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Black History Month: Barking’s links with Britain’s colonial past revealed

PUBLISHED: 17:00 14 October 2020

Mohandas K Gandhi, known as the Mahatma, played a major part in the struggle for home rule for India and was frequently imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience against the Raj. Picture: PA

Mohandas K Gandhi, known as the Mahatma, played a major part in the struggle for home rule for India and was frequently imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience against the Raj. Picture: PA

PA Archive/Press Association Images

As the country marks Black History Month, local historian Simone Panayi delves into Barking’s links to the slave trade, a prison reformer and Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi addressing a women's meeting in Bombay in 1931. Picture: PA Archive.Mahatma Gandhi addressing a women's meeting in Bombay in 1931. Picture: PA Archive.

Tucked away in the tiny print of Victorian newspapers is a story that should be shared this Black History Month and beyond.

It is an inspirational tale of transcending suffering to fight for freedom and equality.

In October 1888, the Reverend W B Brown and his wife were on a lecture tour entitled Scenes in Slave Land.

They had travelled from Baltimore, America, to speak out against slavery.

Elizabeth Fry by Samuel Drummond. This picture is in the National Portrait Gallery collection. Picture: NPGElizabeth Fry by Samuel Drummond. This picture is in the National Portrait Gallery collection. Picture: NPG

The couple addressed Barking Baptists and their story was recorded in various London papers.

Reverend Brown was born the son of a free father and a slave mother and forced to “scare crows” for “his owner”, from the age of eight.

He was “always longing to escape” and eventually took that perilous risk.

Recaptured and resold, he fled north to join the Union Army during the civil war, to fight to end slavery in the United States.

More than 1,000 people attended Elizabeth Fry's funeral in North Street, Barking. Picture: LBBD Archives/Valence HouseMore than 1,000 people attended Elizabeth Fry's funeral in North Street, Barking. Picture: LBBD Archives/Valence House

In 1863, “the guns boomed out” to celebrate the proclamation of emancipation – freedom for all slaves – and he shared, “…with 4,500,000 others... the joy of liberty”.

The transatlantic slave trade had begun several hundred years earlier – taken from Africa by British and European traders, slaves were exploited for their labour in the “new world” colonies across the Americas and Caribbean islands.

They were enslaved to produce valuable commodities for their owners, such as rum, sugar, tobacco, and cotton.

One of the first religious groups to challenge the existence of slavery were the Quakers. They argued that all people were born equal.

The memorial to Elizabeth Fry in Barking. Picture: Steve PostonThe memorial to Elizabeth Fry in Barking. Picture: Steve Poston

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The Religious Society of Friends was founded in 1652. Quakers were recorded in Barking soon after and they purchased half an acre of orchard here in 1672 to use as a burial ground.

One of their many advocates for the abolition of slavery was Elizabeth Fry, who lived in Newham for 35 years and became a world-famous prison reformer.

She was buried in Barking’s Quaker Cemetery in 1845.

The Gurdwara Singh Sabha London East in Barking. Picture: Isabel InfantesThe Gurdwara Singh Sabha London East in Barking. Picture: Isabel Infantes

In 1908, a new Quaker Meeting House was built. This was purchased by Barking’s Sikh community in 1971, to become the Barking Gurdwara Singh Saba, which will be celebrating 50 years in Barking next year.

The crowning glory for this anniversary will be the new Gurdwara, in the style of its region of origin, the Punjab.

Barking’s Indian connections date back to at least 1866, when the great Jute works was built.

At the time it was the largest in the world.

There were more than 1,000 workers, mainly women and children, creating jute sacks.

The factory closed in 1891 and in 1895 William Warne took it over to make medical products from natural rubber – caoutchouc – which was also imported from India.

Mahatma Gandhi visited Barking in 1931, speaking up for civil liberties and Indian independence from the British Empire, which was eventually achieved in 1947, along with Pakistan.

Many other colonies were granted independence during the post war era.

Nigeria is celebrating 60 years of Independence from the British Empire this month and Barking residents of Nigerian heritage now form one of the largest ethnic communities in the borough.

A legacy of British colonial history has been the settlement of people from across the former empire here in Barking.

Although the slave trade was abolished by the UK government in 1807 and slavery outlawed across the British empire in 1834, the battle against racial prejudice, for people of African heritage in the UK and previous colonies, has continued and the fight for equal rights and opportunities,for all underprivileged and minority groups will carry on.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Barking Heritage Project welcomes volunteers of every heritage to find out more about Barking’s past.


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