Black History in Surrey

Pte Harold Brown, in uniform of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, with a colleague, nd [c.1915] (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-5)

Pte Harold Brown, in uniform of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, with a colleague, nd [c.1915]
(Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-5)

Black people have lived in and travelled through Surrey for hundreds of years and appear in the county’s historical records from the sixteenth century. Through these records we can see the diversity of the county’s inhabitants and glean an insight into the lives of Black people in Surrey over the centuries.

The features in this section contain a variety of stories from the archives covering all aspects of Black History in Surrey; each is accompanied by a list of research resources and where possible, accompanying images. You can find out more about early Black History in Surrey and discover life stories of some of Surrey’s Black residents, including Fatima Nelson, Lady Hamilton’s Nubian maid. Discover the story of Lucean Arthur Headen, a Black American entrepreneur in Camberley. Learn about Pte Harold Brown, of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, a Black soldier in the First World War, who was awarded the Military Medal. Read about how the injustice of slavery is incorporated into The Jurors artwork by Hew Locke, at Runnymede. Follow the detective trail of sketches of African Americans in the Vaughan Williams collection.

The importance of Black History in our collections

The unique archive and library collections at Surrey History Centre are a powerful tool in the fight against discrimination and inequality. Through education comes understanding and tolerance and we present these important life stories using historical material from the collections; some of them are uncomfortable to read so we provide context to what is often a difficult and past, where racism prevailed as the societal norm and barbaric practices were not viewed as such. Continuing to develop the collections is key to increasing relevance as well as the representation of all people in the county. New material can also help develop Black History from simply being a narrative about slavery and its victims. Surrey History Centre has been committed to doing this for many years as part of our everyday work and we are proud of the resource we have built up which reveals stories of Surrey’s diverse communities. We will continue to collect, preserve and make accessible the records of all Surrey’s people and our collecting policy ensures that this goal is always in our sights. We welcome any new information which helps us to grow these pages further and continue the dialogue about Surrey’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) connections. Please contact us at [email protected].

It is important to consider terminology when using historical sources. The language used in these sources is far removed from what is acceptable today and can be both shocking and uncomfortable to read. This is the case for many areas of historical research, especially mental health and asylum records, accounts of diversity, gender and sexuality. When archivists catalogue such records they are aware of historically derogative or negative language and will include it as a descriptive term in inverted commas to denote its use in the original source. Doing this allows for specific contemporary keywords to be highlighted when anyone searches for them, alongside our modern-day descriptive terms.

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773</br>(SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773
(SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

Surrey and the Slave Trade

By the 1830s, Surrey had over 100 slave owners. Click here to find out more about the county’s involvement in this complex and horrific institution. Until abolition, the slave trade touched nearly every part of society and life. Slavery is completely abhorrent to us today but at the time it was viewed as a business investment and it was not only wealthy merchants and landowners who owned enslaved people but ordinary people who were not rich. Many women inherited their husbands’ shares in a plantation and therefore its enslaved people. There is cruel irony and disbelief to us today that people who considered themselves good Christians, men who worked as clerics, and philanthropists who aided the poor, all owned enslaved people. Conversely, so did men of mixed race, who may even have been descended from white slave owners.

One Surrey slave owner was Henry Goulburn, who profited from owning a large number of slaves on his estates in Jamaica. Read more about plantations with Surrey connections and discover Surrey’s connections with the West Indies.

Colonial slavery shaped modern Britain and its legacies remain today. The revealing records of the Slave Compensation Commission make for chilling reading and feature Surrey slave owners who, following the full abolition of slavery in 1833, received compensation for the human lives that were legally defined as ‘property’ just as any other goods or assets would be. Discover the full story here.

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref 1714/1)

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref 1714/1)

Enslaved men, women and children came to Surrey through a variety of ways. Charlotte Howe ended up in Thames Ditton and never knew just how important her story was to the slavery debate in Britain. American slave Phillis Wheatley found fame in Britain, becoming the first Black female poet and mother of Black literature, whilst freed slave Cesar Picton became a wealthy coal merchant in Kingston. Not all stories are positive and we present all experiences of life for Black people.

