Added: Monday 20th November, 2017
An interview with Bert Williams MBE
Bert Williams shares some of the stories from Brighton and Hove's Black history and explains how he found the stories that have, until now, been hidden from view.
Bert Williams was awarded an MBE in 2011 and this year he received a Doctor of Letters for his contribution to the promotion of race equality in the local region from Brighton University.
You co-founded the Brighton and Hove Black History group with Sarah Lee, can you tell us how and why that came about?
In 1992 I retired from work and I started doing voluntary work for a group called Mosaic, which is a black and mixed parentage family group in Brighton. I asked some of the children, what would you like to see in the office? And this little boy, who was around 9 years old, he said, I’d like to know more about my history and my heritage. I didn’t really know much to tell him, tell you the truth, all I could do was tell him about my own Jamaican heritage. So the next week I went to the local studies and started doing research, looking at Black history. The more I looked I could see that there was so much, it was just that it was hidden. So I was able to do a little bit of research and that’s where the interest came from.
I started making a three-paged leaflet and I gave it to all my family and friends asking ‘did you know this?’ I’d include any little stories that I’d find. The first one I found was about the Indian soldiers who were in Brighton, then I found out about the West Indian soldiers in Seaford and I put that in, and then I found other things until I had enough stories, really interesting stories. So I was giving it to people and then Sarah Lee said that we should set up a group. Everything is down to her; she is the one that inspires me to do it.
We set up the group in 2002 and launched it in October because that is Black History Month. I used to go up to the resource centre in Brighton to print the leaflets. There were people there to help you and give information about how to set up a bank account, how to set up a group and the various things that you needed, such as you need at least three people if you want to apply for funding, you need a Chair, a secretary, a treasurer and you need signatures. We went through all the procedures and then another voluntary organisation who were in Brighton at that time and helped groups set up and apply for funding gave us £2000. So that’s where we started off.
I still do the leaflet, which is a 20-page booklet now, in colour and it’s quite beautiful. It’s got little stories, about Black and Asian people in Brighton and their contribution to Brighton, and that’s going back several thousand years. We’ve just updated it. Someone tweeted me a picture of a little slave boy’s grave in Woodvale Cemetery who was buried there aged 12. I went round to look at the grave and read the inscription which says ‘In memory of Tom MS Highflyer rescued from a slave Dhow August 24, 1866. Baptised by his own request at Brighton March 30, 1870. Died at Brighton June 20, 1870 supposed to be about 12 years old.’ We are doing a project connected with this. We got some lottery funding, the project started about 2 months ago and we’ve set up an advisory group. It’s to do research into his life. He was rescued by a Captain of the ship H.M.S Highflyer, hence the boy’s name. The captain of the ship was Thomas Malcolm Sabene Pasley and the boy was called Thomas Malcolm Sabene Highflyer.
What methods do you use to dig out this, often invisible, history?
I have to read local history books and see what they say and they sometimes you will see a little word in there that you can pick up like ‘black’, ‘negro’, ‘boy’ or ‘page boy’. So you’re not really reading the book because you are just looking for words that you know that were used at that time to describe an Asian or an Indian or an African. Then you can look at their sources, find where they get their information from and start looking there.
Sometimes talking to other people as well, people have got so much knowledge. I went to a meeting once and if I go anywhere I always talk about Black history, that’s what I have in common with everybody. The meeting was about the First World War. I spoke to someone who told me that in Newtimber Church in Poynings there’s a plaque in the grounds to commemorate the 600 black Africans that went down in a ship called S. S. Mendi. I went straight over there and I took pictures of the plaque. In the First World War Britain declared war and didn’t have enough men to fight and what they did was they went to South Africa and they recruited black labourers to come over. The idea behind it was if they employed black labourers it would relieve the British guys to do the fighting. They were coming over on this ship from South Africa and when they got into the waters of Southampton their ship were rammed by another ship and cut in half. The captain of the ship that cut it in half did not stop but just continued on. When you look at the research and see other people and the South African government were saying it was a really sure thing that the captain didn’t stop because he didn’t want black people in his ship. So I find old stories like that through conversations.
I might go to other Black History events, or see an exhibition and I take pictures then I’ll go and do the research. I even found out that Mary Seacole, the famous Black nurse, may have she visited Brighton because she wrote in her autobiography that the train journey across Panama was as smooth and as inexpensive as the journey from London to Brighton, so I presume that she’s been to Brighton to make that statement. I found a story in the Brighton Gazette 1826 ‘A woman for sale in Brighton, a halter around her neck’ she was sold in an auction in the Open Market in Brighton and the husband who sold her threw one of the younger children in to make up the weights. The more you dig the more you see these little stories. I read a story as well, still in the 1800’s this woman ended up with a black child and she blamed the fact that when she was pregnant she went to the zoo and saw a gorilla. In the early 19th century they excavated a site in East Dean, just the other side of Seaford, and they found a complete skeleton that had been buried in a coffin. It was stored in Eastbourne and in 2004 they decided to look at it, it’s labelled ‘Beachy Head Woman’ and they knew from looking at the skull that it was an African. They did different tests and they found out it is either she born here or she came over as a young child and it would have been from the Roman times. It’s only now that that they have the technology to find out more.
Is Brighton and Hove Untold a similar project or is it separate?
It is the same group but it’s a different address for the website - http://www.bhuntold.co.uk/. That was to develop a walking tour around Brighton to different points that has a connection with Black history. It starts off from the Brighton Museum with a little bit of history about Brighton, then the India gate and I talk about the Indian soldiers’ hospital, then we go to the Chapel Royal on North Street, then to the clock tower and talk about the West Indian nurses that came over in the 1950’s. Where Boots now is was once the Regent Dance Hall and nurses were allowed in free. I know this because we did a project called ‘Time and Place’ and we interviewed the nurses who came over to Brighton in the 1950’s, although they now live abroad we got in contact with them and they paid their own fare to get over here. They were so keen to do it because they wanted to tell their story because the children knew nothing about it. I was so touched about that. Then we go up to St. Nicholas church and there is loads of stuff there, the African Prince Sake Dean Mahomed is buried there. There is a plaque there for Dr. Johnson he had a servant called Francis Barber and he acted as his secretary, his valet and his page boy. He organised all Dr. Johnson’s diary so everywhere Dr. Johnson went he would have gone. We then go down to West Street and talk about Charles II lost the battle of Worcester and was on the run and he spent his last days in Brighton and then the day after he escaped to France. The following day Cromwell’s soldiers were in Brighton looking for a 6’ 2” Black man for aiding the King’s escape. Then we go further down West Street and on the right hand side is St. Paul’s Church there’s a plaque inside the church for Haile Selassie, he was a refugee when Italy invaded Ethiopia. There is a plaque to commemorate the 5 years he spent in England and his generous contribution to the repair of the church tower. Then we go to the Queen’s Hotel, we then walk back to Victoria Gardens where the fountain is and finish off there. The tours only really happen now when there are events such as English Heritage Day, when all the historical buildings open their doors. All the stories on the tour are included in the Brighton and Hove Black History booklet.
If people wanted to find out more, find out more about these stories…
We have a website: www.black-history.org.uk and there is a booklet.
If people wanted to get involved, is there a way people could do that?
If you have stories that you want to share you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re doing a project at the moment about the slave boy and we may need volunteers for that so if you are interested email the office.