Black Families in the First World War

Learn about the untold stories of the Black community in Liverpool, through a collection of family photographs

By National Museums Liverpool

Liverpool Skyline (2011-05-31) by Paul ThompsonGetty Images

When War was declared in 1914, Liverpool had a long established, but small, Black community of about 3,000 people. Most of the families lived in the Liverpool 8 area, close to the South Docks. During the war period, a number of men from Africa and the Caribbean also settled in the city and the community expanded.

MarcusNational Museums Liverpool

Marcus Bailey

Marcus Bailey was born in Bridgetown, Barbados. The merchant seaman had made his way to England and settled in Liverpool prior to the War. In 1912, he joined the Royal Navy and was later assigned to 'HMS Chester', a ship that was shelled during the Battle of Jutland.

Marcus survived the War. He died in 1927, leaving his three young children, Lillian, James and Frank orphaned. Placed separately into care, they struggled to keep in contact with each other. Coincidentally, all three served during the Second World War: the boys joined the Navy while Lillian joined the RAF. James was lost at sea.

Albert's children, Edith and TeddyNational Museums Liverpool

Albert James

Albert was the son of Edward James, a Bermudan seafarer and Harriet Gates, a white woman from Cheshire. He was born and grew up in the Dingle area of Liverpool. Albert married Ethel Jones and they had two children, Edward and Edith. He enlisted at the outbreak of War, even though Ethel was pregnant with Edith at the time.

albert ethel 002National Museums Liverpool

Albert served with the Royal Field Artillery in various places, including France and North Africa. When the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, Albert was serving in Palestine and was not able to return home immediately. His service papers include letters from Ethel’s mother to the War Office, asking for news of Albert’s whereabouts.

A poignant official letter provides the explanation. In the letter, Albert received orders to return home to see to his ‘motherless children’. Ethel had died in the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918 and the family had tried to contact him while caring for the two children until he was able return.

Walter CupidNational Museums Liverpool

Walter and Hugh Cupid

Brothers Walter and Hugh were born in Bootle into a large family. Their maternal great grandfather originally came from Canada in the mid-19th century, although the family were known to have lived in Georgia in America, as far back as 1700.

Hugh CupidNational Museums Liverpool

By the outbreak of War, the family had moved to Cumbria. However when Hugh enlisted, he re-connected with his home town and joined the Liverpool Scottish, a battalion of the King’s Regiment. His brother enlisted into The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, which was closer to their new home. 

We have not been able to discover many details about the service of either brother. It is possible that this is because they enlisted quite late in the War and they did not see service overseas. The only evidence we have is held in the photographs that the family kept.

John and Elizabeth QuarlessNational Museums Liverpool

The Quarless Family

In 1914, John and Elizabeth Quarless and their young family lived at 14 Kent Street, close to the city centre. John was born in Barbados and arrived in Liverpool in the 1890s. He met Elizabeth, whose father Abraham Lawrence was from Jamaica, and they married in 1898. 

John and Elizabeth had seven children; the older children are pictured below. During the War their eldest daughter, Alice, worked as a tailoress, the rest of the children were all still at school. John Quarless had a strong sense of loyalty to the King. His Service Book reveals that he served with the Merchant Navy in the early years of the War.

drunken blaggard - editedNational Museums Liverpool

Frank Nelson

Private Frank Nelson was a Black man who enlisted in the King’s Regiment in May 1915. He was almost 31 years old and he lived at 15 Beaufort Street with his wife Mary. As an older soldier he did not serve overseas, although prior to the War he had served with the Royal Navy. 

In June 1915, an article appeared in the 'Liverpool Echo' reporting on the trial of a ship’s waiter, Robert Starkey, who had assaulted Frank while he was in uniform. The judge called Starkey a ‘drunken blackguard’ and sentenced him to 14 days hard labour. Following an appeal the next day, the sentence was changed to a fine of just five shillings. Frank had been attacked for volunteering to join up and serve. 

The Three Graces and the docks, Liverpool (1934-07) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

Early in the War, the Government put into place regulations to stop Black men enlisting into standard British Army units. However there is some evidence of Black men serving in these units, so it is possible that individual Recruiting Sergeants felt the regulations were open for ‘interpretation’.

War And Conflict (1918)LIFE Photo Collection

Caribbean (and some Black British) men wanting to enlist in Britain were steered towards the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) which had been formed in 1915 for this very purpose. The general consensus at the War Office appeared to be that it was not ‘appropriate’ to have black and white men fighting side by side.

There also seems to have been some fear that teaching colonial troops how to fight well, could encourage them towards unrest in their home countries. This attitude did not include white colonial troops from Australia or Canada. Of the twelve battalions of the BWIR sent to the Front, nine were given mostly labouring and carrying duties. Those based in non-European war zones were allowed to fight.

MarcusNational Museums Liverpool

In Britain, the employment of migrant workers was actively encouraged during the War. There was an influx of West African, Caribbean and Chinese seafarers and labourers, to fill the places of the enlisted men, often employed on lower wages.

The Three Graces and the docks, Liverpool (1934-07) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

These stories, first displayed in 2014, were captured through public appeals, family history research workshops or unearthed by historian Dr Ray Costello. Through them, we could begin to fill a gap in our knowledge of Liverpool’s First World War.

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