‘West African Britisher Dies Whilst Serving the King’

The above words are the title of an article appearing in the ‘Birkenhead News’ of 31st July 1915. I discovered it on 8th August 2012 in Wirral Archives and it rather took me by surprise, firstly because I was not expecting to read any detailed references to African people in the local press and secondly because of the largely favourable way in which John (or Jack) Libby (or Lebby) was described. Here is the article in full:

John Libby 31 July 1915b

The Birkenhead News of 31st July 1915 Reports on the Death of John (Jack) Libby in Birkenhead

In all honesty, the article is no more patronising towards Jack than were similar items describing working class soldiers. There is, perhaps, a hint of surprise that Jack had become popular with his friends in the 3rd Cheshire Regiment and that he and his comrades had become efficient soldiers, but similar language was often used in describing local, white recruits. We wince at the use of the words ‘coloured’ and ‘negro’ to describe the African soldiers, but such usage was acceptable at the time. To call Jack a ‘West African Britisher’ might seem risible and absurd, but we must judge this language in its historical context.

Britain felt that its way of life and its empire were under threat. Unity and solidarity had become essential, nowhere more so than on Merseyside which possessed a diverse and fluid society with many internal conflicts, which had been painfully apparent before August 1914. There were disputes between trades unions and employers, women and men, Catholics and Protestants, Liberals and Conservatives, Irish Unionists and Nationalists and between the various ethnic groups. One of the best examples of the latter was a row between English and Italian ice-cream vendors over territories in New Brighton. (Ironically, probably the most stable and highly regarded ethnic group was the Germans, but, sadly, that changed in 1914. I hope to deal with the issue in a later post). Local newspapers fostered a sense of solidarity by publicising the contributions being made by all sections of society – Welsh and Irish Nationalists, trades unionists, women’s rights campaigners and members of every class.  Jack Lebby’s story as portrayed in the ‘Birkenhead News’ must be seen against this backdrop.

It is doubtful that many people in Birkenhead in 1915 would have known much about West Africa. The part from which Jack Libby originated was called the Gold Coast (today it is called Ghana, having gained independence from Britain in 1957). It was an area which the Portuguese, Danes and Dutch had exploited before Britain gained control in 1867. The British fought three wars with the Ashanti people and extended their power, making the Ashanti Kingdom a protectorate in 1902. They exported the country’s gold, diamonds, timber, ivory, pepper, grain and cocoa and built a railway network to carry these raw materials to the coast. Jack Libby was employed by the best-known shipping company trading with West Africa, Elder-Dempster and Company, founded in Liverpool in 1868.

Elder Dempster Poster

Advertisement for the Elder Dempster Company with depictions of the goods traded from West Africa

An insight into contemporary preconceptions about Africans may be gained from a film made in Birkenhead in 1902. It shows a carnival procession and can be viewed here. It includes a group of people pretending to be African musicians by ‘blacking up’. They were called ‘Nigger Minstrels’. The phenomenon was a bizarre act of racial stereotyping, which was practised all over Britain (as a procession, it was a grotesque counterpoint to Jack’s funeral cortege in 1915). Black people were portrayed as jolly, silly and childish entertainers. Perhaps this was how many people in Birkenhead in 1915, including Jack Libby’s colleagues in the 3rd Cheshires, had imagined Africans to be. Only as they trained with Jack and his compatriots would the local recruits have begun to get to know the Africans as fellow human beings and consequently to have started to respect them as equals. In addition to the need to show unity with colonial people demonstrating solidarity with the ‘Mother Country’, this could have been another reason why the regiment gave Jack the full honours of a military funeral.

John Libby 31 July 1915

Jack Libby’s Funeral in Birkenhead July 1915

About Jack himself, we know very little. If the ‘Birkenhead News’ had not reported the story, we would never even have known that he existed. There are all sorts of questions which we would like answering, such as how old was he? Who were his family? What did he look like? What language did he speak? Why did he have such a British-sounding name? Why did he want to join the British Army in 1915?

