Black & Asian Performance in Britain 1800-1899

Ira Aldridge as 'Othello', artist unknown, painted around 1848

Ira Aldridge as 'Othello', artist unknown, painted around 1848

Throughout the 19th century black performers regularly appeared on the London stage, often from theatres in America. The first black actor to become famous was Ira Alridge, an American who eventually took British citizenship. Another American, Samuel Morgan Smith, was also a huge hit on the Victorian stage.

Pablo Fanque, the first black circus proprietor, was born in Norwich. His father may well have come to the UK as a slave but Fanque was a free man.

Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807, but in America, the refusal by 11 Southern states to end slavery came to a head in the American Civil War.

'The Bayaderes' or 'Temple dancers' came to London from southern Asia in the 1830s. This family of Indian musicians and dancers from Tiruvendipura near Pondicherry began a fashion for authentic Indian dance.

The American anti-slavery novel 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was adapted as a stage play opening at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1852 to wide public acclaim.

Black faced minstrels were also hugely popular in live performance and marionette shows at this time. Most minstrels were white performers who painted their faces with burnt cork and sang and danced in mimickery of black people. But many black performers also made their name as minstrels including Billy Kersands and ‘The King of all Minstrels’, Juba, who played at Vauxhall Gardens in London in 1848.

Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in 'Titus Andronicus', mid 19th century

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in 'Titus Andronicus', mid 19th century

'The African Roscius' was the first black actor to play major Shakespearean parts, appearing for the first time on the London stage and rapidly rising to stardom. He won acclaim as Othello and in many other Shakespearean roles including King Lear, Shylock, Macbeth and Hamlet.

Born in New York in 1807 little is known about his early life. By 1825 he had arrived in England and begun to find acting work. He appeared at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in the same season as Edmund Kean in December 1831. Kean wrote a letter of recommendation to the manager of the Theatre Royal, Bath, on Aldridge's behalf, praising his 'wondrous versatility'.

He made his London debut in 1833, as Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Some newspapers protested against a black actor being permitted to appear at Covent Garden, and the tone of their reviews the next day is somewhat sullen. Unable to criticise a good performance outright, the Morning Post grudgingly concedes that 'it was doubtless sufficiently good to be considered very curious'.

This was balanced by the many other publications which declared Aldridge a 'singularly gifted actor' (the Standard), with 'beauties throughout his performance' (the Globe), who 'evinced a great deal of feeling and nature in his performance' (the Spectator).

Aldridge toured internationally with great success over a 40-year career. He was famed for his Shakespearean roles such as Aaron in 'Titus Andronicus', but he also performed in melodrama. In 1863 he became a British subject. He died on tour in Lodz, Poland in 1867.


Newspaper cutting, London, England, 1838

Newspaper cutting, London, England, 1838

Though one contemporary  review (shown right) of the Hindu dancers, The Bayaderes, is distinctly lukewarm in its enthusiasm, they were actually a tremendous success and received rapturous reviews elsewhere. The group of five female dancers and three male musicians opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1838.

The senior dancer, Tille Amal, was in charge of the group. At 30 years old, she was the eldest. Next came Amany-Amal, aged 18, Saoundiroun and Ramgoum, both about 14 and the youngest, Veydoun, who was only 6 years old. They apparently started a trend among the actresses at the Adelphi Theatre of dyeing their hair and eyebrows black, and eating olives, on the understanding that this would darken their skin.

The group were billed as 'Les Bayaderes or Dancing Priestesses of Pondicherry' although they were not priestesses but temple dancers. The term 'bayaderes' is not an Indian term but a corruption of the Portuguese word 'Bailadeira' meaning female dancer. In India, the dancers are known as 'devadasi'.

Pablo Fanque

Newspaper cutting, steel engraving printed on newsprint, line illustration depicting Pablo Fanque, England's first black circus proprietor, 1847

Newspaper cutting, steel engraving printed on newsprint, line illustration depicting Pablo Fanque, England's first black circus proprietor, 1847

Pablo Fanque was born plain William Darby in 1796, the son of John Darby and Mary Stamps. John Darby is recorded as having been a butler and may well have come to England as a slave. His mother, Mary Stamps, may well have been white.

William was orphaned young and while still a child learned trick riding, ropewalking and tumbling at Astley's Amphitheatre in London. He adopted the name Pablo Fanque and set up his own circus in 1841.

In 1840 he appeared at Astley's riding his favourite dressage horse, Beda. Fanque trained several performers from childhood, including the famous clown 'Whimsical Walker' who wrote that he 'acted to me like a father'. Fanque was strict about the moral conduct of his apprentices and insisted that all members of his company attended church.

Song book cover for 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', Adelphi Theatre, 1852

Song book cover for 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', Adelphi Theatre, 1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin was an anti-slavery novel written by the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851. The book tells the story of the slave Uncle Tom and the cruelties and harshness of his life. It was the first famous abolitionist work of fiction and became a stage play in 1852.

The book stirred up great public feeling in the United States. Some even credited it with helping to start the American Civil War. Indeed, when Abraham Lincoln met Mrs Stowe in 1852, he said to her 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war'.

The book was dramatised in 1852 and played simultaneously at theatres across America. This music sheet cover is from the dramatisation of the novel. After its American success, the play opened at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1852.

Samuel Morgan Smith

Playbill featuring Samuel Morgan in the role of 'Othello', London, 1866.

Playbill featuring Samuel Morgan in the role of 'Othello', London, 1866.

Samuel Morgan Smith was born in 1833 in Philadelphia where he grew up, receiving a good education. Determined to become an actor, Smith travelled to Boston to be trained, but found that American theatres were unwilling to engage him so in may 1866 he moved to England with his wife and child.

Within days of arriving he leased a theatre in Gravesend in Kent and, despite having never performed before, appeared as Othello, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet and Shylock over the next month.

The season was not a financial success but it earned Smith favourable reviews and within four months of arriving in the country, he made his London debut at the Olympic Theatre playing Othello'.

A successful career followed during which he commissioned various plays involving a black character, but he also continued to perform traditionally non-black parts such as Richard III.

Smith appears to have become ill at the end of the 1870s, as he performed less frequently. He died of pneumonia at his home in Sheffield in 1882.

Minstrel marionette, Tiller Clowes collection, Lincolnshire, England, late 1800s. Museum no: S.293-1999

Minstrel marionette, Tiller Clowes collection, Lincolnshire, England, late 1800s. Museum no: S.293-1999


Minstrel shows were very popular in London from the 1840s onwards, notably in St. James's Hall in Piccadilly where they were considered family entertainment. Minstrels sang sentimental ballads and played instruments including the banjo, tambourine, one-stringed fiddle and the bones.

The shows were usually presented by white performers appearing in 'blackface', using burnt cork as make up, and enacting comic songs and dances with often grotesquely stereotyped caricatures of black behaviour.

As late as the 1960s 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' was a regular feature in the West End theatre and on Sunday evening television in Britain. However, some genuine black performers also appeared in minstrel shows and, in the Edwardian period, increasingly feature on the bills of variety performances.

The craze for them extended to marionette companies, all of whom featured black minstrels in their troupes. The V&A's Tiller Clowes marionette collection features two minstrel puppets from the late 1870s. The figures were carved, painted, dressed and performed by members of the company and the presence of the minstrels demonstrates their huge popularity in entertainment of the time.

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