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24 September 2014

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You are in: Liverpool > Features > Latest Features > Black pioneers

Black pioneers

From mayors to merchants Liverpool's Black Community has produced a great number of pioneers in its 250 year history.

George Christian

George Christian (centre)

Liverpool's black community is one of the oldest in Europe with a continuous presence dating back more than two and a half centuries.

Local historian Ray Costello has been researching the lives of Liverpool's black pioneers.

In many cases he's found stories of people who were the first to attain posts and roles that because of the prevalent racism of the time would have previously been closed to them.

Ranging from merchants to mayors many of the stories have never been told before. Despite dating back to before the American War of Independence little research has previously been done in to the role and impact that people from Liverpool's Black Community have played in the life of the UK.

Five of the people who Ray has researched include the first black mayor in the UK and the Ghanaian who introduced swimming lessons to local schools.

Cricketing first

Clovis Maidstone Roach was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1918. He came to Merseyside to work in an ordnance factory in Fazakerley during World War Two, settling in the area after the war.

He became one of the first black probation officers in England and was awarded the MBE in 1977. When he retired in 1982 he was a magistrate.

Clovis was the first black man to play in Liverpool Cricket competition, keeping wicket for the Birkenhead Park team.

Eating bird bread

June Burnett who became an internationally known black artist recalls life with her first husband in 1950’s Liverpool.

“When my father in law discovered I was not Spanish but a ‘common half cast’ as he put it, I told him that I was by no means common. My husband was not bigoted but his parents were.

“We had a little boy but my husband often strayed staying with other women for several nights.”

June Burnett

June Burnett

“One day as he stayed away longer than usual I assumed he’d left us. The landlady threw us out. Baby and I walked to the Pier Head to find him but couldn’t, sleeping on various benches near the landing stage.

“I remember how cold I was because I had no coat, my baby however was warm. Our days were spent eating bird bread from the park.”

“The only place I could take my baby was to my in laws. I had to give him up to keep him safe. They didn’t take me in but I assumed I’d be welcome to see my child. How wrong I was…I saw my child only once ever again.”

Wealthy merchant

George William Christian was born in Beaufort Street in Toxteth. He became a clerk for the Holt Shipping Line, which had a tradition of employing young black men in clerical positions, he was soon sent to work in Africa.

In Africa he established his own merchant trading businesses in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Back on Merseyside, now wealthy, he named his Wallasey home after his shipping company and died a rich man in Cameroon in 1924.

Swimming star

James Clarke was born in Ghana in 1886. At 14 he stowed away on a ship bound for Liverpool where he was adopted by an Irish family in the Scotland Road area.

By day he worked on the docks but in the evenings he trained hard as a swimmer, beginning his swimming career at Wavertree Swimming Club where he won many medals.

James Clarke

James Clarke and swimming team

He lived by Tate & Lyle’s factory and could often see children bathing in a nearby pool. As many of them couldn’t swim they often got in to trouble and concerned by this James started to teach swimming lessons at his local swimming pool. Many schools soon followed the lead until swimming lessons became a regular feature of school life.

Mayoral ambitions

John Richard Arthur became the Mayor of Battersea in 1913. He was one of the UK’s earliest black mayors and as such encountered much opposition and racism.

As a child he’d lived in Blake Street behind Lime Street station, on his appointment as mayor a newspaper questioned  his fitness for office asking “how a ‘man of colour’ could govern?”.

In response John Richard Arthur told the Daily Express “I am the son of a man born in the West Indian Islands.

“I was born in England in a little obscure village never heard of until now, the City of Liverpool. I am a Lancastrian born and bred.”

Ray Costello will be presenting a lecture and question & answer session about Liverpool Black Pioneers in BBC Radio Merseyside's Performance Space Friday, 12 October starting at 2pm.  Book your place by calling 0151 708 5500

last updated: 08/10/07

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