During the time of Queen Victoria, Bradford was famous for making woollen cloth called ‘worsted’. Huge wealth was made and Bradford grew from a small town into a great city. Like so much of industrial growth in Britain at this time, there is a link with slavery to this success. Much of the early production of worsted was woven on a cotton thread, and cotton at that time was produced by enslaved people in the southern states of America.
However, many key people in Bradford during the Victorian period such as the mill owner Titus Salt and MP W E Forster stood against slavery. Black campaigners such as Frederick Douglass and Marcus Roper, fighting against slavery and the unfair treatment of black people, were welcomed in Bradford in this era along with many famous black performers. There is also evidence of black people living and working in Bradford at this time.
Henry Box Brown escaped slavery to freedom by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate in 1849 to abolitionists in Philadelphia. Brown became a noted abolitionist speaker and toured the UK with his anti-slavery panorama.
1851 Henry Box Brown
Henry box Brown appeared at the Mechanics Institute in Bradford for 5 nights, ‘depicting in a striking and painful manner, the abominations and horrors of slavery’. He also re-enacted his escape when he was shipped from Bradford to Leeds, where his arrival was… ‘proceeded by a band of music and banners, representing the stripes of America paraded through the principle streets of the town.’
1854 Pablo Fanque
Pablo Fanque and his circus performed in Bradford in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Railway Yard. He was a famous circus owner and performer and was the first black circus owner recorded in British history. He was known for his horsemanship and team of trained performing horses.
1866 John Sella Martin
John Sella Martin was an abolitionist, activist and fugitive who gave an evening lecture on ‘the labouring classes in the South’ (of America) at St George’s Hall. Sella Martin spoke at this event, attended by MP WE Forster, about the horrific treatment of freed slaves in the southern states of America and the position of black Jamaicans after the Morant Bay uprising.
1873 The Fisk Jubilee Singers
The Fisk Jubilee singers performed the first of 6 appearances at St George’s Hall. They were a group of African American singers established in 1871 at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the earliest and most-famous black vocal groups, known for the performance of slave spirituals ‘The Fisk Jubilee Singers changed the Negro spiritual into an art form and introduced it to the world.’ Swing Low Sweet Chariot was one of their most famous songs.
Their music has had a huge (though largely unrecognised) influence on contemporary music to this day.
1877 Hague’s Minstrels
Minstrel shows involved white performers painting their faces black to mimic and caricature the music and dancing of black enslaved Americans. In 1877 Hague’s Minstrels performed at St George’s Hall and this included black performers described as ‘the original slave troupe’. At each venue they put on separate all-white or all-black performances pieces. The success of this troupe inspired many other minstrel managers to tour with black companies.
This type of performance was hugely popular in the Victorian era and remained so for a long time. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran on British TV until the 1970s.
1888 Abraham Johnson
by John Sowden, watercolour painting, 1888. In Bradford Museums and Galleries’ collection.
This painting shows a black worker in Bradford in Victorian times.
40 year old Abraham Johnson was born in Zanzibar. He escaped from slavery in south east Asia before working as a member of crew on board ship from the Indian Ocean to Liverpool. He is referenced in records as having been rescued from a shipwreck.
Abraham worked at Marshall Temple Mill in Holbeck, Leeds before settling in Bradford where he sold newspapers and stories on the streets.
His life story presents an incredible and successful fight for survival to live as a free man.
Other black people found working in Bradford during Victorian times and painted by John Sowden are Thomas Jackson, a 73 year old man known as ‘Old Joe,’ and Edward Walton. For more information on him please see below –