The Shaping of Black London to the 21st century
Thomas L Blair

ISBN 978-1-908480-16-3

The Black London eMonograph Series.
©Thomas L Blair All rights reserved. ©2013

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the written permission of the author and copyright holder.

The greatest care has been taken in producing this publication; however, the author will endeavour to acknowledge any errors or omissions.  Please e-mail comments and enquiries to Thomas L Blair

The author Thomas L Blair publishes the, the online journal of Black communities of African and Caribbean heritage, founded November 1997; and the Chronicleworldweblog

His early works in the eMonograph series inform debate on serious topics in the public realm. See  Thomas L Blair/Collected works/MONO at, They include:

1968 The Tiers Monde in the City: A study of the effects of  Housing and Environment on Immigrant Workers and their Families in Stockwell, London, Department of Tropical Studies, the Architectural Association, School of Architecture, Bedford Square, London.

1972. The City Poverty Committee. To Make A Common Future. Notting Hill, London. Circa 1972


1989. Information Base Report on Ethnic Minorities in London Docklands. Full Employ/LDDC Project.

1996. Area-based projects in districts of high immigrant concentration. By Thomas L Blair and Edward D Hulsbergen, Consultants. Community Relations, Directorate of Social and Economic Affairs, Council of Europe 1996. ISBN 92-871-3179-1. French edition: Projets de quartier dans les zones à forte concentration d’immigrés. ISBN 92-871-3178-3

1997. The Unquiet Zone: Planning Innovative Renewal in Post-war Social Housing Areas of Black and Ethnic Minority Concentration in Inner London. Submitted and accepted as a Master of Arts in Urban Studies degree. Goldsmiths College. University of London. 1997.

The Black London eMonograph series complements the Editions Blair cyber-action for change eBooks, Together, they enhance the ways Prof Blair communicates his identity, principles and practices in education and the public realm.


What is set forth here should not leave readers in doubt. Though no single record exists, increased awareness of the settlement of Black people in the capital of Britain is a source of pride, dignity and inspiration to people of African-Caribbean heritage. It is also a firm basis for promoting understanding among all the nation’s peoples.

Used here, Black London has a spatial and social perspective that complements literary and historical approaches.  It deals with cities, people, and public policy. It charts the origins, rise and prospects of the African Diaspora in Britain.

AD 50 Roman London
Earliest Londoners come from all over Europe and Africa

Africans served in Roman army. “Negro head” carved wooden spoon found at Southwark bridge is earliest African connection in Southeast London. 16th centuryCatherine of Aragon lands at Deptford in 1501 with her African attendants.

Black trumpeter at court 1507; and “John Blanke” served Henry VII at Greenwich and later Henry VIII.1555“Certain Black slaves” arrive from Africa with John Lok; and marks beginning of continuous Black presence in London.

Late 16th century, opening up of West African trade. Africans became part of London’s population in seafaring centres like Deptford.1593First record of a Black person, “Cornelius”, in parish register 1593.1596-1601Fear of increased Black population in London and other towns leads to Royal proclamation by Queen Elizabeth I to arrest and expel all “Negroes and Blackamores” from her kingdom. Mid-17th to late 18th centuryFirst era of large-scale settlement of Blacks in Britain. Spans period of Britain’s involvement in the tri-continental slave trade. Black slaves attended as sea captains sauntered through the streets.

1674 Blacks appear as criminals or victims in the earliest Old Bailey court records in London.1700sSignificant presence of Black people brought as slave-servants of returning ex-colonial officials, traders, plantation owners, and military personnel.

Growing evidence of Black presence in London’s northern, eastern and southern areas. This included free slaves and seamen from West Africa and South Asia.

In Tottenham, All Hallows Church baptismal register records “John Cyras, Captain Madden’s Black” in March 1718, and at St Mary’s Church, Hornsey “John Moore, a Black from Captain Boulton’s” 8th October 1725 and “Captain Lissles Black from Highgate” in 1733.

1731 London Mayor bans Blacks from job training fearing panic over competition and growing non-white population.

Many reduced to beggary through lack of jobs and racial discrimination.1750sBlacks sought refuge in the city’s poorer quarters traditionally housing working class whites and multi-racial, –cultural groups, Chinese, Asians and Jews, Irish, Germans, and Huguenots.1760s First estimates of Black London communities. They number 10,000-15,000 of the nation’s 20,000 Black people.

