A colourful image showing crowds of people in Covent Garden, with flags and banners, standing in front of a church.

Black British History

Each summer, the London Borough of Camden runs free creative, practical and technical courses for young people aged 13 to 19. The British Museum is a proud partner in this successful youth initiative, and, in August 2023, hosted a Black British History course led by award-winning British Nigerian poet and writer Theresa Lola.

Theresa was the Brunel International African Poetry Prize winner in 2018 and Young Persons Poet Laureate for London in 2019. Theresa worked with a group of young people to explore the life and times of individuals from the African diaspora who lived and worked in Britain, from the 1500s to the present day. The students had the opportunity to study objects from the British Museum collection, research histories and develop creative responses. Below are five of the people they encountered in the Museum collection, together with their personal response to the objects and individual life stories of each person, and poems the students have written. 

Fanny Eaton: Pre-Raphaelite art model (1835–1924)

Jamaican-born Fanny Entwhistle moved with her mother to London in the 1840s. Fanny married James Eaton, a horse cab owner from Shoreditch, and the couple had 10 children before James's death in 1881. Fanny lived in London most of her adult life apart from a short time working on the Isle of Wight.

A pencil sketch of two women, one shown seated in a chair with her right side to the viewer, one drawn from the chest up.
Joanna Mary Boyce (1831–61), pencil sketches of Fanny Eaton, 1860–61.

Thoughts on Fanny Eaton by Aurora K

A lifeline through history, swaying with energy: Fanny Eaton was certainly that. A widowed single mother of colour with 10 children in 1800s London, she nevertheless adapted with agility, undertaking multiple jobs from domestic servant, to seamstress, to art model for famed artists such as Dante Rossetti and John Millais. This show of enthusiastic and electric energy – also evident in her frequent changes of address – reminded me of the raw power of the 'flawed feeling females' of this world, showcasing the agency and fiery strength of what was regarded as the 'weaker sex'. Her admirable resilience in the face of hardship rings out like a prophecy of the feminist times to follow, foreshadowing the great women figures to come. 

A woman, a model does not mean a doll
Not fragile like glass, 
shaped by hands that are not her own
Not an ornamental object for the artist to own.
A lifeline through history, quenching with energy
Delving through canvas to shape their careers.
A flawed feeling female
Adopting with agility
Holding a future and facing her fears
Rossetti, Millais, you went through the fire.
Your courage called out to the feminist ire.


John Blanke: musician (before 1501 – after 1512)

In 1509 John Blanke was paid to play at the funeral of Henry VII in May and at the coronation of Henry VIII in the following month. He probably arrived at the royal court in 1501 with the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. He married in 1512 and received wedding clothes from the king but he is not listed in the royal records after 1512.

A detailed illustration on cream paper showing participants of a joust, arranged in two rows.
Royal tournament, 13 February 1510 (1726 engraving based on roll held by the College of Arms). ...Solemn Justs held at Westminster ... upon the birth of ...Prince Henry, from the series Vetusta Monumenta. Illustrations of participants in the Jousts of 13 February 1510, after a roll in the College of Arms. Engraving published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, 1726.

Response to John Blanke by Melissa Williamson

John Blanke was a trumpeter employed by the Tudor kings Henry VII and Henry VIll. John Blanke inspires me to always stand up for myself and fight for what I believe is right. He petitioned the king directly for a pay rise and a senior trumpeter position in the royal household. I thought this showed personal confidence, a moment when he knew his worth and knew he deserved more. John Blanke exists in such a small window of history and most of what we know about him relates to his work as a royal musician. He feels blank like his name. I try to fill in the blanks, imagining him as a friendly person, always ready to offer a listening ear. As I look at the illustration of the royal tournament, John stands out because he is unique; he is one black person in a white crowd. He stands alone but has companions in Black History. 

John Blanke, trumpeter 
at the court of Henry VIII.
His musical melodies 
spread like rays.
We should raise 
his name, let not his name 
in history be erased.
Let his story be shared, 
told, and explained.


