Britain’s first black voter honoured by Westminster Abbey

Britain’s first black voter honoured by Westminster Abbey
Actor and writer Paterson Joseph performs excerpts from his novel The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster (Lucy North/PA)
PA Wire/PA Images - Lucy North

A pioneer for the black vote in Britain has been described as a “seminal” part of history as Westminster Abbey announced a new memorial will be unveiled in his honour.

In the 18th century, composer and campaigner Charles Ignatius Sancho is believed to have become the first man of African descent to vote in an election in the UK after he came to the country via a slave ship in 1729.

Actor Paterson Joseph, famous for playing Alan Johnson in the Channel 4 show Peep Show, has written a book dedicated to the abolitionist entitled The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho – and performed excerpts from his work at an event in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on Thursday.

The church is part of Westminster Abbey, which has announced that Sancho and his wife Anne Osborne will be memoralised in a carving by sculptor Marcia Bennett-Male on December 19.

The couple were married at St Margaret’s in December 1758 and the church is also where their children were baptised.

Joseph told the PA news agency he hopes highlighting the couple’s story will ensure the black community does not “miss a chunk of our story”.

Charles Ignatius Sancho memorialA new memorial will be displayed at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster Abbey will remember Charles Sancho and his wife, Anne Osborne (Lucy North/PA)PA Wire/PA Images - Lucy North

“(Sancho) became the first man of African descent, that we know of, to vote in an election,” said Joseph, who donned an outfit inspired by a famous painting of Sancho by 18th century artist Thomas Gainsborough for his reading at the church.

“It’s the journey in between that I got interested in, including being painted by Gainsborough, the greatest painter of the 1700s, and working with (David) Garrick, the greatest actor of the 1700s, and working for the royal family.

“How did this man achieve such an extraordinary rise from slave ship to voting? It’s that story that I wanted to tell, because I couldn’t believe it.

“The more I found out, of course, the more I found out about not only Britain’s role in slavery, which I knew very little about, about a whole black England that I didn’t know about.”

Westminster Abbey announced the memorial to Sancho during Black History Month, which runs in October, but Mr Joseph hopes the memorial will become a “catalyst” to ensure awareness of black history is not limited to one month in the year.

“It’s always good to to remember part of our own national history whether that’s a month or whether that’s all year, hopefully, people might get interested in black history throughout the year,” he said.

“It’s a nice beacon to shine to say: ‘Hey, have a look at this part of our history, our nation’.

“You would like that to be a catalyst for an all-year-round acknowledgement of that history since it’s so seminal to how Britain became a superpower around the world.”

Joseph said the memorial at Westminster Abbey will allow people to “acknowledge” the history of black people in Britain.

Mr Joseph explained: “Our nation, and any nation, is based on what we remember about ourselves.

“The story we tell, and when people are left out of that story, whether that be women, whether that’s the people of the global majority, whether that be gay people, whether that be transgender people, we miss a chunk of our story.

“I think knowledge of yourself is essential if you want to grow and I think we’re lacking a bit of self-knowledge in this country and, of course, we’re going to debilitate ourselves by not having self-growth.”

Charles Ignatius Sancho memorialActor and writer Paterson Joseph performs excerpts from his book (Lucy North/PA)PA Wire/PA Images - Lucy North

The memorial will also celebrate the life of Sancho’s wife, Anne Osborne, who Paterson credits with introducing Sancho to the black community in England and he added that highlighting the stories of black women is “essential”.

“These are hidden stories,” he said.

“What were black women doing when they were free and allowed to live their lives as best they could, despite opposition at home and abroad given their status as African people?

“It is essential that we hear the stories of women because they’re really marginalised.”

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, the Dean of Westminster said that Sancho’s life is a “dignity that must be celebrated”.

“We look forward to celebrating Ignatius Sancho and Anne Osborne in the church where some of the most significant moments of their lives took place,”

“In an autumn season of events, we will reflect on human dignity.

Arthur Torrington, founder of The Equiano Society and co-founder of the Windrush Foundation, said: “It is important that Ignatius Sancho and Anne Osborne will be honoured with a memorial in St Margaret’s Church and, it is especially significant for Anne as the role of women in history can often be overlooked.”

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