Africans came to England in Victorian times for a variety of reasons, either on a short visit, long-term migration and anything in-between. They arrived as entertainers, businessmen, students, scholars, bishops, authors, and abolitionists. During the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain played host to a number of Royal Africans. Searching through Victorian newspapers brings up many tales of African princes visiting Britain; a five and a half year old African prince in Liverpool in 1851, Prince Sidi in Southampton in 1853, and Prince Warobo of Opobo ( eastern Nigeria) in Frodsham in 1881.
Leeds had its fair share of Royal African visits during the last decades of the 19th Century. Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) famously lived in Leeds for some months before his untimely death, aged 18, in 1879. Prince Ademuyiwa of Lagos (Nigeria) visited Leeds in 1894 and witnessed the construction of a railway junction in South Leeds. He even gave an interview to the Leeds Mercury. It was in the pages of the Leeds Mercury that another African Prince paying a visit to Leeds was reported in 1888.
On 4 September 1888 the Leeds Mercury printed a letter from an eyewitness that had seen an “African Prince” taunted on Woodhouse Lane. It was said that the prince was followed by a group of children who jeered at him and even threw stones at him. When a police officer arrived on the scene he suggested the prince should move on, commenting that the children “like to have a bit of fun with a darkey”. The writer of the letter wrote: “I cannot help feeling that it is a disgrace to us as a people that a visitor who happens to have a darker skin than ours, or who dresses differently from us, cannot walk along our streets without being followed by a crowd of people and insulted, and even pelted with stones.”
The letter gave no details about the prince. Who was he? Where was he from? Why was he in Leeds? And was he even a prince at all?
The ‘African Prince’ next appeared in the Leeds Mercury a few days later; giving some details on who the prince was. On 7 September it was reported that the African prince was in fact Charles Alexander Edwards, a man who “describes himself as an African Prince”. On this occasion Edwards was being charged for assault but Edwards’s story didn’t begin or end in Leeds. The earliest mention of Charles Alexander Edwards was from 1883 in the Illustrated Police News which gave the biggest clue to who Edwards really was.
On 13 October 1883 it was reported that Edwards “described as a native of the West Indies” was charged with stealing a seal-skin jacket, valued at £60, in Lambeth, London. There was no mention of Edwards being a prince or claiming to be a prince. He did however state “that he was a gentleman”.
It seems likely Edwards wasn’t a prince, or even a gentleman, or indeed African. Charles Alexander Edwards was, probably, born in the British West Indies (It was reported he spoke fluent English), sometime around 1853 (His age is given as 30 in the 1883 report), who arrived in England sometime before, or in, 1883. He most likely was a conman, gambler and thief, who traveled around the country claiming to be a wealthy African prince and a gentleman. He was known for being violent, especially towards women, and was a bit of a maverick, always described as being “very excited”, that enjoyed a drink and a lifestyle he couldn’t afford. While he was reported to have dressed smartly, he spent his life in England living in lodging houses.
By 1885 Edwards was married and was living with his wife, Blanche Catherine Edwards, at Crane Grove, Holloway Road in London. In August, Edwards found himself in court again. On this occasion he had tried buying wine, to the sum of over £9, with two cheques that the bank returned. Edwards was still not claiming to be a prince but made the claim that he was indeed wealthy, with an income of £400 a year paid into his wife’s account.
It’s in 1888 where his story really takes off. That was the year that Edwards was first reported to be claiming to be an African prince. By claiming to be a gentleman Edwards had found he could get off lightly with his crimes; he could simply explain his situation, apologise, give a gentleman’s agreement to not do it again and walk away with a small fine. On top of that, Edwards was always ready with an excuse for his actions; a family friend had recently died, he didn’t know any better, or he was just drunk. Being a prince was even better; nobody wanted to send a prince to jail.
This scam, of pretending to be an African price, had happened and worked, to some degree, before. Moses Doyle Wallace, most likely an African American, had served in the US Navy as a cook before arriving in Britain in 1868. In New York he had claimed to have been the Prince of Accra in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and in London he became James Manna, the son of the King of Dahomey. Another time he claimed to be the son and heir to the King of the Gallina (Sierra Leone) and in Glasgow he claimed to be James Kelly, a wealthy ship owner. In Liverpool he went by the names John M’Quiver and Captain James Brookes. Claiming to be an extremely wealthy African prince (being paid £10,000 per year from the Sierra Leone government) Wallace traveled the country, staying in hotels unpaid for, borrowing money, stealing clothes, issuing forged notes, and obtaining money and items under false pretenses. He was arrested numerous times and did jail time on several occasions.
