Cesar Picton

Cesar Picton (c.1755-1836) was a successful businessman and coal merchant who, for much of his life, lived close to the Thames in Surrey. However, it is important to look at Cesar’s origins. In 1761, as a small boy, he was taken from his home in Senegal where he was probably purchased as part of the slave market, apparently along with his mother (who did not survive the journey). He was transported to Britain on Captain John Parr’s ship and presented as a gift to Sir John Philipps, along with a parakeet and an African duck.

Engraving of Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wale

An engraving of Picton Castle in F.O. Morris’ ‘County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ (1870). Source Wiki site.

Remarkably, Cesar, as the boy was christened (6th December 1761, in Norbiton), was apparently welcomed as a member of the Phillips’ family, since they were not in need of additional personal servants. However, he was treated rather differently. Like other Black servants of upper class employers, he may have been dressed in an exotic fashion and worn a turban. Cesar lived with the Philipps family for many years, was educated by them and received training as a high servant in the family home at Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire. Whilst infinitely preferable to enslaved life on a plantation, Cesar was still denied his name and a life in his country of origin, with his own culture.

The lines between slavery and those of a favoured Black servant in Britain in the eighteenth century are blurred. Slavery was legal in Britain until 1772, and many Africans brought to this country found themselves working as butlers or servants in wealthy households. After this date, Black people had to be treated as free; free to earn their own living or be paid wages as a servant in the household where they had been resident. Some were treated well, given an education, wages, and sometimes received an inheritance, and their duties were not always hard. The Philipps family seem to have accepted Cesar as simply another young member of their family household. Black children were viewed as exotic and often a high society talking point. It was fashionable to treat African boys in a certain way; they were given rich clothing and Sir John bought a ‘velvet Turban for black boy’ for 10s 6d. Two centuries earlier, Elizabeth I began the trend by dressing her own Black court musicians and page-boy in elaborate and exotic costumes. Painters from the Renaissance period onwards would often give the same treatment to Black subjects, or paint European nobility and gentry with their richly-dressed Black page-boy or servant.

Eventually, he grew independent of the family and took the name of Picton for his own. Though trained as a servant, Cesar had grown to be an integral part of the family’s social life. He lived with them in Norbiton Place and inherited £100 from Lady Philipps in 1788. It was with this money that Cesar started his coal trading business in a house which he renamed ‘Picton House’, located on Kingston High Street, with a wharf on the Thames at the rear.

Image of Picton House, High Street, Thames Ditton

Picton House, High Street, Thames Ditton

Sir John’s daughters also left some of their wealth to Cesar, and in 1816, having inherited a small fortune he purchased a house in Thames Ditton, which also adopted the name ‘Picton House’ (later renamed Sunnyside House). Both fine houses still stand today, bearing Cesar’s name and now heritage plaques.

Plaque on Picton House, Kingston (Photograph: Julian Pooley, Oct 2020). Plaque reads "Cesar Picton c.1755-1836. A native of Senegal, West Coast of Africa. Brought to England in 1761 As servant to Sir John Philipps of Norbiton, Kingston upon Thams Later a coal merchant and gentleman. LIVED HERE 1788-1807"

Plaque on Picton House, Kingston (Photograph: Julian Pooley, Oct 2020)

Cesar may have started life destined for slavery but he died in June 1836, a thoroughly successful free businessman, known to Surrey society as a gentleman.

Discover Cesar Picton’s full story Discover Cesar Picton’s full story by clicking here (pdf pdf logo).

Image of Cesar Picton's burial as recorded in the parish register of All Saints Church, Kingston-upon-Thames

Cesar Picton’s burial was recorded in the parish register of All Saints Church, Kingston-upon-Thames (SHC ref P33/1/32)

Picton House in Thames Ditton is included in Surrey’s Historic Environment Record.

Read the English Heritage listing details for Picton House, Kingston.

Sources at Surrey History Centre:

Deeds of Picton House, Thames Ditton, 1709-1841 (SHC ref 8263/1/1-15).

Press cutting: Surrey Comet, 2nd October 1976 (SHC ref 8263/2/6).

Record of inquiries by Joan Wakeford into funeral arrangements of Cesar Picton (SHC ref 8263/2/7).

Kingston-upon-Thames Archaeological Society, ‘Picton House and the People Connected with It’, Occasional Papers 2 (1979). (SHC ref 8263/2/7).

Catalogue record for an 1802 lease for 30 years 1) George Glenny 2) Caesar Picton of Kingston, coal merchant (SHC ref 203/14/2).

Two illustrations of Picton House in Thames Ditton are included in the Historic Buildings and Antiquities of Surrey collection.

Cesar Picton’s burial was recorded in the parish register of All Saints Church, Kingston-upon-Thames (SHC ref P33/1/32).

Surrey History Centre’s Local Studies Library also includes copies of bulletins and chronicles, containing articles related to Cesar Picton, produced by the Kingston upon Thames Archaeological Society.

Sources held elsewhere:
  • The following documents relating to Cesar Picton are held at The National Archives: PROB/11/1184/4, HCA32/872/168, CO 700/WESTAFRICA1E, MPI/1/111, MPH 1/625.
  • Kingston Local History Room: Kingston-upon-Thames Archaeological Society, ‘Picton House and the People Connected with It’, Occasional Papers 2 (1979), (KX79/54).

Dabydeen, Gilmore & Jones, The Oxford Companion to Black British History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Jones, Patrick, Pembrokeshire and the slave trade: the strange case of Cesar Picton (Pembrokeshire Life, 2008).

Websites (click on the link to open the website):

Read our Marvel of the Month feature about Cesar Picton for Black History Month 2013 https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre/marvels/cesar-picton

For details of two short films comprising an evocative narrative of Cesar’s early life by Anna Brass and Lily Mehrbod, Kingston University, based on records held at The National Archives and in Kingston’s Local History Room, see the University blog [email protected]

For a short film by Neil Armstrong (2011) about Cesar Picton see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDuH8Ewe2HE

For an article on Cesar Picton on the Historier’s Misecallany website see https://anhistoriersmiscellany.com/2019/11/17/cesar-picton/

For an article on the first Black Britons see the BBC History website (archived)http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/black_britons_01.shtml









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