahomet was conscripted. The upper age limit for conscription was 41; as he was nearing this age, he appealed – but lost. [xiv]  He served in the Royal Field Artillery as a signaller and attained the rank of corporal; his medal card is held at The National Archives. [xv]

War Memorial
Sleaford War Memorial. Heather Hughes

Following the war, Mahomet returned to sculpting on projects with a number of companies. For Maxey & Sons, he sculpted the figures on the war memorial in the Market Square in Sleaford, unveiled in 1922 (during this commission, he had an accident to his wrist and the work was delayed). [xvi] The following year he was working on grotesques for the parapet of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, including a falcon on the north side and a unicorn on the south side.[xvii] Other work from the early 1920s includes the Hereford War Memorial (1922) and a reredos for the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Baptist, St John’s, Newfoundland (1923).  His surviving day book lists the hours he and his son, Lancelot Barros Phillips, worked week by week.

Grotesque sculpture
Grotesque for St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Courtesy Phillips family

Mahomet would work up to 70 hours a week.  His son would work up to 44 hours a week. The only breaks taken were for religious holidays, such as Christmas Day. The work on the reredos for St John’s Newfoundland alone took Mahomet 1,543 hours over 34 weeks, plus 1,236 hours by Lancelot. [xviii]

He had also started to work for Bowman & Sons in Stamford.  [xix] Bowman was a highly respected and prolific company specialising in church architecture and fittings, as well as civil and private projects. Mahomet worked with leading architects and designers, including Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Sir Charles Nicholson and Wilfred Bond. [xx] An early work for Bowman was the Grantham War Memorial, in the churchyard of St Wulfram’s,  unveiled in November 1920. [xxi] He became head of sculpting at Bowman and continued to work at the company until his death. During the Second World War, he served in the Civil Defence First Aid and the Home Guard. [xxii]

Mahomet Thomas Phillips in his studio. Courtesy Phillips family

Although the long hours of work left him little recreational time, Mahomet enjoyed playing music. He made a complete quartet of a violin, viola, cello and double bass and taught himself to play them.  He performed in orchestral concerts and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in Stamford. Several leading violinists of the time played on his violin, including Sybil Eaton of Tolethorpe Hall, near Stamford. [xxiii]


The family were living at 1 Rock Terrace in Stamford [xxiv] when Mahomet died on 7 June 1943. At his funeral service, the rector of St. George’s in Stamford, Rev Rees-Jones said that his three greatest characteristics were his great ability, his extreme humility and his keen love of little children. [xxv] He and Mary Ann, who died on 17 November 1954, are buried together in Stamford cemetery. Their headstone is an unfinished limestone block, seemingly waiting for a sculptor to work on it. Only the side bearing the inscription has been worked smooth. The headstone is surmounted by a disc-shaped sundial.

Verified works of Mahomet Thomas Phillips in the UK (alphabetical order of town/city).

Note: this list has been compiled by a team of researchers on the Reimagining Lincolnshire project, led by Robert Waddington. We have done our best to be as accurate as we can and expect this list to grow.

Place Building/space Object Date Ref
Airdale Figure of crucified Christ late 1930s – early 40s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Balby St John The Evangelist Church:  

Rood figures

1938 Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
Figure of Bishop Edward King 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
North Yorkshire Bolton Hall Lord Bolton’s Coat of Arms Illustrated London News article, Phillips Family Archive
Bradford Cathedral Figure of St Peter on Bishop Boyd Carpenter memorial late 1930s – early 40s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Bradford Leigh Wiltshire Figures for reredos 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Cardiff Reredos c.1922-24 Day book, Phillips family archive
Croydon Font cover c.1922-24 Day book, Phillips family archive
Dunholme St Chad’s Church Rood screen figures Pevsner: Lincolnshire, 1989 edition and Dunholme Church Guide “Welcome to St Chad’s Dunholme: A History of the Church Building”
Eastbourne St Phillip’s Church Figure of Christ 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
Epsom St Martin of Tours Church Reredos 1930s, Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Gedling, Notts All Hallows Church Reredos panels c.1922-24 Day book,  Phillips family archive).
Grantham St Wulfram’s churchyard War Memorial 1920 Imperial War Museum War Memorial database
Hampstead St John’s Church Headstone of Temple Lushington Moore c.1922 Day book, Phillips family archive
Harrogate War Memorial sailor panel c.1922-24 Day book, Phillips family archive
Hereford St Peter’s Square War Memorial: figures 1922 Day book, Phillips family archive
Leeds Headingly Shaw Road, Home of John Searle Raglan Phillips Sun dial Phillips Family Archive
Leicester St Martin’s Church Figure of St Martin c.1922-24 Day book, Phillips family archive
London Munster Square Mary Magdalene Church Reredos 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Huddersfield Mold Green Christ Church Reredos figures and panels above altar 1942 RIBA Bowmans deposit at V&A; Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
Nottingham St George’s Church Figure 1938 Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
Nottingham Nottingham Priory Three figures including bishops late 1930s – early 40s. Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Peterborough Cathedral Edith Cavell Memorial tablet 1916 Phillips family archive; Imperial War Museum War Memorial database
Peterborough Cathedral Plaster models of Cathedral Peterborough Standard, 9 September 1938, p. 9
Peterborough All Saints Church Rood Late 1930s –  early 40s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Peterborough Orton Hall Cornice 1922-1924 Day book, Phillips family archive
Peterborough St John’s Church Chancel reredos and rood Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Salisbury Cathedral Madonna and child (part of a screen) Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Country Life Journal 12 December 1936, p.26
Sleaford St Denys church Font cover 1923 Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury 12 October 1923.
Sleaford Market Square War Memorial 1920 Phillips family archive, Art UK website.
Southend on Sea St Mary’s Church Prittlewell Figure of Madonna and child late 1930s – early 40s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Southwark Cathedral Font cover Phillips family archive
Stamford St George’s Church Figures Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Stamford Living June 2017
Stamford St George’s Church WWII War Memorial tablet incorporating George & the Dragon carving by the late Mahomet Phillips 1949 Stamford Mercury 8 April 1949, p.4, Stamford Mercury 29 April 1949.
Stamford St Martin’s church Screen including figures of St Martin and the beggar 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Phillips family archive
Stamford St Martin’s Church Pulpit including figures of Four Bishops 1930s Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit
Stamford St Mary’s Church Figures Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit; Country Life Journal 12 December 1936 p.26.
Thirsk Thrickleby Park (now demolished) Unspecified work Country Life Journal 12 December 1936 p.26
Todmorden Christ Church graveyard Angel for grave of Thomas Cowley Stephen Art UK website database


Windsor Castle, St George’s Chapel Parapet grotesques 1923 Day book, Phillips family archive
Windsor Imperial Service College Rood c.1924 Day book, Phillips family archive
Windsor Imperial Service College Dr Keeton tablet c.1924 Day book, Phillips family archive

Verified works of Mahomet Thomas Phillips abroad

Newfoundland Anglican Cathedral of St John The Baptist Figures for reredos 1923 Day book, Phillips family archive
Istanbul English church War Memorial English church Lincolnshire Archives Bowmans Deposit



[1] Laurence Tebbutt, appreciation of Mahomet Thomas Phillips in the Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[ii]; (accessed 21 March 2022)

[iii] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[iv] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[v] Yorkshire Gazette, 29 August 1896, p. 6; Yorkshire Herald  26 August 1899, p.3; Driffield Times 14 October 1905; (accessed 16 March 2022)

[vi]  Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[vii]  Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[viii] JCS the great enablers: E.H. Harrison at. (accessed 17 October 2022)

[ix] Mahomet Thomas Phillips at (accessed 17 October 2022)

[x] Mahomet Thomas Phillips at (accessed 17 October 2022) and database of civil registration

[xi] Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[xii] Peterborough Express 21 June 1916, p.3

[xiii] The Edith Cavell memorial tablet is listed on the Imperial War Museum Register of Memorials at; the stonemason is noted as Mr. T. Phillips, Huntly Grove, Peterborough.

