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Brighton and Hove Black History: Discovering Diverse Sussex with Bert Williams

a colour photo of an Afro Caribbean nurse using a microscope

A nurse from Brighton General Hospital, 1960s. Courtesy Brighton & Hove Black History

Ahead of DIVERSE SUSSEX a programme of events in Eastbourne during November 2018 honouring the hidden diversity of people in Sussex, we talk to people’s historian Bert Williams (MBE D.lit) of Brighton & Hove Black History about his quest to discover and share BME histories in collections and archives in Brighton and the South East

By now most people are aware of Brighton’s proud connection to soldiers from India during the First World War, their recuperation at the Royal Pavilion and the Chattri memorial on the South Downs that commemorates their sacrifice. But the wider history of Black Minority Ethnic (BME) lives in Brighton and East Sussex is less well known – and they would have remained so were it not for the efforts of Bert Williams, who began by making pamphlets and graduated to sharing stories of the black experience in Brighton via Facebook pages, a dedicated website and through walking tours of the city.

Bert came to England from Jamaica in 1960 at the age of 16. He served in the RAF and then worked for the NHS until his retirement when he chaired Mosaic, a local group supporting black and mixed-race families. In 2002 he co-launched Brighton and Hove Black History and helped set up the Chattri Memorial service, to formally commemorate the Indian soldiers.

But it was a conversation with a child that ignited his passion for black histories.

“When Mosaic first received some money from the National Lottery to help us get an office I asked the children: “if we had an office what would you like to see in there?”, he says, “and this little kiddie around nine years old, a mixed race kiddie like me, said he would like to know more about his history and his heritage.

“All I could tell him about was my experience in Jamaica and the like. I just didn’t know.”

a photo of a Indian soldiers in a formal grouping outside

Indian soldiers convalescing at the Royal Pavilion during WWI.

a photo of a man in top hat and overcoat sat on a pier deckchair

Haile Selassie on the West Pier, Brighton © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

a test sheet showing a portriat of a seated young African woman

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy albumen print, 15 September 1862 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This was 1995 and Bert decided to have a look in the archives to see what he could find about local black history. “I was told there was no black history in Brighton,” he says, “but the deeper I looked the more I found. I’ve even found Haile Selassi sitting on Brighton Pier!

Apart from the story of the Ethiopian King’s visit to Brighton in 1938 during his exile in Britain, one of the first Brighton black histories Bert discovered was a local angle on the fascinating story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people.

Orphaned at just five-years-old during an inter-tribal war, she was sold into slavery in the 1840s, and then liberated by a British naval captain. She eventually became goddaughter to Queen Victoria.

“She got married in Brighton in 1862 to an African man called James Davis at St Nicholas Church in Brighton,” says Bert. “On the big day they couldn’t get into their own wedding because of the crowd. The newspaper had reported a suspected royal wedding in Brighton and everybody turned up.

“All the boys and girls were watching from up in the trees and people were sitting on the fencing, so they had to send a message to the Chief Constable, who at that time was in Brighton Town Hall, to come and clear the way for her to get in.”

Forbes Bonetta was photographed by photo pioneer Camille Silvy and features in the National Portrait Gallery collection, but this story was just the beginning and as the equally fascinating histories of lesser known people began to emerge, Bert started to share them in a pamphlet that he would distribute to friends and the through the Mosaic network.

19 of the recruits died of cold-related illnesses and were buried in the town’s cemetery

Another history with a royal connection came courtesy of the Prince Regent (later George IV) who supported a child musical prodigy of Barbadian origin called George Bridgetower. 

“He played in the Prince’s band for 14 years in the Pavilion,” says Bert. “He became so famous that Beethoven wrote about him, and when the two met, the composer gave George a tuning fork and proclaimed him a master of his instrument.”

Bert’s next discovery was 19 West Indians buried just along the coast from Brighton in Seaford. “That was a real shock, but during the First World War Britain was short of troops to fight, so they recruited people from the dominion and the empire and men came from the Caribbean to fight in Europe.

“To tell you the truth they used them as labourers, and 20,000 were recruited in the First World War. They were taken to Seaford for training and then they would send them on to the Western Front.”

While in Seaford, which was a major training centre for the army in the First World War, 19 of the recruits died of cold-related illnesses and were buried in the town’s cemetery, amongst 199 Canadian and 56 Irish soldiers.

“Every year on the Tuesday after the 11th of the 11th, there is a memorial service for the West Indians in Seaford. They’ve planted a tree in memory of them in the cemetery, so they are now being remembered.”

a photom of a commonwealth war graves commission headstone

A gravestone of a soldier of the West Indian Regiment in Seaford. Courtesy Brighton and Hove Black History

a black and white group picture of a wets indian soldiers with British white civilians

British West Indian Regiment soldiers in Seaford in 1915.

a photo of a stone cross gravestone

The gravestone of Thomas Highflyer in Woodvale Cemetery. Courtesy Brighton and Hove Black History

Just like the forgotten soldiers in a corner of a Sussex cemetery, many BME histories are hidden in the depths of the archives, in forgotten newspaper reports or census returns, but Bert and his fellow volunteers at the Brighton and Hove Black History website together with their active Facebook communities began unearthing and sharing more and more of them.

“Sometimes it’s people telling me this history and then I do the research,” he says, “for instance someone sent me a tweet about an East African slave boy who was 12-years-old when he died and is buried in Wood Vale cemetery in Brighton.”