The status of Black people in society becomes part of public debate.

Widespread view that Blacks were less than human expressed in slave sales and advertisements.1756Mounting Black response to slavery through covert means, resistance and flight, leads to population increase.

Oluadah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Ottobah Cugoano are notable Black anti-slavery activists.

Increasing public demand for Black freedom from slavery.

Supporters include city’s workers and urban poor who themselves suffered under the ruling classes of the day. Mid-18th centuryLondon Blacks vociferously contested slavery and the slave sales widespread in Britain.

The legal status of these practices was never clearly defined. But there was evidence of race-based inequalities. Slavery of whites was forbidden. Free Blacks could not be enslaved. However, those brought as slaves to Britain were considered bound to their owners.1772Lord Mansfield court ruling that a slave who has deserted his master could not be taken by force to be sold abroad.

Verdict triggers Black flight from their owners, the decline of slavery in England, and calls by Equiano and others for the abolition of the slave trade.

Clandestine Black quarters develop.1775-83In the wake of the American revolution hundreds of “Black loyalists”, the African-American slave-soldiers who fought on the side of the British, arrived in London.

Deprived of pensions, many of them were popular characters who sang and danced for pennies; others were indigent and begged in the streets.1786London’s Blacks and Asians (Lascars) lived among whites in such areas as Mile End, Stepney, Paddington, and St. Giles. Some were free-men, householders or tenants.

Many became the Black Poor: ex-low-wage soldiers, seafarers, dock hands and plantation workers, but with few desirable skills in an evolving urban capitalist economy.

1788 Black Londoners create active domestic, social and political life among themselves.

Yet, they often shared the same cramped dwellings, taverns and dancehalls as whites. Inter-mixing fed the growing panic that “London abounds with Black men and an increasing number of mulattos by white women”.1789Blacks and southeast Asian Lascars did not fit easily into the Poor Law welfare strategies for indigent whites of the period.

A special Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor laid plans for the Settlement of Blacks in Sierra Leone, West Africa.1789Publication of the memoirs of Equiano, the outstanding Black personality, The Interesting Narratives of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.1792-1815Further groups of Black soldiers and seamen settle in London after services in the Napoleonic wars. Late 18th century The slave trade declines greatly in economic importance to Britain with the evolution of industrial capitalism.

Resurgence of intolerance buttressed by “scientific racism”.

This effectively ends the first period of large-scale Black immigration to London and Britain.

Estimates indicate a drop in London Black population. This may due to decline in immigration, some out-migration to and settlement in North America, Africa and the Caribb­ean, and to the gradual absorption of Blacks and their descendants into the white population. 19th century 1807The British slave trade is abolished1834Parliament abolishes slavery throughout the British Empire.

Steady decline in numbers and visibility of London’s Black population. Fewer were brought in by West Indian planters and there were restrictions on immigrants from Africa.1880sNew build up of small Black dockside communities in London’s Canning Town, and in Liverpool and Cardiff, as new shipping links develop with the Caribbean and West Africa. 20th century London-born Black people begin to make a mark in London life.

Continuous influx of African students, sportsmen, students, and business persons. Some stay and gain positions as doctors, politicans and community activists. World War I Black communities grow with fresh arrival of Black merchant seamen and soldiers.

They revive settled Black communities in dockside areas of London as well as Liverpool and Cardiff; some take refuge with whites.

Continuous presence of small groups of students, professionals, workers from Africa and the Caribbean. World War II Caribbean and West Africans arrive in small numbers as wartime workers, merchant seamen and service personnel in the army, navy and air forces.

Black Londoners gain from challenge to hotel discrimination. Learie Constantine, welfare officer in the RAF, refused service in a London Hotel, wins damages. Post-war period 1948Black London greets Britain’s first group of invited post-war Caribbean worker/immigrants arriving on the SS Empire Windrush.

