top of page
  • Written By 10Melanin Team

10 Black British Historical Figures

The myth in Britain is that Black people only started enriching this country in the 1950s when the Windrush generation arrived, however as time goes on it becomes more and more apparent this is not the case. Unfortunately in most British schools, Black history in general is more than often overlooked, and when it is taught it mainly focuses on the slave trade and civil rights movement in America. While American Black history is important for everyone to know, it's even more important that we are taught about what happened in our own country, to give Black British children a sense of pride, identity and belonging. Only 11 percent of GCSE students while studying British history, study modules that refer to Black people and only 5 out of the 59 history modules mention the history of Black people in Britain. This outdated curriculum in British schools is letting down the 2 million Black people who live and study in UK. This list is proof that Black people existed in the UK long before the Windrush generation, and not only this but had a profound impact on the country it is today.

10. Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

Ignatius Sancho Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting

The British Library

Born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic ocean, his father took his own life during the voyage and his mother died not long after arriving in Grenada, making Sancho an orphan at young age. Soon after his new slave master took him to London at just 2 years old where he was given to three unmarried sisters in Greenwich. It was during this time that Sancho meet Duke John Montagu, he was impressed by Sancho's intellect and so he encouraged him to read and even lent him books from his own library. Growing more and more uncomfortable with his lack of freedom, Sancho ran away to Montagu's house and became a butler to the Duke's wife and was able immerse himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. In his later life Sancho became an a writer, composer and advocate against slavery, but he is most famous for becoming the first Black person to vote in Britain. Sancho was able achieve what many white free British people could not, as during the 18th century only approx 3 % of the general population were able to vote at all. The story of Sancho was made into a play which toured the UK in 2018.

9. Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

Olaudah Equiano Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting


Born in Nigeria to a leader of his village, Olaudah Equiano remembers how europeans would come to meet with his father to exchange guns and gunpowder for slaves. It was while his parents went to work that him and his sister were kidnapped and enslaved at the young age of 11. He was sold to a Royal Navy officer Michael Henry Pascal who renamed him Gustavus Vassa, this is the name he went by for the majority of his life. Pascal trained him at sea and he was involved in many sea battles and after impressing Pascal, he was taken to live in England where he learnt to read and write. Unfortunately Olaudah Equiano was sent back to America and went on to be sold twice more before he had the opportunity of possible freedom. It was at the age of 20 years old that his new slaver Robert King promised Equiano he could buy his freedom for 40 pounds (roughly £5,500 today) and 1 year later he did just that. After working with King and developing a good relationship with him, King urged Equiano to stay on as a business partner. However due to nearly being kidnapped while loading a ship in Georgia to be enslaved again, it would be too dangerous for him to agree to this. So, Equiano moved to England again and went on to write The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir of his life in Africa and horrendous consequences of slavery. It was immensely well received and widely read throughout the UK, opening the eyes of British people and is credited to helping end slavery in England.

8. Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804)

Dido Elizabeth Belle Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting

Scone Palace

Dido Belle was born in 1761, her mother Maria Belle was a slave in the West Indies but her father was Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was touring the area at the time. Upon learning that he had a daughter, Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765, to be raised by his uncle William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray. The Murrays raised Belle and educated her, bringing her up along side another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Lady Elizabeth and Belle were second cousins and were considered friends, as much as a slave's daughter and an aristocrat's daughter could be friends. Belle lived there for 30 years and upon lord Mansfield's death in 1793, his will stated that she would be free and provided a sum of money and an annuity to her, making her an heiress. Everything about Belle's story is unusual it's the first time on record that a Black woman in Britain would be raised in such an upper class environment as a family member. The story of Belle was also made into a film which was well received.

7. William Cuffay (1788-1870)

William Cuffay Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting Chartist

National Portrait Gallery

William Cuffay was born in Brompton, Kent to an English woman named Juliana Fox and a freed Caribbean man named Chatham Cuffay from Saint Kitts. Cuffay grew up in the Medway Towns and was apprenticed to a tailor until he moved to London around 1819. He continued to work as a tailor until he went on strike with his fellow tailors in 1834, demanding better work hours and better pay. The strike didn't pay off and Cuffay was subsequently sacked and Blacklisted from employment. In 1839, Cuffay helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association and was elected to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council in 1841. Cuffay went on to play a key part in the Chartist movement, who's general aim was to gain political power and influence for the working class. However an undercover informer betrayed Cuffay and was he arrested and accused of conspiring against Queen Victoria. He was sentenced to 21 years penal transportation, although he was pardoned after 3 years, Cuffay decided to spent the rest of his life in Tasmania. His conviction didn't put him off politics as he would often got involved in the local politics of Tasmania, while he continuing work as a tailor.

6. John Edmonstone (1793-?)

John Edmonstone Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting Charles Darwin

Edinburgh University

There's little known about John Edmonstone, but he could potentially have played a very important role in how we all view the world today, as he was in fact a teacher to Charles Darwin. It is thought that he was born born in Guyana, South America, and subsequently grew up enslaved. He learnt taxidermy from his slaver, a Scottish man named Charles Edmonstone who ran a plantation in Guyana. After he gained his freedom, Edmonstone moved to Glasgow with his former master and from there, he moved to Edinburgh. This is where he taught taxidermy to students at the University of Edinburgh who indeed included the great Charles Darwin. During his lectures, Edmonstone would give Darwin inspiring stories about the tropical rain forests in South America which may have encouraged him to travel there. The taxidermy Darwin learnt from Edmonstone helped him greatly during the voyage of HMS Beagle as he was able to preserve finches he caught on the groundbreaking expedition which is was responsible for his development of his Theory of Evolution.

5. Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole Hotel Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting Crimean War

Amoret Tanner

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was the daughter of James Grant, a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army and a free Jamaican woman. Her mother, Mrs Grant, nicknamed "The Doctress", was a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies and ran Blundell Hall which was considered one of the best hotels in all of Kingston. Although Mary Seacole did not have formal British nursing qualifications or training, she has learnt a lot of healing skills from her mother in Jamaica. When the Crimean War broke, Mary hoped to assist with nursing for the wounded and so applied to the War Office to be included to be apart of the nursing staff but was refused. This didn't stop her and so she travelled independently and set up "The British Hotel" where she not only tended to the battlefield wounded, but fed and entertained them. She became popular among servicemen, who raised money for her when she faced destitution after the war. When she died in 1857, a four-day Fundraising Gala took place on the banks of the river Thames which attracted a crowd of about 80,000, including veterans and their families as well as Royalty. A statue of Seacole was commissioned in 2016 and stands at the St Thomas' Hospital, Lambeth, it is the first statue in the UK of a Black woman.

4. John Archer (1863-1932)

John Archer First Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Painting Mayor Battersea Labour Party

The Crisis

Archer was born in Liverpool, his father was from Barbados and his mother from Ireland. He travelled the world as a seaman, living in the US and Canada, before he settled in Battersea with his wife, Bertha, a Black Canadian. He was a smart and creative man, as he began to study medicine but went on to run a small photographic studio. Archer was supporter of radical Liberal John Burns who inspired him to get involved in local politics. In 1906 he was elected as a Progressive (Liberal) to Battersea Borough Council in which he successfully campaigned for a minimum wage of 32 shillings a week for council workers. Archer moved to the left during his years in Battersea and was re-elected to the council as a Labour representative in 1919. John archer was the first Black mayor in London and afterwards he became a well known Pan-Africanist and the founding president of the African Progress Union.

3. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Photograph Musician Composer

Sounds Of Croydon

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London to Alice Hare Martin an English woman and Daniel Taylor a Sierra Leonen Doctor who studied medicine in the capital. They were not married, and Daniel Taylor returned to Africa without learning that Alice was pregnant. Taylor grew up in Croydon, Surrey and apart of a very musical family. His grandfather taught Taylor the violin at a young age, he took to it well and continued to receive paid lessons. The extended family arranged for Taylor to study at the Royal College of Music, beginning at age 15 where he changed from studying violin to composition. After completing his degree, Taylor became a professional musician, soon being appointed a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music; and conducting the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. By 1896, Coleridge-Taylor was already making a name for himself as a composer and while touring the US, Coleridge-Taylor was received by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House which was a rare event in those days for a Black man. His music was widely performed and he had great support among African Americans but unfortunately regardless of his success, composers in that time rarely made money. He was under a lot of financial stress and at young age of 37 became ill and he died of pneumonia. He left a repertoire of music that can will be enjoyed for generations to come, take a listen here.

2. Walter Tull (1888–1918)

Walter Tull Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Photograph Footballer Tottenham British Army

Tottenham Hotspur

Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent and was the son of a Barbadian carpenter and an English woman. In the early years of his life his mother died of cancer and his father followed a few years later from heart disease. His stepmother, unable to cope with five children, was encouraged by a local minister to put Walter and his brother up for adoption. Tull, spent the rest of childhood in care but his brother was adopted by Scottish family, becoming Edward Tull-Warnock; who was the first person of mixed heritage to practise dentistry in the UK. His brother wasn't the only one to break boundaries as Walter Tull would go on to have important careers in football and the British army. Tull at the age of 21 was signed for Football League First Division team, Tottenham Hotspur and in the summer of 1909, after a tour of South America he became the first mixed-heritage professional footballer to play there. After the First World War broke out in 1914, Tull became the first Northampton Town player to enlist in the British Army. Tull was also the first Black football player to be signed for Rangers F.C. in 1917 while he was stationed in Scotland. Tull was commissioned as a second lieutenant and he became one of the first mixed-heritage infantry officers in a regular British Army regimen, however this was short lived as he died just one year later in action, but he didn't die in-vain as he achieved so much in the 30 years that he lived.

1. Evelyn Dove (1902-1987)

Evelyn Dove Black British Heritage Historical Figure Portrait Photograph First Woman BBC Radio Josephine Baker

Nichelle Gainer

Evelyn Mary Dove was born in London, her father was a leading Sierra Leonean barrister named Francis Dove and her mother was an English woman named Augusta. Dove studied singing, piano, and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music. After she graduated she became a member of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a band was made up of mostly West Indian and West African members and went as the name "Norma Winchester". Dove continued to have a promising career, being dubbed Britain's equivalent to Josephine Baker, but it was during WW2 that she reached the height her career. She became the first Black person to sing on BBC Radio and continued to work with the BBC until the late 40's and proved to be very popular appearing in a wide range of music and variety programmes. Although Dove had performed all around the world and had amazing talent she would struggle in the early 50's to find work, however she didn't give up and eventually she was cast to play Eartha Kitt's mother in a TV show called Mrs Patterson and from then on more television and theatre work followed.

bottom of page