A photograph of a statue of Martin Luther King Junior in academic dress for graduation.
Historic photography Listed places

16 Stories of African Lives in Northern England

Discover the often untold stories of brilliant and resilient people of African heritage.

For centuries, people of African descent have visited and lived in villages and towns across the North of England.

Thanks to the African Lives in Northern England project, discover the often untold stories of brilliant and resilient people of African heritage and their roles.

1. The first African community in Britain

People born in Africa lived in Northern England 2,000 years ago when it was part of the Roman Empire. Evidence shows that the first African community was in Cumbria.

A photograph of a landscape of fields with light snow covering in the foreground.
Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap, Northumberland, with a light snow covering. © Historic England Archive. View image DP059903.

Troops protected Hadrian’s Wall from across the Roman Empire. One unit from Mauretania (modern-day Tunisia, Libya and Algeria) in North West Africa lived at Aballava Roman Fort at Burgh by Sands in Cumbria in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

Some soldiers would have had families living outside the fort and may have told their children songs and stories from Africa.

A plaque outside St Michael’s Church in Burgh by Sands recognises this first African community.

A photograph of the exterior of an English church and its surrounding headstones
The Grade I listed Church of St Michael in Burgh by Sands, Cumbria. Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Nick Bridgland. View List entry 1367134.

2. The African Emperor, Septimus Severus

Septimus Severus (145 to 211 AD), the Emperor of Rome, was born in Lepcis in Libya. He was of mixed African and Roman heritage.

A photograph of a statue of a Roman emperor.
A bronze statue of Septimus Severus outside the Leptis Magna Museum in Libya, North Africa. © Premier / Alamy Stock Photo.

Septimus came to Britain in the early 3rd century AD and rebuilt much of Hadrian’s Wall, including the fort at South Shields.

He had problems with his two quarrelling sons and ill-health and died in York in 211 AD. 

A photograph of a partially re-built Roman fort with ruined walls visible.
The partially rebuilt scheduled Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields, Tyne and Wear. Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Petra Wade. View List Entry 1005910.

3. Victor, the Freedman in South Shields

Victor, a Moor from Mauretania in North West Africa, is remembered on this tombstone at the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields.

He was a servant to a cavalryman, Numerianus, who was devoted to him and provided him with this beautiful tombstone carved by a Syrian stonemason.

A photograph showing a close up of a tombstone depicting a Roman figure in a toga lying on their side looking forward. The head and face of the figure are damaged.
The Victor tombstone at the scheduled Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields. © Peter Atkinson / Alamy Stock Photo.

4. William Fifefield, a ferryman in Newcastle

William Fifefield, from St Kitts, in the Caribbean, settled in Newcastle in 1794. ‘Well-known and respected’, he worked as a ferryman on the Tyne River.

He and his wife, Margaret Wintrup, lived at Bailey Gate Newcastle, near the Black Gate.

Fifefield later lived at Tuthill Stairs, between the castle and the quayside. He died in 1834.

A photograph of a 13th century castle gatehouse.
The Grade I listed Black Gate in Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear. © Historic England Archive. View image DP173735.

5. John Kent, Britain’s first Black policeman

John Kent (1805 to 1886), nicknamed ‘Black Kent’, is considered the first Black police officer in Britain. He was a watchman and a parish constable in Maryport, near Carlisle and a constable in Carlisle, Cumbria.

A painting of a group of policemen.
A painting of John Kent, second left, Britain’s first Black policeman, serving with Carlisle City Police. Source: ‘Watching Over Carlisle: 140 Years of the Carlisle City Police Force, 1827-1967’ by Bob Lowther.

He rescued a 17-year-old from drowning, kept the peace most of the time and fought fires. He worked at Carlisle Citadel railway station as a railway policeman.

He was described as ‘a Carlisle notable’ on his death in 1886.

A black and white photograph of the interior of a train station.
The Grade II* listed Citadel Station in Carlisle, Cumbria, in 1898. Source: Historic England Archive. View image AA97/05413.

