‘A Well-Documented Life: James Arthur Harley (1873–1943)’, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford,
18 October 2014 – 8 February 2015
The photograph above [1998.266.3] was taken on the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum on the occasion of the first practical examination in Anthropology in 1908. The central figure is Henry Balfour (1863–1939), the Museum’s first curator, pictured with the first three students to study anthropology at Oxford. Both the seated Barbara Freire-Marreco (later Aitken; 1879–1967) and boomerang-holding Francis Knowles (1886–1953) went on to carry out anthropological and archaeological work in association with the Museum, and the details of their lives and careers are well known. In contrast, until recently little was known about the life and career of the fourth figure, James Arthur Harley. Thanks to the ongoing work of Pamela Roberts, however, the story of his remarkable life can now be told. In particular, Roberts’s success in locating Harley’s personal archive in private hands in Shepshed, in Leicestershire, makes it possible to tell Harley’s story here through the personal documents, papers, and photographs that he left in a battered suitcase.
Born in Antigua on 15 May 1873, Harley studied law and classics at Howard University in Washington, DC. Then, after a year at Yale, he studied Semitic Languages at Harvard, where he was awarded a number of prizes. Following a further year’s study at the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he spent two years at Jesus College, Oxford, studying first theology and then anthropology. Perhaps surprisingly, Harley did not go on to pursue an academic career. Instead, he joined the Anglican Church, serving first as curate at Shepshed, then at Marshside in Kent. Ordained a priest in 1911, he served as curate in Deal in Kent, before apparently abandoning his clerical career around 1916. During the First World War, his application to enlist was turned down, so he trained and served in munitions instead. Returning to Shepshed, Harley entered local politics, initially as a Labour councillor and later as an independent. He was elected to Leicestershire County Council in 1937, serving in this role until his death on 12 May 1943, three days before his 70th birthday.
These bare facts are drawn from the papers in Harley’s archive, which documents his life in great detail. What they fail to do, however, is to explain his life. They do not explain how a man born in Antigua – and who studied at Howard, Yale, Harvard, and Oxford Universities and entered the Church of England – spent the last twenty years of his life campaigning on local issues in rural Leicestershire. Numerous questions remain. For example, the archive tells us that Harley married Washington-born Josephine Maritcha Lawson in Oxford on 1 July 1910, but not why they apparently separated soon afterwards. The archive also records when and how Harley entered the Church but does not explain why he left it.
What an examination of the whole archive suggests is that Harley was an intelligent man with a highly developed sense of personal status. He also appears to have been extremely loquacious, opinionated, and argumentative. One is left with the impression of a man who could have ‘fitted in’, but chose not to. He was clearly popular in Shepshed, however, winning a comfortable majority in the County Council election of 1937, and is apparently fondly remembered there today. Why Harley led such an unconventional life may never be known. In attempting to understand it, however, we may be prompted to reflect in useful ways on the complex intertwining of education, religion, politics, and race in early twentieth-century Britain.
From the brief information, I had been furnished with from his archive I wanted to know who was James Arthur Harley and what was his story? Harley’s letters, sermons, speeches, newspaper clippings, qualifications became a focus for my intellectual inquiry. I began to wonder what motivated him? Why did he want to become a priest? How did he succeed? What were his setbacks and failures? How did his vocation reconcile for a better life in a new land with the harsh realities of America racism? How and why did his archive end up in a suitcase in Shepshed and what secrets did the battered suitcase contain? I progressed from these broad questions into a detailed study.
My research has taken me on a two-and-half-year journey of discovery; following in Harley’s footsteps to absorb audio and visual material visiting the places he lived and studied. These have included Washington D.C., the U Street area, Le Droit Park neighbourhood. The Frelinghuysen University, Washington, America. Through the K. Blundell Award from the Society of Authors, I was able to visit Antigua and its sister island Barbuda – All Saint village, Betty’s Hope Plantation, All Saints Church, St John’s, the capital of Antigua, Potteries and the island in general. In England, my research field trips took me to Kent to visit St John’s Church, Marshside, Reculver, St Leonards Church, Deal. St Botolph’s Church, Shepshed, Leicestershire. Jesus College and Manchester Harris College, Oxford University, Kings College, University of London and Wookey Hole, Somerset.
My research documenting Harley's life is the subject of my forthcoming book - A Scholar and A Statesman and a seven handed theatre play of the same title.
From the discovery of his archive in a battered suitcase in Shepshed, Leicestershire, to five years of research and following in his footsteps, I am finally excited to share James Arthur Harley's remarkable true story in my new book.
The Adventures of a Black Edwardian Intellectual - The story of James Arthur Harley. Signal Books, 2022.
Scholar, reverend, politician, and perhaps aristocrat… James Arthur Stanley Harley was certainly a polymath. Born in the village of All Saints, on the Caribbean Island of Antigua, he went on to attend Howard, Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities, was ordained a priest in Canterbury Cathedral and was elected to Leicestershire County Council. He was a choirmaster, a pioneer Oxford anthropologist, a country curate and a firebrand councillor. This remarkable career was all the more extraordinary because he was black in an age - the early twentieth century - that was institutionally racist.
Pamela Roberts' meticulously researched book tells Harley's hitherto unknown story from humble Antiguan childhood, through elite education in Jim Crow America, to the turbulent England of World War I and the General Strike. Navigating the complex intertwining of education, religion, politics and race, his life converged with pivotal periods and events in history: the birth of the American New Negro in the 1900s, black scholars at Ivy League institutions, the heyday of Washington's black elite and the early civil rights movement, Edwardian English society, and the Great War. Based on Harley's letters, sermons and writings, as well as contemporary accounts and later oral testimony, this is an account of an individual's trajectory through seven decades of dramatic social change.
Roberts' biography reveals a man of religious conviction who won admirers for his work as a vicar and local councillor. But Harley was also a complex and abrasive individual who made enemies and courted controversy and scandal. Most intriguingly, he hinted at illicit aristocratic ancestry dating back to Antigua's slave-owning past. His life, uncovered here for the first time, is full of contradictions and surprises, but above all illustrates the power and resilience of the human spirit.
Publication date: October 2022
Pages: 316 pp, 30 illus
Price: £20 hardback