Black History Month – Roger Britten

In 1856 the Royston Institute hosted a grand exhibition showcasing novelties and the latest technological advances. A reporter noted that one such novelty was ‘an intelligent looking African… printing off copies of a handbill.’

Roger Britten had been born in the British colony of Demerara (now Guyana) 16 years earlier. His was the first generation born into freedom and, when he was just 5 years old, a non-conformist minister arrived at the local Mission Station. Reverend William Garland Barrett was a mixture of social reformer, amateur scientist and religious zealot. He believed a Christian education was vital to the advancement of the children of ex-slaves but his mission was cut short when he fell seriously ill. He returned to England in 1848, taking with him 8 year-old Roger as his adopted son.

The family settled in Royston where Barrett took up the pastorship of John Street Congregational Chapel. The Barretts employed a live-in servant and a 12 year-old nursemaid In their Back Street (Upper King Street) home. The social niceties of an upper middle-class English household must have been bewildering for Roger.

When the family moved away, they passed 15 year old Roger to the care of John Warren, a printer. Warren had big plans which included the launch of a monthly free newspaper (the Royston Crow), a venture that needed apprentices to support it. Roger learned quickly and soon took up a job in London at Eyre & Spottiswoode, printers to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

In 1865 Reverend Barrett’s death seems to have come as a liberation. Within 7 months Roger had adopted the middle name Mark, a sign that he had been confirmed in the Anglican communion. If he had still been alive, this might have caused a major rift with his non-conformist adoptive father. Roger had his reasons: he was marrying out of the faith. Fanny Clarke was white, Anglican and a 24 year old dressmaker. He had met her in Royston where her father was coachman to the Phillips family. They were married that October. The newly-weds squeezed into a terraced house with two other families. They lost one child but raised both a son and a daughter. Roger was on the up and around this time he started working in the printing department of the India Office, enabling his son eventually to claim that his father had been a civil servant.

But Roger at 43 was not well. He had contracted bronchopneumonia. With Fanny by his bedside, he died at his home on 1 June 1883. Unusually, the Royston Crow ran a lengthy obituary. ‘Many will remember the little black boy…who…through his good temper and amiability, won the affections of those around him wherever he went.’ Having inherited nothing but memories of Guyana, through hard graft Roger managed to leave enough money to ensure his children had the kind of education which would enable his daughter to rise to acting Head Mistress in a London school.

As part of Black History Month find out more about Roger Britten at Royston Museum on 2pm on Saturday 5 October (with special guests, King James Academy Royston’s Boys Choir who will be performing a song they have written about Roger Britten). You will also be able to see Stacey Leigh’s painting, which interprets his life, and see the printing press Roger operated. More details on his life can be found at
This project has been supported by Creative Royston.