George Bridgetower: musician (1778–1860)

Born Hieronimo Hyppolito de Augusto in 1778 in Poland, George Bridgetower was a virtuoso violinist from a young age, performing solo in Paris, London, Bath and Bristol in 1789. He lived in England most of his adult life and worked briefly with Beethoven.  He attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and gained a Bachelor of Music degree in June 1811.

A graphite and watercolour portrait of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, shown half-length turned towards the right.
Henry Edridge (1768–1821), portrait of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Graphite with watercolour on paper, about 1795–1800.

A consideration of the life of George Bridgetower by Aurora K

George Bridgetower was his music. His violin was his companion for life. His portrait shows him as a child, a child genius who travelled across Europe with his father. He was performing as a violin soloist in front of an audience at the Drury Lane Theatre in London by the age of 10. He lived in an adult world which he could not control. I wonder if George escaped through his music or felt trapped by his talent.

African prince, how did you survive?
Finding passion in strings 
while your father pulled the strings of your life. 
Did he let you be fragile? 
Did the music provide?
Did it give you a shelter, 
your joy and your pride?
If you stop you'll be nothing.
If you shine you'll get used.
Does the art make it better, 
what path should we choose?
Your talent may consume you or set you apart.
If society needs it then 'til death we'll do art.
If society bleeds us, we'll create with the blood.

Sokari Douglas Camp: sculptor (b. 1958–)

Sokari Douglas Camp was born in Nigeria where she spent her early years. Sokari studied art in California and London and gained her MA from the Royal College of Art. Sokari's work is mostly sculpted in steel. She creates works inspired by her Kalabari heritage, Nigerian cultures and her life in Britain.

A photograph of a woman wearing a light blue dress with a grid-like pattern, two necklaces, and a silver and pink floral headscarf. There are plants behind her.
Sokari Douglas Camp at the British Museum in 2005.

A poetic reflection on the sculptures of Sokari Douglas Camp by Elainee Victor

A sculptor. As her creative ideas began to flow, her achievements started to show. She takes us on a world tour to explore new places and see new faces. I thank her for digging and exploring her mind. I hope she continues to make new finds. A fun fact, steel is 1,000 times stronger than iron. She is stronger than me, she inspires me to walk along a righteous path of destiny. 

Thank you for recreating us as steel. 
Making us shine so bright like a full moon. 
Staring at us with wonder, as you model, 
bend, and cut, it makes us feel unique,
and beautiful, inside and out. 
You take us on a world tour, 
force the world to realise how it really is. 
You deserve the awards and achievements.
Your future be as strong and bright as steel.

Covent Garden, 1818

This hand-coloured etching shows a large crowd in Covent Garden. They await the polling day results for the election of the two Members of Parliament for Westminster which will be announced from the raised platform in front of the church.

A response to the aproned trader by Melissa Williamson

This nameless man in the crowd is fascinating because we would never have known about him if this picture had not been created. This is his chance to tell us about his life. Looking at the picture, he stands out in the crowd as a hard worker, an entrepreneur, a businessman. His clothes are striking, his bright blue jacket and his tall top hat. I wonder if he was a familiar figure, recognised in the public squares of Georgian London as he sold his goods to the hungry public. I look closely at his basket and imagine he is selling Jamaican patties. A taste of the Caribbean in London.

A multicultural melting pot of cultures
filled with the energy 
of the bustling sellers of Covent Garden. 
They each have their trades 
and there's money to be made.  
I see you nameless man, 
your blackness catches my eye 
in the daylight. 
You seek to quench the hunger
of a thousand starving souls 
with your pastries, pies, patties, 
and who knows.

Final thoughts from the students…

We have always believed that writers and poets hold a vital importance when it comes to addressing complex societal issues. Writing our poems was an opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings about people from the past and draw in modern ideas about diversity and equality. Being given the opportunity to look at objects from the British Museum Prints and Drawings collection was fascinating, and we had not realised just how far back Black people had been a part of British society, influencing the culture from the side lines. We met some familiar faces and encountered new people who we feel inspired to continue researching.

The work generated during the course will feature in an Inspiring Black British Icons 2024 calendar produced by the London Borough of Camden during Black History Season 2023.