Wednesday 13 September 2023

Trip: Unforgotten Lives at the London Metropolitan Archives


The London Metropolitan Archive has a brilliant free exhibition called Unforgotten Lives: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean Asian and Indigenous Heritage 1560-1860. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a detailed and fascinating look at (essentially non-white) Londoners as revealed by London’s archives, including parish records, voting records, court cases and business records. 

It’s wonderfully nuanced, catching snippets of lives and telling a whole range of stories and emphasising that, by being in the city’s voluminous records, these stories can be seen for brief flashes. The exhibition shows how integrated people of colour were in London’s history, existing as real, striving individuals and not just an abstract mass - and that, although many are invisible to history, it’s more because most ordinary people were. 

Very few records even mention the colour of a person, because society was organised around parishes and place of origin. This means a record may note a person originally came from St Vincent, or Jamaica, or wherever, but doesn’t distinguish between a white or black person who came from these places. For simple administrative purposes, race was unimportant and not worth noting. As such, their invisibleness comes largely from integration. 

Of course, I was most interested in the lives of those who lived in the eighteenth century, and the exhibition doesn’t disappoint. I also watched a lecture by Kathleen Chater which was specifically about these Black Georgians. Taking the lecture and exhibition together, there were more stories then I can cover, but I’d like to talk about some of my favourites. 


Chater pointed out that for most people of a poorer background, life in service was a good entry position, which could be turned into a successful business. Many former servants, especially on marriage, were given money to set up a shop, inn or some other business and many did well out of it. This included black servants.

Any Johnsonian knows how Francis Barber recieved the bulk of his will and invested that into future projects, but he wasn’t the only person set up that way. There was Ignatius Sancho, a servant turned businessman who voted in a Westminster election because of his status of property holder. Were it not for a biography written about him after his death, it wouldn’t have been known that he was black, because the records simply don’t mention it.

Other businesses people include the Cranbrook family, who were greengrocers in Clapham. Their children has a varied careers; including a hairdresser who married a rich client, a porter, a presbyterian minister and an anglican vicar. Cesar Picton was in service before becoming a coaldealer. He had a house in Richmond and another in Thames Ditton. He once got in trouble for poaching in someone else’s land with an unlicensed gun, but his wealth and status got him off with a fine. 

There was a shopkeeper with the wonderful name of William Precious, but all is known about him are the deeds to his shop. The even more peculiarly named, Reasonable Blackman was a silk weaver. 

There were many black sailors, with every stereotypical group of sailors including at least one black face, there’s even a black sailor represented on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Black sailors were pensioners at the Greenwich Hospital, but only ones that had served in the Royal Navy. Injured merchant sailors were far more unlucky.  Joseph Johnson lost his leg on a merchant ship and became a beggar, particularly notable because he used to wear a model of The Victory on his head. 

There were many black soldiers and many of them were involved in regimental bands. It was a particularity in the army that flogging, for internal discipline, was often carried out by the drummers. As a result, it was noted that there was often an occasion where a person called see a black man flogging a white one, something deemed ‘extremely disagreeable’ to an American visitor, but a normal occurrence in the British Army. As promotion in the army mainly came from buying a position, there wasn’t a lot of promotion, yet James Goodwin, originally from Barbados did reach the rank of Trumpet-Major. 

Many mixed-race children of the West-Indian slavers were sent to England for education and a number became heirs. One of these was Nathaniel Wells, who became a Justice of the Peace, a Lieutenant in the local Yeomanry, a high sheriff and a master of the local hunt. As ‘respectable’ and integrated in the country hoity-toity set as anyone could be.

There were also black people with less salubrious claims to fame. Anne Duck is the person in the exhibition with the most appearances at the Old Bailey. She targeted lawyers, and was let off during her first four appearances but sentenced to hang on her fifth appearance. She was also brought before the caught and sentenced to another crime while she was awaiting her sentence to be carried out for the one before. Her brother was part of a flotilla that circumnavigated the globe but his ship was driven off course near Chile and he was never seen again.

It would be extremely silly to say that Georgian London was a haven or utterly safe place for people of colour. However, it would seem that most of their difficulties stemmed from the same class and financial difficulties experienced by the majority of Londoners. Racism was to come, especially with the growth of ‘scientific racism’ as the colonial activities of the United Kingdom grow ever more voracious. Yet, Georgian London, for all it’s bigotry and ignorance, does seem to have been (at least) not institutionally racist. People of colour could succeed in the same narrow ways any of the London poor could. 

There are so many other stories though; from the famous names like Oludiah Equiano and Dido

Elizabeth Belle, to people like Phillis Wheatley, a woman enslaved in America who came to Britain because nobody there would publish her poetry.

I recommend visiting, it runs until 27th March 2024.

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