During the writing of “A Victorian Society”, I came across a photograph in the archives which was most unusual, being a portrait of a man of African descent, taken in the late 1860s or early 1870s. The photographer was a founding member of the Oldham Photographic Society, named William Thorpe. The subject of the photograph is holding an iron implement in his lap, which we now believe is probably a slave collar. After doing some more research, I discovered a story about a man named James Johnson, a slave of African Descent, who grew up in North Carolina. He escaped captivity during the American Civil War and made his way to England, eventually settling in Oldham in 1866. James became an evangelist and an iron worker, working at Platt Brothers Engineering. He would have been in an excellent position to fashion himself a slave collar to demonstrate how slaves were treated in the southern states and which may well have been shown at meetings in the town.
James Johnson wrote his memoir in the 1870s. In 1914, shortly after his death, James’ daughter Alice published the memoir as “The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), An Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America”. By that time, the Oldham Photographic Society’s photograph was about 30 years old and was buried in an abandoned album in the society’s “library”, which was kept at the meeting rooms. It is possible that no-one outside the society knew of the photograph or its possible significance, until it turned up in my research earlier this year. Even then, had I not been very curious about it, perhaps the matter would not have been taken any further.
As a poor black immigrant, arriving in Oldham in the late 1860s, James would have been a person of great interest to the growing number of photographers in the town, but until now, no photograph of him has been thought to exist.
I straight away brought my evidence to Sean Baggaley, curator at Gallery Oldham, who in turn alerted Dr. David Cecelski, in America, a writer on the history of South Carolina, who has an interest in James Johnson. Both have written articles on the subject of James Johnson, which you can read at the following links:
Is this James Johnson? (by Sean Baggaley)
A Portrait from Oldham (by David Cecelski)
The life of the Late James Johnson (by David Cecelski)
I privately find the evidence quite compelling that this is a photograph James Johnson – for, who else would it be? But unfortunately the proof is not there and we may never know for certain! If only the name of the subject had been written on the back of the photograph, or even against the photograph in the album, as some other portraits were identified! Is this a lesson to us all?
Christine Widdall, Dec 2017