When I was young, I quizzed my granny Bea Senker about her childhood in the East End. An enthusiastic socialist, I hoped to hear heroic stories of my forefathers joining the mass protests to stop Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
Instead, granny told me that her parents had a large house at 82 Chamber Street, near West India Docks. Their family of ten had servants: a washerwoman, a lady who came to do the ironing – and a black manservant. I was horrified – particularly about the black servant and the power imbalance that the relationship implied. I asked no more.
Returning to family history now, I’m intrigued about this person of African heritage. He’s part of British history, one of the many figures whose stories are being brought to light by historians such as David Olusoga.
Mr Goff from Maryland
Charles Henry Goff, aged 53 from Baltimore, Maryland, is listed with the Goldberg family in the 1911 Whitechapel Census. I found that that he’d spent three nights in the workhouse in Tower Hamlets in 1893. But no other official records of his life in Britain.
Living in the cellar
According to my father’s cousin Michael Shockett, Charles jumped ship at the docks, and my great-grandfather and grandmother, Mordechai and Leah, took him in. His home was the cellar, as was common for servants. He lugged the coal from the cellar and lit the fires every day. As my cousin Linda says, ‘He must have been like a live-in shabbos goy.’ As a non-Jew, he was expected to work on the Sabbath and do manual jobs forbidden to the family.
It sounds like a grim existence: days of servitude and nights in a dark, dank cellar. But it may have been less awful than Charlie’s previous employment.
Labouring in the engine room
Looking at my tattered copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, I read that the largest group of black people in late 19th-century Britain were seafarers. On board, they would doubtlessly have carried out the difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs. Charlie may well have laboured in the sweltering engine room, shovelling coal from dawn to dusk to feed the huge furnaces. With only the light from the fire, he would have worked in near darkness. And there was little ventilation to thin the dense clouds of coal dust.
Owing to racism, it was hard for seafarers to find another position on a ship after arriving at their destination – even in the engine rooms. Some tried their luck ashore in the port cities. Securing work on land was not much easier since white dockers generally refused to work with them.
‘Having spent the small sums they had been paid off with, having pawned any spare clothes and other belongings, destitute seamen tramped from port to port, desperate for work.’
The seafarers were reduced to the status of beggars, relying on assistance from other black people or the parish authorities.
Looking for work
If this was Charlie’s situation, it could explain why he ended up in London. Maybe he was working on a ship destined for the capital. If sailing directly from the USA, he would have arrived in Liverpool but might have decided to try his luck down south. Perhaps he arrived penniless in the capital 1893 and sought brief refuge in the workhouse while searching for employment.
The Port of London was in the East End. Mordechai had his business in Shoreditch, so I wonder if he and Charlie came across each other there. I’d love to know.
The Battle of Cable Street
I’ve taken the liberty of speculating about this one courageous migrant from Baltimore. And returning to my initial enquiry, Linda has now told me that her father and his brothers – perhaps without telling their sister Bea – did indeed join the communists and socialists to confront the fascists on Cable Street, inflicting a defeat from which they never recovered.
 Peter Fryer, page 295
 Peter Fryer, ibid.
 Cecil Lush, Family Memories 1808-2002, page 36