English Heritage London blue plaque for Ellen and William Craft


Ellen and William Craft, African-American freedom fighters who made a daring escape from enslavement in Georgia, US, and fled to Britain in the mid-19th century, have today been commemorated with an English Heritage London blue plaque. The plaque marks 26 Cambridge Grove, a mid-Victorian house in Hammersmith where the Crafts settled and raised their family, using their home as a base to campaign for abolition, radical reform and social justice.

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage, commented, “Ellen and William Craft’s story is incredibly powerful. Their determination to escape from enslavement in the most perilous circumstances, and then to campaign for abolition and win over hearts and minds here in the UK is astonishing. They lived in Hammersmith during the 1860s, and toured the country lecturing against slavery. They are an important part of the anti-slavery movement and we are delighted to remember them with this plaque.”

Dr Hannah-Rose Murray, historian and proposer of the plaque to the Crafts, said: “Ellen and William Craft were courageous and heroic freedom fighters whose daring escape from U.S. chattel slavery involved Ellen crossing racial, gender and class lines to perform as a white southern man. If caught, they would have been incarcerated, tortured and almost certainly sold away from each other. Their story inspired audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and when the Crafts reached Britain, they were relentless in their campaigns against slavery, racism, white supremacy, and the Confederate cause during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). I’m so excited that English Heritage has built on previous work by historians, archivists and local activists to honour their presence in Hammersmith and the UK in general, and recognise the Crafts’ incredible bravery and impact on transatlantic society.”

London Blue Plaques and diversity

The London Blue Plaques scheme was founded in 1866 but it wasn’t until 1975 that the first plaque honouring a notable Black figure from the past was installed, to the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. English Heritage took over the London Blue Plaques scheme in 1986 and over the scheme’s 150 plus year history has been responsible for the majority of the plaques to Black and Asian figures, reflecting an evolving sense of who should be commemorated.

However, today only approximately 4% of the more than 975 blue plaques across the capital are currently dedicated to Black and Asian people. English Heritage doesn’t think this is good enough and since it became an independent charity in 2015, it has redoubled its efforts to ensure its blue plaque scheme is more representative, tackling the low number of public nominations for black, Asian and minority ethnic figures by creating a new working group tasked with .

One of the issues the working group faces is the all too frequent lack – or relative inaccessibility – of historic records establishing a definitive link between the person in question and the building in which they lived. That said, the work is beginning to yield results – over the past two years, a quarter of English Heritage plaques have commemorated Black or Asian figures, the most recent being the plaque today to Ellen and William Craft.

Gus Casely-Hayford, English Heritage Blue Plaque panel member and founding member of the blue plaque’s BAME working group said: “The English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme is committed to commemorating historic figures from the Black community and today, we are celebrating the lives and legacies of two remarkable people. But there is more to be done and over the coming years, with the help of the public, we hope to see more blue plaques on the streets of London to communities who have previously been under-represented in history.”

Ellen and William Craft

Famed for one of history’s most ingenious escapes from slavery, Ellen and William Craft hatched their plan in December 1848 and made the perilous thousand-mile journey from Georgia to Pennsylvania in their quest for freedom. Ellen Craft was a child of rape (her mother was an enslaved African American who was raped by her white enslaver) and thus could pass as white. She disguised herself as a disabled white man, travelling north for medical treatment, with William posing as her enslaved manservant.

Greeted by abolitionists in Philadelphia, the couple were urged to continue to Massachusetts. However, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Bill, forbidding inhabitants of the ‘free states’ from sheltering freedom seekers, and the Crafts’ former enslavers sent agents to abduct them. Fearing kidnap and death, the Crafts travelled to England in December 1850. The Crafts recounted their death-defying four-day trip on anti-slavery lecturing stages on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in their autobiography Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, published in London in 1860.

Following a short stay in Ockham, Surrey, they eventually settled in Hammersmith, helping to organise the London Emancipation Society whilst also continuing to travel the UK, giving lectures. Ellen also participated in a women’s suffrage organisation and the women’s arm of the British and Foreign Freedmen’s Aid Society.

After the end of the American Civil War and the legal emancipation of enslaved people, the Crafts returned to Boston in August 1869 with three of their children. Funded by donations and investment from British and American abolitionists, in 1873 they set up the Woodville Cooperative Farm School in Bryan County, Georgia, for the children of those who had been emancipated, and regularly suffered racist attacks. Ellen is believed to have died in Georgia in 1891, whilst William died in their daughter’s Charleston home on 28 January 1900, and was buried in the city’s Humane and Friendly Society Cemetery.

The English Heritage London blue plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.