Black British History Highlighted by New Listings and Amendments on the National Heritage List for England
A lifelike portrait bust by Zimbabwean artist David Mutasa in tribute to actor, poet and playwright Alfred Fagon, and a rare gravestone marking the life of Joseph Freeman, who liberated himself from enslavement, have been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.
A further three amendments to existing listings highlight and celebrate their historical significance. The Baptist Church in North Shields that welcomed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak on the system of slavery during his tour of England, Scotland and Wales in 1846; 6 and 7 Christmas Steps in Bristol, once the residence of Carlos Trower, a famous high rope artist nicknamed the ‘African Blondin’, and the grave of William Darby 'Pablo Fanque' – the most celebrated equestrian performer in Victorian England and first Black circus owner in Britain.
These new listings and additions mark the significance of these sites and highlight the stories of these important figures from Black British history.
Statue of Alfred Fagon, Bristol
Alfred Fagon was among one of the most notable Black British playwrights of the 1970s and 1980s, and at the time of his death it is thought that he was still the only Black British playwright to have had work broadcast on national television. In 1996, to mark Fagon’s contribution to theatre, radio, television and film, The Alfred Fagon Award was launched to recognise Black British playwrights in the country. The first award was made in 1997.
Alfred Fagon’s story as a 1950s immigrant whose talent led him to enrich the cultural life of this country is a notable chapter in our national cultural story. This bust, erected in 1987 in his adopted home city, is a permanent monument to him and his work.
Listing celebrates this bust’s special architectural and historic interest and gives it a form of protection for future generations.
Grave of Joseph Freeman, Chelmsford
The second listing is of a rare gravestone belonging to Joseph Freeman, a formerly enslaved man from New Orleans who liberated himself from enslavement, and who died in Chelmsford in 1875.
This memorial to an enslaved African American who sought refuge in England between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its abolition in 1864, is of considerable importance both nationally and internationally. It provides tangible evidence of formerly enslaved African American people in England.
Highlighting the story of one man and his remarkable courage to escape servitude in New Orleans, this gravestone is an evocative reminder of the human impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Baptist Church, North Shields
Grade II listed Baptist Church in North Shields is significant as one of the venues that welcomed abolitionist Frederick Douglass during his tour of the UK in 1846, speaking on the system of slavery.
Douglass spoke to thousands in public halls, private homes, chapels and churches during a 19-month tour, speaking on the abolitionists’ cause, women’s rights, temperance, land reform, education and capital punishment.
Following the completion of the tour, he returned to the US a free man, following the purchase of his freedom by the Quaker sisters, Ellen and Anna Richardson, with whom he had stayed in Newcastle.
6 and 7 Christmas Steps, Bristol
6 and 7 Christmas Steps in Bristol are a pair of Grade II listed attached houses with former shops at ground level, now rare due to bombing in the Second World War.
This new amendment is to mark that number 7 was the residence of Carlos Trower in the 1870s. Trower was known by his stage name ‘The African Blondin’ and was a high rope artist of national repute. His self-liberation from enslavement in America was followed by a prolific career developing and performing circus acts to large audiences in this country and internationally.
The revised List entry celebrates his achievements and acknowledges the historical importance of his association.
Grave of William Darby 'Pablo Fanque’, Leeds
The List entry for the Grave memorial to Susannah and William Darby has also been amended to highlight the extraordinary story of Darby and his wife.
Born around 1801, Susannah died on 18 March 1848 when the gallery seating at her husband’s circus collapsed on her during a performance.
Her husband, William Darby, was more widely known under his professional name of Pablo Fanque. He was one of the most successful circus impresarios in Victorian England and the first Black circus owner in Britain.
His skill with horses was renowned throughout Victorian society as a result of his early appreciation and understanding of the power of advertising. It was one of his adverts, for one of the many charitable performances that Fanque staged, that inspired John Lennon to write the 1967 Beatles song “For the Benefit of Mr Kite”.
Fanque regularly held performances to raise money for fellow circus performers in need because of retirement or ill health.
Black History Month offers a great opportunity to bring attention to Black stories and celebrate the important contributions of Black people to our nation’s story. The stories highlighted by these new listings and amendments are fascinating and important additions to The National Heritage List for England. These new additions are part of our ongoing commitment to recognising and celebrating our diverse heritage.
Black History Month is an important time to celebrate and reflect on the diversity of our heritage. These new listings will preserve important pieces of our history and make sure the stories behind the landmarks are told to new generations.
These listings and amendments are the next of many cultural projects that Historic England aims to deliver to shine a light on the diversity of our heritage. Historic England’s Strategy for Inclusion, Diversity and Equality was published in November 2020 and outlines the organisation’s commitment to ensuring that a diverse range of people are able to connect with, enjoy and benefit from the historic environment.
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