By early 1888 Edwards and his wife had moved to Southport and on 8 May it was reported that Edwards had been in court three times in the space of a fortnight. His most recent crime was assault against his landlady, Mrs. Croasdale, who had approached Edwards after she discovered he was married and had been courting one of the female lodgers. The North-Eastern Daily Gazette gives the first details of Edwards’s prince story. He claimed to be “a man of means” and the son of “one of the native Kings on the River Bonny” in Nigeria.
August 1888 saw Edwards, still in Southport, in court again after riding a horse across a public park and along Chapel Street for which he was fined 10 shillings. By September Edwards had moved to Leeds where again he appeared in court a number of times, including for “furious driving” and had been kicked out of the Victoria Hotel by a police officer “two or three times”. In early September he was charged for assaulting his landlady, Louisa Wainman. One night Edwards had been out drinking champagne with a friend. It was reported that “He had plenty of money, and could get it whenever he wanted it.” After returning home drunk in a cab shortly after midnight, Edwards requested Mrs. Wainman paid his cab fare. After she refused he hit her in the face three times. The Leeds Mercury reported that Edwards “was, he said, a respectable person – a gentleman by breeding. “ However the court heard that Edwards made “his living by betting”. Edwards was fined 40 shillings but was warned if he appeared in court again, and was found guilty, he would be sent to jail “whatever he might say about being a gentleman”. Edwards did appear in court in Leeds again, in February 1889, when he was charged with “having conducted himself riotously in the streets”. He was again fined 40 shillings after pleading guilty.
A court case in January 1892 gives some details of Edwards’s travels and crimes prior to that date but doesn’t give any precise dates. He spent time in jail in Chester, and was convicted of assault in Torquay. The court also heard how in Torquay, Edwards, using the name Charles Edwards, had gone “about robbing tradesmen” and had “borrowed money from several hard-working people” and “had been repeatedly before the Magistrates”. It was also reported that “Since that time he had been to Paris, Italy, Rome, and elsewhere, and had been back here two months”.
Edwards next shows up in 1891 by which time he has a changed name and altered story. Now living in Portsmouth, Edwards was using the name Prince Charles Alexander Edward Theodore of Abyssinia. Four years prior Edwards had claimed to be a Nigerian prince but was now claiming to be from the other side of Africa, the son of Emperor Tewodros (Theodore). Edwards also claimed that he received a pension from the British Government.
In January 1892 Edwards was in court in Portsmouth for threats against his landlady and a female lodger. Before the end of the month he was once again in court but this time Edwards was claiming he had been the victim of assault, not the other way around, after an argument broke out at a lodging house in December 1891. The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle reported details of the court case in which Edwards’s identification was questioned. When asked “You have gone in the name of Charles Alexander Edwards?” Edwards replied “Yes”. The story of the assault also appeared in The Illustrated Police News; giving us the only known image of Edwards.
By February 1892 Edwards had stayed at, and had been kicked out of, a number of lodging houses in Portsmouth. He was kicked out of one for the use of obscene language, and two others for not paying his bills. One landlady, Jane McDonnugh, claimed she was owned over £5 for rent and damages to property, and detained Edwards’s clothes, valued at £10, until the debt was cleared. During the court case that followed, the court was told Edwards “was a man who went about the country in this way representing himself as Prince Theodore.”
Edwards had moved on to Lincoln by March 1892. In Lincoln he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and fined 8 shillings. Again, he claimed to be a prince and claimed to be in receipt of an annual allowance of £500 from the British Government. In April he was arrested again for being drunk and in charge of a horse. When asked his name he replied “Prince Charles Alexander Theodore, son of King Theodore of Abyssinia.” The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, reporting on the story, quoted Edwards as telling the magistrates “I am a gentleman’s son bred and born of kings and the noblest of kings” before adding “If I come before you again then deal seriously with me. I promise you honourably and straightforwardly as a gentleman’s son and a prince that I will behave myself.” It was talk like this that helped Edwards keep out of any serious trouble and in Lincoln it worked again. The magistrates, reluctant to send Edwards to prison, fined him 21 shillings instead.
Of course, Edwards did appear in front of the court in Lincoln again, in May of the same year, this time for using abusive language in public for which he was fined 30 shillings. As in Leeds, in Lincoln Edwards had been the victim of racist jeering by a crowd on Burton Road which had resulted in him using “most disgusting language”. By June, Edwards was back in London again, where he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and threatening people with a knife. He was fined 10 shillings. Fond of gambling, in London Edwards was able to attend the horse racing at Windsor. While there in July 1892 he threatened Robert Jacobs and unable to talk his way of this one, he was sentenced to three months in jail. What happened to Edwards after that remains a mystery. He doesn’t appear in any newspaper after July 1892. Perhaps he learnt his lesson, or perhaps he returned to Africa to rule over Abyssinia, or was it Nigeria….