When I recently came across the man considered Britain’s first black editor, I was surprised that I had never before heard his name. Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards was born in Dominica, the youngest of 10 children, near the end of the 1850s. In 1870 he travelled to North America and then, some seven years later, to Edinburgh, where he worked as a labourer. He later spent time in Sunderland, where he reconnected with his Christian faith, practising as a Methodist, and became a vocal proponent of temperance.


He then moved south to study theology at King’s College London. In a photograph from the university archives dated 1888, he is noticeably the only person of colour pictured among a sea of men in their sombre suits. He stands right at the very back, looking smart and wearing a mortarboard; his head is turned away from the camera, his gaze fixed into the distance.

A formal portrait of Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards
A formal portrait of Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards. His speeches about racial justice had a huge impact in Britain in the early 1890s. (Image by Getty Images)

Edwards soon became a celebrated speaker on the lecture circuit, addressing audiences in venues across Victorian England. He also held forth at the spot dubbed ‘The Forum’ in Victoria Park, east London, which rivalled Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park as a hotspot for open-air orators. He spoke about racial justice, the ills of imperialism, and abstinence from alcohol.

Edwards must have been a remarkable man. He helped the formerly enslaved Walter Hawkins write his autobiography, From Slavery to Bishopric (1891). He also founded the Christian journal Lux in 1892, and was editor of the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man’s newsletter, Fraternity, in 1893. Hence, in Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), Peter Fryer describes Edwards as the first known black editor in Britain. He used his journals to share his political views.

On 18 February 1893, he wrote in Lux:

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The day is coming when Africans will speak for themselves. The day is breaking, and the despised African, whose only crime is his colour, will yet give an account of himself. We think it no crime for Africans to look with suspicion upon the European, who has stolen a part of their country, and deluged it with rum and powder, under the cover of civilisation.

By 1893, Edwards had been accepted as a medical student, but his health was declining. Rather than slow down, though, he went on a speaking tour during which he visited north-east England. There he encountered the pioneering black American journalist Ida B Wells, who had been invited by the Quakers to talk about her campaigns against slavery and lynching. Wells herself had been born enslaved in the US before being freed under the Emancipation Act of 1862.

Following their meeting, Edwards and Wells toured together. Journalist Yvonne Singh, who has been researching Edwards’ life and work, says that when the pair spoke at the Friends’ Meeting House in Newcastle, so many people arrived that the audience had to be divided into two halls, with Wells and Edwards tag-teaming between them. Their talks made a powerful impression on audiences, and garnered a warm reception from the press.

After Wells returned to the US, Edwards continued to travel around Britain, delivering talks on ‘American Atrocities’, ‘Blacks and Whites in America’ and ‘The Negro Race and Social Darwinism’.

He also began making preparations for Wells’s second tour of the UK the following year but, in December 1893, he caught influenza, and was slow to recover. Funds were raised to send him to Dominica in the hope his health would improve there. He died in July 1894, aged about 36, in his brother’s home in Portsmouth, Dominica. After his death, Wells took over as editor of Fraternity.

Today, Edwards is not a well-known figure, and his publications are hard to track down. There is a blue plaque to him in Sunderland, but little trace of him can be found elsewhere.

Yet Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards deserves to be remembered. He achieved so much in such a short life and, through the skill of his oratory and writing, made a huge impression on late Victorian Britain.


This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Kavita Puri is a journalist, author and broadcaster. A new edition of her book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, marking the 75th anniversary of partition, is out now, published by Bloomsbury