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A guest post by Dr Wolfram Latsch.

The next time you find yourself on Leadenhall Street heading towards Aldgate, walk past Billiter Street and stay on the right side of the road. At No. 50 you will notice a narrow passageway. This is Fenchurch Buildings, and it connects Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets. On Roque’s 1746 map of London this part of the passageway is called Sugarloaf Court. In the first half of the eighteenth century, you would have a view, on your right, of African House, the headquarters of the Royal African Company of England (RAC), which traded slaves across the Atlantic between 1660 and 1752.

In 1703, a sixteen year-old boy named James Phipps was signed up at African House to become a writer — an entry-level position — in the service of the RAC. He came from a prominent family of clothiers in Wiltshire. Phipps lived on the Gold Coast for twenty years, a remarkable longevity for a European living in Africa before the age of tropical medicine. He died at Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the RAC, in 1723. He had risen to the position of governor and captain-general, becoming the highest-ranking RAC official in Africa, before being removed from his post among accusations of embezzlement and abuse of power.

James Phipps left his estate to his wife Catherine and their four children. Catherine Phipps was the daughter of an African woman and a Dutch soldier from Elmina, a fort not far from Cape Coast. James and Catherine’s children — Bridget, Susan, Henrietta and Thomas — were all of mixed race – they were ‘mulattos’ in the parlance of the time. In his will, James Phipps wanted Catherine to move to England to be with their children. This was an unusual request, since most white men did not think of their African partners as legal wives. James would provide generously for Catherine if she agreed to move: his estate was worth at least 1.7 million pounds in today’s money. But she refused to leave Africa and died in 1738, a prominent and independent businesswoman (and slave-owner) known at Cape Coast simply as ‘Mrs. Phipps’.

Had Catherine Phipps agreed to leave her home, she would probably have moved to London, and anyone with an interest in black British history would today know her name. Black women were a rarity in England in the early eighteenth century and independently wealthy black women were entirely unknown. As it is, Catherine Phipps is one of a very small number of eighteenth-century African women known to us by name.

James and Catherine’s daughters Bridget and Susan had left Africa around 1715 when they were maybe ten years old, to be educated in England, initially at the boarding school of a Mrs. Smith in Battersea. In May 1730, Bridget married Chauncy Townsend of Austin Friars, a London merchant and mining adventurer (and later an MP) in the Fleet Prison, a preferred location for clandestine marriages. Chauncy and Bridget Townsend had twelve children, including James, who was born in London and baptized at St Christopher-le-Stocks in February 1737.

James Townsend was first elected to parliament in 1767. In 1769 he was elected alderman of the City of London for Bishopsgate ward and sheriff of London, becoming one of the leaders of the Whig party in London. Townsend played a key role in the intrigue surrounding the electoral campaigns of the radical journalist John Wilkes in Middlesex and the City, turning from a supporter of Wilkes to one of his fiercest opponents. Townsend was elected Lord Mayor in 1772 in spite of Wilkes’s coming first in the polls, an event that created political turmoil in the City. A mob incensed by Townsend’s coup attacked Guildhall during the ball on Lord Mayor’s Day, and Townsend’s arms were erased from the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

townsend 1

James Townsend (center) as alderman of the City of London (1769)
Source: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19402

Today Townsend is known, if at all, for the part he played in the drama of Wilkes’s bid for the mayoralty. Local historians and visitors may also know Townsend as an owner of the estate that is now Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey. He died there in 1787 and was buried nearby at Old Church Tottenham in the mausoleum of his wife’s family, the Coleraines. Her inheritance had made him a wealthy man.

James Townsend was the descendant of a black woman from the Gold Coast, the grandson of a ‘mulatto’ and one-eighth African, the first black MP and the first black Lord Mayor of London. This part of his family’s history was either unknown, or it went unnoticed, or it was ignored. His story may prompt an interest in the unacknowledged and often forgotten black ancestry of many London families and their complicated connections to the Atlantic slave trade.


Dr. Wolfram Latsch teaches economics and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. A version of this article was published in Notes & Queries, December 2016, as ‘A Black Lord Mayor of London in the Eighteenth Century?’

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