The Society's seal and three photographs

African Lives in Northern England

Picture credit; Laing Art Gallery/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, with thanks for permission to use.

Servants feature in the background of many 18th century portraits, as a symbol of their employers' wealth, and black servants were even more a 'prestige' symbol. This young man is seen on the very edge of the portrait of the family of the rich Captain Robert Fenwick, painted by artist William Bardwell in the 1740s. Another young black man appears in a portrait of John Delaval, painted in 1770 by Newcastle artist William Bell, which hangs in the Gallery at Seaton Delaval Hall, where we do at least see the whole of his body. Interestingly, the National Trust catalogue mentions only the fancily-dressed young aristocrat, whereas the ArtUK website (whose catalogue was created by crowd-sourcing) includes the young black man as well.

During the 2020 lockdown, operatic tenor Peter Brathwaite carried out a project, Rediscovering Black Portraiture, which highlighted some of these and examined their history. He subsequently also had a series of short 'essays' on BBC Radio 3 looking at five of the portraits in depth, and these are available on BBC Sounds.

Servants and slaves in Britain

The position of black people brought across from the Caribbean into Britain was complicated. During the late seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries, as Peter Fryer puts it, 'black slaves were brought here, not merely by slaver captains, but also by returning planters, government officials, and navy officers. However rich they might be, such people objected to paying wages to English servants when there were black slaves available to work for nothing but food and clothing. So they brought their slaves here as personal and household servants' (p 69). The slaves brought to Britain, however, would make demands for wages, and the 'charge most frequently levelled against black servants was that they were always ready to desert their masters' by running away (p. 208). 

Local magistrates were often sympathetic to slaves' pleas not to be taken back to America, and this was seen as a threat by slave-owners and -traders. There is an example of how they sought to defeat claims for freedom in the indenture signed by 'Galba', and held in Northumberland Archives. Indentures were commonly signed by apprentices and skilled workers, but for a term of years, not for life. Galba is described in this document as a 'native of America' and this has been interpreted by some as meaning what we would now call a Native American, and would have been described as a Red Indian at the time. This is almost certainly not the case; it would have meant someone born in America, as opposed to Africa or the Caribbean. The indenture was found in Northumberland Archives by volunteer researchers in 2007; follow this link for a short article about it in their newsletter.

In 1729, a 'Joint Opinion’ was given by Attorney General Sir Philip Yorke and Solicitor General Charles Talbot, after a dinner in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, to the effect that a slave did not become free on his arrival in Britain, and his master could compel him to return to the Caribbean. Northumberland Archives has a copy of this opinion, included among the papers of a local solicitor in Alnwick.It is undated, but one might guess that it was sent by a London correspondent not long after it was given. Follow this link to see an image of it.

Despite its informality, the Yorke-Talbot opinion acquired the force of law, and was confirmed on several occasions by Lord Mansfield, chief justice of the King’s Bench. By 1764, one writer estimated there were 20,000 Black people in London alone; follow this link for his paragraph in the Gentleman's Magazine illustrating contemporary attitudes.

In 1772, campaigner Granville Sharp (from the North East originally, though settled in London) succeeded in getting Lord Mansfield to overturn this opinion, and to give a judgment that ‘the state of slavery is of such a nature’ that it can only be sanctioned by ‘positive law’.... ‘Tracing the subject to its natural principles, the claim of slavery can never be supported’. According to author Hester Grant, Lord Mansfield had meant to give a narrow interpretation to the law, only that a master had no right to compel a slave to return to his country, but the press interpreted it as meaning every slave brought into country was free. (Grant, pp. 167-8).

Campaigners had to remain vigilant, however, against attempts to transport former slaves to the Caribbean, and there were still attempts to maintain the status of particular black people as slaves. In 1822, for example, Thomas Armstrong of Dalston, near Carlisle bequeathed a slave in his will, while black children were being sold as house-boys in Westmorland early in the nineteenth century by merchant John Bolton of Storrs Hall (Fryer, p. 207 and p.231).

Only in 1833, with the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire was the position in Britain made unequivocal under statute law.


Peter Fryer, Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain (second edition), Pluto Press, 2018

Hester Grant, The Good Sharps, Chatto and Windus 2020

Northumberland Archives; Galba's indenture is contained within document bundle ZBL 35/1; the Yorke-Talbot opinion is document ZMD 114/261, part of the bundle ZMD 114, which is collection of the papers from the Lindsay family of Alnwick.


In the future, don’t forget your past