8 Important Sites in the History of Black Music in England

In this by no means exhaustive list, we look at some of the most important buildings and places in the history of music by Black musicians.

Tudor music at Greenwich Palace

The Royal Naval College, 1870-1900 © Historic England Archive CC97/01513
The Royal Naval College, 1870-1900 © Historic England Archive CC97/01513

Coming to London at the beginning of the 16th Century, the trumpeter John Blanke is one of the earliest recorded Black people to have lived in Britain.

He arrived with Catherine of Aragon and records show payments to him from the Treasurer of the Chamber in 1507 (by Henry VII) and then 1509 (by Henry VIII).

Blanke is thought to be portrayed on the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll.

Extract from the Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly showing John Blanke. Image via Wikimeda Commons

It’s likely that he performed at Greenwich Palace (today the Old Royal Naval College). In 2016, historian David Olusoga unveiled a plaque at the site honouring Blanke.

Jazz at the Shim Sham Club

Garland Wilson, between 1938 and 1948, by William P. Gottlieb. Image public domain
Garland Wilson, between 1938 and 1948, by William P. Gottlieb. Image via public domain

Opening just before the Second World War, the Shim Sham Club was located at 37 Wardour Street in Soho (now an O’Neills) and was presented as a members club, to avoid alcohol restrictions.

A haven for bohemians and outsiders, it welcomed artists, models, writers and musicians, as well as Queer, Black and Jewish Londoners.

Garland Wilson, an African American jazz pianist who came to England in the 1930s, regularly performed at the club – notably on its opening night in 1935.

Calypso at Tilbury Docks

Located 25 miles east of central London, the Port of Tilbury is the city’s primary dock.

Until the 1960s it served passengers as well as cargo and in 1948, 492 Caribbeans arrived aboard the Empire Windrush seeking a new life.

The arrivals featured a number of calypso musicians including Lord Kitchener, Lord Woodbine and Lord Beginner, shown on their arrival in this video from 0.48 seconds.

Rock at 23-25 Brook Street, London

23 Brook Street,City of Westminster,London,View from north. Detail of blue plaque © Historic England Archive DP187271
Detail of blue plaque at 23 Brook Street, City of Westminster, London © Historic England Archive DP187271

Having spent several years struggling to get his career off the ground in his native America, Jimi Hendrix arrived in England in 1966.

His talent was soon noticed and he earned rapturous praise from musicians like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. In 1968 he moved into a flat with his girlfriend at 23 Brook Street, W1. Though Hendrix only lived there briefly, it is his only recognised residence in the world.

In 1997 English Heritage commemorated Hendrix with a blue plaque.

Trip Hop at Colston Hall, Bristol (now Bristol Beacon)

A Grade II Listed building in the centre of Bristol, Colston Hall has played host to a range of performers since it opened at the end of the 19th century. 

However, the hall, alongside schools and a number of other civic buildings in the city, takes its name from Edward Colston, who made his vast personal wealth from the slave trade

The name remains a source of contention: trip hop pioneers Massive Attack, arguably Bristol’s most famous musical sons, have refused to play at the venue until the name is changed.

In 2020, Colston Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon.

Soca at Leeds Town Hall

Notting Hill Carnival is England’s biggest Caribbean carnival, but it wasn’t the first.

In 1967 a young student named Arthur France arrived in Leeds from the island of Nevis. To combat his ‘crippling homesickness’, France set about organising a street parade to lift the spirits of his fellow migrants.

Static, indoor events had taken place in London, but this was the first time that a West Indian Parade, organised by Caribbeans and consisting of predominantly Black people had taken place in England.

The now annual parade formerly began in Potternewton Park, Chapeltown, and ended at Leeds Town Hall (the route now starts and ends in Potternewton Park).

Drum & Bass and Jungle at Hoxton Square, London

Long before Hoxton underwent massive gentrification it was home to Blue Note – a pioneering club that opened in 1993.

It was here that Kemi Olusanya, Clifford Joseph Price and Jayne Conneely launched one of London’s most important club nights.

Better known as Kemistry, Goldie and Storm, the trio launched the record label and night Metalheadz in 1995 where they performed alongside DJs like Fabio and Grooverider, Doc Scott and Peshay. The night swiftly became legendary, attracting audiences from around the world and celebrity guests like Bjork, David Bowie and Lauryn Hill.

Beyond being a site of importance to Black British music, Metalheadz at Blue Note is an important landmark in the often ignored history of women in dance music.

Grime, Garage and UK Funky at Ingram House, London

In the 1960s, the lack of genre diversity on the radio led to the emergence of Pirate Radio, initially to cater to pop and rock fans.

In the following decades new stations sprung up across the UK, broadcasting out of bedrooms, kitchens and warehouses, providing a vital lifeline for the Black music.

Launched over Carnival weekend in 1995 on the 18th floor of Ingram House in Bow, Rinse FM was pivotal to the growth of several genres, including Garage, Grime and UK Funky.

In 2005 one of the founders DJ Slimzee was caught on the roof of a block in Shadwell setting up a new rig: he received an ASBO banning him from every roof in Tower Hamlets, ending his career with Rinse. However, the team persisted and in 2010 they were finally granted a community FM licence.

In 2016, Historic England supported the BBC’s ‘Black and British’ season with a series of new listings that celebrate Black British history. Find our more here.

Further reading:

3 responses to 8 Important Sites in the History of Black Music in England

  1. dannyfriar says:

    In Leeds the Town Hall was were the first international steel pan contest took place in 1967. The Trades Hall in Chapeltown, Leeds was were the Calypso King contest took place. The article doesn’t really explain that.

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