10 Black Women Who Changed London For The Better

Last Updated 08 March 2024

10 Black Women Who Changed London For The Better
A headshot of Winnie
Winnie Imara from Heritage & Honour Collection selects her London heroes. Image: April Alexander

As a young Black woman, when I research historical figures and find out the impact they have made (specifically Black women) — and especially if I didn't know about them before — it feels like finding a piece to a missing puzzle. In some way it's like I'm getting to know more about me, my own history.

I run the Heritage & Honour Collection, a creative social enterprise documenting and celebrating Black women in British history from 1500-1999. We provide creative workshops with Black history for organisations, schools, museums and universities.

Here, I have compiled a list of 10 historical Black women who lived in London, worked in London, performed in London, grew up in London — or made their own individual mark in London in their own way.

I specifically chose these women because they were all the FIRST to walk the streets of London in their fields, and to trail-blaze the paths for those who came after. I hope this encourages further research into their inspiring journey, and impact on London.

1. Claudia Jones - Carnival founder

A grinning Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones played a central role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. Image: public domain

A Trinidadian and Tobagonian journalist, Claudia Jones arrived in London in 1955, where she joined community groups in support of the Black African & Caribbean community. She founded Britain's first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958, and played a central role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival, the second-largest annual carnival in the world. She was also a champion for women's rights and once shared the advice: "no peace can be obtained if any women, especially those who are oppressed and impoverished, are left out of the conversation."

2. Kofoworola Abeni Pratt - NHS nurse

Although her father didn't agree with her pursuing a career in nursing, Kofoworola Abeni Pratt — born in Lagos, in 1915 — was adamant. In 1946, She moved to England to study at the Nightingale School at St Thomas' Hospital, London. She qualified as a state registered nurse in 1949, becoming the first known Black nurse to work in the newly-minted NHS. As Richard Bates from Nottingham University writes, Pratt encountered racism from the very patients she was trying to help, with at least one refusing to be tended to by her. Such was Pratt's kindness and tenacity, they ended up on friendly terms. She became an inspiration to many others who took on a career in the NHS, receiving a slew of honours, including the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Florence Nightingale Medal.

3. Sybil Phoenix - community worker

The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust was founded in 1979, by Guyana-born Sybil Phoenix — and to this day, provides shelter and support for homeless young women in south London. Phoenix has dedicated her life to community work, providing support for unwanted children in the borough of Lewisham. Her inspiring outlook resulted in her being the first Black woman ever to be awarded the MBE.

4. Una Marson - activist, writer, producer, presenter

Una holding a newspaper and looking at the camera
Una Marson compered the radio show Calling the West Indies. Image: public domain

Una Marson was a Jamaican feminist, activist and writer — producing poems, plays and radio programmes. She travelled to London in 1932 and became the first Black woman to be employed by the BBC during the second world war. Here, she produced various programmes, one of which was Calling the West Indies, a show she also presented. The programme was pivotal in introducing Caribbean figures and culture to Britain — as such, Marson was a pioneering voice of her time in the broadcasting industry, quite literally.

5. Beryl Gilroy - psychotherapist and writer

An educator, novelist and poet, Beryl Gilroy was born in Guyana, earned a first-class diploma in teaching in 1945, then came to London in 1951 as part of the Windrush generation. She spent most of her years writing, teaching, and improving education — working primarily with Black women and children as a psychotherapist. In 1969, she became one of the first Black head teachers in London, in the borough of Camden. Her children's books are said to be some of the first representations of Black London too, with The Guardian describing her as "one of Britain's most significant post-war Caribbean migrants".

6. Cleo Sylvestre - actor

Cleo Sylvestre's debut West End performance at Wyndham's Theatre came with a pleasant surprise; as she sat in her dressing room post-show, none other than Laurence Olivier — one of her stage heroes — came knocking at the door to congratulate her on her performance.

Born in north London and studying at Camden School for Girls, Cleo was told by a teacher there were "no coloured" roles for actors. This only made her more determined to pursue such a career, and she successfully went on to perform in various theatres in London and notable TV shows, including the seminal Cathy Come Home. Sylvestre is also thought to be the first Black woman ever to play a leading role at the National Theatre in London.

7. Althea McNish - textiles artist

A floral pattern on a purple/pink background
Tropic, dress fabric, designed by Althea McNish for Ascher Ltd.,1959, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As a child, McNish would help her mum with her dressmaking business by doing sketches — a talent that would later flower into her own career. She became a junior member of the Trinidad Arts Society, which led to her first exhibition at the age of just 16. It's perhaps no wonder that McNish would later become the first Black British textile designer to earn an international reputation. McNish moved to London with her mum in the 1950s, becoming a part of various communities and movements as well studying at London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and the Royal College of Art. In 1966, McNish designed fabrics for the official wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth II, during the monarch's visit to Trinidad.

8. Sislin Fay Allen - police constable

Windrusher Sislin Fay Allen was the first Black woman police constable in the United Kingdom, serving in the Metropolitan Police in London from 1968 to 1972. Her first job in the force was at Fell Road police station in Croydon, and Sislin shared that on her first day she almost broke a leg trying to run from reporters; in that moment she realised that she was a history maker. She didn’t set out to make history though — she'd just wanted a change of direction. In 2020, Allen received a lifetime achievement award from the National Black Police Association.

9. Janet Adegoke - mayor

Born in the town of Ibadan in Nigeria, Janet Adegoke moved to England at the age of 19 to study nursing. For 12 years she was well known for her role as Secretary of the Emlyn Gardens Tenants' Association, before joining the council at Hammersmith. She was founding member of the Hammersmith African Link, supporting Africans in the borough, and later became the first Black African woman to be mayor of a London borough — elected Mayor of Hammersmith and Fulham in 1987.

10. Lubaina Himid - artist

Zanzibar-born Himid became one of the first artists involved in the UK's Black art movement in the 1980s, and continues to create activist art shown in galleries in Britain, and worldwide. In 2017 she became the oldest artist, and first Black woman, to scoop the Turner Prize. Himid has always been bold with her art, always working outside the box. She has described herself as being "unspeakably ambitious" and previously shared in an interview: "I want people to think: 'If she can do it, then it must be possible for me to do it, too.'"