Early Surrey Records of Black People in Surrey
The language used in historical sources is far removed from what is acceptable today and can be surprising and uncomfortable to read. This is the case for many areas of historical research, especially mental health and asylum records, accounts of diversity, gender and sexuality. When archivists catalogue such records they are aware of the historical use of derogatory or negative language and will include it as a descriptive term in inverted commas to denote its use in the original source. Doing this allows for specific contemporary keywords to be highlighted when anyone searches for them, alongside our modern-day descriptive terms.
Where early records mention Black people in Surrey we have no further information about how they arrived in here, or other aspects of their lives. Parish records are perhaps our biggest source for seeing how many Black people were resident in the county. In many early records the churchwardens who compiled the parish records often included descriptive comments about the physical traits of those being baptised, married or buried. When there is a visible difference in appearance this is one way we can gauge the historic presence of Black people in the county, along with those of other ethnicities. This is especially important when we consider the fact that many Black people may have been enslaved and given Westernised names, which would give no hint of their origins. The same would apply to adults who were free but had converted to Christianity and given up their native birth name.
Parish records give us the briefest of insights into the lives of Black people living in the modern period in Surrey. A large number of these occur in places now forming part of Greater London, comprising trade hotspots close to the Thames. Examples of parish baptisms and burials include (the language in these quotes reflects the attitudes of the time):
- 22nd December, 1577, ‘a child of black Richards, a stranger’, buried in Kingston-upon-Thames
- 20th December, 1611, ‘Anthony the blackamoor’ was buried in Oxted;
- 17th September, 1667, ‘Edward Dedford, a blak at John Turners’ buried in Putney;
- 15th April, 1677, ‘John Sango, a Moor’ baptised in Sutton;
- 21st November 1686, ‘James Guinrey, a blak, from Mr. Sclater’, buried in Putney;
- 19th May, 1687, Robertt Catharick and Mary Ember, ‘two blacks’, were married in Putney;
- 3 September 1690, ‘Adam, one of rip[er] years, a Negro’ baptised in Stoke-next-Guildford (SHC ref STK/1/1);
- 8th February, 1705, burial in St Martin’s, Epsom, of ‘John Ackmett, a black boy’;
- On 10th June, 1725, ‘Dennis Gerred, the black’ buried in Putney;
- On 6th March, 1735, ‘Seppeo, a servant, a black, from Sir John Grosvenors’ was buried in Putney, and on 2nd June 1718 the parish buried ‘Peter, the black servant to Mr Grosvener’; Sir John Grosvenor was an important figure – the sheriff of London in 1727 – and likely brought these two servants home from his plantations in the West Indies;
- 20th August, 1764, Richmond Moody, ‘an African’, was baptised in Byfleet;
- 18th December the same year, ‘James Smith a Black’ was buried in Morden;
- William Williams, ‘a Black, aged betwixt 20 and 30 years’, baptised in Richmond on 30th May, 1790;
- William West (aged 16 when baptised 2nd November 1791) and Isabella Thomas (aged about 19 when baptised on 19th January, 1792), both described as a ‘negro servant to Mr Goldwin’ – in Richmond;
- George Ford (baptised in Richmond on 20th January, 1793), ‘aged about 20 years, a negro’;
- Elizabeth James, ‘a black, servant to Wm. Rhodes’ baptised in Richmond on 14th April, 1793 with three other servants to the same man, possibly of the same origin;
- December 1794, James Henry Hyder, ‘a mulatto aged about 18 years, servant to Mrs. Ramus’ baptised in Richmond;
- On 29th March 1795, Thomas Pascocedour, ‘mulatto aged about 18 years, servant to Mr Randall, Brentford’, baptised in Richmond;
- An entry for 11th February 1796 records the baptism in Richmond of William, ‘baseborn son of an unbaptised Negro woman’; On 26th February the same year, Charlotte, ‘a Negro woman aged about 20 years’ was also baptised in Richmond;
- 14th May 1804, Anthony Small, ‘a Black aged 40’, buried in Wimbledon (Wimbledon, St Mary’s: Parish Records (1538-1940). Surrey History Centre reference P5/1/8)
Black people passing through Surrey
There are a number of records where Black people are among those making use of the Portsmouth Road connecting London to the naval city. Along this road travelled many who were to continue by sea to other parts of the world either to trade or to fight. Commonly, people stayed overnight in Send or Ripley, so it is no surprise to find many travellers, strangers and passengers on the Portsmouth carriages, as well as soldiers, among those taken ill or involved in accidents and subsequently buried in those parishes and recorded in the registers.
The following names were recorded in the Send and Ripley parish registers (SHC ref SEN/1/2, and SEN/1/3) (the language in these quotes reflects the attitudes of the time):
- 1st November, 1713, ‘Windsor, Capt. Arris’ Black was publicly baptised at Ripley’. This entry suggests that the man named ‘Windsor’ had arrived in Britain for the first time and was baptised at the first opportunity.
- 27th June, 1740, ‘A black died in the road buried at Send Church’;
- 30th September, 1750, ‘Thomas Novels, A Black man’ was baptised in Ripley. Sadly, the following year, the same register records his death and burial (30th April, 1751).
- 30th April, 1764, the burial of ‘Annonymous [sic]… a black who dyed in ye Queen’s service’. This man was one of many soldiers, both active and disbanded, who passed through the Surrey villages.
- 23rd June, 1776, ‘Jane Morris, an adult molotto’ was baptised in Ripley chapel.
Diversity in the records – a true picture?
There is evidence in the archives to show the diversity of Surrey’s inhabitants.
