Craft, Ellen (c.1826–c.1891) & Craft, William (c.1824–1900)
Plaque erected in 2021 by English Heritage at 26 Cambridge Grove, London, W6 0LA, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
Refugees from slavery and campaigners for abolition
Philanthropy and Reform
ELLEN CRAFT c.1826–c.1891 WILLIAM CRAFT c.1824–1900 Refugees from slavery and campaigners for its abolition lived here
Ellen and William Craft were African American freedom fighters who made a daring escape from enslavement in Georgia, and fled to Britain in the mid 19th century. They are commemorated with a blue plaque at 26 Cambridge Grove, the Hammersmith home from which they campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
Escape from enslavement
Both Ellen and William Craft were born into slavery in Georgia, in the deep south of the United States. William’s first master apprenticed him as a carpenter, and auctioned him and the rest of his family off to different slaveholders to pay his debts. At the age of 16 William was mortgaged to the local bank to raise capital, and later sold to meet his master’s mortgage payments.
Ellen, whose maiden name is variously given as Smith, Collins, Butler and Atwaters, was the daughter of a mixed-race enslaved woman and her white enslaver. At the age of 11 she was given to her mistress’s daughter (her own half-sister) as a ‘ladies maid’. William and Ellen met in 1846 and were allowed to marry, but afraid of being separated, they began to plan how to escape.
In December 1848 they made the perilous thousand-mile journey north from Georgia to Pennsylvania, where slavery was unlawful, in their quest for freedom. Ellen Craft’s pale complexion meant she could pass as white. She disguised herself as a disabled white gentleman, travelling north for medical treatment, with William posing as her enslaved manservant.
After a four-day journey, and enduring a number of close shaves, the couple reached Philadelphia, where abolitionists greeted them and urged them to continue to Boston, Massachusetts. There William opened a furniture business and Ellen worked as a seamstress.
However, in 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forbade inhabitants of the ‘free states’ from sheltering freedom seekers. The Crafts’ former enslavers sent bounty hunters to abduct them. Fearing kidnap and death, the Crafts fled to England, arriving in Liverpool in December 1850.
Over the next six months the Crafts toured the country extensively, lecturing (with fellow fugitive William Wells Brown) against slavery in America, and captivating their large audiences. With the support of English abolitionists including Lady Byron and Harriet Martineau, they then spent three years at Ockham School, a trade school in rural Surrey. There they learned to read and write, while Ellen taught handicrafts and William carpentry to fellow pupils.
The Crafts eventually settled in Hammersmith in west London. From there, they helped to organise the London Emancipation Society while continuing to lecture throughout the UK. In 1860, under William’s name, they published the story of their escape as Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. William gave 12 Cambridge Road (now 26 Cambridge Grove) as his address in the preface, and the 1861 census lists Ellen and three of their children living there. Ellen also participated in a women’s suffrage organisation and the women’s arm of the British and Foreign Freedmen’s Aid Society, while William pursued ventures in Dahomey (now Benin), West Africa, intended to discourage the slave trade there.
Return to America
After the end of the American Civil War (1861–5), and the legal emancipation of enslaved people that resulted, the Crafts returned to Boston in August 1869 with three of their five (possibly six) children. Funded by donations and investment from British and American abolitionists, they bought a plantation in Bryan County, Georgia, where in 1873 they set up the Woodville Cooperative Farm School to teach and employ those who had been newly freed. Although they had periods of prosperity, the school eventually closed for lack of funding, and the Crafts also suffered attacks from racists.
Ellen is believed to have died in Georgia in 1891, and William died at their daughter’s Charleston home on 28 January 1900. He was buried in the city’s Humane and Friendly Society Cemetery.