[xiv] Peterborough Express 21 June 1916, p.3.

[xv] TNA/W0372/15/226815.

[xvi] The Sleaford Gazette and South Lincolnshire Advertiser 24 September 1921; drawing in the Phillips family archive;

[xvii] Day Book and photographs, Phillips family archive

[xviii] Day book, Phillips family archive

[xix] Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[xx] Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archive and Mahomet Thomas Phillips at (accessed 17 October 2022)

[xxi] Imperial War Museum Register of Memorials at (accessed 17 October 2022)

[xxii] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943.

[xxiii] Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives

[xxiv]  Daffurn, J. Stamford Tenants: A History of Rock Terrace and its Occupants (Eptex, 2020), pp. 109-112.

[xxv] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips, Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.


Mahomet Thomas Phillips Part 1

Robert Waddington and Heather Hughes


Two posts to report on our research on Mahomet Thomas Phillips so far, to coincide with the exhibition we have prepared for Black History Month 2022. The exhibition can be viewed in the University of Lincoln Library (October-December 2022) and, during October, at St Chad’s Church, Dunholme (where one can also view one of Phillips’s earliest church sculptures).

How the quest began

In February 2021, Revd. Adam Watson, vicar of Dunholme, Scothern and Welton, invited the Reimagining Lincolnshire project to St. Chad’s church in Dunholme to examine how artefacts and church furnishings might yield neglected stories of diversity. A guide to the church, thought to have been written some decades ago by the local historian Terence Leach, mentioned the following: “The carved wooden Chancel Screen was a gift from Captain Leyland Stephenson in memory of his wife, a relative of the Wild family. It was erected in 1913. It was built by Bowman’s of Stamford, the rood figures were carved by one Mohomet (sic) Phillips, a Congolese sculptor.” [i]

Interior of church
Rood screen and sculptures, St Chad’s Dunholme. Heather Hughes

Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire (1989 edition) included one reference to this sculptor and that was also in relation to Dunholme St Chad’s: ‘SCREEN. 1913, made by Bowmans of Stamford, with carved figures by Mahomet Phillips.’ [ii]   At this stage, it appeared that this example may have been a curious one-off. Nevertheless, we were intrigued: why were there carvings by a Congolese man in this Lincolnshire church? Could we find out more about this gem of local knowledge, left to us in the church guide?

Initial searches online brought up precious little about Mahomet Phillips. One wiki entry was all we could find. [iii] Wikipedia does not permit original research or research based on primary sources; any entry must reference published sources. While this is an understandable requirement, it is a major stumbling block to redressing imbalances in this ‘people’s encyclopaedia’. As this wiki article lacked references to published sources, it was parked on a subsidiary site.  It was dated 2020, so we hoped it was by a living descendant of Mahomet Phillips, possibly based on information or documents in the family’s possession.

That one wiki entry did give us sufficient leads to continue our research and led us to visit the Royal Geographical Society in London, where the papers of Richard Cobden Phillips, Mahomet’s father, have been deposited; the deposits of documents from Bowman & Sons of Stamford, for whom Mahomet worked, held at the Lincolnshire Archives; and the Royal Institute of British Architects archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Further, we were delighted to discover that the wiki article was indeed written by descendants of Mahomet Phillips, who generously gave us access to their wonderful family collection of day books, sketch books, photographs and cuttings.

We were soon to learn that the Dunholme rood was very far from being a one-off curio. His work is hidden in plain sight, everywhere: sculptures for churches, cathedrals and war memorials, up and down the country. It was made in a Gothic revival style that blends seamlessly into its surroundings in our churches, churchyards and public squares. The Gothic revival, which had become popular by the mid-nineteenth century and remained so into the early twentieth, resembled the work of medieval masons. So, these new works had the appearance of being more ancient than they actually were. Thus these quintessentially English sculptures, carved in wood, stone and marble and placed at the traditional and historical hearts of local communities, were the work of a black man from the Congo.

Mahomet Thomas Phillips: background and early life

African woman from Cabinda
Very likely Nené Barros. Courtesy Royal Geographical Society

Mahomet Thomas Phillips was born on 1 June 1876 in the settlement of Banana at the mouth of the Congo River. [iv] He was one of four children born to English trader Richard Cobden Phillips, and a black woman from Cabinda, Nené Bassa, also known as Menina Barros.[v] (In one letter, Richard explained their relationship: ‘She is Mamai, meaning Mrs’. [vi]) Richard was the son of the vicar of Hindley, near Wigan. [vii] The Phillips family was learned and talented but far from wealthy. Richard’s nephew, Ernest Harrison, recalled of him that although he found modest fame, he was ‘bereft of any business sense so that he remained materially poor until the end of his life’.[viii]

Richard arrived on the Congo in the early 1870s and stayed for around 16 years. He worked as a factor for Hatton & Cookson of Liverpool, a company that specialised in the palm oil trade in Gabon and the Congo. [ix]

Map of lower Congo River
Lower Congo River, showing factory settlements. Wikimedia

The company had factories, or trading stations, at Cabinda, Banana and up the river at Punta de Lenha. During his time at Banana, he became acquainted with the Welsh-American journalist and explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. [x] It is believed that he entertained Stanley during his expedition of 1869-1871, in search of the missionary and explorer, David Livingstone. [xi] Stanley began his second expedition in 1874 from the lower Congo. He returned in 1879 with the financial backing of King Leopold III of Belgium, to exploit the region’s considerable natural wealth; this was accompanied by the brutal treatment of local people. There are two photographs of Stanley in the National Portrait Gallery that were taken by Richard Cobden Phillips, probably dating from their 1874 encounter. [xii]

Letters between Richard and Joao Barros Franque in the Royal Geographical Society collection suggest that Nené likely belonged to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families at Cabinda, the Franques. [xiii] A man named Kokelo was the founder of the family fortune in the late 1700s. He had been the servant of a French slave trader who died at Cabinda, leaving his possessions to Kokelo, who named himself Franque Kokelo in honour of his benefactor. Kokelo used his connections to engage in the slave trade on his own account. He sent his son, Francisco (born c.1777), to Brazil to be educated. He was baptised as a Catholic, learned to read and write Portuguese and adopted Portuguese clothing. He was away 15 years, returning around 1800 in his early 20s. He became a ‘merchant prince’ at Cabinda. He imported Brazilian tutors for his sons, of whom one was called Joao. Francisco used his education and Brazilian connections to grow ever more powerful in the slave trade and became the principal African supplier of enslaved people to Manuel Pinto de Fonseca, the leading Rio de Janeiro trader.  He made several later visits to Brazil and was member of a delegation to the exiled Portuguese court in 1812, to promote trade with Cabinda. It seems that Nené was one of Joao’s daughters.

