The National Archives - Homepage (2024)

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Black people have lived in Britain for over two thousand years. Some came to Britain with the Roman invasion in 43 AD and they became an important part of British society throughout the medieval ages and beyond. Evidence shows that Black people joined the armed forces, married in parish churches, made significant contributions to art and writing, and resisted and challenged the repressive laws of the day. We cannot tell the history of Britain without including their stories.

In the early years of the First World War, many Caribbean men bought tickets to sail to Britain to join the army. The British West Indies Regiment was created, playing an important role in the conflict. Men from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and other parts of Africa, also fought for Britain. At the end of the war, many African and Caribbean soldiers decided to stay in Britain to make it their permanent home. Race riots broke out in parts of the country during the early months of 1919, as some white communities blamed black people for the shortage of work and housing caused by the war.

During the Second World War, black people from across the Commonwealth fought for Britain once more. Some were soldiers, whilst others came to support work on the Homefront such as factory production and nursing.

After the war, Britain needed to be re-built. By 1948, the Nationality Act was passed; allowing people from British colonies the right to live and work in Britain if they wanted. Other people from Europe were also invited to Britain. Many people from the Caribbean left their homes to begin a new life in Britain, bringing with them a wide range of skills. They filled jobs in the transport system, postal service and health service, helping Britain to re-build and recover.

These people are often called the ‘Windrush Generation’, named after the ship ‘The Empire Windrush’ that docked at Tilbury in June 1948. Windrush was not the first ship to bring Caribbean migrants to Britain; the Ormonde and Almanzora had arrived in Southampton the year before.

Between 1947 and 1970, nearly half a million people left their homes in the Caribbean to live in Britain.


Part 1: Starter source one

Black figure on illuminated initial from Abbreviato of The Domesday Book, Catalogue reference: E36/284 f.19. This document was made in the thirteenth century, to help officials of the King’s Exchequer when consulting the original Domesday Book.

Discuss the following questions:

  • Describe what can you see in this source.
  • When do you think it was made? Why do you think this?
  • Who do you think the man is?
  • How is he dressed?
  • Do you think he is important? Why/ why not?
  • Why might the person who created this source, have drawn a Black man on this page? What can it tell us about the people living in Britain at this time?
Black figure on illuminated initial from Abbreviato of The Domesday Book

Starter source two:

John Blanke’s wage-slip, Catalogue reference: E 36/214 f.109

Discuss the following questions:

  • What can you see?
  • Do you think this is a modern document? Why/ why not?
  • Can you make out any of the words?
  • Who is John Blanke and what is his job?
  • How much is he paid?
  • Why do you think he has been described as ‘John Blanke the blacke’?

Follow-on questions:

  • John Blanke played at the royal court; what does this tell us about his ability as a musician?
  • Why do you think reference has been made to the colour of Blanke’s skin?

Part 2: What do these 3 documents reveal about the early presence of Black people in Britain?

Source 1: Extract from the Customs Accounts, Catalogue Ref: E 122/71/4.

Discuss the following questions:

  • What can you see in this source? Look at the layout (how the information is set out on the page) and pick out things that you notice. Based on your observations, what type of source do you think it might be?
  • Can you read any of the words?

Follow-on questions:

  • What does his name tell us about Peter’s appearance and where he might be from?
  • What does the presence of African Peter’s name tell us about black presence in England during this time?
Source One

Show Source 2: Letter from Elizabeth I to the mayors and sheriffs of the country, Catalogue reference: PC 2/21 f.304

Please note: Before you share this source with pupils, please be aware that it uses language that is inappropriate and unacceptable today.

  • Look at the document. What can you see?
  • How was it produced? (Is it typed or handwritten?)
  • How is the text set out on the page? (E.g. does it use columns, paragraphs, sub-headings etc.?)
  • What does this tell us about the type of document this is?
  • When do you think it was written? Why do you think this?
  • What words can you spot? You could display a list of words taken from the transcript for pupils to try to find.
  • Do you have any idea what the document might be about?
Source Two

Show Source 3: Naturalisation papers of Sarah Parker Redmond, Catalogue reference: HO 1/123/4809

  • Where does Sarah come from in the United States of America?
  • Where is Sarah currently living and how long has she lived there?
  • Why does Sarah want to become a British Citizen?
  • Is there any other information that you can find out about Sarah from her naturalisation papers?
Source Three


Discussion time

Think again about all the sources you’ve looked at in parts 1 & 2, and answer the following question:

  • What do the sources reveal about the history of Black people living in Britain? Think about when they came to Britain; how they were treated; and the contribution that they’ve made.

