Walking through the streets of St Paul’s and Bank in London recently I was taken by the concentration of churches, guilds and financial institutions and their impressive architecture.
These buildings, which are nestled within the square mile, are a living and breathing testament to the grit, determination and entrepreneurial spirit that has contributed to London’s wealth and reputation as a world-class city.
But one cannot tell London’s story without explaining the roots of its wealth. This is why my recent two and a half-hour Black History Walking tour on a rainy bank holiday Monday helped to fill in some of the gaps in my historical knowledge.
I now see areas around St Paul’s and Bank as a tribute to the massive but at times unwitting contributions African peoples made to anchor London as the centre of commerce over the last few hundred years.
These unsung heroes formed the backbone of some of the guilds and companies operating in the London area, and it is this history that has been woven into the fabric of modern life in London even today.
Take the Goldsmiths Company, which I was told derived its wealth from fashioning gold primarily sourced from the African continent into plates and jewellery, or the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, which started life in the vicinity of Cheapside. I learnt that without the tusks from largely African elephants, the guild could not have developed the ivory-handled cutlery that helped to make them famous.
The list goes on and includes sugar manufacturers and tobacco pipe makers. In most cases, the wealth derived from sourcing raw materials from Britain’s overseas colonies played a key role in making the city a rich and powerful network, I learnt.
These riches were generated during a time of great economic, social and political inequality. For Britain, its colonies provided a cheap route to accessing and extracting resources thanks to the slave trade. And that allowed for huge profits for companies at the expense of development within these colonies.
These guilds prospered and went on to establish schools, and higher level institutions to ensure the longevity of their crafts. Some of you will have heard of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross Gate, south-east London, which was founded by merchant Robert Aske of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers on his death in 1689. Haberdashers are people who sell small articles for sewing, such as buttons, ribbons, and zips.
Others may recognise Goldsmiths, also in the same area, which was set up to train apprentices in the craft. And cue the financial institutions which also flourished as the need to insure cargo – including slaves – grew.
The missing link
But what I found even more insightful was that after visiting the websites of these companies, I could not find any reference or connection to the African continent or any clear explanation about how these resources arrived in Britain.
After firing off some emails, I got the following response from the Worshipful Company of Cutlers: “The use of the elephant may have originated from the use of ivory for sword hafts (handles). However, it has long been a symbol of hospitality, so it may well be that was the origin of its use!”
And when I asked where the gold came from a spokesperson from the Goldsmith Company, I was told the institution never sourced raw gold.
“The Company has never been closely involved with bullion or gold supply, but rather on testing finished objects made from gold and silver,” a spokesman from the Company said. “Although gold has been mined periodically in Britain (in Wales and Scotland, for example), the country has never been a significant producer of gold, and most would have been imported via trade in the form of coins or objects.”
A common theme running throughout the tour was symbolism linked to African resources or cultural practices that seem to have been absorbed and accepted into British history. From Goldsmith Hall, minutes from St Paul’s tube station, and in other areas such as the Bank of England, stone carvings featuring two snakes intertwined up a staff are visible. This imagery is traditionally associated with the healing arts and a quick check in Google will throw up its links to Roman and Greek history. But our tour guide explained that its roots run deeper to northern Africa.
Three lions on a shirt
Another popular icon on London’s streets – particularly in St Paul’s, is the lion. Although not native to Britain, the animal has become a symbol of pride and strength and ironically, has become synonymous with Englishness. Think of the three lions on the English football t-shirt or our 10p coin – all feature lions.
Obelisks were prominent in the architecture of ancient Egyptians but have also come to be a popular fixture within St Paul’s and Bank. These monuments are tall with four sides that end with a pyramid-like shape at the top. These constructions was originally known as ‘tekhenu’ in Egypt but were renamed ‘obeliskos’ by the Greeks. Obelisks were built in twos and were symbol of the sun god Ra. It was also thought that the god existed within the structure. But their global appeal has meant that obelisks are now dispersed around the world, and fewer than half of them remain in Egypt.
During the walk, our attentions then turned to the portrayal of Black people, history and culture in the English curriculum and the popular view amongt fellow walkers that Black history taught in schools tends to begin and end with slavery.
Unfortunately, this view was backed up by the experiences of the children attending the walk. But it was heart-warming to see so many of them engaged even after a long and soggy walk.
The presence of Africans in Britain dates back to Roman times and during the 1500s, it is well documented that John Blanke, who is believed to have come from northern Africa, was a trumpeter at the Tudor courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII.
According to details from the UK’s national archives, Blanke took part in Henry VIII’s tournament to celebrate the birth of the king’s only son. The event is preserved in the Westminster Tournament Roll, which is held at the College of Arms.
And a stone’s throw from Cheapside, the street names such as Moor Street, Moorfields and Moore Lane reveal the presence of Black people in the area. According to our guide, these streets were named as such because of the high number of Moors – people from the north of African – that lived there.
Another highlight for me was learning about prominent Black activists such as Olaudah Equiano of what is now Nigeria who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. His story is remarkable because he is only one of a small number of enslaved Africans who had the opportunity to record their experiences in print. He later became fervent activist contributing immensely to abolishing slavery.
There is also the story of Jamaican-born William ‘Bill’ Davdison who, between the 1780s and 1820s lived, studied, worked and died within the British Isles. After enjoying a varied career, which included working in the Royal Navy, becoming a cabinet maker, and studying maths at a Scottish university, he became an activist.
Feeling motivated by the struggles of his fellow Black people, he was involved in trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, according to details from website blackpresence.co.uk . Sound familiar? And yet why do I only know of Guy Fawkes whom is remembered every 5 November? According to our tour guide, he would have been successful if there had not have been an informant in his group.
For his attempts to overthrow the establishment, he was tried and executed and beheaded at Newgate Prison – the site of today’s Old Bailey. Moments before he died, Davidson said he would rather die as a free man than live as a slave.
I wanted to share just a taste of what I learnt with you because, history has many sides, depending on who is telling the story. Unfortunately, some of that knowledge –although right in our faces – can be buried.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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