Cathedral archives: October 2019

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

Archbishop Downey was concerned. How could he ensure that Liverpool’s black Catholics were welcomed into the Church and kept safe from worldly temptations? His answer, in 1932, was the appointment of an enthusiastic and energetic Irishman to found a church and club that could provide for their needs, both spiritual and social.
At this time, it was estimated that there were about 600 black people in Liverpool. Some of these were sailors, temporary residents in the city through its importance as one of the major ports of the British Empire. The Elder Dempster Line, for instance, was one of several Liverpool-based companies trading to West Africa. Many black crewmen of cargo and passenger vessels, finishing their voyages in the city, made it their home. As they inter-married with local girls, families and communities grew. Although some of the black sailors were from the West Indies, most were thought to be from West Africa, so it was perhaps natural that in appealing to the Catholics among them, Archbishop Downey should seek help from the African Missionary Society.
One of their members, Father Patrick Cullen, was appointed to develop links with the 250 or so black Catholics in the city. Born in Cork, he had worked for five years as a missionary in Nigeria. An African Mission House was established on Ullet Road, in the parish of St Clare’s. Father Cullen then rented premises in Upper Hill Street, Toxteth, which he adapted to use as both a chapel and a hall. Mass was celebrated weekly, with a children’s choir to accompany worship. He also founded a club to provide sporting and social opportunities for his congregation. While ladies were offered sewing and fretwork, and an early version of the knit and natter sessions found in parishes today, the boys and young men could make use of recreational facilities such as billiard tables. Father Cullen is pictured here watching boxing practice in January 1933.
The club didn’t survive the upheavals of the Second World War. However, I like to think the community spirit lived on, and perhaps it laid the foundations for the welcome Toxteth gave to at least two well-known black boxers of the future. Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey and Dick Tiger, both born in Nigeria, settled in Liverpool in the 1950s. Here, they trained and fought with enthusiastic support from the people they lived among, and both went on to become world champions in their weight division.