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Black Lives in England

People of African origin have been part of English history since Roman times. In the last quarter of the 18th century England was home to a black population of between 10-15,000 people – mostly in major ports but also in market towns and villages across the country. Many worked as domestic servants both paid and unpaid – and it was often unclear whether they were free or not.

The habit of giving slaves Roman names accounts for the large number of Scipios, Plinys and Caesars buried in churchyards across the country. Anglicised names are rare and African names rarer still. Notices for runaway slaves were a common feature of local newspapers during this period.

Not all were slaves or servants. Black people worked as sailors, tradespeople of all kinds and in some cases as businessmen or musicians. Black writers played a role in the anti-slavery movement in England and famous activists like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were pivotal to the movement in speaking and writing from their personal experience of the horrors of the trade. We can still find evidence of some of these lives in the historic environment around us, as these examples show.

Joseph Emidy playing violin to a group.
Joseph Emidy playing violin to a group, Copyright Royal Institute of Cornwall.

Joseph Emidy (1775-1835) was born in West Africa, sold to the Portuguese and sent into slavery in Brazil. It is unclear where he learned to play the violin but he returned to Europe and played in the orchestra at Lisbon Opera House. In 1795 Emidy was “pressed” by a British Navy ship and forced into service as a musician. Discharged in Falmouth in 1799, he became a music teacher, teaching violin, piano, cello and flute. His memorial stone is in the churchyard of Kenwyn Church,Truro.

Beethoven dedicated a sonata to the virtuoso violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). A child prodigy, he made his musical debut in 1789 at The Assembly Rooms, Bennet Street, Bath (National Trust 01225 477789). Bridgetower’s father claimed to be theson of an African prince and sometimes also said that he came from Barbados. He was possibly an escaped slave. For 14 years, George Bridgetower held the post of first violinist in the Prince of Wales’(later George IV) private orchestra.

Cesar Picton(about 1755-1836) became a successful businessman, who owned a wharf and a malt house, despite starting life as a slave. Brought from Goree Island when only six years old, he worked as a servant before using bequests from his employers to set up as a coal merchant. He lived at 52 High Street, Kingston upon Thames from 1790, now marked by a Kingston local history plaque, and bought the grand Picton House, 56 High Street, Thames Ditton in 1816. Both houses can still be seen from the street.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and Lady Elizabeth Murray.  From the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and Lady Elizabeth Murray. From the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth.

Dido Elizabeth Belle grew up at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London NW3,(now an English Heritage property, 0208 348 1286). She was the great-niece of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over some of the most  historic cases that affected enslaved Africans.

Dido was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain,and an enslaved woman whom Sir John encountered while his ship was in the Caribbean. Sir John acknowledged Dido as his child and, from the 1760s, Dido was brought up in aristocratic surroundings at Kenwood House by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died.

Dido lived at Kenwood for 30 years. Her status in the household was commented on by several visitors. One said that her great-uncle "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said." However, her position in the household may have been that of a loved but poor relation and she did not always dine with guests.

She received an allowance and helped Lord Mansfield with his legal correspondence as well as supervising the care of the Kenwood dairy and poultry. We also know that Dido was provided with pretty furniture, birthday and Christmas gifts and ass’s milk when she was ill.

When Lord Mansfield died, he carefully recorded in his will that Dido was a free woman. She received legacies from her father, her great-uncle and other Mansfield relatives. In 1794 she became Mrs Dido Elizabeth Davinier and left Kenwood for married life. After this her story fades from the Kenwood records.

George Africanus (1763-1834) became Nottingham’s first recorded black entrepreneur, starting an employment agency called the Africanus Register of Servants. Brought to England as a slave at three years old, he was given as a present to wealthy Wolverhampton businessman Benjamin Molineux.

After an apprenticeship as a brass founder in one of Molineux' foundries, George moved to Nottingham, married a local woman and, in 1829, became a freeholder, owning his own home as well as his business premises. He died aged 71 and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Nottingham Lace Market where a City of Nottingham plaque commemorates him.