Many of the 492 passengers settle in Brixton now a prominent Black district.1950s to 1960sMass in-migration from all over the English-speaking Caribbean, particularly Jamaica and Trinidad, marks the arrival of the next Black settlers. Many are “invited” to fill labour requirements in hospitals, transport and railways and contribute to rebuilding the post-war urban economy.

Causes of migration vary, but there is little doubt that the entry of workers, families, relatives, spouses and children created households. This gave Black London the shape and character a UK community, more than simply a transplanted bit of the empire.

Working class Black London is born as one of the city’s diverse and often deprived working class, including English and white ethnic groups.

Trinidad-born Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956) learn new city tricks in the fleshpots of Soho and Piccadilly, “liming” or hanging out in taverns and street corners in Bayswater and Notting Hill – anywhere away from the boredom of low wage work and dreary crowded, unsanitary dwellings. George Lamming takes up the narrative in The Emigrants (1956) along with Colin MacInnes in City of Spades (1957).1962Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962) and a succession of laws severely restrict Black entry to Britain. It ends this Black settlement period. But marks the struggle against race prejudice and intolerance.

They were London’s new outsiders; the “dark strangers” shaped as much by accent, colour and sought for comfort and safety in group solidarity as by the forces of racism.

Finding housing was notoriously difficult. “No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs” was the message in many lodging house windows.

Recruited Caribbean workers faced racist agitation, most virulent when whites feared job competition.1975

David Pitt, Grenada-born Black London medic and civil rights leader, brings a new popular Caribbean voice to the House of Lords.

Nancy Foner chronicles the new Black London in Jamaica farewell: Jamaican migrants in London.  Routledge, 1979.

1981 Brixton, now London’s premier African Caribbean district, erupts as smouldering tension reveals youths’ joblessness and police harassments.

Disturbances follow in large cities, Liverpool and Manchester. Later, Lord Scarman’s Report highlights unsocial policing tactics and need to combat racism.

1980s Black Londoners and youth benefit from Labour-controlled Greater London Council’s initiatives. Councillors promoted equal opportunity and repeal of “repressive and racially discriminatory immigration and nationality laws and practices in the United Kingdom”.

1985 Broadwater Farm Estate rioters expose unrest among African Caribbean residents. Local politician Bernie Grant became Black champion nationally for condemning police actions. He gains loyal following among the unemployed, the Black community and the left.1987Black population, workers, and community activists support wins election of three Black Londoners, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng as Members of Parliament.1991-97Black Londoners numbered half a million people in the 1991 census, of which an increasing proportion were London- or British-born. Population change includes new mixed race persons, and in-migration of overseas people from Africa and Latin America.

1993 Black Londoners’ state-aided development goals in jeopardy. Voluntary groups launch report titled Funded to fail: nuff pain no gain: the under-resourcing of the African Caribbean voluntary sector in London.

1993 London death of teenager Stephen Lawrence sparks campaign against race-hate crimes by his parents, Doreen and Neville.

Despite modest socio-economic gains, and individual celebrity and wealth, discrimination remained a problem.

1995 Brixton erupts again as death of a Black man in police custody triggers protests and riots.

1996 London hosts formation of Operation Black Vote to promote Black voting and civic participation.

Black and minority ethnic parliamentarians increase to six in 1992 and nine in 1997 elections.

1998 Black London celebrate 50th anniversary of West. Indians arrival on the SS Windrush. Brixtonians promote public square as landmark.

1999 Black Londoners welcome the MacPherson report’s damning assessment of police “institutional racism” in Stephen Lawrence case.

2000  Death of the Hon. Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, and respected champion from that significantly African Caribbean city district.

Capsule history by Thomas L. Blair (c) Sources

Black London is, of course, a vital strand of Black History in the British Isles, from Roman times to the 21st century. One notable academic source is The Oxford Companion to Black British History, edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones, London, 2007

Moreover, London Metropolitan Archives continues to unearth evidence of the presence, study and representation of Black people in London’s history.

The texts of Black intellectuals, political and community movements must be added to this treasure trove, lest the Black experience remains invisible in the national heritage – see Decolonising Knowledge: Expanding the Black Experience in Britain’s Heritage, by Thomas L Blair, An e-book from Editions Blair ©2013, C:\Users\Thom Blair\Documents\EDITIONSBLAIR-MONOGRAPHS\Shaping Black London-FINAL-3.doc

Useful studies relevant to Shaping Black London include:

Banton, Michael (1955), The Coloured Quarter. Jonathan Cape. London.

