First-recorded black resident of Royston is focus of new project

PUBLISHED: 17:31 01 October 2019

Royston artist Stacey Leigh with her work interpreting the life of Roger Britten, and Royston & District Museum and Art Gallery curator Madeline Odent. Picture: Stacey Leigh Ross

Royston artist Stacey Leigh with her work interpreting the life of Roger Britten, and Royston & District Museum and Art Gallery curator Madeline Odent. Picture: Stacey Leigh Ross

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With Black History Month starting today, Royston writer Graham Palmer has been delving into the eventful life of a printer, who was born into freedom and was involved in the creation of a particular newspaper in the town...

Royston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham PalmerRoyston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham Palmer

In 1856 the Royston Institute hosted a grand exhibition showcasing novelties and the latest technological advances. A reporter noted that one such novelty was 'an intelligent looking African... printing off copies of a handbill.'

Roger Britten had been born in the British colony of Demerara - now Guyana - 16 years earlier.

His father, Figaro, had probably been the property of Alexander Simpson and William Shand. 
The two men co-owned the plantation at Montrose and received compensation of £14,154 6sh 5d from the British government when their 284 slaves were liberated in 1833.

1856 exhibition advert. Picture: Royston & District Museum1856 exhibition advert. Picture: Royston & District Museum

Roger's was the first generation born into freedom and, when he was just five years old, a non-conformist minister arrived at the local mission station.

Reverend William Garland Barrett - who was mixture of social reformer, amateur scientist and religious zealot - believed a Christian education was vital to the advancement of the children of ex-slaves, but his mission was cut short when he fell seriously ill. 
He returned to England in 1848, taking with him eight-year-old Roger as his adopted son.

The family settled in Royston where Rev Barrett took up the pastorship of John Street Congregational Chapel.

The Montrose chapel in Demerara. Picture: The Demerara Martyr, EA Wallbridge [1848]The Montrose chapel in Demerara. Picture: The Demerara Martyr, EA Wallbridge [1848]

The Barretts employed a live-in servant and a 12-year-old nursemaid in their Back Street - now Upper King Street - home.

The social niceties of an upper middle-class English household must have been bewildering for Roger.

When the family moved away, they passed 15-year-old Roger to the care of printer John Warren.

The Royston Crow from Royston's district museum. Picture: Royston & District MuseumThe Royston Crow from Royston's district museum. Picture: Royston & District Museum

Warren had big plans which included the launch of a monthly free newspaper - the Royston Crow, a venture that needed apprentices to support it.

Roger learned quickly and soon moved on to a job in London at Eyre & Spottiswoode, printers to Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

In 1865, Rev Barrett's death seems to have come as a liberation.

An impression of a Columbian press like the one in the museum that Roger used in the original Royston exhibition of 1856.  Picture: Graham PalmerAn impression of a Columbian press like the one in the museum that Roger used in the original Royston exhibition of 1856. Picture: Graham Palmer

Within seven months, Roger had adopted the middle name Mark - a sign that he had been confirmed in the Anglican communion.

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If he had still been alive, this might have caused a major rift with his non-conformist adoptive father. Roger had his reasons - he was marrying out of the faith.

John Street Chapel in Royston. Picture: Royston & District MuseumJohn Street Chapel in Royston. Picture: Royston & District Museum

Fanny Clarke was white, Anglican and a 24-year-old dressmaker.

He had met her in Royston where her father was coachman to the Phillips family. They were married that October.

The newlyweds squeezed into a terraced house with two other families.

1856 exhibition advert. Picture: Royston & District Museum1856 exhibition advert. Picture: Royston & District Museum

They lost one child, but raised both a son and a daughter.

Roger was on the up and around this time he started working in the printing department of the India Office, enabling his son eventually to claim that his father had been a civil servant.

But Roger, at 43, was not well - he had contracted bronchopneumonia. With Fanny by his bedside, he died at his home on June 1, 1883.

Royston artist Stacey Leigh with her work interpreting the life of Roger Britten, and Royston & District Museum and Art Gallery curator Madeline Odent. Picture: Stacey Leigh Ross Royston artist Stacey Leigh with her work interpreting the life of Roger Britten, and Royston & District Museum and Art Gallery curator Madeline Odent. Picture: Stacey Leigh Ross

The Crow ran a lengthy obituary, which read "many will remember the little black boy...who...through his good temper and amiability, won the affections of those around him wherever he went."

Having inherited nothing but memories of Guyana, through hard graft Roger managed to leave enough money to ensure his children had the kind of education which would enable his daughter to rise to acting headteacher in a London school.

Including this research, Graham has created a project, about Royston's first-recorded black man for October's Black History Month.

Royston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham PalmerRoyston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham Palmer

As part of the project - which is supported by Creative Royston - you can find out more about him at Royston's district museum on Saturday, October 5, at 2pm.

Special guests on the day will be King James Academy Royston's Boys Choir, who are about the same age Roger was when he came to live in Royston and will be performing a song they have written about him in workshops with Graham and composer Jenni Pinnock.

The song was performed at Royston Arts Festival's finale concert, held at the school on Sunday.

At the museum event, you will also be able to see a painting by Trinidadian-born artist and Royston resident Stacey Leigh, which interprets Roger's life, and see the printing press he operated.

For more details on his life, see Graham's research, entitled 'In Black and White' at https://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/people/in-black-and-white-roger-britten-roystons-printer-part-1.

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