In the 17th and 18th centuries Black domestic servants in great houses were often seen as a conspicuous sign of wealth. Some were paid wages and could leave their employers, while others were treated as property. Portraits and inventories in great houses record many such lives.
Charles Ignatius Sancho
Charles Ignatius Sancho is the young Black man in the portrait of Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu painted in the 1720s and attributed to Enoch Seeman. The painting can be seen at Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire, NN14 1BJ.
Charles worked as a servant at Boughton House and is identified in the family cashbooks as 'ye Black of her Grace'. Records show he was educated, expensively dressed in livery and paid servant's wages.
Caesar Shaw was an African enslaved to the Spencer family in the 18th century. He was baptized in Northampton and was owned by John Spencer. Caesar Shaw is featured in two portraits at Althorp House, Northampton NN7 4HQ.
Originally from Jamaica, Francis Barber (about 1745 to 1801) was Samuel Johnson's valet and secretary at his house in Gough Square, London.
Barber arranged Johnson's trips, received documents and kept his diary. Johnson was known to be very fond of Barber – when as a youth he ran away to sea, Johnson arranged for him to be discharged. He later paid for him to be educated at Bishop's Stortford School.
When Johnson died in 1784 he left an annuity of £70 and a gold watch to Barber. He settled in Litchfield, Staffordshire, where his descendants still live. This portrait hangs in Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London EC4 3DE (listed Grade I).
The house itself dates from the late-17th century and was where Johnson wrote his famous Dictionary.
Pero (from 1753 to 1798), along with his two sisters, was sold at the age of 12 to John Pinney the wealthy owner of a Nevis sugar plantation relying on the forced labour of enslaved Africans. He became Pinney's personal servant and by 1791 was living at 7 George Street, Bristol (listed Grade II*), the sugar trader's Bristol home. Pero would have seen the kitchens very much as they are shown here.
Pero later went on to have responsibilities beyond this role but appears to never have been freed.
The house he lived and worked in was built for Pinney in the late-18th century as a substantial merchant’s town house. The house is now a museum which displays its remarkably complete interiors.