138: Lewis Charlton and the economics of Slave Narratives

Biographies and autobiographies of once enslaved Americans are generally referred to as Slave Narratives. They always told of their slavery experiences and so, as an aspect of the history of the U.S.A., have often been computerized. Documenting the American South’s North American Slave Narratives (docsouth.unc.edu) has many. Those who fled slavery to be refugees in Britain had their Narratives published in Britain, and sold them at meetings all over the British Isles. Some of these publications were also printed in the U.S.A. and Canada. When the authors remained in Britain later editions can include lists of British places they had visited, and there are testimonials from British men and women. Such Narratives fill out this American fugitive slave experience in Britain.

Some American institutions have used Narratives to add information to their locality’s history. One example is Lewis Charlton of Maryland, who is detailed on the Maryland State Archives site (msa.maryland.gov), on Wikipedia and docsouth.unc.edu. Charlton’s name came to my attention through a short article in Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post newspaper of 23 May 1883. Charlton ‘stated that he had been for fifty years in bondage in the State of Maryland’ at a meeting at the Bible Christian Chapel in Tiverton, a lace-making town in central Devon in south-western England on 22 May 1883. He collected for a church and school planned for Westminster, in Carroll County, Maryland, near Baltimore. Born near there in 1814, Charlton’s slave life had been described in a ten page Narrative by a Maine publisher. Maryland archives, on line, note he was freed in 1842, and the US census of 1870 lists him with wife and teenage son.

Modern American commentators seldom report on the activities of the escaped slaves in Britain unless these are detailed in Narratives (notably with Frederick Douglass) but the computerization of British newspapers does allow them to be traced with some ease. Charlton spent time in Britain in the 1880s and fragments have been retrieved. He was connected to the evangelical Byrom Hall in Liverpool in 1881 (Liverpool Mercury, 11 July 1881), spoke on ‘The Horrors of Slavery, and the Evils of Intoxicating Drink’ in Lostwithiel on 27 November 1882 at a meeting chaired by the mayor (Royal Cornwall Gazette of Truro, 1 December 1882, p 4) and on foreign missions at Threeburrows Primitive Methodist Chapel in February 1883 when it was indicated he was based in Plymouth (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 23 February 1883, p 5). In May he was in Tiverton as noted above and in August 1884 he (‘an aged negro’) spoke at a temperance meeting in the brewing town of Burton of Trent (Derby Mercury, 27 August 1884). None of these activities were remarkably different to those of other ex-slaves in Britain. Selling copies of their narratives provided a steady income and explains why British editions went into several printings, but the economics of this have been far from clear. Lewis Charlton was innocently linked to a cheating employee of a printer in Bristol, as were others, and the court case reveals interesting aspects of what might be called the Slave Narrative industry of Britain.

According to the Bristol Mercury and Daily Post of 17 October 1885 Lewis Charlton’s payments had been embezzled by Frederick Perrin, a printer’s manager of Bristol. Charlton ‘a man of colour [who] went about the country and sold books containing an account of his life’ was illiterate but his agent or secretary told the court about contracts given to Perrin’s firm, and payments made. In July 1883 they were to print 2,000 posters and 10,000 handbills, and £2 5s was paid to Perrin. Two thousand copies of the book were to be printed, at a cost of £13. In March 1884 another two thousand copies were purchased. Both the printer and the typesetter confirmed the necessary tasks had been carried out. Perrin pocketed the money and the accounts remained unpaid. Assuming Charlton had sold all of the first batch of copies of his Narrative, the market had been two thousand sales in eight months.

The Portland (Maine) printing is undated but suggested dates are 1860 and 1870. The Bristol printing has not survived in major British libraries but an undated The Life of Lewis Charlton: A Poor Old Slave, who, for Twenty-Eight Years, Suffered in American Bondage which was printed by Pitts and Crockett in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada) is at the British Library with a suggested publication date of 1885. It has 28 pages.

Perrin had several witnesses who testified that they had paid him for work at the printers, and he was sent for trial at the Assizes on charges of false pretences, embezzlement, falsifying books of account, and the theft of paper and printer’s materials from his employer (Bristol Mercury, 27 October 1885).

English registrations of deaths show that ‘Lewis Charlton’ was a very rare name, and it seemed very likely that the Lewis Charlton who died in Sheffield in March 1888 aged 74 could be the ‘poor old slave’. The copy of the certificate states that Charlton had been a ‘temperance lecturer’. He died in the Rock Street, Pitsmoor workhouse on 26 March 1888. His address was 175 Pond Street, Sheffield (in the centre of the city) as was that of the informant William Hardy. Pitsmoor was not the huge city workhouse but one normally used for children. It is probable that the ‘aged negro’ was buried in a pauper’s grave.

This death detail has been advised to the State of Maryland Archives at their request.

Other pages on this site: 028, 106, 107, 118, 123, 129, 130, 133, 135 and 172.


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