The stories of three notable Black figures from Surrey’s past
- Credit: Archant
From Camberley inventor Lucean Arthur Headen to cobbler John Springfield and the “mother of black literature”, Phillis Wheatley
Known as the “mother of black literature”, Phillis Wheatley’s likeness features on chair five of the Runnymede artwork The Jurors, created by Hew Locke to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.
She was the first published African American woman writing in English, with her 1773 work Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book clearly had an impact in the county as Surrey History Centre holds a first edition, which originally belonged to the Ware family of Tilford House, near Farnham.
Born in West Africa in 1753, Phillis was purchased by an American tailor, John Wheatley, as an eight-year-old child slave in 1761 and taken back to Boston Massachusetts to be a servant to his wife Susanne. Through the efforts of Susanne and their daughter Mary, she was lucky enough to be educated to a level unheard of a girl of any race.
At the age of 14, she began to write poetry, but could not find an American publisher who would print her work. After a visit to London with the Wheatleys’ son Nathanial (marked last year with a blue plaque on the site of her former publisher in Aldgate, London), her poetry became of interest to the Countess of Huntingdon, who agreed to subsidize the printing of Phillis’ works. Her poetry appeared in London in the summer of 1773, and she was subsequently emancipated from the Wheatley family. She went on to marry but lived an impoverished life, which eventually led to her death in 1784, aged 31.
Lucean Arthur Headen
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Lucean Arthur Headen was an American who became a leading industrialist in Camberley and whose inventions played an important part in the British war effort. Dr Jill D Snider (an American independent scholar and writer) was due to talk about her biography of Headen at Surrey History Centre this month, but due to Covid-19 is unable to travel.
Dr Snider hopes to return in 2021 but gave us this insight into just how important Headen’s work was: “Headen came to Camberley in 1932 looking simply to manufacture a converter kit he had patented. The kit allowed autos and lorries to burn paraffin and other heavy oils, which were cheaper and more widely available than petrol.
“Less than a decade later, he and his business partner James Richard McLean Keil, were helping lead Camberley’s industrial development with the Headen Keil Engineering Co., which operated from 1934 to 1947 off Victoria Avenue. According to the Camberley News, by 1937 they had carried the name of Camberley ‘far and wide’ through Headen’s products - his converter kit, an anti-dilution gasket for lorries and Fordson tractors, and an oil-burning carburettor - all of which the company sold across Europe and the British Commonwealth.
“Headen’s inventions allowed farmers and hauliers to save scarce petrol for the military during World War II, and he served as a consulting engineer for wartime industries that Keil fostered at his St. Mary’s Works and at the nearby Laurel Works. Headen also served in the Home Guard with the Camberley regiment of the Surrey 1st Battalion. Though an American citizen, he became an integral part of the Surrey community.”
John Springfield was born in 1847, the son of a Zanzibar chief. At the age of nine, he was kidnapped by Portuguese sailors but was soon left for dead. Luckily, he was saved and then rescued by Dr David Livingstone, serving onboard the HMS Victoria as valet to its captain James G. Goodenough, where he stayed for three years - it was during this period that John Springfield received his western name.
John left naval service at age 20 and went to America to preach anti-slavery, however, he found America to be very unreceptive to his ideas, so came to England where he married Eliza Andrews at Croydon in August 1870. The couple had one child, Miriam, and moved to Guildford, where John earned his living as a bootmaker. He also taught cobbling at Robert Macdonald’s Guildford Mission Industrial School. John Springfield died on 21 February 1891 and is buried in Stoughton Road cemetery, Guildford.
Proactively getting these case studies researched and accessible online and encouraging more diverse material to be placed in the county archives has been a priority of Surrey History Centre for a number of years. If you feel you have any important information or resources that could be added to the archives, you can contact them to see if they can help.