Mahomet and his brother Paul were sent to a mission school at Mukinvika, on the south side of the River Congo. Two of the missionaries there were I.J. White and Arthur Billington. [xiv] In a letter to his mother thanking her for books and toys she had sent them, Richard noted that they were making good progress at school. Nené had visited them there and ‘brought away a good opinion.’[xv]

This was certainly a momentous time to grow up on the Congo River. From the late 1870s, the Phillips family witnessed the intensifying colonial conflicts in the region between the British, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgians, French and Germans, in what became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. There were gunboat battles along the river as rivals vied for control of territory and resources; the culmination was the Treaty of Berlin of 1884, according to which European imperial powers carved up most of Africa between themselves.  The lower Congo region was divided between Belgium and Portugal and the British were forced out. Hatton and Cookson and other British traders relocated their interests further north, along the West African coast.

Group photograph, Congo
Richard Cobden Phillips seated middle row on left, with a group of visiting European ethnographers. Courtesy Royal Geographical Society 

Coinciding with these events, the relationship between Richard Cobden Phillips and Nené Bassa broke down. [xvi] Two of their children, Mahomet and Nené, were sent to England, while Sara and Paul remained with their mother. According to family tradition, Paul was tragically taken by a crocodile.   Richard himself was back in England by 1888. In that year, he presented a paper at the Royal Anthropological Institution; [xvii] he aspired to be recognised as an authority on the indigenous people of West Central Africa. He had some other contributions published in British newspapers and corresponded with several German and British geographical and anthropological societies.

Part II picks up the story of Mahomet Thomas Phillips’s life in the UK.


[i] Welcome to St Chad’s Dunholme: A History of the Church Building. n.d, n.p., p.5

[ii] Pevsner, N., Harris, J. and Antram, N. The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire. Penguin, 1989, p.260.

[iii] Mahomet Thomas Phillips at (accessed 17 October 2022)

[iv] Mahomet Thomas Phillips at (accessed 17 October 2022)

[v] From the timeline in the Phillips family archive, with grateful thanks.

[vi] Richard Cobden Phillips letter to I.J. White, 9 July 1884, Letter Book (p.232), GB 0402 Richard Cobden Papers, Royal Geographical Society.

[vii] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips in Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943.

[viii] Harrison, E.J., A resume of my chequered career. In Journal of Combative Sport 1999, at Journal of Combative Sport: My Chequered Career (

[ix] Dennett, R. E. Seven Years among the Fjort: Being an English Trader’s Experiences in the Congo District. Hansebooks, 2020. Originally published in 1887 and available at the Internet Archive at See also Anstey, R. E., British trade and policy in West Central Africa between 1816 and the early 1880s. In Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, 1, 1957, 47-71.

[x] See 15 Oct 2022

[xi] Obituary of Mahomet Thomas Phillips in Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury, 11 June 1943; Bowman Deposit, Lincolnshire County Archives.

[xii]  See National Portrait Gallery, 1877 entry on Stanley, at (accessed 15 October 2022).

[xiii] Information on the Franque family is from Martin, P. Family strategies in nineteenth-century Cabinda. In Journal of African History 28, 1, 1987, 65-86.

[xiv] Other than the letters in the Richard Cobden Papers, we have not yet found much information about this mission school.  See entry on Billington in Biographie Belge d’Outre-Mer T.VI. 1968 col.4, at (accessed 17 October 2022).

[xv] Richard Cobden Phillips letter to I.J. White, 9 July 1884, Letter Book (p.233), GB 0402 Richard Cobden Papers, Royal Geographical Society.

[xvi] Letters in Phillips family papers.

[xvii] Richard Cobden Phillips, The Lower Congo, a sociological study. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 17, 1888 pp.213-237. See also Heather Hughes, (accessed 17 October 2022)

Black History Month October 2022

A Wikithon focussed on the Reimagining Lincolnshire Project for Black History Month 2022.

Thursday October 20th, 2022, Online

Members of Reimagining Lincolnshire and any interested parties are invited to attend this Wikithon, in honour of Black History Month 2022. Participants will learn Wikipedia basics and make their first edits, in collaboration with the University of Lincoln library. In addition, this event will allow you to see how a Wikithon is run, how it could work for your organisation and how you can best support the growth of open knowledge.

To book a place and for more information: 

Gypsies in Lincolnshire, c. 1850-1939 (Part I)

Andrew Walker

Finding Gypsy Voices

In any project to expand and diversify Lincolnshire history, significant attention needs to be paid to exploring the past of one of the longest-established minority groups in Britain: the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller peoples. These two blogposts for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month 2022 indicate ways in which we can connect to their past in Lincolnshire, through readily available source materials.[1] The focus of the blogposts will be the Gypsy/Roma peoples; they are part of a broader category termed Travellers, which also includes itinerant groups such as showfolk and boaters, who also deserve more attention.[2]  This research takes its inspiration from influential social historians who have sought to rescue social minorities from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, to use E.P. Thompson’s memorable phrase.[3]

George Hall
Rev’d George Hall, the ‘Gypsy’s Parson’: An image from the exhibition in St Olave’s Church, Ruckland, July 2021.

Rev. George Hall (1863-1918), born in Lincoln and eventually rector of Ruckland, Louth, was known as the ’Gypsy’s Parson’. He spoke their language, had a deep knowledge of their history and advocated for their rights.[4] Like Hall, another regular Lincolnshire contributor to the early issues of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in the early twentieth century was William Cragg of Threckingham House, near Folkingham.[5] Unfortunately, the words and voices of the Gypsies themselves are heavily mediated in such accounts as these and others such as court reports; their own voices are conspicuously absent from the record.

Gypsy heritage and culture have always been predominantly oral; it is estimated that in Victorian England, the literacy rates of Gypsies were between 3 and 12 per cent.[6]  A notable exception is Gordon Silvester Boswell’s The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy.[7] Boswell (1895-1977) had strong links with Lincolnshire. His son Gordon (1940-2016) founded the Gordon Boswell Romany Museum at Spalding, which has one of the finest collections of Gypsy vardos, or caravans, in the country.[8]

Margaret and Gordon Boswell in their vardo , 1987
Gordon and Margaret Boswell on their way home to Spalding from Appleby Horse Fair, 1987. Reproduced by kind permission of Margaret Boswell.

The Gypsy Presence in the Census

A long-term Gypsy presence in Lincolnshire is suggested in place names. For example, census enumerators’ returns for the county record people living at Gipsy Bridge, Thornton le Fen; Gipsy Drove, Langriville, Boston; Gipsy Hall, Long Bennington; various Gipsy Lanes in Gedney, Quarrington, Swineshead and Wrangle; and at Gipsey Road, Algarkirk. It is highly likely that Gypsies would have been associated with these locations and have left their mark in this way.

Tracing individual Gypsies is more of a challenge. Until 1861, travelling people were not generally recorded in censuses.[9] This is partly because of their own agency: in 1854, for instance, the Grantham Journal referred to ‘the curious trait of gipsey feeling’ that they should pass into another parish to escape enumeration.[10] One group of 16 Gypsies who did provide details to a census enumerator in 1851 were probably persuaded to do so by their hosts, Rev. Henry and Jane Holdsworth. It seems that the Holdsworths had allowed them to pitch their tents in the grounds of Fishtoft Rectory.[11]

Just as some Gypsies were keen not to make contact with officialdom, some enumerators were also reluctant to engage with Gypsies themselves. It is not clear what prevented more detail being collected from an anonymous group of Gypsies at Northgate, Louth, in 1861, who were recorded as comprising two adult males and two adult females, all supposedly aged 40 years, together with two boys and two girls, all, (coincidentally again) aged ten years. In the census, Gypsies could sometimes be recorded in caravans, tents, at the side of the road, or on the highway heading to a particular settlement. In 1861, for example, 20-year-old Gypsy Joshua Boswell was recorded living in a stable between Main Street and South Street, Owston, near Gainsborough. Most Gypsies in Lincolnshire, as elsewhere, tended to be enumerated in family groups, usually nuclear in character, though occasionally with brothers or sisters of the household head in residence. It seemed rare to have Gypsy households containing more than two generations.

