Chiswick House examines its Black history

Image above: Chiswick House; photograph Jennifer Griffiths

Students from Chiswick School and Hogarth Centre work with Chiswick House to “put the colour” back into Chiswick

Over the past year students from Chiswick School and the Hogarth Centre have been working with Chiswick House to find out about the history of the Black people connected with the estate.

There have been Black people in England since Roman times but as with the working class generally (unless they are in revolt) they tend to be airbrushed out of history. The history we hear about is generally the stories of kings and queens and their lords and ladies.

Over the past year Chiswick House, academics Raj Pal and nadege Forde-Vidal have been leading a youth project attempting to find and highlight the stories of those Black people involved with the House whose history has been overlooked.

Sifting through the archives, reading original letters and documents and looking at paintings in the collection they came across several influential Black figures as well as free Black people who were employed by various residents of Chiswick House throughout the 1700s.

Image: Alessandro di Medici

Represented in the art collection are Alessandro di Medici, the first Duke of Florence (1510 – 1537) and Mohammed bin Haddou, a Moroccan Ambassador who arrived in England in 1681.

The Medicis ruled Florence in mediaeval times; their wealth, patronage of the arts and brutality are legendary. Alessandro di Medici was a patron of the arts and sciences whose mother Simonetta was African and from whom many of Europe’s Royal families are descended.

Image: Mohammed bin Haddou, painting at Chiswick House by Sir Godfrey Kneller and Jan Wyck (1640-1700); Historic England archive

Mohammed bin Haddou came to Britain at a time when the Alaouite dynasty in Morocco were looking to foster trade links with Britain. During his sic months in England he was looking to foster an anti-Spanish alliance between Morocco and England. He visited the Oxford colleges and gave a lecture at the Royal Society.

Project Curator Raj Pal says it is unclear whether he visited Chiswick House but he presented himself at the Banqueting House to the King and his queen consort in January 1682.

“Gifts were exchanged and excited crowds followed him everywhere he went, particularly as he displayed his horse-riding prowess in Hyde Park. The ambassador and his party were invited to banquets and private estates, they toured famous sites in London, including Westminster Abbey, plus Oxford, Newmarket, Windsor and Cambridge.”

“Contemporary accounts of the time tell us that the ambassador, a practicing Muslim, was seen as the representative of a monarch of equal standing to King Charles II and he was lauded for his intellect, good manners, learning and curiosity.”

There is also a bust of Caracalla in the Chiswick House collection, a Roman emperor of north African and Levantine parentage.

Image above: Young people from Hogarth Youth and Community Centre working with artist Ayesha Weekes

Free Black tradesmen working for the Devonshires

In the 1700s and early 1800s they came across several skilled tradesmen who worked for the households of the 4th and 5th Dukes of Devonshire.

Jean Baptiste Gilbert was Georgiana’s hairdresser and milliner for over a decade. Edward and William Blackmore were a father and son tailoring team with their own business in Covent Garden.

The personal letters and records of the Burlingtons and Devonshires also give details of Joseph Casar, Lady Burlington’s Black footman and an unnamed black baby girl offered to Lady Burlington in 1739.

Nadege Forde-Vidal, an academic who has been working on this project at Chiswick House quotes Gretchen Gerzina, author of Black London, who she credits with kick-starting her research:

“Once the lens through which we view the 18th century is refocused, the London of Johnson, Reynolds, Hogarth and Pope – that elegant, feisty, intellectual and earthy place of neo-classicism and city chaos – becomes occupied by a parallel world of Africans and their descendants working and living alongside the English.

“They answer their doors, run their errands, carry their purchases, wear their livery, appear in their lawcourts, play their music… write in their newspapers and appear in their novels, poems and plays; they sit for their portraits, appear in their caricatures and they marry their servants.

“They also have private lives, baptise their children, attend schools, bury their dead. They are everywhere, as familiar a sight to Shakespeare as they were to Garrick, and almost as familiar to both as they are to Londoners today.”

In the 1500s a trend for Black servants and entertainers began to filter down from the Royal Court to less wealthy households. The Black population grew with the slave trade. Then in the mid 1780s over a thousand enslaved Africans who had risked everything to fight for the British during the American War of Independence made their way to Britain to live freely.

“The numbers of free Black residents logically increased”says Nadege, “skilled craftsmens, businessmen, property owners – like Cesar Picton, a successful coal merchant from Kingston on Thames.

“So too did the number of politically and culturally influential figures like activist and author Ottobah Cugoana, George Bridgtown the concert violinist and friend of Beethoven, Ignatious Sancho the composer and playwright (and close friend of Garrick), representing just a fraction. many more of these success stories lie dormant in the archives.”