From the Quarter Session bundles comes the case of ‘Timothy Martin, a negro doing wrong’. On 14th May, 1783, Thomas Cooper, a miller, gave evidence about the man who he considered a ‘loose, bad and designing fellow’ who he found trespassing, hiding behind a millstone in the mill and pretending to be lame. Timothy’s side of the story is not recorded and we can only wonder at his experience of the incident.
Historically, it is easy to underestimate the number of Black people in Surrey for a range of reasons.
Firstly, with entries in parish records, we have to rely on incidental information being recorded as unusual, such as the colour of a person’s skin, occupation, or their country of origin. These details would not normally have been recorded unless the scribe thought it was relevant, for example if it were relevant for Poor Law assessment and the person named might be eligible for support from the parish church, to which all charitable responsibilities were devolved following the Reformation in 1538.
Marriage between Black people and the white population was frowned upon at the time. In the case of a Black wife and a white husband, the wife would adopt the husband’s status and Poor Law assessments might become irrelevant. If a Black man had been born in Britain, or served a British master for a year or more, they would be considered settled and Poor Law arrangements would be irrelevant to them; later on, anyone who rented property or enrolled on an apprenticeship would also be considered settled. Probably all of these people, including many Black immigrants, would be found in parish registers, but nothing would be said about their ethnicity.
Lastly, the Black population was partly a trading population, transported or travelling by ship. They might come and go, and the population would have been dynamic. One African man or woman’s stay in Britain may only have been brief and they would not necessarily have been baptised, married or buried on British soil except in rare circumstances. However, they would have been seen and encountered by many, particularly in Britain’s port towns and especially in Bristol, Liverpool and East London.
Black baptisms and the law
Unlike many travellers, Black people would probably not have arrived in Britain baptised. However, if they intended to stay, the religious and societal norms of a Christian society at that time meant this was a necessity and. Most masters would have demanded their servant convert to Christianity and be baptised if not already. Some people believed conforming would make them more acceptable in society and give them rights, especially at poor relief at this time was distributed by parish overseers connected with the church. This makes the arrival of someone of African or Caribbean origin more likely to be recorded in the parish records than if they were European.
For a time in the eighteenth century, many people thought that baptism confirmed an African or West Indian’s free status. If a master or mistress wished to exploit the uncertainty of the legal status of their Black servants they might refuse to baptise them and so they would not appear in parish registers.
There is no proof that this was the case however. Certainly in legal circles, most were aware of Lord Chancellor Philip Hardwicke’s judgement, voiced in 1749, that ‘if a slave came in to England, or became a Christian, he thereby became emancipated but there was no foundation in law for such a notion’. Many in the legal profession, including Lord Hardwicke, found it in their interests to clarify the laws on bringing slaves into Britain, for the benefit of the British planters who wished not to lose their human ‘property’.
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
Parish Registers: Wimbledon Burials 1789-1812 (SHC ref: P5/1/8).
Parish Registers: Richmond Baptisms, Marriages & Burials 1584-1653 (SHC ref: P7/1/3).
Parish Registers: Richmond Births 1653-60, Baptisms 1657-82, Marriages 1654-81 & Burials 1653-82 (SHC ref: P7/1/2).
Parish Registers: Richmond Baptisms & Burials 1682-1759, Marriages 1654-1751 (SHC ref: P7/1/3).
Parish Registers: Richmond Baptisms & Burials 1760-1812 (SHC ref: P7/1/5).
Parish Registers: Richmond Burials 1813-32 (SHC ref: P7/1/8).
Parish Registers: Richmond Baptisms 1813-43 (SHC ref: P7/1/7; -/11).
Parish Registers: Richmond Burials 1832-49 (SHC ref: P7/1/12).
Parish Registers: Kingston-upon-Thames Burials 1560-1665 (SHC ref: P33/1/2-4; -/5-9).
Parish Registers: Kingston-upon-Thames Baptisms 1749-69 (SHC ref: P33/1/14).
Parish Registers: Kingston-upon-Thames Baptisms 1851-75 (SHC ref: P33/1/20).
Parish Registers: Kingston-upon-Thames Marriages 1859-70 (SHC ref: P33/1/28).
Parish Registers: Kingston-upon-Thames Burials 1849-64 (SHC ref: P33/1/33).
Parish Registers: Send St. Mary’s & Ripley: Baptisms 1700-64; Marriages 1700-54; Burials 1700-64 (SHC ref: SEN/1/2).
Parish Registers: Ripley Chapel Baptisms & Burials 1740-92 (SHC ref: SEN/1/3-4).
Parish Registers: Stoke-next-Guildford Burials 1690 (SHC ref: STK/1/1).
Parish Registers: Morden, St. Lawrence: Burials, 1634-1809 and Marriages, 1634-1750 (SHC ref: 2065/1/1).
Parish Registers: Walton-on-Thames Burials 1639-1840 (SHC ref: 2381/1/1-3; 2381/5/1).
Parish Registers: Mortlake Burials 1748-1840 (SHC ref: 2397/1/3; -/28).
Quarter Sessions Information from Thomas Cooper, 1783 (SHC ref: QS2/6/1783/Mid/52).
Bannerman, W. Bruce (ed.), The Parish Register of Putney, Co. Surrey 1620-1734, transcr. Amy C. Hare (Croydon: Bannerman, 1913).
–The Parish Register of Putney, Co. Surrey 1734-1812, transcr. Amy C Hare (Croydon: Bannerman, 1915).
Crooks, Paul, A Tree Without Roots (London: Arcadia Books, 2008).
Finkleman, P., Southern States in Free Countries: The Pamphlet Literature, vol. 1 (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange Ltd., 2007), pp. 35-40.
Gerhold, Dorian, ‘Black People in 17th & 18th Century Putney’, The Wandsworth Historian, No. 42 (1984).
For The National Archives’ online exhibition about ‘Black Presence: Asian and Black history in Britain 1500-1850’, see: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/