The work highlights the plaques and art that celebrate a neglected side of the capital’s culture
She’s 10ft tall, barefoot, with a simple wrap dress stretching across her breasts and belly. She holds aloft an infant, gazing into its eyes. This is Bronze Woman, a statue on a busy traffic junction in Stockwell, south London. Unveiled in 2008, it was then the first public statue of a black mother and child on permanent display in England.
“I used to pass by but never knew what it was for many years. One day I found myself in front of it and I was truly blown away,” said Avril Nanton, who runs walking tours of London’s black history.
“I can see this woman being a member of my family. She represents Caribbean women’s contribution to British society. The baby will grow up as British, and it too will make its contribution to UK society. This is the link that has continued for black mothers for many generations.”
Bronze Woman is one of more than 120 monuments, plaques, murals, statues and artworks in a new pocket-size guidebook, Black London, compiled by Nanton and her co-author Jody Burton, and published on Windrush Day on Tuesday.
The oldest entry is Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk carved in Egypt more than 3,500 years ago and shipped to London in 1878 to be placed on the Embankment. Among the newest is the giant Black Lives Matter mural in Woolwich, south-east London, created last year in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Some relate to famous people and well-known events: a mural of Michelle Obama in Brixton; a plaque to footballer Rio Ferdinand in Peckham; a Windrush memorial in Tottenham; the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.
But many highlight less well-known figures and events in black history. Khadambi Asalache was a civil servant and poet who came from Kenya to London in 1960. Over almost two decades, he transformed the interior of a modest terraced house in Wandsworth into a work of art, with intricate hand-carved fretwork, wall paintings and a collection of unusual objects. It is now a National Trust property.
Bronze Woman in Stockwell, London, depicting a woman of African descent, was erected in 2008. Photograph: Andy Hall/the Observer
In Hornsey, north London, there is a plaque to Emma Clarke, a female footballer described in a 19th-century newspaper as “the fleet footed dark girl on the right wing”. In 1897, Clarke played in a team called “The New Woman and Ten of Her Lady Friends” against a male team known as “The Eleven Gentlemen”. The women won 3-1.
A plaque at Euston station commemorates Asquith Xavier, who arrived in the UK as part of the postwar Windrush generation to work as a station porter. In 1966, he applied to be a train guard at Euston but was told in a rejection letter that the station did not employ “coloured” men. He successfully challenged the policy, taking his case to Barbara Castle, then Labour’s transport minister. More than half a century later, Network Rail paid tribute to the “first black worker employed as a train guard” in the UK.
A 16th-century artwork, the Westminster Tournament Roll, depicts John Blanke, a “blacke trumpeter” at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. The roll was commissioned by Henry VIII to commemorate a two-day tournament to celebrate the birth of his short-lived son with Catherine of Aragon. The work – the earliest identifiable representation of a black person in British history – is held at the College of Arms and is too fragile to be viewed, but a plaque to Blanke at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich was unveiled in 2017.
Many of the sites in the book featured in walking tours conducted by Nanton, who retrained as a guide after being made redundant as a facilities manager. Nanton, who came to London from Dominica in 1965, also teaches black history courses with the historian and author Robin Walker. Since Floyd’s murder, she has been inundated with non-black people wanting to attend her online walks, talks and courses, “eager to learn”.
The interest sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement was an opportunity to educate the public about the long history of black people in the UK, and help them discover and celebrate individuals and stories missing from mainstream guides and history books, she said.
Co-author Burton, who worked in adult education before switching to a career in libraries, said the aim of the guide was to stir interest, start conversations and make black history easily accessible. She hoped it would appeal to parents looking for activities they could do with children.
The book contains maps, photographs and a timeline of black history, which went through a painful edit to bring it down from about 75 pages to 11. It also includes a potted history of the HMT Empire Windrush, from its early incarnation as a German cruise ship to its sinking while sailing from Hong Kong to Britain in 1954.
One of Burton’s favourite sites – “although it’s like trying to choose a favourite child” – is the battle of Lewisham mural in south London, which commemorates a community anti-racist protest against a National Front march in the area in August 1977 that resulted in clashes.
“My mother attended the counter-demonstration at Ladywell Fields – and unknown to her, two of my older sisters also joined the protesters,” she said. “It was the first time the NF was prevented from reaching their destination. I took part in one of the community art workshops that helped create the mural. It’s really personal to me.”
*This article was amended on 21 June 2021 to use the wording on the plaque at Euston which commemorates Xavier Asquith. He is described as “the first black worker employed as a train guard” there. It was further amended on 24 June 2021 because an earlier version referred to Bronze Woman being, in 2008, the first public statue of a black woman on permanent display in England. This omitted reference to Kevin Atherton’s 1986 Platform Piece at Brixton railway station, which is thought to be the first public sculptural representations of black British people in the UK. Atherton’s three-figure group includes a depiction of a woman, Joy Battick.
Black London: History, Art & Culture in over 120 places, is released 22 June
Harriet Sherwood writes about arts and culture for the Guardian. She was previously Jerusalem correspondent, foreign editor and home editor.