Charlotte Howe was brought to Britain from America in 1781 by Captain Howe. British forces were in the midst of the American Wars of Independence, which were to go on until 1783. Charlotte was brought to a Thames Ditton household to act as a servant to the Captain and his wife.
The Captain passed away in June 1783. Soon afterwards, Charlotte Howe was baptised (on 17th December) in the parish of St. Nicholas, Thames Ditton, taking her master’s surname. This is our earliest record of her. She might have been a relatively unknown servant and disappeared from historical records but for one thing – an extensive legal debate which tried to establish whether or not she remained a slave in Britain, as she had been in America.
Charlotte continued to live with the Captain’s widow, staying with her ‘for five or six months’ when the widow moved to Chelsea. For whatever reason, Charlotte walked out and returned to Thames Ditton. There, she appealed for parish relief – she was unmarried and had no income.
Just like every other servant in the Howe household, she had been working for free. This was one of the terms of her coming to live in England, for she had previously been a slave who relied directly on her master for her welfare instead of working for a wage.
Before she could benefit from parish relief, she had to prove that she had worked for forty days in the parish. There was also the problem of which parish she belonged to and so the issue was taken to the Court of the King’s Bench in April 1785, before the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mansfield. Lord Mansfield also oversaw the famous James Somersett case in 1772, so his words on the fate of Charlotte Howe were much anticipated.
The court decided that, since Charlotte Howe earned no salary as a slave, she did not qualify for parish relief. The Lord Chancelor had admitted that it was possible to remain a slave in Britain and do forced, unpaid labour. Unsurprisingly, this case fuelled a large amount of debate over the problem of impoverished slaves in Britain.
Archives at Surrey History Centre:
Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1773.
Thames Ditton Parish Vestry Overseers accounts, 1773-1805 (SHC Ref. 2568/8/4).
Thames Ditton Parish Registers: baptisms 1781-1812 (SHC Ref. 2568/1/4).
Baron Glenbourne, Frere, S., Roscoe, H., Reports of cases Argued and Determined in the Court of the King’s Bench (London: S. Sweet & Steven and Sons, 1831), pp. 300-2.
Caldecott, T., Reports of Cases Relative to the Duty and Offices of a Justice of the Peace (London: A Strahan, 1800), pp. 516-20.
Cotter, W. R., ‘The Somerset Case and the Abolition of Slavery in England’ in The Journal of the Historical Association, vol. 79, February 1994, pp. 31-56.
Finkleman, P., Southern States in Free Countries: The Pamphlet Literature, vol. 1 (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange Ltd., 2007), pp. 35-40.
Steedman, C., Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), pp. 51-3.
Walvin, J., The Trader, The Owner, The Slave (London: Random House, 2007).