George Inn Horncastle
‘The George Inn, Horncastle’. Photo by Carlton in George Hall’s Gypsy’s Parson, p.232

As the Table below indicates, Gypsies pitched their caravans and tents in a wide variety of different locations within the county. Given that every decade the census tended to take place in Springtime, it might have been expected to find a number of recurring locations.[12] This did not seem to be the case, however, apart from a couple of inns’ yards, the Duke of York in Boston (1881 and 1911), and the Red Lion, Wainfleet All Saints (1901 and 1911). It is likely that some publicans saw the arrival of the Gypsies as an opportunity to increase their trade. Successful attempts by local sedentary residents to deter Gypsies from returning repeatedly to the same specific location may have been the cause of the diversity of sites listed.


Table 1: Location of some Gypsy caravans and tents in censuses, 1861-1911*[13]

Census Year Location
1861 Hensam, Aubourn; Back Street, Heckington; Northgate, Louth; Owston; Poke Row, Skillington.
1871 Grassby, Caistor; Queen’s Head Yard, Caistor; Barton St Peter, Glanford Brigg; Village Green, Ingham; Northern Terrace, Lincoln; Butt Road, Messingham; George Street, Market Rasen; Great Hale, Sleaford; Market Place, Wragby.
1881 Ashby; Duke of York Yard, Boston; Crown Inn Yard, Skidbrooke; Wilsford, Sleaford.
1891 Heighington Road, Branston; Bunkers Hill, Gainsborough; Dawson’s Court, Lincoln; Gainsborough Road, Saxilby; Ings Lane, Whitton.
1901 Aisthorpe; West Street, Boston; East Common, Brumby; Gainsborough Road, Glentham; Brackenborough Road, Louth; Hibaldstow; Normanby; Westholme Lane, South Kelsey; Spridlington; Red Lion Yard, Wainsfleet All Saints; Carr Lane, Wrawby.
1911 Duke of York Yard, Boston; Hope Street, Clee; Dembleby Pits, Folkingham; Gladstone Street, Gainsborough; Mill Lane, Market Rasen; Bourne Road, Morton; Northgate, Sleaford; Moulton, Spalding; Red Lion Yard, Wainsfleet All Saints.

*Travellers as per the broader meaning indicated above are excluded from this listing.

The occupations of Lincolnshire’s Gypsies listed in census records were in many ways what one might expect: horse dealing, hawking, chimney sweeping and, especially amongst women, peg making prevailed. The dependence of Gypsy families upon seasonal agricultural labour is inevitably understated, given the timing of enumeration.[14] Some Gypsy women’s involvement in fortune telling was not evident in the census returns, but was regularly reported, alongside their convictions, in the local press.[15]

‘Rest by the Way’. Photo by Fred Shaw in George Hall’s Gypsy’s Parson, p,62

To some degree, the travelling habits of Lincolnshire Gypsy families can also be discerned from census returns, especially for larger families, where the birthplaces of offspring provide an indicator of places visited. Most suggest that these circuits were not too extensive, with most Gypsy families appearing not to venture generally beyond a 30 or 40-mile radius of a given spot. In 1861, for instance, Clark Gray, a 23-year-old ‘gipsey horsedealer’, living at Hensam, Aubourn ‘on the highways’ was a head of a household with occupants born in Coleby, Sleaford, Horncastle, Navenby and Harmston. In 1901, Charles Mathieson, a 42-year-old Gypsy hawker, lived in a tent at Brumby with occupants born in Winteringham, Boston, Hook (Yorkshire), Boston, Lincoln, Gainsborough and Blythe, Nottinghamshire. It has been estimated that, on average, Gypsies would stop in a place for up to three or four weeks, after which the available wood, grazing and local trade would be exhausted. This suggested a round of about 12 stopping points a year.[16]

Analysis of recurring Gypsy family names is also possible from examining the census. Amongst the most common surnames in Lincolnshire during the Victorian and Edwardian periods were Booth, Boswell, Brown, Elliott, Gray, Lee, Mathieson and Smith. It was observed in the Grantham Journal in 1882 that although now not ‘every Smith is a gipsy, it was doubtless more likely that every gipsy was a Smith.’[17] Whilst many Gypsies’ forenames were not much different to the trends of the time, there are a number that stand out in the Lincolnshire records. Female names included Angulenay, Coriliander, Keytumas, Miseta and Senfie. Amongst males, Phoenix was a forename used across several generations in both the Boswell and Gray families. Other notable male names included Eldred, Mazerian, Mordecai, Taiso, and Teoben.

It was important to Gypsies to baptise their children. One notable Lincolnshire baptism took place in 1855, which was reported in the Stamford Mercury. Some Gypsies had encamped at Hagworthingham and presented a new-born infant to the rector for baptism. The clergyman’s wife and daughter, with the parish clerk, became sponsors or godparents, and the older godmother presented the baby girl with two dresses.[18] Before 1834 during the period of the old Poor Law,  proof of settlement through baptism could enable access to minimal support in times of distress.[19]

Andrew Walker is a historian of Lincolnshire. He worked at the University of Lincoln from 1992 to 2010, latterly as Head of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts.  Between 2010 and 2020, Andrew was Vice Principal of Rose Bruford College. He is an active volunteer researcher for Reimagining Lincolnshire.


[1] The modern spelling of ‘Gypsy’ is used throughout the text, although variants are retained in quotations. Other variants such as ‘gipsy’, ‘gipsey’ and ‘gypsey’ are often found within primary sources.

[2] Naming terminology is explored in the Travellers’ Times short video, [accessed 18 June 2022]. Roma people who originated in northern India were often called ‘Egyptians’ when they arrived in western Europe; in time this was shortened to ‘Gypsy’. Because the term ‘Gypsy’ is most common in the historical reports that these blogposts cover, that is the term used here – although more generally, our project respects and follows the Travellers’ Times usage.

[3] Historical works on Gypsies and Travellers include the following: David Cressy, Gypsies. An English History (Oxford, 2018); Jeremy Harte, ‘On the far side of the hedge’: Gypsies in local history’, The Local Historian 46, 1, January 2016, 27-46; David Mayle, Gypsy-Travellers in Nineteenth Century Society (Cambridge, 1988); Becky Taylor and John Hinks, ‘What field? Where? Bringing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history into view’, Cultural and Social History, 18, 5, December 2021, 629-50; E.P. Thompson’s phrase can be found in his book, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), 12.

[4] George Hall, The Gypsy’s Parson: His Experiences and Adventures (London, 1915). There is free access to this work at [accessed 18 June 2022]. Reimagining Lincolnshire researchers visited St Olave’s, Ruckland, in the summer of 2021; George Hall was well remembered there in an exhibition devoted to his life and work.

[5] See correspondence from William Cragg in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1908 and 1909. William Cragg (1860-1950) was a Lincolnshire farmer and landowner, who had a longstanding interest in the county’s past. He was Treasurer of the Lincolnshire Archaeological Society for 30 years.

[6] Harte, ‘On the far side of the hedge’, 31.

[7] Silvester Gordon Boswell, The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy. Edited by John Seymour (London, 2012). This work was originally published in 1970.

[8] For details of the museum, see [accessed 14 June 2022].

