The Society's seal and three photographs

African Lives in Northern England

Picture credit; Philip Spence, Robert & Mary Spence of North Shields, Reid and Co., in Newcastle (1939) used with permission from Breaking Chains Exhibition, Old Low Lights. There are copies of this book in North Tyneside Libraries and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle.

Memorial stone on back page; photo taken by Mile Scott, Old Low Light volunteer

As explained by Sean Creighton,

Mary Ann Macham arrived in North Shields via Grimsby in 1831, having escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia. She was baptised in the North Shields Baptist Church. She became servant to various members of the Spence family until she married a local man, James Blyth, in 1841 when she was aged about 35. They lived in various houses on Howard Street. He was a ropemaker, then a banker’s porter (possibly for the Spence family’s bank). They appear not to have had any children. By 1881 aged 79 she was a widow living in Nelson Street, North Shields. In 1891 she was living with what appear to be relatives of James's in South Benwell. She died in 1893 and was buried in Preston Cemetery.

The book by Philip Spence, noted above, includes a narrative by Mary Ann herself of her life in Virginia and her escape across the Atlantic, given many decades later when she was an elderly lady. Follow this link to read her story (our thanks to the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, for scanning their copy).

By the early 1830s, several Ladies' Anti-Slavery Associations had been founded, and in 1833 nearly 6,000 women signed an anti-slavery petition. No record of Mary Ann taking any public part in the agitation has been traced. This might be because she was considered disqualified from public speaking because she was a young woman, or because her experience was of America, and not the Caribbean, so that the anti-abolitionists would have been able to argue it was irrelevant. At least, however, in Quaker and anti-slavery circles her existence would have been known about, and probably helped to strengthen the cause. It is also very possible that she took part in private, un-minuted meetings of the Ladies' Associations. The fact that she did not begin to earn her living as a servant until 2 1/2 years after her arrival on Tyneside does suggest that she had other occupations up untl then. The timing of this would fit with the final passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, which received the Royal Assent in August 1833.

Mary Ann's life has been researched by volunteers at the Old Low Light centre in North Shields, with the help of John Spence High School and Historic England. Breaking Chains, an exhibition about her, was held there in Autumn 2019. The team of volunteers who put together the exhibition,won the 2020 Marsh Trust Regional Award for the north east, for volunteers in Museum Learning.  The Old Low Lights has a short video about the exhibition on its YouTube site.

As there was no memorial stone to her in Preston Cemetery, a crowd-funding campaign raised the money for one. It was dedicated and installed in front of her husband's gravestone, in March 2020.

In the future, don’t forget your past