Plaque commemorating George Africanus © Nottingham City Council
Plaque commemorating George Africanus

Servants in great houses

Black domestic servants in greathouses were seen as a conspicuous sign of wealth in the 18th century. Some were paid wages and could leave their employers, while others were treated as property. Portraits and archives record many such lives.

Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire, 01536 515731. The young black man included in a portrait of Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu painted in the 1720s, attributed to Enoch Seeman, was called Charles. He worked as a servant at Boughton House and is identified in the family cash books as ye Black of her Grace’. Records show he was educated, expensively dressed in livery and paid servant’s wages.

Althorp House, Althorp, Northampton, 01604 770107
Caesar Shaw was the name of an African slave to the Spencer family in the 18th century. He is featured in two portraits in Althorp House.

Many people from West Africa, the Caribbean and America settled in Liverpool. St James Church, Toxteth, Liverpool was built between 1774-5 and many of these settlers were baptised here.The records and monuments of St James are evidence of the many reasons for this transatlantic migration, including Liverpool's involvement in the slave trade. Access is by appointment only but more information is available from the Churches Conservation Trust 020 7213 0660.

Samboo’s Grave Road Sign by Alasdair Pettinger
Samboo’s Grave Road Sign by Alasdair Pettinger

Grave sites

Little evidence survives of the lives of some enslaved people in England beyond their burial place. These are not only found in ports associated with the slave trade. Some examples are given here: 

'Samboo's' Grave, at Sunderland Point , near Lancaster

'Samboo' is thought to have been a young African servant to a sea captain or merchant. Local stories say that he caught a fever and died soon after arriving on shore in 1736. The plaque on his grave was added 60 years later and the site has gained poignancy in representing other unknown slaves. Today, visitors to the grave often leave flowers and coloured stones as a tribute.

The grave of Myrtilla in the churchyard at St Lawrence, Oxhill, Stratford on Avon, Warwickshire is one of the earliest we have identified. The inscribed headstone is unusual in commemorating a woman:

"Here lyeth the body of Myrtilla, negro slave to Mr. Thos Beauchamp of Nevis. Bapt. Oct. ye 20th. Buried Jan ye 6th, 1705".

Beauchampis believed to have been a sugar planter, but when or why he came to Oxhill is not known. The parish records note Myrtilla’s baptism and death, but the details of her life were never documented.

Scipio Africanus was servant to Charles William Howard, 7th Earl of Suffolk and is thought to have lived on the Blaise Estate, part of Henbury Manor. Scipio died in 1720 aged 18. We don’t know anything else about his life, but the elaborateness of his headstone and footstone in St Mary’s Churchyard, Church Close, Henbury, Bristol BS10 suggests that he was well thought of.

A gravestone commemorating Philip Scipio can be found on the northwest exterior wall of St Martin’s Church, Werrington, Cornwall.

Philip was a servant to the Duke of Wharton and later to Lady Lucy Morice. It is believed that Philip died in 1784 aged about 18 years old. The full inscription can be found at Local Black History: a beginning in Devon.

A gravestone to I.D. an unknown African in the churchyard of the Church of St John the Baptist, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, reads:

"Here lies the Body of L.D. a native of Africa who died in this Town April 19th, 1801."  The text carved on the gravestone is one sometimes quoted by Abolitionists and suggests that the stone was erected by those sympathetic to the movement: "He hath made of one blood all nations of men" (Acts 17:26)

At the east end of St Martin’s Church, Bowness on Windermere, Cumbria, in the churchyard, there is a headstone with the following inscription:“In memory of Rasselas Belfield a Native of Abyssinia who died on the 16th Day of January 1822 Aged 32 years”. It also reads:

'A Slave by birth I left my native land,
And found my Freedom on Britannia's Strand.
Blest Isle! Thou Glory of the Wise and Free,
Thy Touch alone unbinds the Chains of Slavery'.

Samboo's Grave by Alasdair Pettinger
Samboo's Grave by Alasdair Pettinger