For black history month, I am highlighting a few different aspects of black history in London in the Great War. Black and ‘coloured’ men could find themselves in different roles: soldiers, sailors, workers, and even propagandists, like Thomas Harper.
In 1917 semi-official National War Aims Committee was set it. The NWAC published propaganda material and, through its branches in the nation’s parliamentary constituencies (often organised by local political party agents), set up meetings and speeches to promote the nation’s war aims. These are generally targeted at areas where low morale was suspected, particularly in urban areas.
One location that was used for several meetings in West Ham was outside the Boleyn pub (meetings were generally held out of doors). A pair of speakers set up their stage there in July 1918 to tell the crowd about the nation’s cause and the need for continued effort to win the war: Mr E. Smith and Mr. Thomas G. Harper. Two of the meetings were abandoned because of rain, but two went ahead on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 July.
After a successful session on the still-rainy evening of 22 July, Smith and Harper wrote out their reports to send to NWAC headquarters. Smith noted the size of the crowd, around 250-275; on the reverse, he commented on how the meeting went and the performance of his colleague (before having a change of heart and crossing part of it out):
A very good meeting. A few Pacifists present, but only one interrupted, who demanded questions. It had been raining heavily, but audience stood, and rather a good meeting ended about 9.25 with some applause. Strength and fortitude is required just here by speakers, as audience is at times very rough, and the least sign of weakness is immediately detected by the audience.
It was rather funny for my colleague to apologise for the colour of his skin (he being a coloured man)
The report is fairly standard for the period: we were well received, but people are not automatically supportive. His comment about Harper is intriguing though.
I haven’t been able to find out more about Harper. He gave his address as Statheim (an interesting house-name during a war against Germany), Graham Road, Mitcham. But at this point the trail goes cold. He was presumably an effective speaker to have been invited to speak in West Ham, which had been a tough place to speak at times in 1917.
Who was Thomas G Harper? How had a ‘coloured man’ come to be an NWAC speaker in East London/South Essex in 1918?