[9] Harte, ‘On the far side of the hedge’, 36. Details of baptisms, marriages and burials relating to Lincolnshire Gypsies can be accessed via ‘The Lincolnshire Travellers Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates and Parish Register Collection’ section on the Romany and Traveller Family History Society website. See [accessed 15 June 2022].

[10] Grantham Journal, 1 May 1854.

[11] The 16 Gypsies, mainly born in Norfolk, appeared to comprise three household groups. See 1851 census return for Fishtoft Rectory (

[12] The census dates were as follows: 7 April 1861, 2 April 1871, 3 April 1881, 5 April 1891, 31 March 1901, and 2 April 1911.

[13] All census data extracted from

[14] The 1939 Register, conducted on 29 September, just after the start of the Second World War, provides some information about Gypsies’ seasonal farm work. At Luddington on the Isle of Axholme, for instance, 57 occupants are recorded in Gypsy caravans. Most of the adults listed were engaged in casual agricultural work.

[15] For instance, Mary Ann Sherriff was gaoled for deception following a fortune-telling episode in Skellingthorpe; and ‘a gipsey fortune teller’ known as the ‘Gipsy Queen’ was gaoled for a similar offence in Skegness. See respectively Lincolnshire Chronicle, 25 March 1864 and Spalding Guardian, 8 October 1881.

[16] Harte, ‘On the far side of the hedge’, 37.

[17] See Grantham Journal, 23 December 1882. The report noted that the most prevalent Lincolnshire Gypsy surnames besides Smith were Elliott and Gray.

[18] Stamford Mercury, 12 January 1855.

[19] Harte, ‘On the far side of the hedge’, 32.

Gypsies in Lincolnshire, c. 1850-1939 (Part II)

Andrew Walker

 Further Sources in the Historical Record

The previous post focused on traces of Gypsy history in census reports. This post focuses on what kinds of evidence of Gypsies’ lives can be gleaned from the pages of local newspapers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though the reporting has to be treated with significant caution.  As before, Gypsy voices themselves are almost entirely absent; others always assumed the right to speak for them, thus frequently perpetuating stereotypes rather than understanding.  Also discussed are the emergence of cultural tropes associated with imagined ‘pure’ Gypsy life, and some of the unexpected places in which to find Gypsy history.

Gypsies and Courts in the Local Press

Much of the coverage of Gypsies was connected with their court appearances and was generally hostile. The law, then as now, was largely designed to deter Gypsies from pursuing their ways of life. For instance, swingeing fines were applied to Gypsies for camping on common land, in order to deter repeated visits. At Kirton, near Boston, it was reported in 1840 that Thomas Smith had pitched a tent near the highway, contrary to the provisions of the Highway Act and, since the parishioners had long been annoyed about Gypsies camping there, were keen to use this

Gypsy group camping in lane
‘Camp in Lane’. Photo by Fred Shaw in George Hall’s The Gypsy’s Parson, p.20

legislation to prevent them pitching tents, making fires or encamping on their highways. Smith was convicted and fined 1s. and 17s. costs.[1] Six Gypsies were fined £87.9s.  for unlawfully camping with seven vans on the highway in the hamlet of Kelstern near Louth in 1874: even the Lincoln Gazette was moved to comment that this was ‘a pretty expense for one night’s camp’.[2]

In some cases, it was not entirely clear why Gypsies were being punished. In 1846, for example, the Lincolnshire Chronicle reported tersely with no further details, that at the Sessions House in Boston, two Gypsies, John Horring and Newcomb Boswell, were convicted ‘as rogues and vagabonds and committed to prison to hard labour for a month.’[3]

It is possible from such court reports to gain additional information about Gypsy communities. For example, encampments generally seemed to consist of 50 or fewer people, with no more than seven vans and 20 horses.[4] In many reports of legal cases, witnesses refer to groups not exceeding two or three Gypsy caravans in convoy.[5]

Reinforcing the discriminatory language employed in newspaper reports of Gypsies’ activities in the county, the tone regularly adopted can be gauged from some of the following examples of the reporting style used, which had much in common with racist tropes describing other minority groups. In one report, Gypsies were defined as ‘a nomadic and dangerous people’;[6] in another, they were described as ‘smoking their black pipes and using language not fit for ears polite’.[7] Elsewhere, Gypsies were accused of talking ‘so fast and in such a confused and ignorant manner that it was difficult to make out…’[8] The Louth Standard noted of a group of Gypsy men outside court, that magistrates ‘would have known how difficult and impossible it was to identify one from another …’[9] In 1889, following an outbreak of typhoid near Heckington allegedly associated with a recent visit of Gypsies, the Lincolnshire Free Press declared that ‘These nomads have very little regard for the public’ and they ‘disseminate disease and devastate families.’[10] In dealing with the outcome of a mass Gypsy fight at Haxey on the Isle of Axholme in which Riley Smith was seriously assaulted,  Mr Justice Cave observed at the Lincoln Assizes in November 1883 that this was ‘an extraordinary case and certainly showed what very strange people there were living up and down in out of the way parts of Lincolnshire.’[11]

House-dwelling Gypsies
‘House-dwelling Gypsies’. Photo by Fred Shaw in George Hall’s The Gypsy’s Parson, p. 172.

On occasion, when Gypsy families chose a more sedentary lifestyle, newspapers reported on such developments very positively. In 1857, the Stamford Mercury included a report of a group of Gypsy families deciding to settle down in homes in Nettleham, where men and women took up agricultural work locally. This article was reprinted in numerous papers across the country, including the Illustrated London News. As the report declared: ‘At last, even gipsies are melting into civilisation, the green and gorse-covered roadside spots where they used to camp in security being enclosed… At first the villagers did not take to their new neighbours very willingly but by degrees distaste died away.’[12]


Romantic and Exotic Representations of Gypsies

Whilst in most news reports, especially accounts of court proceedings, Gypsies were represented extremely negatively, the same newspapers carried stories that cast them in a very different light. Stuart Baker wrote a lengthy piece, ‘Lincolnshire Reminiscence’, for the Grantham Journal in 1922. It was based on a meeting between Baker and a long-term acquaintance, ‘Jasper, a Romany’. The Gypsies’ distinctive culture was described almost nostalgically, with references to Jasper’s ‘rickety caravan’ and ‘round-roofed tent’. The Gypsies’ fondness for the pied wagtail, their lucky bird, was also mentioned. A liberal sprinkling of Romany terms adorned the article – including ‘chals’ (children), ‘gorgio’ (non-Gypsy), ‘lavengro’ (collector of Gypsy words), and, perhaps inevitably, ‘hotchi witchu’ (hedgehog). The article went to describe in detail how Gypsies cooked hedgehogs, baking them in clay, which, when broken, brought with it the prickles and the skin. As Baker observed, ‘The flesh is beautifully white, fine and tender and resembles that of chicken.’[13]

Another country-based columnist, this time in the Sleaford Gazette, made much of the Gypsies’ use of hedgehogs. In an article entitled ‘November weather’, Rev. A.R. Tucker recounted his meeting with a Gypsy who told him that hedgehog oil – obtained after lightly baking the creature and straining the resulting liquids into a jar – was good for deafness and for applying to the head, which was ‘the reason why gipsies have such wonderful hair’.[14]

