145 : On the Margins, 1841-1872

Individuals with origins far from Britain have been traced in the mid-Victorian period solely through reports of their deaths, as this selection indicates.

The twenty-three year old ‘African servant’ of the Revd William Hepworth was reported in the Bury and Norwich Post of 3 January 1844. Bristo (sic) Hepworth had died at the rectory, Finningham, on 26 December 1843. This isolated village is in northern Suffolk. Like Bengal Lane in the village of Greens Norton near Towcester in Northamptonshire, where Bengal Manor was built in the 1690s, and the Hochee almshouses in Dormansland in Surrey named after the village’s Chinese resident, clues within British villages need examination in order to clarify the possible presence of people of foreign origin or descent.

The tower of the old parish church of St   Mary, Hornsey (north London) and its graveyard hint at its lost status as a village church now surrounded by housing. In 1828 George Long relocated from Virginia to be professor of Greek at the University of London. His wife Harriet, several children, and a slave named Jacob Walker settled in nearby Highgate. Walker’s status in England was a servant. When he died from smallpox he was buried in the same grave as Harriet Long. She had died from cancer in June 1841; Walker in August 1841 aged forty. The slate gravestone memorialises both of them and that Walker ‘an honest man’ had been a ‘faithful slave and the faithful servant’ of the Longs. Sylvia L. Collicott, Connections. Haringey Local-National-World Links (London: Haringey Community Information Service, 1986, p 61) has a photograph of the grave which English Heritage listed in 2007.

In early 1849 a beggar in Cornwall ‘lately blackened his face and hands, and successfully appealed to the sympathies of several householders of St. Austell as a distressed and deserving negro; but he forgot he had a hole in his trowsers (sic)’. He was sent to Bodmin prison for three months (Nottinghamshire Guardian 8 February 1849).

At present there are upwards of 200 Indian beggars in London itself, and many of them are certainly left through the treachery of the parties who brought them, and are anxious to return to India, but for want of means they are unable to do so’ reported the Royal Cornwall Gazette of Truro on 30 July 1852. Two letters from ‘an Indian Gentleman’ and then ‘an Indian Observer’ to The Times (20 July 1852; 28 October 1852) then said that if British India’s administrations centred in Madras and Calcutta copied Bombay, where a law of 1846 required five hundred rupees to be deposited before any servants (‘persons of colour’) were permitted to depart for Europe, the Indian beggar problem would not exist as this deposit would pay the return fare. The Bradford Observer (11 November 1852) copied this, its article opening ‘In the metropolis, and in many provincial towns, Bradford included’.

The Bentinck sailed from Calcutta for Suez (the canal did not open until 1869) with 184 passengers. Fourteen were listed as ‘native servant’ in the Standard (London), 20 April 1846. Also bound for Southampton was a ‘Chinese servant’ and ‘Moonshie Buzloor Ruheem and native servant’ – Munshie being teacher. The Hindostan, due into Southampton on 21 May 1846, also had native servants and a ‘Chinese boy’; and the Oriental due into Southampton on 24 May had a Chinese servant (Standard (London), 21 May 1846; Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton), 23 May 1846). All manner of Britons would see these people – sailors, passengers, hotel staff, and neighbours.

The Isle of Man had a black beggar for decades. Known as ‘Black Jack’ he was found dead in his lodgings in March 1872. He had said he had been at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and had been to sea, but nobody knew if there was any truth in that. He was thought to have been in his seventies (Isle of Man Times [Douglas], 9 March 1872, p 5). A military man of colour mentioned in British newspapers in the 1850s was a Jamaican aged 102, who was resident in a London workhouse at Christmas 1852. John Turner had gone to sea on a man of war as a child, then served as a bandsman in the 62nd regiment and left the army in Canada after twenty-eight years. He then came to England, had a daily pension of 1s 2d which was reduced by contributions for his accommodation in the workhouse – and for his wife, who was also a resident. This was reported in major London newspapers (Morning Chronicle, 25 December 1852; Morning Post, 25 December 1852, p 5; and Daily News, 27 December 1852). His regiment became the Wiltshire Regiment; it had served two long spells in Nova Scotia. What happened to the Turners is unknown.

The Russian émigré Alexander Herzen who lived in London from 1852 to 1864 recalled seeing ‘a Negro, a lad of seventeen’ barefooted and shirtless in London’s Haymarket one winter evening. He noticed him time and again, and was told he could not get work as ‘I know no one who would give me a character’. He had worked on a Spanish ship. Herzen took him in, to clean his rooms. He ‘gaily did the work of four’ (Eric Newby [ed.], A Book of Travellers’ Tales [London, 1985]). It was extremely difficult to obtain employment as a servant without references or a ‘character’ for he or she would be trusted with the keys to the house.

Servants, as with those Indian beggars, could experience poverty. Employers had considerable power. The minister in Finningham, Suffolk and Professor Long in north London were not extraordinary but there has been no census of workhouse inmates or pauper burials, and we do not know if dark-skinned people on the margins in Victorian Britain were treated differently to the mass. That a white beggar pretended to be black – a ruse that failed due to that hole in his trousers – suggests that black beggars were thought to have an advantage.

See page 100 of this site for crossing sweepers, page 131 for the Jamaican servant Ann Styles who was part of a London family for sixty years, and ex-slave lecturer Lewis Charlton who died in the workhouse in Sheffield.



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