I'm writing to tell you about one of the more unusual tasks that has befallen me as a freelance historian. I'm used to writing about dead people, but this time I had to write to them!
As an anonymous admirer, I've written to nine "Influential Black Londoners" from Tudor royal trumpeter John Blanke (the one whom I'm the best acquainted with) to the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor for a new exhibition at the National Trust's Sutton House in Hackney.
The letters are based on research provided by a team of volunteers, overseen by Patrick Vernon OBE, founder of 100 Great Black Britons and a Labour Councillor in Hackney.
My epistolary efforts will be displayed at Sutton House throughout October and November, each in the room that seemed most suited to their story. Illustrator Jane Porter has designed stamps - you can see the one inspired by Virtuoso Violinist George Bridgetower, 1780-1860 on the poster- while I found addresses for the envelopes (listed below).
I didn't have space to tell Mary Seacole how I'd defended her in The Times earlier this year or to admit to Ignatius Sancho that I felt a bit embarrassed writing to a man whose collected letters with the great and the good of his day were worthy of publication back in 1782.
There also wasn't space (apparently most museum visitors switch off after about 180 words) to go into some of the still disputed facts of their lives and legacies. Even though all the figures (except John Blanke and the Lascars) now have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, we still don't really know some basic biographical information, such as whether Equiano was born in Nigeria or South Carolina.
Nonetheless, I hope the letters will spark the readers' interest and inspire them to find out more. To this end I have put together a list of suggested further reading. I will also be giving a talk at Sutton House with Michael Ohajuru, on Monday 21st October, further details here.
I hope you get a chance to see the exhibition, or come to my talk, or both- if you do, please let me know what you think of the letters, and what/to whom would you write to if you could correspond with any historical character?
I wonder what the Influential Black Londoners would have written back to me?
My correspondents, with addresses
-why not write your own and post in the comments below?
John Blanke, fl.1507-12, Greenwich Palace, under the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London SE10 9NN.
(This was Henry VIII’s main London seat until he built Whitehall in the 1530s.)
Lascars, 17th-20th century: The Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders, West India Dock Road, Limehouse,London E14 8HB.
Ignatius Sancho, c.1729-1780, 20 Charles Street London W1J 5DT. (His grocery shop)
Francis Barber, c.1735-1801, 17 Gough Square London EC4A 3DE (now the Dr. Johnson's House museum).
Olaudah Equiano, c.1745-1797, 67-73 Riding House Street, London, W1W 7EJ.
Dido Elizabeth Belle, c.1761-1804, Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, London NW3 7JR.
George Bridgetower, 1780-1860, 8 Victory Cottages, Peckham, London SE15. (One of Rita Dove's poems inspired by Bridgetower is named #Victory Cottages, Peckham, 1860)
Mary Seacole, 1805-1881, 14 Soho Square, London, W1D 3QG.
Samuel Coleridge- Taylor, 1875-1912, 6 St. Leonards Road, Croydon CR0 4BN.