Miraculously, Jack’s service records are amongst the 20 per cent to have survived the London Blitz of 1940; they answer some of our questions and appear as follows:

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Jack Lebby's Service Records

The Last Page of Jack Lebby’s Service Records, revealing that every effort was made to trace his next of kin in 1920 but without success.

The documents provide the following facts about Jack Libby:

  • He was 24 years old when he enlisted in June 1915
  • He was a seaman by trade
  • He came from ‘Somoa’ in West Africa
  • He seems to have done some previous service in the ‘West African Rifles'(?)
  • He was unmarried
  • He probably could not read and write because he seems to have placed a cross next to his name
  • He had a fairly robust physique, being 5 foot 5 and a half inches tall and having a 36-inch chest with a 2-inch expansion
  • He attested on 15th June 1915 in Chester
  • He was posted on 17th June
  • He died on 25th July at Palm Grove Hospital in Birkenhead
  • He had no known family

However, many of our deeper questions remain unanswered and indeed are probably unanswerable. He came from Samoa/Somoa. Until recently, I could not find this place in gazetteers or reference books. Happily, it now appears on Google Maps, which shows it to be a remote settlement in the top north-west corner of Ghana near the border with Burkina Faso. It is hard to imagine the young Jack travelling down to Accra in order to get a job as a seaman and then sailing to Liverpool and dying of pneumonia as a British soldier in Birkenhead, thousands of miles away from his family in their remote home, who might never have learned of his fate.

The following views are of Palm Grove, Birkenhead in August 2012. The Royal Army Medical Corps hospital was based in one of the large houses, but I have not been able to identify which one.

For me, one of the biggest mysteries is how he acquired such an Anglo-Saxon-sounding name. The surnames Libby and Lebby seem to be associated with Cornwall and Scotland respectively. Was Samoa sufficiently Anglicised for him to have been given his names at birth? Are Libby and Lebby approximations of a local African name or did he acquire them when he was employed by Elder Dempster? One imagines that his home town was much too remote to be Anglicised, making the latter alternative more likely. To complicate matters further, the name Calvea(?) has been crossed out three times on the first document and replaced with Lebby. Was this an alternative surname or someone else’s name?

Intriguingly, the article clearly states that Jack was one of the several West African sailors to have joined the Cheshire Regiment in June 1915. Sadly, their names were not recorded and I have not so far been able to find any trace of them in the newspapers, in service records or on medal cards and rolls, If you are able to trace them or have any ideas for the way ahead, please get in touch.

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A Part of Flaybrick Cemetery in Birkenhead 10th August 2012. Jack is buried somewhere within the cemetery, but I have not yet found his grave.

Finally, Jack is buried in Flaybrick Cemetery in Birkenhead. The cemetery registers give a location reference which, in August 2012, I could not find on the ground. One imagines that he would either have an individual Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone or that his name would be inscribed on a communal memorial. I could find neither. Again, if you are able to tell me where Jack is buried, do get in touch.

This brief story reminds us of important aspects of Britain’s experience of the Great War which are easily overlooked, chief of which is the sacrifices and contributions made by colonial peoples from Africa and elsewhere. During the post war years, such people seem to have been deliberately written out of the narrative, but if this article from the ‘Birkenhead News’ is anything to go by, contemporary people were interested in and appreciative of the sacrifices made by people from the colonies, even if (or perhaps especially if) they had dark skin. We therefore have another unanswered question – why were Asian and African service people forgotten about during the post war years?

Another topic which the story highlights is the dynamism and diversity of Merseyside society in the early part of the 20th century. The West African sailors were just one example of foreign groups who had moved into Birkenhead. Others included Eastern European Jews, Germans, Austrians, Italians and Spaniards as well as people from all over the British Isles. Indeed, society was so heterogeneous and contained so many internal divisions that it was necessary to promote oneness and unity at a time of national crisis. The publication of the Jack Libby story is one way in which this was done.

 

 

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