The Black Boy
Published in South Wales Evening Post 18th February 2013
It seems that every public house has a dark secret such is the case with the Black Boy in Killay, Swansea. On visiting in September 2012, I was somewhat confused by the sign which depicted a sullied, white boy in complete contrast to its name. Why would the pub be called the Black Boy yet have a picture of a white boy on its sign? On questioning the staff about this obvious paradox they could shed no light on the matter except seeming to remember that the previous pub sign did have the picture of a black boy on it many years ago. I wanted to know more about the Black Boy; who was he? Was he a real person or a fictional character? How or why did he end up in South Wales?
With my curiosity piqued and unable to let the situation rest, I visited Swansea archives to delve into the history of the Black Boy. There are several written records of the pub dating back back to the early 1700s but unfortunately no information regarding the origin of its name. Exploring the City and County of Swansea website there is a suggestion that the area of Killay was once called Black Boy having been named after local coal miners. Having checked historical maps of Swansea there is no reference to Killay having ever been called Black Boy; the plot thickens.
Having cast my search wider afield it appears that there are several pubs across the UK called the Black Boy including ones in Reading, Winchester and Caernarfon with nearly all of their etymologies shrouded in mystery. I came across several theories regarding the origin of the ‘Black Boy’ name with each being as implausible as the next.
Following suggestions from staff at the Black Boy I attempted to locate some of the earlier pub signs. In a serendipitous find on a Whitbread breweries database I was able to locate the Black Boy pub sign from 1974. In complete contrast to the current sign this one depicts a black boy wearing a bejeweled-feathered turban. Somewhere between 1974 and the present day, someone thought it necessary to change the black boy to a white boy; which begs the question, why? Was this some bizarre act of political correctness?
Contrary to popularly held belief the black presence in Wales has a history going back several centuries. Unfortunately, much of this history is associated with the exploits of slavery and colonialism. These shadier episodes in history are all too easily forgotten and overlooked, however, the truth always has a habit of prevailing. Occasionally people find it necessary to alter the accounts of history to provide a more palatable version of events perhaps this is the case with the Black Boy pub sign, however, to ignore the black presence in our history (and pub signs) is to deny the roots and heritage of multi ethnic Britain.
So what is the truth about the Black Boy? Although one cannot be precise about the origin of its name I suspect the reality lies close to the following. During the eighteenth century it was highly fashionable to associate yourself with the wealth and luxury of Africa and the West Indies. In keeping with this trend, several rich landowners employed Negro pageboys in their household. These pageboys often wore brightly coloured livery representing the exoticism and vibrancy of the New World. It is likely that the Black Boy pub in Killay was named after such a person in an attempt to associate themselves with the high fashion of the time. With no evidence to the contrary, it is likely that the naming of the ‘Black Boy’ was an imagined association with a fictional character rather than a real person.
In 2012, I felt that to depict a white boy on the pub sign was to deprive Wales some of its history and was an advocate for returning to a sign that better reflected its historical relevance. However, over the past years I have felt this everyday reminder of historical inequality increasingly disturbing.
The pub sign fits into the wider debate of public artworks.
Along with the statues of Colston, Picton and other brutal imperialists, I currently feel that there can be no other option than to remove the sign and re-name the pub.
S.A. Brains - I hope you are listening!
PS. When making this work I was completely unaware of the work of Ingrid Pollard who had looked at Black Boy pub signs across the UK, including this one. I was delighted to come across her work and humbled to realise she had asked herself the very same questions I had been exploring.