South London Memories: Recalling Britain’s first black film star Ernest Trimmingham

The African American singer and actor Paul Robeson is often claimed to be Britain’s first black movie star.

Robeson played leading roles in a number of popular films of the 1930s and his greatest success came with the Welsh mining drama The Proud Valley (1940).

Robeson completed this as the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and then he returned with his family to their American homeland.

However, it is Ernest Trimmingham, not Paul Robeson, who was Britain’s first black screen star.

At the time of Robeson’s departure, Trimmingham was still active in West End stage productions, with a career spanning back to the Edwardian era.

He was a Lambeth resident, having made his home at 216 Clapham Road in the mid-1930s.  Ernest Trimmingham was born on the Caribbean island of Bermuda in 1880.

As yet, little is known of his early life, or when he settled in Britain, but newspaper reports about him date from as early as 1908 and in 1909 they identify him as the author of a stage musical called The Lily of Bermuda, which opened in Manchester.

He began acting in silent films around 1912, playing the role of Beetles to Percy Moran’s highwayman in The Adventures of Dick Turpin.

Ernest Trimmingham in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919)

Before this point it was usual for black characters in films to be played by white actors in ‘blackface’.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1914 that the first recorded African-American actor played an important role in a commercial American film. This was Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For Trimmingham there were other Dick Turpin films and he made history with his appearances in them.

Beetles was a heroic role at a time when black actors were mostly stereotyped in comedy roles as the butt of the joke.

Another notable film role came in 1919 when Trimmingham played the cowboy Pete in Jack, Sam and Pete.

The influence of Hollywood is very much in evidence in this adventure film – one of the few westerns made in Britain.

The plot involved a trio of brave cowboys who rescue a kidnapped child from a gang seeking hidden jewels.

His last known film appearance was in Where the Rainbow Ends (1921), a fantasy based on a popular Christmas children’s play in which a group of children find a magic carpet and save their shipwrecked parents from a dragon.

Trimmingham was cast as the Genie. Sadly, no prints of his films have survived.

On stage Trimmingham was frequently in demand to portray black characters, although most of these were supporting roles.

His many West End appearances included Buxell (1916), Roxana (1918), The Naughty Princess (1920), Welcome Stranger (1921), In Walked Jimmy (1925), Might-Have Beens (1927), Virginia (1928), Magnolia Street (1934), Sweet Aloes (1934), The Miracle Man (1937) and No Sleep for the Wicked (1937). His last stage role was in Room V at the Garrick Theatre in 1941.

In the 1930s a young actor called James Mason, soon to become an international film star, encountered Ernest in London’s West End.

He later recalled in his autobiography Before I Forget (1981) that Ernest was “renowned not so much for his acting ability as for the fact that through the length and breadth of Charing Cross Road everyone knew him. “Unusually tall, often affecting a swallowtail coat, he was a character.

He was cheerful and good natured.” Mason then found himself a neighbour of Trimmingham’s when he moved to an address in Endell Street, “where, in a room at the very top of the house lived Trimmingham, so we enjoyed a lengthy meeting-on-the-staircase relationship and became friends that way”.

Ernest died on February 2 1942 at the age of 61 at his Lambeth home in Clapham Road.

An obituary in The Stage described him as “a clever character actor, especially in butler and similar parts”.

He was buried in an unmarked grave in the variety artist’s section of Streatham Park cemetery.

A visit to the cemetery reveals that the location of his grave is behind the famous variety artist’s memorial, and the impressive headstone of the comedy actor Will Hay, one of Britain’s most popular film stars of the 1930s.

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