Surrey was also home to freed slaves who prospered and created a legacy in the county. The detailed story of John Springfield shows the importance of family papers when tracing Black history. Conversely, the cases of Thomas Jackson and Thomas West, show how the full stories of some Black lives are just not known because of a lack of sources. Although their stories are over 100 years apart, both boys were convicted thieves placed in the care of the Royal Philanthropic School, Redhill.

Read the Surrey Historic Environment Record (HER) blog which discusses buildings in Surrey and their links to the slave trade, and the approach taken by the HER to improve data and interpretation.

A fascinating article written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the descendant of a Nigerian slave owner, helps us see the slave trade from different perspectives

Surrey’s Abolition movement

Anti-slavery campaigners, known as abolitionists, were active in Surrey before the abolition of the slave trade and continued afterwards to help freed slaves become part of Surrey’s diverse community. Find out more about the Surrey abolitionists, including Stephen Lushington and the celebrated fugitive slaves, William and Ellen Craft, in Ockham in the 1850s. Learn more about Henry Drummond and Guildford’s Anti-Slavery Committee, and the work of the eccentric Thomas Day of Anningsley, near Ottershaw.

Surrey also had anti-abolitionists. Learn more about Surrey’s anti-abolition campaigner Charles Nicholas Pallmer, who was elected Member of Parliament for Surrey in 1826. Some had much to lose from slavery ending and remained oblivious to the human rights issues.

Discovering more Black History

Start your own research with these Surrey History Centre guides:

• A Black History Month bibliography (downloadable as a pdf document pdf logo) and

Tracing Black History at Surrey History Centre (downloadable as a pdf document pdf logo) and read our Marvel of the Month guide to Black History sources.

Discover inspiring literature with the Surrey Libraries Black History Month virtual reading lists:

The National Archives’ Education Team has released a new finding aid for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Histories, find out more at

Tracing Caribbean ancestors? Since the settling of the British Caribbean in the 17th century, people have returned or emigrated to Britain. However, up until the 19th century, it is difficult to know how many Caribbean people lived in the UK. Watch an illustrative introduction by Guy Grannum, author of ‘Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors’, to researching Caribbean migration and migrants to the UK:

Diverse stories

For more stories of Surrey’s diverse cultural heritage see:

  • the Military pages (photographs of far-flung cultures encountered by the Surrey Regiments world-wide, and the regiment’s connection with Gurkhas)

Black History Month

Surrey History Centre incorporates Black history into its everyday work and collections but still marks the annual campaign of Black History Month every October. To find out more about Black History Month Click here.

Black History Month 2019 Logo

The Black History Month campaign has launched an online timeline featuring key dates in worldwide Black History at

Discover the Black Cultural Archives and Heritage Centre and their amazing collections here.

The BBC have developed their Black and British Moments website, featuring stories of Black British life in different regions of the UK. In the South East section, the website includes stories from the Surrey History Centre archives, namely, John Springfield, from Zanzibar who lived in Guildford, and the school at Ockham, where escaped American slave family The Crafts were educated.

Historic England’s website

For details of historic sites in England connected to abolition and the legacy of the slave trade, and connected stories, see Historic England’s website

The Migration Museum Project

The Migration Museum Project has created the UK’s first dedicated Migration Museum and to tell the story of movement into and out of the UK in a fresh and engaging way. The museum holds workshops, exhibitions and community articles covering all aspect of migration to and from the UK, from Huguenots to Windrush and C19th German refugees to South Asian economic migrants of the 1960s.

Recognize is a community based social enterprise providing a bridge to the African Caribbean community which, among other things, aims to promote positive diversity by educating people about the heritage and culture of the African Caribbean community. Their website includes blogs and articles about British Black History including the Empire Windrush immigration and Black soldiers, find out more at

4 thoughts on “Black History in Surrey”

  1. jane stevens says:

    There is a lot here to absorb. At 57 I do not know much of any black history, it was not taught in schools as far as I know. What you have here is a treasure and it needs to be shared to the Education Department via Government. Also to ALL Surrey schools. If you can offer them a link and someone has the time to, please do share a link to this valuable archive information. Surrey County Council also. I look forward to hearing from my grandchildren (I have 4) that they have learned about the history of slavery and the true reflection in this country’s history. Thank you very much.

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