A maid runs off to the theatre to see the minstrels (and we get a reminder of our racist past).

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Isabella Parker was a servant at a house in Piccadilly. White domestic service brought a level of security as well as a bed and regular meals it must also have been a life of fairly monotonous drudgery. Every day was much the same and, if your were a maid of all work or one of few or even the only servant in a household you would have had almost no time for yourself.

So we can perhaps understand why Isabella chose to escape her dull life for an evening by clambering out of a window to find some entertainment. Having climbed on the roof she headed over several adjacent ones to reach the St James’ Hall near Regent Street and Piccadilly.  

On the night of the 6 June 1870 the Christy Minstrels were performing their ‘blackface’ routine, as they had since the early 1860s. Isabella made her way through a window and either consumed drink she brought with her or was already drunk when she left home. As a consequence she was loud and kept interrupting the act until the police were called and an officer managed to pull her down and escort her outside.

This wasn’t easy as Isabella struggled with him, ‘set to screaming, became quite infuriated, said that she was a Fenian [an Irish republican] and would shoot the lot’ [of them].

It was not the first time she had got drunk and snuck into the theatre; she was a big admirer of the Minstrels and clearly a lover of drink. At Marlborough Street Police court her previous record was read out and Mr Tyrwhitt fined her 5(or four days in gaol). That may have been the least of her problems for unless she had very forgiving employers Isabella may well have lost her position as a servant.

The original Christy Minstrels were formed in the USA in 1843, at Buffalo. They had a very structured show built around white men ‘blacking up’ and performing jokes, songs and dances that downplayed the horrors of slavery for a white audience.

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The Minstrels that Isabella risked her employment to see were a British tribute act (to use a modern term), not the American originals. There were more than one troupe of minstrels touring Britain in the 1800s and the one at St James’ Hall may have originated in Dublin, perhaps explaining Isabella’s mentioning of the Fenians.  

The St James show lasted until 1904 although the group had become the ‘Moore & Burgess Minstrels’ well before then.

The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas described minstrel shows as:

‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens’.

Despite this and despite abolition minstrel shows continued to exist well into the twentieth century. I can remember watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC in the 1970s with my family; it was only finally cancelled in 1978, despite being the subject of complaints and accusation that it was racist.

I think this is useful reminder of how recently our television screens used to depict Black faces for comedic value – not in some minority or niche programming but on primetime for a family audience. Now I hear discordant voices complain that ‘allowing’ Black actors (as the BBC have done) to play roles in period dramas and other programing is some sort of ‘political correctness’ and an affront to indigenous ‘White Britons’. It is the same voices that challenge the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, those that don’t believe Britain is a racist country and either deny that prejudice exists or argue that it doesn’t matter.

If racism wasn’t a problem in this country we wouldn’t need the BLM movement. The fact that it is only in the last decade that positive images of Black people have routinely appeared on our television screen (the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment in this country) when negative ones have been common currency for well over a 100 years before then, should remind us to guard against complacency.

There is no place for racism in the world. 

From Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 12 June 1870

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