After the 1960s, attitudes towards suicide changed dramatically in Britain. Although, today we understand that suicide is connected to mental health issues that are often exacerbated by social, economic or cultural situations, historically the act of taking one’s own life was perceived as a sin and ultimately a criminal offence.
Self-murder was made illegal in England under common law in the thirteenth century, but the Christian church had condemned suicide long before this date. In the early modern period, those who were deemed sane who had taken their own lives were denied a Christian burial. Their bodies were taken to a crossroads at night and a wooden spike was erected to mark the deceased’s grave. To add further infamy their family could be made paupers as their possessions could be seized.
However, the emergence of medical professionals and rising humanitarian sympathies towards suffering, among many other factors, contributed to the softening of attitudes regarding self-murder between the mid-eighteenth and mid-twentieth century. From the 1900s a degree of sympathy was shown towards those who committed suicide (see the case of James Philadelphia Moore who tried to take his own life in Sheffield). However, despite changing attitudes, taking one’s own life, was not decriminalised until the introduction of the Suicide Act in 1961. 
During our research we have found that at least three men of African descent attempted or committed suicide in Hull before 1961. Through newspaper articles and further research, we have been able to piece together details about their lives and uncover their lost and often tragic histories. Although we have a small sample size it is also possible to chart how the community and court responded to people trying/taking their own lives before the passing of the Suicide Act.
On 10 January 1917, Emmanuel Anderson, a 20-year-old ship’s fireman from Sierra Leone, was found hanging in the toilet of the Elizabethville which was anchored in King George Dock, Hull. There was an inquest into his death by local coroner Dr Lilley, who returned a verdict of suicide. However, no further information appeared in local newspapers about his death. The lack of interest in this case could be attributed to the fact that Anderson was unknown in the community. There is no evidence to suggest he lived in Hull or East Yorkshire or that he had any friends of family who resided in the port. This may also explain why the article that was published in the Hull Daily Mail was very prescriptive and contained few details.
Thirteen years after Anderson had committed suicide another man, Edward Cocoa, who was also connected to the maritime sphere ended his life. Cocoa was a local man and very well known in the community and thus we have been able to reconstruct large parts of his life and gain an understanding of the events that led to his decision to commit suicide. Cocoa was born in Accra, Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1891. By the age of 19, he had moved from Africa to Britain and was working out of the Port of Liverpool as a Trimmer. In the winter of 1910, he was employed on board the Burutu. The crew list noted that Cocoa’s last address was 69 Beaufort Street in Liverpool, a residence which was also given by several other sailors on this vessel indicating that it was most probably a sailors’ lodging house.
During the First World War Cocoa was part of the Merchant Marine and earned a medal for the role he played in the conflict.  After the war, the Ghanaian continued working as a sailor. In the summer of 1923, Cocoa was employed on board the Trewyn which sailed from Montreal to New York. However, because Cocoa joined the vessel in Barry it is likely that the Trewyn originally sailed from Cardiff.  On the crew list he was noted as an ‘African Black’ donkeyman. 
By the mid-1920s Cocoa had moved to Hull and was living at 55 Jennings Street.  In 1926, he was employed on a ship which took him to India. However, an incident occurred which resulted in the Ghanaian seaman being left in Bombay. He travelled from India back to London on board the Ranchi where he was listed as a distressed British seaman.  This term was typically used after a sailor had been shipwrecked or was too sick to return home with his original vessel. Sadly, we are yet to find out what caused Cocoa to be left in India. However, it is possible that whatever had happened either prevented or put the Ghanaian off going back out to sea as he decided to change his career. In 1927, a notice was published in the Hull Daily Mail which alerted the public to Cocoa’s application to be a moneylender. It read:
"I, EDWARD COCOA of 22 Posterngate, Hull, HEREBY GIVE NOTICE that I intend making APPLICATION on Thursday, the 22nd of December, 1927, at the hour of Ten in the forenoon, at the Police Court, Hull, for a Certificate under the Moneylenders Act, 1927, authorising the grant to me of a Moneylender’s Excise Licence to carry on the BUSINESS OF MONEYLENDER under the name EDWARD COCOA, at No. 22 POSTERNGATE, HULL." 
