Avril Nanton is a frequent visitor to the Old Bailey, not the courthouse itself but its online archives, which go back to the 17th century.
Blessed with a love of history and an active imagination, she found herself trawling through the 200,000 or so proceedings, noticing that a significant number involved black people.
They included the case of Lawrence Noney, a “black Boy” who in 1690 was sentenced to being “whipt” from Newgate to the Royal Exchange, a distance of more than a kilometre.
His crime? He burgled a silver headed staff from the Honourable Company of Haberdashers in Smithfield.
In 1702 Mary Harris, was sentenced to be whipped until her “back be bloody” for stealing sheets from the house in St Giles where she worked.
They were both part of an army of servants, who two and half centuries ago swelled London’s black population to several thousand, so fashionable had they become as symbols of wealth for the rich.
“I found researching around these trials absolutely fascinating,” says Avril (pictured right). “The more I discovered the more I was able to build up a picture of black life in London over the centuries, one that I was never really aware of. I thought that if I was that interested others would be too. ”
The result is that Avril, an events organiser from Enfield, now presents talks on the subject, based on details from the archive, which were first unveiled to the public a decade ago.
“I talk about ordinary people who no one would ever have heard of but also those who were free and even wealthy enough to travel abroad,” she explains.
“The point is, black people were going about their daily lives just like everybody else. They worked and they socialised and they sometimes ended up in court.”
While some are perpetrators of crime, others are victims of it, often as a result of racial prejudice, both on the streets and within the judicial system itself.
In 1693 Abraham Anderson was found guilty of a fatal stabbing with a sword after he and a friend were called “jack-a-napes” – monkeys – and “sons of whores” while walking along Long Acre, Covent Garden.
Anderson fled to Flanders but when he slipped back into London was spotted in a “house of ill repute” and arrested. He pleaded self defence and, although he was found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, was sentenced to death.
Avril notes that although the black Britons of 17th and 18th century London were shaped by slavery, they did not see themselves as lesser people. “Judging from the eloquent way they addressed the court, they carried themselves with dignity, whatever their station in life.”
Two hundred years later, Benjamin Curgerpersong, an American actor playing the lead in Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Hammersmith Palais, was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for grievous bodily harm with a knife after he was punched and kicked into the gutter by three men in Shepherd’s Bush, who had taunted him with ‘N’ word.
In a statement read out during his 1903 trial Curgerpersong, 51, told police, “They came over to me in a fighting attitude, saying, ‘Who the b—f—are you; can you do anything? “I says, ‘I am a gentleman, I hope.’ One said to the other, ‘Bill, give him one,’ which he immediately set about doing.”
“Although the court accepted that he had acted ‘under great provocation’ and that it was three against one, it still chose to deal with him harshly,” comments Avril, whose presentation, Crime and Punishment at the Old Bailey 1674-1913, has been part of the Haringey Black History Month programme.
Old Bailey punishments were in general draconian, in its view to act as a deterrent to crime. Take the 1744 case of Ann Duck of Chancery Lane, a 25-year-old thief whose stock in trade was to lure sailors into pubs with the promise of sex, make them drunk, then rob them.
Acquitted four times of “violent robbery”, she was found guilty on the fifth and sent to the gallows at Tyburn, the present site of Marble Arch. Described as the daughter of a “well known” black man who gave fencing lessons to lawyers in Gray’s Inn, the court notes she was “deservedly condemn’d, though but for a Trifle”.
Black defendants are described in a number of ways, including blackamoor, negro and even “off colour”.
“There was also an element of Johnny Foreigner in the way people were perceived,” says Avril. “I’d be reading through a case of a person described as black only to find out they were in fact Italian or Greek. It was enough not to be English and a bit ‘dark’.”
Suspects, she found, often lived in the warrens of no-go areas like St Giles, home to many runaway slaves and the setting for Gin Lane by the 18th century artist Hogarth, who featured many black characters in his images of London life.
“When it comes to black history we tend to either concentrate on the history of long ago, like Ancient Egypt or post-Windrush,” says Avril, 55.
“Very little research is done on what happened in between. I am not a professional historian but in my own small way I hope to bring a forgotten community back to life through my talks.”
First published in Camden Review, October 17 2013