Black History

Spirit of a Dove: The Life of Evelyn Dove by Stephen Bourne

In the 1920s and 1930s many African American expatriates settled in Europe including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch. They captivated audiences with their songs, beauty, elegance and style. Evelyn stood alone as a black Briton who joined these trailblazers. They were women who created a glamorous and exciting new image for black women in show business.

Evelyn was also one of the true pioneers of the booming cabaret age of the 1920s and 1930s. She thrilled audiences around the world and her exquisite stage costumes helped to make her one of the most glamorous women of her time. Her mesmerising movie star looks and grace captivated those in her presence. The public and press couldn’t get enough of the rising star who replaced Josephine Baker as the star attraction in a revue at the famous Casino de Paris. Evelyn’s career was one of many highs and lows, but at the height of her fame she was a young adventuress who refused to be constrained by her race and English middle-class background.

Evelyn was of dual-heritage, born into privilege in London in 1902 to a wealthy Sierra Leonean father and his English wife. Evelyn was educated privately until she studied singing, piano and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music. As a trained contralto, she graduated in 1919 and hoped for a career on the concert platform. This was almost impossible in Britain for a black singer at that time, unless they were African Americans. So, Evelyn worked in London’s cabaret shows and the all-black cast jazz revues that toured Britain and eventually took her to Europe where she was a sensation.

Following her European success, Evelyn took off to India in 1937 where she triumphed in cabaret at the popular Harbour Bar in Bombay (now Mumbai). One newspaper, The Evening News of India, introduced her as “an artist of international reputation, one of the leading personalities of Europe’s entertainment world” and “the closest rival of the great Josephine Baker”.

When Hitler’s war clouds appeared over Europe, Evelyn discovered that she couldn’t go back. Returning to Britain, throughout World War II, she enjoyed the same appeal as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn. The BBC employed Evelyn all through the war, and she proved to be one of Radio’s most popular vocalists, appearing in a wide range of music and variety programmes. Many of these appearances were broadcast to the forces.

Evelyn’s radio broadcasts included over 50 editions of the series Serenade in Sepia in which she was featured with the Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor. The series was so popular that, in 1946, the BBC transferred it to their television service. Evelyn and Edric became household names and they were among Britain’s first television stars in the early post-war years when the medium was still in its infancy.

In the 1950s her career took an unexpected downward turn. Work became scarce. In 1956 the tide began to turn when she landed an acting role on BBC television as Eartha Kitt’s mother in the play Mrs Patterson. Two years later she was back on stage, in London’s West End, as one of the stars of Langston Hughes’s musical Simply Heavenly. Evelyn then joined one of Britain’s first black theatre companies, the Negro Theatre Workshop, founded by her former co-star Edric Connor and his wife Pearl. The Workshop staged its first major production A Wreath for Udomo in London in 1961. Four years later Evelyn made one of her last stage appearances in the Workshop’s acclaimed production The Dark Disciples, a blues version of the St Luke Passion.

In the late 1960s, Evelyn suffered from depression and, in 1972, at the age of 70, she was admitted to a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey. She died in 1987. Evelyn Dove was a trailblazer who was ahead of her time, forging new barriers and facing up to her own personal struggles with determination and defiance. Her spirit remains alive.

For further information see Stephen Bourne, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen (Jacaranda Books, 2016) (£12.99)

Photographs of Evelyn Dove from Stephen Bourne’s private collection can be purchased from the Mary Evans Picture Library