This type of somewhat nostalgic reporting, seeking to highlight supposedly ‘pure’ Gypsy culture and language, echoes early articles published in the journal of the Gypsy Lore Society and the mid-nineteenth-century work of George Borrow. His close affinity with Gypsy people prompted his writing of works such as Lavengro, published in 1851, and Romany Rye, which first appeared in 1857.[15] By the 1870s, there seemed to be a belief that Gypsies in England were ‘fast dying out’, the result of mixed marriages and other social and economic factors, such as the rise of high (improved and intensive) farming and the increasing value of the land which ‘interfered with them sorely’. The increasing presence of the rural police, it was suggested, ‘is likely to sweep them out of the country’.[16] It was against this background of a perceived endangering of the culture of the ‘pure’ Gypsy that the Gypsy Lore Society was established to record and celebrate Gypsy culture.[17]

Gypsy child
‘Child of the Caravan’. Photo by Fred Shaw in George Hall’s The Gypsy’s Parson, p.48

In this perspective, Gypsies were evoked as romantic, ‘pure’, even exotic, but certainly unthreatening, in marked contrast to the court reports.  The ‘pure Gypsy’ was a recurring cultural motif through the second half of the nineteenth century, and was evidently extant in Lincolnshire. In addition to the examples cited above, its appeal seemed especially prevalent amongst women. Gypsy-inspired clothing appeared to be in demand at certain times. The Grantham Journal noted in August 1855 that the ‘new gipsy hat is so fashionable among the ladies’.[18] In the 1890s, no fund-raising bazaar was complete without a stall or a tent in which middle-class women could dress as Romantic-inspired, often mainland European, Gypsies. In the Gypsy tent at a grand bazaar at Woodhall Spa in 1893, six ‘ladies officiated, attired in the picturesque dress of the Spanish gipsy’.[19] In aid of Grantham’s St Peter Hill Congregational Church, an ‘Eiffel Tower’ Bazaar was held, with a model of the newly-constructed Parisian building at its centre, and a band played, with a ‘gipsy chorus’, alongside the staging of a ‘gipsy wedding beneath the greenwood tree’.[20]

Real Gypsy weddings were reported in the Lincolnshire press fairly regularly, though often the marriages occurred beyond the county borders. In one account, a Gypsy wedding at Billingborough was described as a ‘spirited affair’, which ‘passed off with eclat.’[21] In another more detailed report of 1864, the Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser described the coming together of two Gypsy families, the Browns and Grays, at Ulceby, which it described as ‘the metropolis of the two tribes, which are offshoots of the Boswell tribe’. The bride wore a muslin dress, a loose light-coloured robe and a pair of farmyard half boots; the groom wore corduroy fustian. One of the party was dressed in an infantry coat of brilliant scarlet with white facings.[22]

The size of some of these events was made clear in an account in the Stamford Mercury of a wedding of a 21- and 22-year-old at Fletton Church, just outside Peterborough, near the recent Bridge Fair. This attracted between 200 and 300 people. The bride’s dowry was reported as being the very substantial sum of £500, together with a furnished caravan.[23] Such large weddings tended to occur where substantial Gypsy gatherings were already taking place, for instance coinciding with horse fairs or race meetings.[24] A slightly more low-key event was reported at Bourne, where a Gypsy wedding took place in 1853 between two parties who were ‘advanced in years’. This was ‘kept in the usual manner with fiddling, dancing etc.’.[25]

Gypsies in Unexpected Places: Towns and War

The evocation of bucolic roaming in the picturesque countryside did not capture the complexity of the lives of Lincolnshire’s Gypsies. Nor did the popular image associate them with towns and cities, yet they did engage with urban life.

George Hall recounts an early childhood memory of Lincoln, in the shadow of the Cathedral:

Not far from my father’s doorstep, as you looked towards the common, lay a narrow court lined with poor tenements, and terminating in a bare yard bounded by a squat wall … somewhere in the fifties of the last century [ie in the 1850s] several families of dark-featured “travellers” had pitched upon the court for their Gypsyry, a proceeding at which our quiet lane first shrugged its shoulders, then focussed an interested gaze upon the intruders and their ways, and finally lapsed into an indulgent toleration of them. Thus from day to day throughout my early years, there might have been seen emerging from the recesses of Gypsy Court swarthy men in twos and threes accompanied by the poacher’s useful lurcher… [26]

Gypsy horse dealers played a prominent part in the county’s horse fairs, especially at the annual events at Lincoln in April and at Horncastle in August. In April 1864, for instance, the Stamford Mercury observed that at Lincoln, in advance of the fair, there were pitched tents and ‘many

Horncastle Horse Fair
‘Horncastle Horse Fair’. Photo by Carlton in George Hall’s The Gypsy’s Parson, p. 230

caravans belonging to the wandering Bohemians’.[27] In August 1885, the Lincolnshire Chronicle reported that at Horncastle horse fair ‘the gipsy fraternity was largely represented’.[28] In most years, the Gypsies’ presence at fair time was evidenced through later court appearances, often for drunkenness, fighting and cruelty to horses. Many other residents and visitors engaged in such activities, but care was taken in the newspaper reports to highlight which defendants were Gypsies.

In addition to Gypsies’ periodic harassment from residents as they travelled their regular circuits, they were also exposed to unwelcome officialdom in towns, as urban spaces  became increasingly regulated by the end of the nineteenth century. In 1899, for instance, it was reported that in Lincoln, where there were ‘occasional encampments of gipsies on vacant ground on Monks Road’, the city’s Inspector of Nuisances was ‘to inspect the gipsies and their caravans’.[29]

Thousands of men from the UK’s Gypsy communities served their country in the two world wars (contrary to the stereotype that they evaded conscription by fleeing to Ireland).  Nineteen-year-old Gypsy John Cunningham of Scunthorpe won the Victoria Cross in 1916 for his bravery at the Battle of the Somme, for example; a stone was laid in his memory at the Remembrance Day service in 2016.[30]

This brief account has sought to demonstrate that Gypsy people do inhabit the many documentary sources of Lincolnshire’s past, although not in their own words.  However, if treated carefully, these sources can be read against the grain to understand both the ways in which Gypsies were perceived and treated and to some extent also their own agency and attitudes.  The point is that  there are considerable challenges in retrieving and understanding the past lives of the county’s Gypsy communities, but these are by no means insuperable.[31]

Andrew Walker is a historian of Lincolnshire. He worked at the University of Lincoln from 1992 to 2010, latterly as Head of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts.  Between 2010 and 2020, Andrew was Vice Principal of Rose Bruford College. He is an active volunteer researcher for Reimagining Lincolnshire.


[1] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 3 July 1840.

[2] Lincoln Gazette, 27 June 1874.

[3] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 22 May 1846.

[4] See for instance reports in Lincoln Gazette, 27 June 1874 and Lincolnshire Free Press, 8 February 1876.

[5] Louth & North Lincolnshire Advertiser, 26 October 1861.

[6] Lincolnshire Free Press, 8 February 1876.

[7] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23 June 1854.

[8] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 16 November 1883.

[9] Louth Standard, 30 June 1928.

[10] Lincolnshire Free Press, 9 April 1889.

[11] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 16 November 1883.

[12] Stamford Mercury, 29 May 1857. This report was widely reprinted in papers ranging from the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4 June 1857 to the Dover Telegraph, 6 June 1857. See also the Illustrated London News, 6 June 1857.

[13] Grantham Journal, 13 May 1922.

[14] Sleaford Gazette, 8 December 1939.

[15] Searchable online copies of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society can be found at [accessed 13 June 2022].

[16] Stamford Mercury, 1 May 1874. The report was extracted from the Saturday Review.

[17] For more information on the Gypsy Lore Society, see Harte, ‘”On the far side of the hedge”’, 31-2 and, for a more critical interpretation, see Becky Taylor and John Hinks, ‘What field?’, 632.

