“A somewhat novel case”: a Black life in the Black Country

It’s Black History Month, and as I have a little spare time I wanted to share a story that came up during my PhD research. Black history is often (wrongly) regarded as separate to Black Country history, or as something recent, but I turned up loads of Black people living their lives in mid-Victorian Wolverhampton. They too were the working class, and they were as diverse in experience and outlook as any other Black Country person.

On the morning of 11th September 1861, Ann Lewis woke to find that her house had been broken into during the night. She lived in a cramped court off Canal Street (now Broad Street), Wolverhampton, one of the poorest spots in town and full of dilapidated old houses. A thief had broken in by removing a small window and had made off with a pile of clothes – not Ann’s, but laundry that she had taken in from Hannah Hassell, from a neighbouring court. Ann’s husband Richard was an agricultural labourer, and laundry was a handy bit of extra income. She was probably glad that a few items of (albeit quite nice) women’s clothing were all that had been taken.

The thief was soon discovered. On the Friday morning, PC Mingay spotted a man he decided was a vagrant in St Peter’s Churchyard (on the Horse Fair, now Wulfruna Street). Vagrancy was one of those big concerns of the nineteenth century which resulted in a criminalised and over-policed population of what we might now call rough sleepers; Wolverhampton Police, no strangers to picking an easy target to look good, were used to dealing with vagrancy. In this instance, the vagrant fought back, telling “the officer he would show him a bit of Tom Sayers” (a bareknuckle prizefighter of the day), and punched the policeman in the nose.

Drawers in the wind outside the tilted cottage, Jerushah, at the Black Country Living Museum

The prisoner gave only “Sambo” as a name, and back at Garrick Street police station, was soon found to be the clothes thief: “At the station-house, “Sambo” was found to be wearing some ladies’ under-linen, nothing less than a pair of highly-decorated drawers and a chemise.” (Wolverhampton Chronicle, 18th Sep 1861). When questioned about it, “he said there was nothing remarkable in the circumstance, for it was the fashion of his country.” “Sambo” was locked in the cells to await further proceedings, and was committed to the December Assizes by the magistrates. The newspaper reports reveal the other distinctive aspect to the case: “Sambo” was racialised as Black through mostly derogatory language, including “man of colour,” a “desperate negro,” a “dark-skinned burglar,” “coloured man,” “Darkey,” and worst of all, “a pugilistic n******.”

The following afternoon, a Mr Bailey of Bilston Street spotted “Sambo” chipping away at the mortar around the windows with a nail attached to a stick, and trying to make an escape, and “Sambo” wassent to the Stafford Assizes in December. There, “Sambo” was prosecuted under the name Mecca Jedd, aged 30, “who expressed himself with difficulty in English.” Jedd testified to being a “runaway slave” originally from a “warm country” who had come to Britain, a “cold country” via another “cold country.” Jedd claimed to have received the clothes as a gift from a lady in Birmingham, and also claimed that wearing clothes like this “was the custom in his country.” This was not received with sympathy, and the prisoner was given six months in jail.

Black lives in the Black Country

There’s a lot going on here. This story doesn’t tell us much that is distinctive about crime, policing, poverty or Wolverhampton in particular – this story could feasibly have happened anywhere with a similar outcome. It does tell use something about the experiences of Black people in the Victorian Black Country, however. Mecca Jedd was by no means unusual in Wolverhampton. The euphemisms used by newspapers were common ones, and show that Black people lived and worked in Wolverhampton long before the era of Commonwealth immigration after World War 2, when the town became a key destination for people from the Caribbean. Just in the Stafford Street neighbourhood, we find John Thomas, a sailor, being assaulted outside a Back Lane beerhouse; an anonymous Chartist campaigner regaling the crowds in 1842; musician Peter Dawson (nicknamed, imaginatively. “Peter the Black”); James Munroe, or “Jemmy the Black,” a sprinter and election day thug for hire; and brothers Joseph and Henry Ross, mixed-race Wulfrunians who married into the large Caribbee Island Ecclestone family. Given that these names are just those that found mentioned in the local newspapers (usually due to a brush with the law), it’s no stretch to imagine that there were plenty more Black people living locally had no interaction with the state.