Creative Activities

  1. Illustrated timeline
    • Design an illustrated class timeline, reflecting Black presence in Britain through time. You could include information about key individuals covered in this resource or/ and encourage pupils to carry out further research. Teachers could also refer to Miranda Kaufman’s book Black Tudors: The Untold Story.
  2. Poster
    • Pupils can work in pairs/small groups to research and design their own poster about a famous Black Britain of their choice. This could be an historical figure of someone contemporary.
  3. Presentation
    • Ask pupils to create a short presentation about one of the documents they’ve looked at in this resource, to share knowledge about the history of Black presence in Britain with another class.

Teachers' notes


To encourage pupils to use original sources to find out about early Black presence in Britain. It is important that teachers ensure that pupils understand these terms: merchant, British Citizen, Commonwealth, immigrant.

These documents cover sensitive subjects and may include language and concepts that are entirely unacceptable and inappropriate today. We suggest that teachers look at the material carefully before introducing to pupils. It would be helpful to discuss the language and ideas contained in a source beforehand.

All sources could be shown on a whiteboard/ or as a printed copy. It is suggested that teachers read text-based sources together with the pupils. They may wish to break the documents into smaller extracts if they appear too long or create additional simplified transcripts. All documents include transcripts with information in square brackets to help. Teachers may wish to divide their class into small groups/pairs. Print the questions on separate cards. Ask the pupils to discuss their answers and report back to the class using the whiteboard to display the source.

What do the sources reveal about an early Black presence in Britain?

Part 1: Starter activity

Pupils engage with the starter source, an image taken from the Domesday Abbreviato, with prompt questions for discussion. This source is taken from the Domesday Abbreviato, created in the thirteenth century and reveals that at this early time, there were already Black people living in England. The Black man’s clothes – a short tunic over hose – suggest that he is a man of lower status, possibly a labourer.

A second source, a wage-slip for a man called John Blanke, dated 1507, expands discussion and encourages pupils to think about Black presence in Britain during medieval times. It has been taken from the records of the Treasurer of the Chamber John Blanke was a trumpeter who played in the royal courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII.

‘Blacke’ is being used to describe the colour of his skin. Blanke would not have been the only Black man living in Tudor England. Countries such as Spain and Portugal would have had more contact with Africa at this time through trade. From these countries, Black people would have then made their journey across to Britain.

Give pupils a copy of John Blanke’s wage-slip, with the transcript printed on the back. Ask them to focus on the image of the original source and spend 1 minute looking at the document, but not reading it closely. They can then answer the first set of questions. Once they’ve looked at the transcript, pupils can answer the follow-up questions.

Part 2: Source exploration

Building on this approach, pupils study three further sources which reveal the presence of Black people in Britain. The first source is an extract from the Customs Accounts from the Port of London dated 1380-81. It shows the names of different ships travelling in and out of the port, along with the individual merchants whose goods were onboard. The amount of customs tax (money paid to the Exchequer) varied depending on whether you were an English or a Foreign merchant. Ind next to merchants’ names stood for ‘indigenous’ and meant that they were English. Al was short for the term ‘alien’ and meant that these merchants were foreign.

Once the pupils have looked at the document for a few minutes, draw their attention to the merchant listed as Afrikanno Petro or African Peter and ask the follow-on question. We don’t know whether the name African Peter was his real name or one used to describe how he looked. We also don’t know whether Peter really was from Africa.

Introduce the second source, a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, sent to mayors and sheriffs of the country, dated 1596 as a ‘Mystery Document’ to the class. Ask the pupils to examine the document as an object, they do not need to read it at first. Then ask the suggested questions.

The document is about the treatment of ‘Blackamoores’ in England at this time. The term ‘Blackamoor’ was a word used to describe any person who was Black and probably Muslim. It is not an acceptable or appropriate word to use today. The letter reveals that there was a Black presence in Elizabethan times. In Tudor times, Black people came to England through slavery, as servants, or as sailors. There were also Black musicians at Queen Elizabeth’s court and some Black people were also free.

Introduce the third source, the naturalisation papers for Sarah Parker Remond, a free-born African American. Sarah was applying to become a British Citizen; she wanted to legally change her nationality. She was a Suffragist, anti-slavery activist and a physician, who campaigned against slavery in Britain and studied at Bedford College. Sarah went on to train as a nurse in 1865 at London University College. She gained British Citizenship and later moved to Florence to qualify as an obstetrician.

Part 3: Three suggested creative activities

  1. Design an illustrated class timeline, reflecting Black presence in Britain through time.
  2. Work in pairs/small groups to research and design a poster on a famous Black Britain.
  3. Ask pupils to create a short presentation about one of the documents they’ve looked at in this resource, to share knowledge about the history of Black presence in Britain with another class.

Teachers may prefer to use any of the original sources here to create their own resources and activities or adapt the activities provided here for use in their schemes of work.

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The National Archives - Homepage (2024)


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