[18] Grantham Journal, 18 August 1855.

[19] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 11 August 1893.

[20] Grantham Journal, 1 March 1890.

[21] Grantham Journal, 6 September 1856.

[22] Louth & North Lincolnshire Advertiser, 28 May 1864.

[23] Stamford Mercury, 12 October 1888.

[24] Grantham Journal, 17 June 1882.

[25] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 9 September 1853.

[26] George Hall, The Gypsy’s Parson: His Experiences and Adventures. (London, 1915), 2.

[27] Stamford Mercury, 29 April 1864.

[28] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 14 August 1885. For more information on Horncastle Fair and Lincoln’s April Fair, see respectively B.J. Davey, Lawless and Immoral: Policing a Country Town, 1838-57 (Leicester, 1983) and Andrew Walker, ‘Fairs and markets: challenging encounters between the urban and rural in Lincolnshire, c.1840-1920’, in Shirley Brook et al., eds, Lincoln Connections: Aspects of City and County Since 1700. A Tribute to Dennis Mills (Lincoln, 2011), 107-23.

[29] Lincolnshire Echo, 29 July 1899.

[30] Cunningham’s story is at [accessed 18 June 2022].

[31] A number of holdings can be found relating to British gypsy, traveller and Roma heritage, for instance, at the University of Liverpool, where the archive of the Gypsy Lore Society is stored. See [accessed 15 June 2022]. Extensive Gypsy, Traveller and Roma Collections are available at the University of Leeds. See [accessed 15 June 2022]. See also the Robert Dawson Romany Collection at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading at [accessed 15 June 2022]

Albert West: Gandhi’s Lincolnshire connection (Part 1)

Heather Hughes


This is the story of how a vegetarian printer from Louth in Lincolnshire played a central role in Mahatma Gandhi’s early experiments with passive resistance against colonial oppression.

Albert Henry West was born in the market town of Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds in 1879, the fourth child of Frederick and Betsy West. Frederick’s family had long farmed the Lincolnshire fens, around the small settlement of Wrangle. Frederick  was born in 1837 and learned land surveying from his father (Albert’s grandfather) John, but did not stay on the land. Instead, he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law as a net and rope maker. A relative recalled of Frederick that ‘he was of medium stature and weight, very nimble and very neat in all his work and conduct.’ [i]

By the time of the 1881 census, Frederick was an independent rope maker in Louth and the family was living at 53 Aswell Lane in the town.[ii]   Caitlin Green tells us that Aswell Lane formed the upper section of what is now Aswell Street; in the 1880s, there were inns and factories along the Lane, suggesting a working-class neighbourhood.[iii]

The Louth Museum holds a fragment of Albert West’s autobiography, written when he was in his ninetieth year.[iv] He recorded in it that school was never to his liking and he had left as soon as he could. He worked for his father for a while, and then accepted a position as printer’s apprentice in the town. He also attended art classes and must often have visited his country relatives; he later recalled in a different memoir that ‘I loved to be on the farms when I was a lad, although I did not become a farm worker myself.’[v] His father’s letters to him many years later were filled with reminders of old country traditions.[vi]

Albert West as young man
Albert West as a young man. Courtesy Uma Mesthrie-Dhupelia


On completion of his apprenticeship, West spent eighteen months in Leicester, where he had been offered a job. Thereafter he moved to London, where he secured work as a printer for a shipping company. This enabled him to try life on board an ocean liner, which is how he came to arrive in South Africa.[vii]  The South African War (1899-1902) had brought the whole of South Africa into the British empire, leading to a huge influx of white settlers, most of whom were British.[viii] By now in his mid-20s, Albert West decided to try life in Johannesburg and with a business partner, set up a printing press. Although he found this brash new mining town distasteful, there were evidently some compensations, such as Ziegler’s vegetarian restaurant. It was there that he met Mohandas K. Gandhi, according to his memoir:

“Around a large table sat a mixed company of men comprising a stockbroker from the United States who operated on the Exchange in gold and diamond shares, an accountant from Natal, a machinery agent, a young Jewish member of the Theosophical Society, a working tailor from Russia, Gandhi the lawyer, and me a printer. Everybody in Johannesburg talked about the share market, but these men were food reformers interested in vegetarian diet, Kuhne baths, earth poultices, fasting, etc.” [ix]

Gandhi was born in India in 1869 and trained as a lawyer in London. He had arrived in the Colony of Natal in 1893 to assist a wealthy Durban merchant, Dada Abdulla, in a legal case. Since 1860, Britain had transported some 40,000 Indians to the colony under conditions of indenture – one of many

Indian fresh fruit and vegetable sellers in the town of Verulam
Indian market gardeners selling supplies in the Natal town of Verulam, early twentieth century.

such instances of moving unfree labour around the world to assist in the establishment of white settler economies.[x] In Natal, they were put to work on sugar, tea

and tobacco plantations, the railways and coal mines.[xi] On completion of their indenture, many had become successful small-scale fruit and vegetable producers, supplying Natal’s urban markets. Their relations with the African majority, as well as with white settlers, were fraught and complex. They had been brought to Natal precisely because white colonists had been unable to undermine Africans’ subsistence production, yet Indians’ agricultural success caused widespread resentment among many Africans.[xii]  So-called ‘passenger Indians’, like Dada Abdulla, who had travelled to Natal on their own account, similarly faced enormous hostility.

A young Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi at the time of his arrival in Durban. Durban Local History Museum.

Gandhi had not intended to stay long in Natal, but widespread anti-Indian sentiment, as well as his own experiences of racism, convinced him otherwise.[xiii]  In 1894, he helped to found the Natal Indian Congress, specifically to look after ‘passenger’ interests, although it also addressed the broader issue of rights for all Indians as British subjects in Natal.[xiv] Two years later, he fetched his wife Kasturba and their sons from India; their lives were threatened by a white mob on the dockside as they disembarked.[xv]

Undeterred, Gandhi set up a legal practice in Durban and over the next few years, in addition to his political work, he began to elaborate his philosophy of satyagraha, involving passive or nonviolent resistance to injustice. As a pacifist, he helped to organise a stretcher corps during the South African War.[xvi]  At the end of the conflict, with the Transvaal now under British imperial control, he moved to Johannesburg.

That is how Albert West and Gandhi came to meet. Several researchers have reminded us that vegetarianism was one practice within a wider progressive commitment to temperance, pacifism and often anti-colonialism.[xvii] Gandhi had long promoted vegetarianism and had had several articles published in The Vegetarian, published in London.[xviii] His and West’s common interests led to a firm friendship. They took frequent long walks together and joined mutual friends at out-of-town picnics, where spirituality and the meaning of life dominated conversation. As this description indicates, West had already been drawn to Gandhi’s politics:

“One evening I attended an Indian meeting addressed by him in the Indian Location, Johannesburg. Gandhi was the only speaker. The language was Hindi, which was understood by the large audience and listened to with rapt attention. The speaker stood erect and spoke quietly, without gesture or raising of the voice. As I looked upon that dark face in the dim light I felt that here was a leader of great power, but I could not foresee how great a national figure he was to become or how far and wide would be his influence throughout the world.”[xix]

An outbreak of pneumonic plague in Johannesburg in 1904 changed West’s life. Gandhi was closely involved in nursing the sick in the Indian Location, as was Viyavarik Madanjit, proprietor of Indian Opinion, the newspaper which Gandhi had recently founded in Durban. One of South Africa’s oldest anti-establishment newspapers, it has received the detailed attention it deserves in Isabel Hofmeyr’s fine study.[xx]  Madanjit was just visiting Johannesburg but Gandhi considered his presence vital in dealing with the epidemic.

