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African Lives in Northern England

John Kent

Picture: plaque reproduced by permission of Maryport town council. John Kent was the son of a freed slave, and became a policeman in Maryport, Cumbria. A biography of him, by Raymond Greenhow, was published in 2018, and is still available from Cumbria Books. Mr Greenhow has written a detailed article about him for the Black History Month 2020 website.

John Kent is claimed to have been Britain’s first black policeman, though this title is also claimed for others. He lived in Cumberland throughout his life from 1805 to 1886. His father had been there since the 1760s or early 1770s, and there are still family descendants in the area.

We know from a much later court case that John’s father Thomas had been brought to Whitehaven, probably as a young enslaved man, sometime in the 1760s or early 1770s. Whitehaven was at the time the second busiest port in England, after London, and heavily involved in the slave trade. On his arrival Thomas ‘was sent into the service’ of the Senhouse family of Calder Abbey, where he was ‘considered as a slave’. The Senhouses had very substantial slaveholding interests in Barbados.

Thomas ‘got his liberty on account of his good conduct’ after a few years, and from that time on  worked as a gardener and labourer for local landowners, and possibly as a mariner at some point. He married a local woman, Eleanor Pickering, in 1788.  The family seem to have been in poverty, or on the margins of it, for most of the time. No record of his death, or where he is buried, has been traced.

John was born in 1805, one of a large family. He married Mary Bell of Longtown in 1827, and went to live in what was then the booming town of Maryport. He became a parish constable there in 1835, but moved to Carlisle in 1837. There he worked for a short time laying paving stones, before taking up a job in Carlisle’s expanding police force. He appeared as a police witness in many cases before local magistrates, and received a number of small rewards from insurance companies for fire-fighting (part of the police’s duties at the time). 

In 1844 a ‘new broom’ Superintendent of Carlisle’s police force dismissed him for drunkenness. He was almost immediately re-employed as a railway policeman on Carlisle’s Citadel station, a role which also meant being the signalman for the station. The 1881 census shows him living with his grand daughter and her family in Carlisle’s police station, presumably as resident caretakers. When he died in 1886, the lengthy and generous obituary in the local newspaper, the Carlisle Patriot, described him as the attendant in the first class gentlemen’s waiting room at the station. This obituary made much of the fact that he was black, but nowhere else in the newspaper reports or official documents, except for one jokey Letter to the Editor in 1844, is any reference made to this. The name used there, and in the obituary, was ‘Black Kent’, and as Ray Greenhow points out, it ‘must have been in common street use for it to be recognisable by the reader’.

Maryport Council has put up a plaque to celebrate his service there between 1835 and 1837, but his burial site in Carlisle, though known, has no headstone. A number of the family’s descendants, now in the seventh generation, still live in Cumbria.

Sources and Further reading

John Kent’s lengthy obituary was in the Carlisle Patriot of 23 July 1886. Research by Ray Greenhow, in Britain’s First Black Policeman (Carlisle: Bookcase, 2018), has shown that much of the description of his early history is inaccurate, but it can presumably be trusted for later years.

Ray Greenhow wrote a Black History Month contribution, at https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/bhm-firsts/john-kent-britains-first-black-policeman/.

There is an entry for John Kent in Wikipedia.

In the future, don’t forget your past