From the middle of the 18th century, if not earlier, a very effective Black community existed, she says, particularly in London and the other major ports, “with joint concerns, an unsurprising sense of solidarity despite vast geographical and cultural differences, and an effective communication network.”

There were Black pubs, churches and meeting places – “far from the isolationist view often presented this was a thriving and structured community that also functioned as a network of resistance
and we can see this in the ads in newspapers for runaways – that frequently refer to the assistance of companions, or claim that people were deluded/coerced away.

“The archives make specific references to Safe Houses – one called ‘Jerusalem’ was located in the East End.”

The individual experience and legal status of the Black population varied enormously:

“ranging from those who were free and lived comfortably to those who were displayed as walking accessories in copper, brass and silver collars – a fashion that supported a whole industry of
metalworkers, engravers and jewellers.

“Many feared being forced into an early demise on the plantations once they outgrew their usefulness as young pages. This looming threat had indeterminable effects on the mental health and wellbeing of those who had already experienced unimaginable horrors. A number of runaway adverts refer to individuals with speech issues (‘stutters’) recognised now as a symptom of ptsd.”

Servant Joseph Casar – lazy or depressed?

Lady Dorothy Burlington, wife of Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington who created the current House and Gardens, was often seen around town with Black pages and footmen. There is a family portriat painted by Van Loos in 1739 which shows a young black boy standing behind Dorothys chair.

Nadege highlights a letter which Dorothy wrote from Windsor, where, as Lady of the Bedchamber, she is in service to Queen Caroline.

‘This will be a day of great hurry + therefore I write this morning, but expect every minute to be called on.

‘I have had a bad racket with the footmen. Will + Casar quarrelled + the former would not stay so Ferret has discharged him + I sent James to borrow Frank till he can get another, which he has now done … It seems Will wanted to go before I came hither, which I never knew + the chief reason he gives is (that) the rest of the servants turn him into…. drink + tease him… + they tell me (that) the real truth is he is afraid of being taken up.

‘As to Casar, he is so idle + drunken + Ferrett says, so impertinent, that you must think of disposing of him some other way for if he is put away he must either steal or starve for nobody will take
him. I therefore think the best way would be to let him have a running with the rest of your Cattel at Londesborough, + Ferrett tells me that who is with you is much ye worst of ye sett.’

John Ferret as the Butler in charge of the servants. Joseph Casar was a Black servant, identified from his baptism recorded (27 July 1725) at St Nicholas Church in Chiswick.

Baptising adult Black servants was common, as the aristocracy saw it as their duty to ‘civilise’ them. The Burlingtons also sought to baptize Richard Tamerlane at St Nicholas in 1726 and
an unnamed ‘Black from Ld Burlington’ baptised in St JAMES 21 st March 1730 presumably employed at Burlington House.

Nadege says the description of Joseph by Dorothy and her butler appear at first sight to cast him in a bad light but his ‘idleness’ may have been resistance to enforced labour and his drunkenness a sign of depression.

“Household accounts relating to payments made to staff at Burlington House and Chiswick in the same year 1728 by Henry Simpson (steward) demonstrate Joseph was paid for his service and travelled across the country incurring expenses that he was expected to record – indicating he could both read and write to some degree.

“The phrase ‘put away’ seems to imply letting him go, and Dorothy acknowledges Joseph’s vulnerability to poverty – he must steal or starve she says – so her solution is to ask Lord Burlington to
find him a different role. The suggestion she makes is interesting – that he be sent to run cattle at Londesborough – which might indicate a Black presence on the Burlington estates in
Yorkshire.”

Lord Burington’s response to Dorothys letter gives us a clue as to what happens next, though we can not be entirely sure says Nadege, as it refers to Joseph as Jack (which is common
shorthand).

In it Lord Burlington advises that Jack be put out, rather than away and he vocalises a strong moral obligation to protect him by keeping him employed in some capacity – rather than abandoning him to an uncertain and potentially impoverished future. The implication is that he will be given a role on the estate which keeps him away from the House, polite society and further altercations.

Whether this was to be at Chiswick or at Londesborough we do not know but accounts suggest he was paid by Simpson well into 1729. Lord Burlington mentions paying him less money but continuing to cloathe him.

The work uncovering the Black history of Chiswick House continues and it is funded by a grant from the Linbury Trust, part of the wider Sainsbury Family Trust network.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Film star Sarah Miles makes surprise guest appearance at Chiswick In Film festival

See also: Chiswick In Film festival will be back next year

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.