The decision to become a moneylender appears to have been the catalyst to a series of events which led to Cocoa’s death. On 8 September 1928, he appeared at Hull Police Court charged with causing a crowd in Posterngate and for having in his possession a fully loaded revolver without a licence.  When Cocoa was asked why he carried the weapon, he claimed it was for self-protection (as we explored in our feature on criminality, racial tensions were apparent in Hull in the 1920s and many Black men connected to the maritime sphere carried weapons). However, it is clear that Inspector Cleveland believed that Cocoa carried the revolver because he was aggressive. The officer stated, “I know of a case where he had threatened women that if they did not pay up, he would strip them in the public street.”  Cleveland went on to describe Cocoa as a moneylender and a ‘man of most violent temperament.’ He said that Ghanaian was always hanging around the docks and shipping office and was under an order to keep the peace. He also told the court that the argument between Cocoa and another seaman was because of the accused’s moneylending business. Cocoa was told by the court that ‘You have to be careful a moneylender who carries a loaded revolver is in danger of ceasing to be a moneylender.’  Cocoa strongly denied the allegations put forward by Cleveland and eventually was fined £10 for having the weapon in his possession. He was told that he must also forfeit the revolver.
In the winter of 1928, Cocoa married Ivy Gelder, whom he had been having a relationship with for at least six months.  However, despite their happy relationship and the birth of their child, on 6 June 1929 Cocoa committed suicide.  He tied part of a clothes line to the rail of the bannister, stood on a dustbin and stepped off with the cord around his neck.  He was found by his wife Ivy at 11.40 pm when she returned home with their baby. An article in the Hull Daily Mail set the scene of what Mrs Cocoa was greeted with when she opened her front door, it read: ‘She wheeled the perambulator into the house and met with an obstacle which she was horrified to find was the body of her husband.’  Ivy then ran out of the house and met with fisherman Charles Mitchell who called P.C. Hairsine. The officer entered the house, cut Cocoa down and tried to resuscitate him until the ambulance arrived. The Ghanaian was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary but was pronounced dead.
On 8 June 1929 there was an inquest into Cocoa’s death. To ascertain details about his mental state, Ivy was asked whether she knew anything about her husband’s money matters. She said that she did not, but she believed that may have been the reason why he killed himself. Ivy disclosed that Cocoa had lost a good deal of money on advance notes for sailors. She also admitted that she thought her husband was depressed and when joking with him a week prior, he said to her “In three weeks’ time you will be crying” but she did not know what he meant. She clearly loved her husband as she inferred that they always got on very well and although she moaned about the time he spent when he was at the greyhound stadium they had a good relationship. The moneylender had left suicide notes, but they were allegedly ‘higgledy-piggledy’ and could not be made out. However, at the inquest it was disclosed “The gist of them seemed to be that he had been taken advantage of in cashing notes for seamen and people apparently thought that anything done to a Black man was excusable.”  The tone of the notes forced the Coroner to conclude that Cocoa was not responsible for what he was doing and a verdict of suicide by hanging while of unsound mind was confirmed. 
Several reports on Cocoa’s suicide aspects about his personal life were shared. They revealed that Cocoa had a family, was well known in the city and mixed with the ‘sporting and seafaring fraternity.’  Alongside his money lending business he was also a bookmaker and enjoyed nights watching greyhound racing at the Boulevard stadium, which he apparently visited on the night of his death. These personal details were likely added because Cocoa was well known in the community and they humanised a man who was judged to be mentally ill rather than criminal.
Eleven years after Cocoa’s suicide, James Bailey - another man of African descent - attempted to take his own life. On 13 November 1940, James Bailey appeared in front of Hull Police Court charged with swallowing copious amounts of aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide. Sadly, we know very few biographical details about Bailey other than he was a 24-year-old sailor who lived in Wright Street in 1940. When a police officer met Bailey at Hull Infirmary, the seaman told him “I am very sorry, sir; I was very distressed.”  The Stipendiary Magistrate, J. R. Macdonald announced that instead of making Bailey serve a prison sentence, he was to place him under the supervision of a probation officer for a year so that the offender could get the medical attention he needed at a clinic.  While we know very little about James Bailey, his case demonstrates rather clearly that attitudes towards attempting to commit suicide were changing. Instead of serving a prison sentence, he was offered medical care in order for him to get better and live a happy and fulfilling life.
-  This act was applied to Northern Ireland in 1966 but was not adopted in Scotland as suicide was not an offence under Scots Law. See 9 & 10 Eliz 2 c.60.
-  Edward Cocoa Medal Card: BT 351/1/26171.
-  Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010 accessed 31/1/18.
-  Ibid.
-  Ancestry.com. UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008 accessed 31/1/18.
-  Ibid.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 2 December 1927, p. 4.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 8 September 1928, p. 3.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 10 September 1928, p. 5.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 10 September 1928, p. 5.
-  It is believed that Gelder had Cocoa’s baby before June 1929 and therefore it is likely that she was pregnant before the couple were married.
-  Yorkshire Evening Post, 7 June 1929, p. 13.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 7 June 1929, p. 5.
-  Ibid, p. 5.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 8 June 1929, p. 6.
-  Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 10 June 1929, p. 12.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 7 June 1929, p. 5.
-  Hull Daily Mail, 13 November 1940, p. 4.
-  Ibid, p. 4.