Braidwood, Stephen J. Black poor and white philanthropists: London’s Blacks and the foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786-1791.  Liverpool University Press, 1994.

Carretta, Vincent (editor)  Unchained voices: an anthology of Black authors in the English speaking world of the eighteenth century/ edited by Vincent Carretta.  USA: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Collicott, Sylvia L. (1986), Connections. Haringey. Local-National-World Links. Haringey Community Information Service, London.

File, Nigel and Chris Power (1981), Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958. Heinemann Educational.

Gundara, Jagdish S. and Ian Duffield, eds. (1992), Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain. Avebury, Aldershot.

Merriman, Nick ed. (1993), The Peopling of London: Fifteen Thousand Years of Settlement from Overseas. Museum of London, London.

Scobie, Edward (1972) Black Britannia: A History of Blacks in Britain. Johnson Publishing. Chicago.

Shyllon, F.Q. (1977), Black People in Britain 1555-1833. Oxford University Press.

Shyllon, Folarin, “The Black Presence and Experience in Britain: An Analytical Overview,” in Gundara and Duffield eds. (1992), Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain. Avebury, Aldershot.

Walvin, James (1971), The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555-1860. Orbach and Chambers.

Walvin, James (1973), Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945. Penguin, London.

Comments, corrections and additions will be gratefully received.


Black Londoners have been shaping their histories for centuries. Settlers in Georgian times escaped the lash of their colonial masters. Latterly, the Windrush generation made their way to the “mother country”, their centre of the world.

This timeline reflects their courage and concerns.

However, there is a salutary lesson here. What I have learned from this timeline is: if your social group suffers three or more terrors of disadvantage over a period of centuries without parole, you should do something about it.

Evidence shows Black Londoners are colour-coded out of the economic, social and cultural opportunities their white neighbours take for granted.

Therefore, the agenda for the future must include personalities, events and actions to counter threats and enhance opportunities.

Certainly, Black Londoners will use the city’s changing race-class demographics to their benefit. Significantly, Black Africans (480,000) have surpassed Black Caribbeans (361, 581). They add a new African dimension to “being Black”. Though continental Africans, Nigerians and Ghanaians are among the poorest Black Londoners, the enterprising Africans, among them women traditionally small traders, are moving ahead in health are employed in education, business, parliamentary and local politics, diplomacy, media, tv,  finance, senior public and private health and technical professions.

This added demographic will power a surge in Black political activity in a city where more than a third of the rising population of 7.5m will be African and Caribbean and  Asian and “minority ethnics”. This will empower them as electoral majorities in inner London boroughs where they reside.

Furthermore, Black strivers and aspiring achievers will advance in the emergent class mobility charts. (The old was a severely divided tripartite of upper, middle and working class).

In the more fluid and porous divisions of the 21st century, they will aim to move upward rank by rank — from the most precarious underclass where many are to emergent public service workers to well-off technical and established middle classes.

Some Black personalities and multi-millionaires in sports, fashion, pop culture, crime, business, and politics, may even be accepted in the highest rank of elites.

However, I must pause. Recent evidence shows that social mobility – which is all the rage — is a “comforting illusion”.

Many Blacks no longer earn enough to escape poverty. The bright Black poor have been held back for decades, according to authoritative reports. There is not enough Room at the Top, admit the most progressive politicians, echoing the film that roused popular working class expectations.

Re-defining the Black presence will be a formidable task. However, it cannot be accomplished by Black Britons alone. Vanguard activists understand that progress is based on two key game-changing movements: collective action for social justice and changing the shape of the urban economy.

Expressing  this solidarity, Black public intellectuals will forsake the ivy towers of academe and link high theory to popular forces. Political and community leaders, workers and youth, and their allies will rebrand “being Black” as a positive force for change for all deprived sections of London.

These restless currents will relieve some of the terrors of disadvantage still facing Black Londoners. Moreover, thrusting upwards in the urban society and economy, and forward for race equality and justice, they will broaden the democratic base of the capital of one of the world’s rich democracies.