These records show some but not all of the Black poor who received support from the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. Details are tantalisingly brief, as for the most part it’s simply a list of those claiming support. Records give the following:
• First name(s)
• Last name
• Sometimes a note regarding kin, such as spouse or child
• Archive reference
This is a small and curious set of records. In publishing it, we hope that it will be seen as more than a historical curiosity, however, and both help some genealogists with their Black family history research and raise awareness of a still relatively little-known event of British history.
Over the course of 1785, it became apparent that increasing numbers of Black people were living in London with little or no means of support. Although some were distressed mariners from both the merchant service and the Royal Navy, or servants out of position, a significant proportion of the Black Poor are thought to have been Black Loyalists recently arrived from North America after the defeat of the British. It is this particular aspect to the backdrop of the phenomenon that probably prompted action.
Support was initially a matter of private charity, beginning with a couple of kind and concerned shopkeepers – a baker and a bookseller. However, it developed during early 1786 into a broader group of affluent and influential figures – abolitionists, Quakers, philanthropists and others – and became formalised as the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. What we would today call benefits, albeit of an irregular kind, were provided from two informal venues, both public houses – the “White Raven” in the East End and the “Yorkshire Stingo” in the West End. In addition to providing a dole in the form of bread or alms, the Committee also provided healthcare facilities at a sickhouse in Fitzrovia.
There was concern at the numbers and the visibility of Black poor on the streets of London and a more official approach developed, looking at ways to resolve the situation. Most of these seem to have involved means of disposal. Could places be found for them in the Royal Navy? Could they be sent to Nova Scotia (from where some of the Black American Loyalists had come in the first place en route to England)? Could they be usefully deployed as colonists in Africa?
It was this last scheme that was taken up. It was decided that a colony should be established in Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa. The idea was that the Black Poor could colonise Sierra Leone and establish useful industry and trading links. This is what happened in late spring of 1787. What proportion of the Black Poor participated is unclear, but over 340 sailed to Sierra Leone. Others must have found casual or other work in London joined or re-joined the merchant service, or returned to Nova Scotia.