Gandhi therefore asked Albert West to take over the management of Indian Opinion. West readily agreed, made the necessary arrangements for his business in Johannesburg and set off for Durban – and a central role in shaping the profile of one of the best-known figures of the twentieth century. Gandhi came to rely on West as a close and trusted supporter. In turn, through Gandhi, West was drawn into an international British-Indian network of leading anticolonial politicians, writers and philosophers.

Grey Street Durban early 20th century
Grey Street in the early twentieth century. Durban Local History Museum

Indian Opinion was printed weekly in four languages (English, Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil) on a press in the Grey Street area of Durban, where most Indian businesses were located. West was to preside over a small staff of compositors, machinists and printers from India, Mauritius, St Helena and Natal – as a port city, Durban was widely connected to the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. He soon discovered that profits were non-existent and agreed to work for a modest salary. As with all the other costs of the paper, this was provided by Gandhi, who was also overall editor.

Shortly after West’s arrival in Durban in 1904, Gandhi paid a visit to assess the paper’s financial situation. Another close friend, Henry Polak (later an editor of Indian Opinion and attorney in Gandhi’s practice), gave him a copy of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last to read on the train. It consolidated Gandhi’s thinking that worldly goods were a distraction and that asceticism, abstinence and self-reliance should take their place.

Preparations were begun at once for the founding of his first ashram. Gandhi purchased twenty acres of land on a former farm called Phoenix, some 14 miles inland from Durban. Though very rural, this was an area that was already, in Hofmeyr’s evocative description, ‘a brave new world of evangelical experiment comprising proselytising Trappists, mid-Western protestants, Zulu internationalists, Bombay Muslim holy men and Punjabi Arya Samajists.’[xxi]

Madanjit and several Indian Opinion co-workers thought the entire notion foolhardy and left; others among Gandhi’s associates wanted nothing to do with it. So West and the few remainers oversaw the founding of this historic site, including the relocation of press equipment:

“Type and machinery being very heavy and the road rough, with three rivers to cross, over which there were no bridges, we engaged four large farm wagons, with spans of sixteen bullocks each, and by this means we managed to remove the whole of the plant and stock in a day. It took a good deal longer than that to get it all sorted out and put in place.” [xxii]

Printing press shed Phoenix
The shed housing the printing press in the early days of Phoenix Settlement. Courtesy Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie.

It was a matter of some pride to them all that there was no interruption in publication. The first edition of Indian Opinion to be produced at Phoenix rolled off the press on Christmas Eve, 1904.

The ashram regime was demanding. Each of the Phoenix settlers had a simple cottage and a plot of land on which to grow food; each was also granted a monthly allowance of £3. Everyone was expected to participate in production, both on the paper and on the land, as well as in the daily tasks of reproduction: cooking, cleaning and maintenance. All this was achieved without electricity and only the most basic of tools. Not only was this to be a model of ascetic, communal living – ‘midway between a village and a joint family’, as one writer put it [xxiii] – but it was also preparation for satyagraha and likely periods in gaol. Simplicity, service, reflection, prayer: these became hallmarks of the communal outlook. Gandhi’s family moved to a wood and iron cottage at Phoenix, while he continued to oscillate between his legal work in Johannesburg and the new settlement. This caused him much anxiety but without the former, the latter would have been unthinkable.

Residents were soon drawn into community and political action beyond their farm. In 1905, for example, Natal was struck by devastating floods;[xxiv] according to West’s account,

“A relief fund was at once started and a large sum raised. A committee was appointed to administer the funds and this sat weekly in the office of the Protector of Indian Immigrants. I was asked to join this committee and in the absence of Gandhi, I was glad to be able to assist in granting compensation to the poor Indians who had suffered so heavily in the death toll and so badly by the destruction of their market gardens.”[xxv]

Here then, on the south-eastern African coastal strip, a bold experiment in self-help and resistance against imperial injustice developed. Albert West, one of Gandhi’s earliest disciples, was central to its foundation and growth. Yet it was also an enclave located in, and focused almost entirely on, a South Asian world in South Africa. Apart from a few individual sympathisers who crossed boundaries (and as we shall see, West’s family were among them), there was simply no basis, and too much ‘othering’,  to make common cause with Africans at that time.

[Part 2 to follow]

*Thanks to Dr Victoria Araj for very helpful feedback and Prof. Uma Mesthrie-Dhupelia for support and permission to use family images.

[i] Information about the West family from and (accessed 8 April 2022)

[ii] 1881 Census entry for Frederick and Betsy West family, at (accessed 5 March 2022)

[iii] Caitlin Green, The Streets of Louth: An A-Z History. Louth, The Lindes Press, 2012, pp. 7-13.

[iv] Albert West, Autobiography of an Octogenarian. The Lifestory of One in his Ninetieth Year. Typescript fragment, PDF format. Thanks to Dr R Gatenby, Museum Archivist, for access to this source.

[v] Albert West, ‘In the early days with Gandhi’, at (accessed 5 March 2022) This memoir was first published in The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1965.

[vi] See (accessed 8 April 2022)

[vii] Albert West, Autobiography of an Octogenarian.

[viii] This war, by far Britain’s most expensive and extensive imperial war of expansion, is more popularly known as the Anglo-Boer War, although this name excludes the countless black and brown people in the region who were caught up in it – from scouts and suppliers on both sides to those incarcerated in British concentration camps. See Peter Warwick, The South African War: Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. London, Longman, 1980.

[ix] West, ‘In the early days with Gandhi’.

[x] Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Inside Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914. Durban. Madiba Publishers, 2007.

[xi] Uma Mesthrie-Dhupelia, From Cane Fields to Freedom: A Chronicle of Indian South African Life. Cape Town, Kwela Books, 2000.

[xii] Heather Hughes, ‘We will be elbowed out the country’: African responses to Indian indentured immigration to Natal, 1860-1910. Labour History Review 72, 2, 2007, pp. 155-168.

[xiii] The best-known example, which was to be transformative for Gandhi, was being thrown out of the first class carriage at the Pietermaritzburg train station in 1893. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp. 93-4. In 1997, Nelson Mandela and Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson and at the time India’s High Commissioner to South Africa, re-enacted the journey. Dhupelia-Mesthrie, From Cane Fields to Freedom.

[xiv] Surendra Bhana, Gandhi’s Legacy The Natal Indian Congress 1894-1994. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1997.

[xv] Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp. 160-163.

[xvi] Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire. Redwood City, Stanford University Press, 2013. This work explores Gandhi’s complex relationship not only with British authority but also with the African majority in South Africa.

[xvii] Elsa Richardson, Cranks, clerks and suffragettes: the vegetarian restaurant in British culture and fiction 1880-1914. Literature and Medicine 3, 1, 2021, pp. 133-153; Haejoo Kim, Vegetarian evolution in nineteenth century Britain. Journal of Victorian Culture 26, 4, 2021, pp. 519-533.

[xviii] For a link to his articles, see (accessed 13 April 2022)

[xix] Albert West, ‘In the early days with Gandhi’.

[xx] Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard University Press, 2013.

[xxi] Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press, p. 59.

[xxii] West, ‘In the early days with Gandhi’.

[xxiii] James Hunt, cited in Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press, p. 63.

[xxiv] Laljeeth Ramdhani, Natal: The Great Storm and the Floods of 1905. Durban, University of KwaZulu-Natal Gandhi Documentation Centre, 1984. Available at

[xxv] West, ‘In the early days with Gandhi’.