251: A Victorian middle-class family: the Audains

Contributed by Kathy Chater whose article on Ida Audain will appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She will be publishing a full study of the family.  Cyril has left descendants and she is grateful to one of them and to a local historian in the West Indies for their help.

John Audain (c. 1808-1864) was a merchant in St Vincent.  He prospered and, after the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, bought the Richmond Hill estate, the largest on the island, which overlooked the island’s capital Kingstown. In 1846 he married his second wife, Hannah Bannatyne (1825-1883), the daughter of a black schoolteacher.  Ten years later he became a member of the island’s governing body then in 1860 moved with his wife and three surviving children to London, where they lived in Notting Hill.  Two sons were born here before his death in 1864.

His widow and five children had a lifestyle typical of their class.  The two daughters, Estella and Ida, were taught music; the eldest son, Harley, who inherited the estate, became a civil servant; the next son, Cyril, tried a number of occupations without success and the youngest, Claude, became a stockbroker and, like his father, a freemason, as well as a pillar of his local Conservative party.  Estella married a bank clerk, Ida a fellow musician, Cyril a daughter of the Raj and Claude the daughter of a very rich man. Harley, very late in life, married someone prominent in local society.

Ida studied the harp at the Royal Academy of Music and became a much-praised performer.  In 1896 she became the first musician of known African origin to play at the Proms.  Arthritis ended her career in 1902.  Her colour is mentioned in only three reviews of her numerous concerts and Cyril was called a ‘negro’ when his appearance in court, accused of not paying a hotel bill, was reported in a local paper. There is also an in-joke referring to Claude’s racial origins in an article warning potential clients about dubious shares he was offering, but only those who knew him would pick up the reference. Apart from these, there is no mention of their ethnicity in any of the over 300 official documents and numerous newspaper articles that record the family’s lives.  When Cyril entered a mental hospital, no link between his illness and his racial background was made. 

Their prosperity may have sheltered this mixed race family from prejudice.  Certainly the children’s lives suggest that class, rather than colour, remained a strong force in Victorian times, despite the growth of scientific racism.   It remains to be seen how many other upper-middle-class people with African origins were living previously unnoticed lives in Victorian Britain.

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