I was pleased, during this blog’s hiatus, to hear from Sean Creighton, who was able to provide me with Thomas Harper’s full name and some interesting additional information about him. Here is the original blog post from October 2012, followed by an update:
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?
Update: May 2020:
Well, I now have more information on Thomas Harper, thanks to Sean.
Thomas Greathead Harper was a preacher, speaker and writer born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in around 1859. He and his African-American wife Ella Louisa moved to the UK in 1891 and had two children in England: Albert Stanley Eugene Harper, born in Oxford in 1892, and George Donald Harper, born around 1897. By 1901, however, the couple had separated. Ella appealed for maintenance support and they appeared in court in Stratford in November, with Thomas described rather condescendingly by The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser as “a respectably-dressed man of color”. That year’s Census lists Ella in Leyton with the two sons, and Thomas boarding in a house in Stoke Newington. In court, they disputed their relative financial situations, Thomas revealing that Ella’s family owned property in America. The court did not make a maintenance order.
The 1902 Post Office directory lists him as a commission agent based at Lonsdale Chambers, Chancery Lane. In the 1911 Census, Thomas described himself as a lecturer and author; by then he was living at 16 Southcroft Rd, Tooting, with a Suffolk-born woman, Ada Cunningham, who is described as a secretary.
Thomas Harper wrote at least two books: Christ in Evolution in 1908, and Contemporary Evolution of the Negro Race in 1910. This second book appears to have been based on lectures he had been giving in the USA over the previous decade, including at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Negro Academy, in Washington DC inDecember 1902. He was also an experienced speaker and preacher; he appears to have been a priest in New Jersey in the 1880s, and various records appear of him speaking in the UK and the USA, including another appearance during the war – speaking on land issues in late 1917.
As we have seen, by 1918 he had moved to Mitcham. Thomas and Ada then lived at 103 Carshalton Park Road after the war until his death in 1937. Ada subsequently married a Yorkshireman named Harry Brook, who made masks for people with facial disfigurements, with whom she lived at number 103 until her death in 1948.
Thomas and Ella Harper’s son Albert was a music-hall performer prior to the First World War. During the war, he first worked in a munitions factory in Newcastle and then, sometime in 1917 or 1918, joined the Northumberland Fusiliers; his entry in their medal roll tells us he served in the 1/5th (Territorial) Battalion and the 14th (Pioneers). Sadly, like his parents’, Albert’s marriage in 1914 did not last; a newspaper report in 1916 paints a picture of a brief and acrimonious marriage in Chesterfield, prior to his moving to Newcastle. His brother George Donald Harper served in the Merchant Navy. There is a record of a George Donald Harper travelling to the USA in 1913 and back to the UK in 1915, giving an address in Durham – possibly Ella and her sons had moved there, prompting Albert to join the local regiment.
So there are some brief details of this British West Indian speaker who spoke to two hundred people outside the Boleyn pub in West Ham in 1918, and his two sons who served in the war. As ever, I would be happy to hear from anyone else with more information about Harper and his life during, before or after the Great War.