George William Christian holds a unique place in the city’s history. Born on 12th November 1872 the son of a merchant seaman from Antigua he was to spend much of his life in West Africa where he built a considerable trading business, becoming probably the first wealthy entrepreneur to emerge from Liverpool’s black community.
His father, Jacob, had settled in the city when aged 15 and had married a local woman, Octavia Caulfield. At the time of George’s birth they were living at 69 Beaufort Street L8, later moving to 14 Robertson Street L8 (both now demolished). Jacob gave up the sea and set himself up in business as a timber merchant and it may have been due to his business contacts that he was able to arrange for George, aged 15, and his brother Arthur to obtain positions with the Holt Shipping Line. The company had extensive interests in West Africa and the brothers were sent out there as clerks. George worked for Holts for a number of years, living in “a mud-walled and mat-roofed shanty at the back of the compound”. George did return to Liverpool to recover from ill-health and the 1901 census records him as a patient in the Hahnemann Hospital in Hope Street. It was there that he met his future wife, Isabella Stanbury, a nurse.
Back in West Africa he founded his own company. Trading in Cameroon he fell foul of the German authorities who claimed he had not properly registered a title to land and he was fined and expelled. The British authorities protested, asserting that Christian was a British subject yet he had been treated as a native by the Germans purely on the basis of the colour of his skin. The matter was never properly resolved. However, his business prospered in Nigeria and in 1911 was incorporated as G W Christian Ltd with registered offices in Canning Place, Liverpool.
Another event in 1911 was his marriage to Isabella, at St Luke’s Church on 15th April. George’s address is given as 26 Sudley Road L17. Whilst not being entirely sure it seems that this was the mansion home, Crofton, of his one-time employer John Holt. Christian continued to spend much of his time attending to business affairs in Africa but the couple bought a house on Penkett Road, Wallasey which they called ‘Onitsha’ after his palm trading centre in Nigeria. They would leave their children there in the care of Isabella’s sister while they were abroad.
The business continued to thrive such that in 1919 it was bought out by the Niger Company, which would in turn be absorbed into Lever Brothers. Christian then began to organise a return to business operations in Cameroon but shortly after the new company was established he died whilst in Cameroon on 2 January 1924. The probate records show that his estate was valued at about £16,000, in excess of £1 million in today’s terms.
In a brief paper on George Christian, historian Jeffrey P Green speculates on the extent to which he faced prejudice on grounds of his colour. Family members have suggested it was not a great issue, partly because the almost complete absence of black people from the business world he inhabited made him more a curiosity than anything else. Whatever the realities were George Christian’s achievements in moving from the son of an immigrant seaman in Toxteth to the captain of a considerable business enterprise is one to admire and commemorate.
George Christian's address at the time of his marriage, it was the home of John Holt, his onetime employer.
There is a Wikipedia entry which gives only a brief outline. There is a short chapter on Christian in Liverpool Black Pioneers [Bluecoat Press 2007]. There is an interesting note by historian Jeffrey P Greene on the website of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire entitled George William Christian: A Liverpool 'Black' In Africa.
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