Unforgotten Lives: Exhibition Celebrates Remarkable Stories Of BAME Londoners

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 21 March 2023

Unforgotten Lives: Exhibition Celebrates Remarkable Stories Of BAME Londoners

Appreciate good art? Check out the best exhibitions to see in London this spring.

A young man with a cap in his hand
Billy Waters, "The King of Beggars". He was immortalised in prints and a play in the early 1820s, but died in poverty in 1823 in St Giles in the Fields, at just 45.

Billy Waters aka "The King of Beggars"; Othello actor Frederick (Ira) Aldridge; and Ellen Craft and her husband William — a couple who freed themselves from slavery with an implausible plan — feature in an exhibition about remarkable Londoners of African, Caribbean, and Asian heritage.

Unforgotten Lives — a free show on at London Metropolitan Archives from 5 April 2023-March 2024 — tells the stories of BAME Londoners who called the capital home between between 1560 and 1860.

A woman dressed as a man, with glasses and top hat
Ellen Craft disguised herself as a disabled white plantation owner, in a bid to escape from slavery — miraculously, the ploy worked.

Some figures featured you'll almost certainly know of; there is, for instance, the 1774 manuscript voting record of Ignatius Sancho — recording what's believed to be the first time a person of African heritage voted in a British election. Sancho and his incredible life have enjoyed the spotlight of late, thanks, in part, to Paterson Joseph's novel The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho.

In 2021 we also covered the phenomenal story of Ellen Craft and her husband William's escape from slavery in Georgia, when Ellen disguised herself as a white man, with William posing as her manservant. The pair travelled 1,000 miles, made it to England, and set up the Ladies' London Emancipation Society, from their Hammersmith home. Utterly miraculous when you think about it.

Engraving of a man dressed as Othello
Frederick (Ira) Eldridge was the first modern actor of African heritage to play Othello.

Other Londoners' stories may be new to you; have you heard, for example, of Ira Aldridge — who revolutionised the London stage aged 17, as the first modern actor of African heritage to play Othello (which he did at the Royalty Theatre in London's East End)?

Or Billy Waters, who busked his way through the 19th century streets of London, with a wooden leg and a violin? Waters ended up in the workhouse at St Giles, and died at just 45; this exhibition has the register of his burial.

There are many more stories of discrimination, resistance, and hardship, enterprise, love, and triumph over adversity at this fascinating show — and with a whole year to catch it, there are no excuses not to go.

Unforgotten Lives, London Metropolitan Archives,  5 April 2023-March 2024, free