6. Ira Aldridge, the first Black Shakespearean actor

Ira Aldridge (1807 to 1867), born in New York, USA, started acting at 14. Meeting racial discrimination, he moved to England at age 17.

A black and white photograph of a Black man in a Victorian suit.
A photograph of the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. © GRANGER – Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

He performed in Sunderland and at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle in 1827. He was the first Black Shakespearean actor, famous for his performance of Othello. He also played comedies joking on stage about local people.

Popular in Europe, he received awards from the rulers of Prussia (a German state), Russia and Bern, Switzerland. He died in 1867 in Poland, before his planned return performance in the USA.

A photograph of an ornate 19th century theatre.
The Grade I listed Theatre Royal in Newcastle. © Historic England Archive. View image DP059292.

7. Mary Ann Macham, a worker in North Shields

Mary Ann Macham (1802 to 1893) was sold at 12 years. She escaped enslavement in Virginia, North America and arrived in North Shields on Christmas Day in 1831.

The Miss Spences, a Quaker family, welcomed her. She worked in their household until marrying James Blyth, a local rope-maker.

A black and white photograph of a Black woman in Victorian dress.
A photograph of Mary Ann Macham. Source: African Lives in England / Low Light Museum.

Macham lived in Nelson Street, North Shields and Benwell, Newcastle. She died aged 91 and was buried in Tynemouth, where she has been commemorated with a memorial stone in Preston Cemetery.

A memorial stone to Mary Anne Macham in Preston Cemetery, Tynemouth. Source: African Lives in Northern England.

8. Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist

Frederick Douglass (1818 to 1895) spoke against enslavement throughout Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, Carlisle and Darlington in 1846 and 1860.

His lectures were so popular a special train was used so people from Sunderland, North and South Shields could attend his evening lecture in Gateshead.

A black and white photograph of a Black man in Victorian dress.
A photograph of Frederick Douglass around 1879. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

He often stayed with the Richardson’s in Newcastle and Cullercoats, and in 1847, they bought his freedom from enslavement.

A plaque was erected to Frederick Douglass at the Richardson’s Newcastle home at 5 Summerhill Grove in 2018.

9. Ellen and William Craft, abolitionists

Ellen (1826 to 1891) and William Craft escaped from enslavement in North America, with Ellen dressed in men’s clothes and William pretending to be her ‘slave’.

They fled to England in 1850 to avoid being recaptured.

A black and white illustration of a woman (left) and a man (right) in Victorian clothing.
Illustrations of Ellen and William Craft. Source: National Parks Service.

They wrote a book about their escape and spoke against enslavement in Carlisle, Darlington, and Newcastle in 1851. They later returned to America with 3 of their 5 children after 19 years in England.

10. Samuel Celestine Edwards, a worker and lecturer

Samuel Celestine Edwards (1857 to 1894) was one of 10 children of previously enslaved parents. He left Dominica, aged 12, to become a seaman.

Edwards lived in Sunderland between 1880 and 1882 as a labourer and lecturer. His lectures there, emphasising equality between African and white men, met with great applause.

A black and white photograph of a Black man in Victorian dress.
Samuel Celestine Edwards. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

He was a Christian preacher, student doctor, editor, and writer.

He used his journals and books to challenge racism in Britain and British violent rule in Uganda and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

11. Arthur Wharton, the world’s first Black professional footballer

Arthur ‘Kwame’ Wharton was born in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1865. In 1882, he came to England to train as a Methodist minister at Cleveland College, Darlington, but preferred playing sports.

A black and white photograph of a Black man in Victorian sporting attire.
A photograph of Arthur Wharton. © KGPA Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

As a runner, he became the first fastest man by running 100 yards in 10 seconds.

He played football for Darlington between 1885 and 1886 and is remembered as the world’s first Black professional football player. He also excelled in cycling, cricket and rugby and later worked as a miner. Wharton died in 1930.

12. Jimmy Durham, a Black Victorian soldier in the British army

In 1885, the Durham Light Infantry defeated a local army and found a baby in a boat on the Nile in the Sudan, Africa.