Henry ‘Box’ Brown appeared in Wolverhampton in the 1850s

This is something that historians such as David Olusoga and Caroline Bressey have been arguing for some time. There was a large community of Black people here during the era of slavery, and Britain’s imperial connections meant that this never really died out. Port towns in particular had multi-ethnic populations which might feature people of Somali, Bengali, West African and many other heritages. There were also previously-enslaved people that had escaped from still-existing slavery in the USA, and this is what Jedd claimed to be. Some were public figures: Frederick Douglass, Ellen and William Craft, Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Moses Roper toured the country campaigning for support for abolition. The British middle class liked to think of itself as progressive on this issue, and as Catherine Hall has argued, this was particular so in the West Midlands, which boasted campaigners like Joseph Sturge. This didn’t prevent an extremely blunt racism in the press, of course: searching for “Sambo” in other newspapers shows that the word was used as a shorthand for calling Black people lazy and/or stupid, much like “Paddy” for the Irish. However, this sympathy didn’t necessary extend to those seen as less respectable, like Jedd – rather than being protrayed as a noble exile from a cruel land, Jedd was viewed through class politics too. Perhaps underclass politics would be more accurate – the creation of new police forces and the growth of Liberal views of how to clean and improve urban spaces coincided to create a concept of a “submerged tenth” or “residuum” of hardened, slum-dwelling criminals – Jedd’s race intersected with his lowly social position when he interacted with state power.

Trans possibility

You may have noticed that I have avoided referring to Jedd using gendered pronouns, except in direct quotations. The reason is that the description of Jedd’s clothing and arrest reminded me of an example given by Kit Heyam in their fantastic recent book, Before We Were Trans: A New History Of Gender. There, Heyam describes John Sullivan, arrested in East London in 1847 wearing women’s clothing. Heyam argues for non-binary understanding of gender, especially when considered in historical cases where information about motivation, inner consciousness and identity are only recorded at the point in which the subject interacts with the state. When arrested, Sullivan described the clothing as “mine”; when tried, they described it as a “drunken lark,” because clearly that was the expedient explanation in the situation. Jedd does something similar, dismissing the women’s clothes as not abnormal given their ethnic, cultural and experiential position. Heyam’s book is a complex read – not for the language, but because they continually press the reader to muddy the waters of our understanding of what gender and trans even mean. It’s been interesting to think about Jedd not as transgender as we understand it today – I can’t make that claim from the sources – but to think about what Heyam calls “trans possibility”: that there might be more ways of thinking about gender than we have the language and understanding for at the present moment. What happened between Tuesday night and Friday morning? How did Jedd dress, or feel, or present? The possibility of this space is where history can be thought of in queer terms.

“A droll case”

In this case, both Jedd’s racial and gender identity were held up as novelty news value. The Staffordshire Advertiser even described it as a “droll case.” Then, as now, the way the media frame their reporting reflects wider social values. The way Jedd dressed probably had limited impact on the outcome – Victorian onlookers could not have thought in terms of transness, and would have struggled to think of this as anything other a novelty. The portrayal of Jedd as a Black man was also not directly why this case was treated this way – racial discrimination in the justice system was very real, but not in the systemic way as we understand it in the 21st century. It was class prejudice and a particular mid-Victorian class sensibility which criminalised Jedd as a rough sleeper, and which penalised a minor theft with such a harsh sentence. But race and gender are never not relevant. Jedd was not considered feminine by the court and press, despite being arrested dressing in women’s clothing; whereas women were Othered and referred to in masculine terms when they engaged in criminalised behaviour, particularly violence. And Jedd was sleeping rough after arriving in Liverpool as an escaped slave, most likely from a USA riven with war over the right to enslave Black people. Race, gender and class all bounce off one another.

Black lives are part of Black Country history. So too are queer lives. So too are black, queer lives, and every other permutation. The ultimate aim of Black History Month (and LGBT History Month in February) is for it to no longer be necessary, for Black (and LGBT) history to be understood as part of local history, national history, global history. Mecca Jedd crops up nowhere else, that I can see: “Sambo”‘s history is a Black Country history.

Primary Sources

Birmingham Daily Post – 16 and 18 September 1861

Wolverhampton Chronicle – 18 September 1861 , 25 December 1861

Aris’ Birmingham Gazette – 21 September 1861

Staffordshire Advertiser – 21 September 1861, 28 December 1861

Birmingham Journal – 21 September 1861

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