Thomas Highflyer was liberated from a slave ship off Zanzibar and, like Sarah Forbes Bonetta, named after the Captain and the ship – HMS Highflyer – that liberated him. He eventually arrived in Brighton where he was looked after by a local family.

Thomas went to St Mark’s School in Brighton’s Whitehawk – until he died of tuberculosis and dropsy. Now thanks to the work of Bert and his colleagues he’s become an important figure in the school’s history and his grave has been located.

“It’s a sad story,” says Bert, “but according to all the documents, he was loved. And he’s buried with a very expensive headstone in a private part of Woodvale Cemetery quite near to soldiers and sailors, so you can see how much they thought of him.”

“He was valueless as a slave, so the master sold him and his mum”

These Dickensian stories of little boys and girls escaping from slavery are inevitably highly emotive. Even in the Victorian period, when the slave trade had been abolished in all of the English colonies, it persisted in pockets across the world. “Slavery was a trade like gold or diamonds, unfortunately it was in human beings,” says Bert, “so it has been going on for a long time. It really makes the heart pump a little bit fast to tell you the truth.”

Bert tells the story of searching through the archives and records of the 1860s, and coming across the story of a little blind slave boy from America.

“He was valueless as a slave, so the master sold him and his mum. His new master let the little blind boy hang about the house where he heard the children play the piano. When they were away this little boy would play everything that he heard, he just had that gift.”

As a slave he was barred from playing to audiences in America yet records show that the little boy performed in Brighton, in the Pavilion Music Room for four nights’ running. He astounded the audience by playing any tune – off the cuff – that he had only just heard.

an eighteenth century ova styled portrait of a young Afro-Caribbean man

George Bridgetower by Henry.

a group photo showing seated soldiers with bandages

A postcard showing recuperating soldiers at Brighton General Hospital with a West Indian soldier centre front. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

a black and white photo of two children and a woman singing and playing guitars

Three black musicians performing in the King’s Road, Brighton, in front of the Metropole Hotel. Photograph by Alexander Lamont Henderson, May 1890.

But it’s not just the histories of black people in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that Brighton Black History is telling, there are many histories within living memory, including Bert’s own history and that of his family that also need to be shared.

Bert served five years with the RAF, his brother served for 22 and both of his sisters were recruited as nurses during the Windrush years – when they trained as nurses at Brighton General Hospital. In 1948 during the birth of the National Health Service Britain looked to the Caribbean, India and Africa for nursing staff and Bert’s sisters came over in 1957 and 1958.

“There were a lot of black nurses at Brighton General. I actually married one of them”

“It’s funny,” he says, “I remember it because I was in the Boys’ Brigade. My brother and I went to welcome Princess Margaret in Jamaica when she came to Mandeville in 1957. Because my brother and I were just 11 and 13 and we came from the country, my two elder sisters accompanied us.”

While Bert and his brother were standing to attention, the sisters went into a marquee where they picked up some nursing magazines. They applied to five hospitals in England and when Brighton was the first to respond, they came to the south coast.

“There were a lot of black nurses at Brighton General. I actually married one of them. My sister introduced me – I met her in 1963 and we’re still together now!”

The Brighton and Hove Black History project has recently been recording the oral histories of the nurses, who like Bert’s wife came over in the 1950s, and he says most them have very positive memories of the experience.

“They loved it,” he says, “it was freedom away from their homes. You’ve got to remember these girls in the 1950s had quite a lot of discipline from their parents.”

The majority of them were also well educated by the standards of the time. Nurses from the Caribbean had to have at least three O-levels, which, says Bert, were set by the Oxford, London or the Nottingham Board and marked in England, “so we had the same standard of education as England really.”

two side by side photos of Afro Caribbean nurses

West Indian nurses at Brighton General Hospital in the 1950s and 1960s. Courtesy Brighton Black History.

“You’ve got to remember the attitude of black nurses to white people, they came from a black country, and as far as we in the Caribbean were concerned the white was Jesus Christ near enough, you had to bow to them, you had to respect them, you had to take your hat off to them.

“So when you come to England and you see a white man cleaning the street you just can’t believe your eyes. When you’re in Jamaica the impression you get about England is that streets are paved with gold and everything is like Hyde Park and Mayfair.

“We knew all about the engineering in Birmingham and Bristol and how it works, because all that machinery came to Jamaica on the farms. And all the names in England were the same in Jamaica. Brighton, Hastings, you know? So we were used to the names. So it was really an experience.”

Bert’s experiences are now part of the fabric of black history in Brighton, yet his approach to telling both his own and other people’s black histories is both measured and conciliatory. So what would he like people to take from them?

“I would like people to feel good about themselves,” he says, “in particular black people or mixed parentage people. I’m mixed race myself and when you live here and experience racism, you can sometimes feel you have always been put down, the television put you down, your teachers, your parents … and I just wanted to give people something to feel good about.

“I mean, if I knew all this when I was young, at 16 years old, and people were calling me names I would have been able to say, “well look mate, I fought for your freedom and liberty.” So many of us contributed, but we didn’t know anything about that.”

Explore Brighton and Hove Black History at www.black-history.org.uk

Bert Williams will be talking about the Indian soldiers during WWI with fellow Brighton & Hove Black History volunteer Suchi Chatterjee as part of DIVERSE SUSSEX at the DC1 Café and Gallery in Eastbourne on November 10 2018. Book via Eventbrite.

The DIVERSE SUSSEX programme runs from November 8 – 22 2018 at DC1 Cafe & Gallery in Eastbourne. Visit writingourlegacy.org.uk for more information.

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