October is Black History month: how many people know that the first ever black mayor of any British town was in Norfolk?
Allan Glaisyer Minns was one of ten children of John and Ophelia Minns (nee Bunch) of Inagua in the Bahamas. Theirs is an extraordinary story: Allan, his brother and sister, all came to England and lived in Thetford for many years, playing an important part in community life. In 1904, Allan became Mayor of Thetford – the first black mayor of any town in Britain.
Their paternal grandfather, John Minns, had emigrated from England to the Bahamas. His partner Rosette was a freed slave from Africa – the story is that she saved John from drowning after a ship they were both travelling in sank – One of their children, also John, married a lady named Ophelia Bunch – nothing is known of her ethnic background. John and Ophelia had ten children, three of whom were to come to Thetford.
The eldest, Pembroke Minns, was born in Inagua in 1840. At the age of eighteen he moved to England to study at Guy’s Hospital, qualifying as a doctor in 1862. In that year he came to Thetford as a physician, working in the town for half a century. He became physician to Thetford Cottage Hospital, and served on the Borough Council for three years. Pembroke never married. At some time in the 1880s, his sister Ophelia, seventeen years his junior, came to Thetford, living with her brother in his house in King Street for the remainder of his life: he died in 1912.
Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in Inagua in 1858. Just like Pembroke, he trained at Guy’s, and, on qualifying as a doctor, he too came to Thetford, purchasing a practice in the town in 1888. He played an important part in town life, being Medical Officer at Thetford Workhouse and Honorary Medical Officer of Thetford Cottage Hospital. He published several article in the Thetford and Watton Times in the early 1900s; they were on themes like ‘Fresh Air and Common Sense’. He was also a keen gardener and a founder of Thetford Horticultural Society. He had his own house in White Hart Street.
In 1903, he was elected to Thetford Borough Council. Just one year later, he was chosen by his fellow councillors to be Mayor, a position he held for two years (1904-5 and 1905-6). He was the deputy mayor for the next two years and continued to serve on the Council afterwards.
In 1914, John Archer became mayor of Battersea. Many people thought he was the first black person to become a British mayor: this is still given as a fact in some books. Even at the time, however, some authorities recognised that Minns had the prior claim. The American-published Negro Year Book for 1914 noted Archer’s election adding, ‘This is the second time in the history of that country [Britain] that “a man of color” has been elected mayor of a town. In 1904, Mr Allen Glaser Minns, a colored man from the West Indies, was elected mayor of the borough of Thetford, Norfolk’.
Over the last twenty years, Minns’ story has become much better known, achieving full recognition in 2016 when he appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the first time. The article was written by Richard Maguire, whose conclusion cannot be bettered:
‘Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in the Bahamas a quarter of a century after the Caribbean system of slavery had ended. His grandmother had been enslaved, and his uncles had been born into slavery and manumitted as children. Access to a good education in the Bahamas and then medical training in England, allied with his own hard work, allowed him to build an important role in Victorian and Edwardian society, becoming a respected physician, a leader of his community, and the first black mayor of an English town.’
Black History Month is a good time for Norfolk to celebrate Allan Glaisyer Minns and his extraordinary achievement.
Written by Frank Meeres