London’s complex history includes many important contributions from people of colour. Their stories are not always given the prominence they deserve. The city has very few statues to black people, for example. And, of the memorials in English Heritage’s Blue Plaque scheme, only about 4% commemorate black people (though efforts are now being made to redress this).
This tour, designed for families, takes in some of the most important sites in London where black history is commemorated. The stops are spread out across town, so you’ll need to use bikes or public transport to visit them all.
You can visit the pieces in any order you like, but we’ve also suggested a route, with directions given in italics.
Here is a handy list of toilets and baby-changing facilities so you won’t have to cut your educational tour short! And to continue learning about this topic at home, we’ve put together a list of books, sorted by age group, to teach your kids about diversity.
Begin the tour by catching a train to Brixton Station (the one on the Southeastern rail line, not the underground station).
Brixton Station Sculptures And Murals
Brixton is the natural place to start a tour of black history. The area has been a centre of the Afro-Caribbean community since just after the Second World War, and remains so today. It’s always a fun area to explore, with colourful market stalls and street art on almost every wall (the image at the top of this article is a good example -- painted by ‘Dreph’, it shows local hero Michael Johns).
Brixton Station (the overhead station, not the underground) holds one of London’s most important works of art connected to black history. Here, on the platforms, you’ll always find at least two passengers waiting for a train. The life-size, bronze sculptures, collectively known as Platforms Piece, are the work of Kevin Atherton, and have stood on the station since 1986 (a third is currently undergoing restoration). The statues were modelled on local residents Peter Lloyd, Joy Battick and Karin Heistermann. It’s thought that they are the first statues of black people in Britain, and as such they’ve been given listed status by Historic England.
Head out onto Brixton High Street and walk a few paces down Acre Lane.
A Black Postbox And The Black Cultural Archives
Acre Lane holds London’s most recent commemoration of a black person. The postbox near the junction was painted black in September 2020 in celebration of the work of Yinka Shonibare. You’ve probably seen Shonibare’s art -- he created the ship-in-a-bottle outside the National Maritime Museum, though it was originally on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. He also masterminded the colourful library, so beloved of children in Tate Modern. The postbox will keep its distinctive look throughout Black History Month 2020.
Returning to the junction and crossing Windrush Square (named after the ship that brought an early group of immigrants to Brixton from the West Indies), you’ll find the Black Cultural Archives. As well as serving as a library and archive to black history in this country, it also puts on regular exhibitions and events.
Head to Brixton tube, and travel one stop on the Victoria line to Stockwell.
Statue Of A Woman And Child, Stockwell
Stockwell is home to the first statue in Britain to depict a black woman. It’s easy enough to find -- leave the tube station and head to the brightly coloured building over on the traffic island. This is the entrance to a deep-level shelter from the Second World War. A similar one, in Clapham, was used as temporary accommodation for the passengers from the Windrush, which brought immigrants from the West Indies in 1948.
Behind the shelter stands a 3-metre-high bronze woman, who holds a baby aloft. The sculpture was the work of Ian Walters and Aleix Barbat, and inspired by a poem by local resident Cecile Nobrega. It was unveiled in 2008, and marked the 50th anniversary of the Windrush’s famous voyage.
Hop back on the tube and travel up the Northern line to Waterloo.
Two Further Black Sculptures
Having left Waterloo station, make your way to the Royal Festival Hall. Alongside its south-western side, you’ll easily spot the famous bust of Nelson Mandela. This too was the work of Ian Walters, sculpted in 1982 when the future South African leader was still a political prisoner. Mandela is one of only a handful of people to have more than one public sculpture in London -- we’ll see the other statue soon.
Carry on to the riverside and head south, towards the London Eye. Keep going, under Westminster Bridge, and you’ll emerge outside the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital. The statue of nurse Mary Seacole dominates the garden area -- a dark bronze sculpture in front of a large bronze disc, created by Martin Jennings. Like Florence Nightingale (whose museum can be found nearby), Seacole made her name as a nurse during the Crimean War (1853-56). Her memorial became the first fully formed statue in Britain to recognise a named black woman (the Stockwell sculpture is presented as anonymous), when installed in 2016. An earlier sculpture of Seacole can also be found in Paddington Gardens, but it is a two-dimensional metal cut-out rather than a traditional statue.
Cross Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square
Parliament Square is home to a dozen or so statues, most of whom are former Prime Ministers. In the south-west corner, you’ll find a second sculpture of Nelson Mandela -- this time at full length. Once again, this is the work of Ian Waters, who has captured the South African President as though in mid-speech. It was unveiled in 2007, with the real Nelson Mandela in attendance.
Now walk down Whitehall to Trafalgar Square.
A Black Sailor On Nelson’s Column
And so to another Nelson… Trafalgar Square is world famous as a site of gathering and protest, but also for the iconic Nelson’s Column at its centre. Nelson wrote in favour of the slave trade and disagreed with abolitionists like William Wilberforce -- a viewpoint that’s led to recent calls for the statue to be toppled. Surprisingly, the monument does include a black face. Look at the frieze on the south side of the column, and you’ll see a black seaman over to the far left. His identity is uncertain, but he may be George Ryan, a 23-year-old sailor who served on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. Ryan was probably a former slave, who joined Nelson’s vessels in the Caribbean. At least 18 men at the Battle of Trafalgar were recorded as born in Africa.
A Few Other Sites
Having worked our way into the centre of London (almost exactly -- the official centre is just south of Trafalgar Square), there are many further sites we could visit. However, they’re spread out across town in a way that makes little sense as a tour. Instead, consider visiting some of these plaques and monuments:
Aldgate: Plaque to Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley, a former slave, became the first black woman to publish a book in English, with her 1773 book of poems. It was first published in London, and a plaque marks the spot, just west of the tube.
Chelsea: Plaque to Bob Marley. One of the scarce blue plaques to a black person was unveiled in 2019 in Oakley Street, Chelsea. The Jamaican singer lived here briefly in 1977.
Fenchurch Street: Memorial to slavery. Seek out Fen Court, near Fenchurch Street, for a thought-provoking memorial of standing stones shaped like sugar cane. It commemorates 200 years since the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
Mayfair: Jimi Hendrix museum. The only museum in London (partly) devoted to a black person can be found on Brook Street, Mayfair. Hendrix lived here at the height of his career, next door to a house previously occupied by the composer Handel. The two are celebrated together -- an unlikely supergroup -- at the Handel and Hendrix Museum.
Stroud Green: A plaque to Laurie Cunningham. Cunningham was one of the first black footballers to represent England. His birthplace in Stroud Green is marked with an English Heritage Blue Plaque, while a second plaque can be found at his first club, Leyton Orient. Another black footballer, Spurs favourite Ledley King, is commemorated with a flat-metal statue in Mile End Park.
All images by the author.
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