The regiment adopted the baby, and at 14, he became the first African allowed to join the regular British army.

A black and white photograph of a Black man in army uniform.
A photograph of Jimmy Durham.

Durham lived in Darlington, Tyneside, and Bishop Auckland. He played the clarinet and violin in the army band, strongly supported the Temperance movement, and died in Ireland aged 27 years.

13. Learie Constantine, a professional cricketer in Lancashire

Learie Constantine, MBE (1901 to 1971) played 18 Test Matches and took the West Indies’ first wicket in Test cricket. 

He came to England in 1928 as part of the West Indies Team tour and, in 1929, signed a contract to play for Nelson Cricket Club in Lancashire.

A black and white photograph of a Black cricketer walking on to the field past excited school children.
West Indies cricketer Learie Constantine walks out onto the field past excited children around 1932. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.

He was Trinidad’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and became the UK’s first Black peer in 1969.

He challenged racial discrimination and supported the Bristol Bus Boycott and the 1965 Race Relations Act.

14. Robert Wellesley-Cole, the first African Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons

Robert Wellesley-Cole (1907 to 1995), from Freetown, Sierra Leone, graduated from Newcastle Medical College at Durham University in 1934.

He overcame racism to become the first African Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1944.

A photograph of a Black man in red and white academic clothing for graduation.
A photograph of Robert Wellesley-Cole. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

He was called ‘the Black doctor’, with popular practices in Denton Burn and Whickham View in Newcastle. He had 5 clinics, including 1 for children, did minor operations, and looked after his patients in the hospital.

He left Newcastle in 1949 and worked as a doctor in Nottingham, a senior doctor and surgeon in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and an ophthalmologist in London.

15. Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights activist in Newcastle

Martin Luther King Jr (1929 to 1968) was an African-American Christian minister and a movement leader to give African people equal rights (known as the Civil Rights Movement).

A black and white photograph of a Black man in academic dress for graduation.
The civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr receiving an honorary degree at Newcastle University in Civil Law in November 1967. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.

He led enormous demonstrations for civil rights and supported non-violent action and the rights of workers and poor people. He was arrested 29 times and assassinated in 1968.

His statue on Newcastle University’s grounds commemorates his visit to Newcastle in 1967 to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University.

A photograph of a statue of Martin Luther King Junior in academic dress for graduation.
A bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr by Nigel Boonham outside Kings Quad Newcastle University. © Wilf Doyle / Alamy Stock Photo.

16. Muhammad Ali, the famous professional boxer in Tyne and Wear

Muhammad Ali (1942 to 2016) won 56 of his 61 boxing matches and was nicknamed ‘the Greatest’.

He refused to fight in the Vietnam War because it was against his religion and principles.

A black and white photograph of the boxer Muhammed Ali in a light coloured suit eating a giant sandwich known as a Stottie.
Muhammad Ali the Louisville Lip eating a Stottie cake, a traditional Geordie delicacy stuffed with lettuce, onion, cucumber and tomato, during his tour of Newcastle in July 1977. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1977, he visited youth clubs in Newcastle, toured the city in an open-air bus, and he and his new wife, Veronica, had their marriage blessed at the Al Azhar Mosque in South Shields.

Further reading

6 comments on “16 Stories of African Lives in Northern England

  1. David Marshall

    What about Charles Duncan ONeal?

    The first black elected councillor in Sunderland (Fulwell), who went on to form the first trade union in Barbados and is one of the ten national heroes of his country?

  2. Nice interesting article, thank you.

  3. Paul Watson

    Sycamore Gap is in Northumberland (not Cumbria).

  4. Cameron Gill, PhD

    Thank you for this article, I am from St. Kitts and found it to be fascinating reading.

  5. David Griffiths

    Fascinating but very heavily North East, with nobody from Yorkshire & the Humber, 1 from Lancs – does that reflect reality or is it an artefact of who researched it and where they’re based? ‘Northern England’ surely implies wider coverage.

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