Born in Somalia but living in Sudan during the Mahdi uprising, Jaesell Malcolnzie was stabbed in the neck and sold into slavery before ending up in Liverpool to become one of a growing number of black children to taken in by the charity Barnardo’s in the 19th century, writes Adwoa Korkoh
His incredible story and that of many others are being revealed for the first time thanks to Barnardo’s decision to share its earliest archives, casting light on a page in British history that most people are unaware of.
“My father was a soldier under General Gordon,” 16-year-old Jaesell told staff who admitted him in 1892 after he was found wandering the streets.
“At the fall of Khartoum, the Mahdi’s troops killed my father, mother, sister and younger brother. I was stabbed in the neck and left for dead. A Sudanese soldier disguised me as an Arab and removed me to Dhurman. I remained there for seven months, when I was seized by Arabs and sold as a slave. After having been so disposed of two or three times, I eventually reached Alexandria, whereupon my owner gave me my liberty.”
“The testimonies are full of such drama and pathos,” says historian Avril Nanton, who gave a talk on the subject in Barnardo’s original heartland of London’s East End earlier this month. “After his release in Egypt, Jaesell was given money to buy tomatoes, to sell to sailors. He managed to get on board a ship bound for Liverpool via Algiers and on arrival the captain left him with a shoe shine box and brushes and five shillings.”
There are more tales of derring-do like that of Caribbean stowaway Edward Allen who was rescued at sea near the Azores and put on a ship bound for London in 1887, but also very sad ones too. Margaret Robinson was admitted to Barnardo’s in 1893 aged seven after her father ran off and her mother was imprisoned for being drunk and disorderly, while six-year-old Elizabeth Mountey was found next to the body of her dead mother in 1891. Her father, an East End docker, had deserted them both.
“Barnardo’s recorded her as having ‘evidence of foreign blood in her veins’ and she was put in the care of its Girls Village Home in Barkingside, Essex, after no one else would take her in,” explains Avril.
Alongside an orphanage for boys in Stepney Causeway, the Girls Village was one of the first homes set up by Irish philanthropist Thomas Barnardo in the 1870s. By the time he died in 1905, the charity ran 96 homes across the country with 8,500 children in its care.
Barnardo’s work began in Limehouse, where he founded a ‘ragged school’ to provide basic education for impoverished East End children but realised most of them lived on the streets. Some of the poorest children were black and Barnardo’s was the first charity to take them in as part of its mission to never turn away a destitute child.
“It is so fascinating to know that these children existed in the Victorian era, bearing in mind also that it was just a few decades after the end of the slave trade in Britain,” adds Avril, a bubbly personality whose stock in trade is giving presentations on popular history and guided historical tours.
As part of her research she visited the Barnardo Archive in east London where 500,000 records are stored. “Children are recorded by the date of their arrival but their ethnicity is referred to in terms of the day like ‘dark’, ‘coloured’ and ‘octoroon’,” she tells me. While a number of accompanying accounts are fairly detailed others are tantalisingly vague. We learn that teenager Augustus Williams, originally from Portland in Jamaica, ‘returned to sea’ in 1891 after spending a year in care, while another former Barnardo’s boy, Hezekiah Mascow, went on to work as a ‘lion-tamer’ at the East London Aquarium in Bishopsgate before becoming a ‘traveller’.
However, many of the girls ended up as domestic servants having been trained for such work by the charity, which, conveniently, ran its own employment agency. One of them, Marie Roberts from Stamford Hill, was only 14 when she was put out to work, having joined Barnardo’s four years earlier in 1905 when her mother became too sick to look after her. The aforementioned Elizabeth Mountey also worked as a servant and then as a cook. Her last contact with Barnardo’s is noted as being in 1946, when she would have been in her seventies.
“In the majority of cases, these children were very fortunate to have been taken in and given a chance to make something of their lives,” says Avril. “It is a real privilege to be able to glimpse into their world more than a century down the line.”