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Working Lives

Not all black people in the latter half of the 18th century were slaves or servants. Black people were part of English society working as sailors, tradespeople, businessmen and musicians. They married and had families. We can find evidence of some of these lives in the historic environment around us, as these examples show.

A painting of a group of musicians sitting around a table.
Joseph Emidy playing violin in a group of musicians © Royal Institution of Cornwall

Joseph Emidy

Joseph Emidy (about 1775 to 1835) was born in West Africa. As a child, Portuguese traders enslaved him. They took him to Brazil and then to Portugal. It is unclear where he learned to play violin, but whilst in Portugal he became a violinist in the Lisbon Opera.

In 1795 Emidy was forced into service aboard a British Navy ship as a ship's fiddler. Four years later he was finally discharged in Falmouth where he earned his living as a violinist and teacher. In 1802 he married Jane Hutchengs, a local tradesman's daughter and in 1805 the couple and their daughters moved to Truro.

Emidy remained in Cornwall performing, teaching and composing and eventually becoming Leader of the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra. He is celebrated as the most influential musical figure in early 19th century Cornwall. His memorial stone is in the churchyard of Kenwyn Church, Kenwyn Church Road, Truro TR1 3DR.

A plaque commemorating the life of Joseph Emidy.
The plaque at Kenwyn Church commemorating the life of Joseph Emidy © Courtesy of Kenwyn Church

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (about 1780 to 1860), a virtuoso violinist, is best remembered for his association with Beethoven, who composed the Kreutzer Sonata for him.

A child prodigy, in 1789 he played at The Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, Bath, BA1 2QH. Bridgetower's father was of African descent, and there are several versions of his ancestry, including being the son of an African prince. From the age of 11, George Bridgetower was first violinist in the Prince of Wales' (later George IV) private orchestra.

Cesar Picton

Cesar Picton (about 1755 to 1836) became a successful businessman and owner of a wharf and a malt house, despite being taken from his family in Senegal as a child. At just six years of age he was transported by ship to England where he worked as a servant. He later became a coal merchant, using bequests left to him by his employers. From 1790 Picton lived at 52 High Street, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 4DB, now marked by a Kingston local history plaque.


Plaque on Picton House. Text reads: Cesar Picton c.1755-1836. A native of Senegal, West Coast of Africa. Brought to England in 1761 as servant to Sir John Philipps of Norbiton, Kingston upon Thames. Later a coal merchant and gentleman. Lived here 1788-1807.
Kingston Local History plaque on 52 High Street, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 4DB © Exploring Surrey’s Past

He bought the grand Picton House, 56 High Street, Thames Ditton, KT7 0SA in 1816. Both houses can still be seen from the street.

An eighteenth century town house.
Picton House, 56 High Street, Thames Ditton, KT7 0SA, once owned by Cesar Picton. © Exploring Surrey's Past

Dido Elizabeth Belle

Dido Eizabeth Belle (from 1761 to 1804) was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy officer and a nephew of the 1st Earl of Mansfield. Her mother was Maria an enslaved African whom Sir John met whilst his ship was in the Caribbean.

Sir John acknowledged Dido as his child and, from the 1760s she grew up in Lord Mansfield's household with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London NW3 7JR.

A painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and Lady Elizabeth Murray, previously attributed to Johann Zoffany © From the collection of Earl Mansfield at Scone Palace, Perth.

Dido was educated and literate. As well as overseeing the running of the dairy at Kenwood, she helped Lord Mansfield with his legal correspondence. A visitor to the house commented that Dido's great-uncle "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said".

By comparing the annual allowance Dido received it is clear that within the household her status was higher than that of a servant but generally below that of the rest of the family.

As Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield presided over some of the most historic cases involving enslaved Africans whose status in English law was uncertain. When he died he was careful to confirm in his will that Dido was a free woman. He also left her £500 and an annual allowance of £100.

In 1793 Dido married John Davinier, a steward (a senior servant). They had three sons and lived in Pimlico until her death, aged 43.

George Africanus

George Africanus (from 1763 to 1834) is Nottingham's first recorded black entrepreneur, starting an employment agency called the Africanus Register of Servants.

George was brought to England from Sierra Leone as a slave at three years of age. He was given as a present to a wealthy Wolverhampton businessman, Benjamin Molineux.

After serving an apprenticeship as a brass founder in one of Molineux' foundries, George moved to Nottingham where he married Esther, a local woman. He went on to own his own home, land and several businesses meaning that he was eligible to vote.

He died aged 71 and is buried in St Mary's Churchyard, High Pavement, Nottingham Lace Market, Nottingham NG1 1HR, where a City of Nottingham plaque commemorates him.

A plaque commemorating the life of George Africanus.
Plaque commemorating George Africanus © Nottingham City Council
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