Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

Ira Aldridge was a world-famous Afro-American actor, famous for his Shakespearean roles,  who once lived in the Penge area (5 Hamlet Road — a blue plaque was installed there in 2007) and was married, in 1865, to his second wife, a self-styled Swedish countess, Amanda Von Brandt, in John’s Church on Penge High Street. His first wife, Margaret, had died in 1864 after a forty year marriage. Aldridge had several children, some of whom went on to have successful careers in music and opera.

Greatly honoured in his lifetime all over Europe and particularly in Prussia (Prussian Gold Medal for Science and the Arts by King Frederick William III); in Russia (Golden Cross of Leopold by the Czar of Russia); and, today, in England (bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial theatre, Stratford Upon Avon); in the U.S.A. (the Ira Aldridge Theatre at Howard University), Aldridge is little known in Penge. “Ira who?” is likely to be the reaction if you mention his name on the high street.

The voluntary group Penge Partners has tried to raise awareness of this illustrious Penge person through talks by the local Victorian Theatre expert Dr Hazel Waters during their annual Penge Festival and by a series of ‘Ira Aldridge’ guided walks, led by theatre specialist Chris O’Shaughnessy, starting from Anerley Town Hall, linking the story in with the history of theatre in Penge.

Aldridge was born and educated in New York City and became interested in theatre from an early age. He watched plays from the balcony seats of the famous Park Theatre. He left New York for Liverpool in 1824 at the age of seventeen to seek his fortune as an actor in Britain and Europe. Within the year he was acting the part of Othello on the London stage, the first black actor to perform the part. His remarkable perseverance against the widespread racial prejudice of the era won him many admirers, not least the actor Edmund Kean who had seen his performance as Othello in 1831 and wrote a letter of recommendation. Aldridge gave a visceral performance as Othello, dragging Desdemona around the stage by her hair in one powerful scene, and he managed to speak the difficult iambic pentameter with aplomb. Reinventing himself as the son of an African prince, he gained entry into polite British and European society. One of his greatest successes was as Oroonoko, the enslaved African prince.

While touring Europe and Russia (where there are statues in major cities in his memory) he met and was honoured by many heads of state, becoming friends with Count Fyodor Tolstoy, a prolific artist and writer. Although Aldridge had bought property in England (i.e. the house in Hamlet Road, then a fashionable residential area after the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1854) he always seemed to be happier when on tour. He made seven tours of Russia. Possibly worn out by his remarkable endeavours, he died in Lodz, Poland, in 1867 at the height of his fame.

The play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti (Tricycle Theatre, 2012) , tells Ira’s story, Adrian Lester starring as Ira Aldridge. A Hollywood film based on the play is in the offing. Aldridge is a significant aspect of every university drama syllabus. He had a room to himself at the British Library’s exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts in 2016. It is a shame there has been little or no acknowledgement of Ira Aldridge in Penge, apart from the blue plaque in Hamlet Road. But this is slowly changing with the advent of the Penge Heritage Trail. A bronze pavement plaque in his honour will be installed outside St John’s Church where he was married over 150 years ago.