A Note on Researching What’s an Earl Gotta Do

Some readers might have been surprised to see a Black gentleman barrister in a book set in England in 1802. In fact, Regency England was more diverse than what is often presented in period films (at least, until very recently), and Black people made up about 2% of London’s population in the late eighteenth century (source: the numbers cited by Dr. Gretchen Gerzina in Black London).

We have evidence that Black Britons existed on just about every rung of the social ladder during the Regency. Of course, many were servants or working class, just as the majority of white residents were servants or working class during this time period. But although the historical record is always murkier than we would like, there is evidence of Black Britons moving in the highest ranks of society, including:  

  • William Ansah Sessarakoo, an African prince from Annamaboe in modern-day Ghana, sent to London in order to obtain an education that would help his father expand his already considerable trading interests. He mixed in the highest levels of society and was a celebrity in his day, with the newspapers reporting regularly about which parties and entertainments he attended.

Portrait of William Ansah Sessarakoo by Gabriel Mathias, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

  • Nathaniel Wells, originally from the island of Saint Kitts, who inherited a fortune of £200,000 from his father. He moved to Wales, purchased the opulent estate Piercefield House for £90,000, and settled into life as a prominent member of the local landed gentry, holding the offices of churchwarden, sheriff, and Justice of the Peace over the course of his lifetime.

I could not find a portrait of Nathaniel Wells, but here is his home, Piercefield House.

  • George Bridgetower, the famed virtuoso violinist to whom Beethoven dedicated a sonata, and a personal favorite of King George IV. He also took a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Cambridge in 1811.

Portrait of George Bridgetower by Henry Eldgridge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

  • Julius Soubise, a fencing instructor at Angelo’s famous academy and Georgian dandy who ran with the fashionable crowd. Much like Beau Brummell, he ran up significant debts maintaining his lavish lifestyle, and, just as Brummell had to flee to Calais to escape his creditors, Soubise eventually was forced to decamp to India.
  • In her unfinished novel, Sandition, Jane Austen included the character Miss Lambe, a mixed-race heiress from the West Indies. One real-life example of such heiresses were the Morse sisters, Sarah, Catherine, and Ann, who inherited a one-sixth share of their father’s Jamaican estate valued at £150,000, or around £25,000 each. Unsurprisingly, all three married well. One of their brothers, Robert Morse, worked as a successful London barrister for a number of years before sailing for India to seek an even greater fortune.
  • It was common for Jamaican planters to send their children to Britain to be educated, and this included many children whose mothers were women of color. The Morse family, cited above, is one example. Professor Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune, believes that most of these children settled in Britain rather than returning to Jamaica. Records indicate that quite a few of the boys attended medical school in Scotland and became physicians. So if someone called for a physician in Regency England, there was a reasonable chance that the person to show up would be Black.
  • And, of course, many historians suspect that Queen Charlotte herself may have had some African ancestry through the Portuguese Royal House. The topic remains hotly debated.

As research continues, more forgotten Black Britons are being rediscovered every year. By emphasizing the financial and social successes of these individuals, I do not mean to suggest that life in Regency England was easy for its Black residents. Racist attitudes were extremely common during the Regency, as you will see if you choose to read any of the books I list below. But there were Black people who found ways to thrive in spite of the challenges they had to face every day.

In conclusion, as to whether a Black person could be a barrister in Regency England, the historical record tells us that the answer is a resounding yes—or perhaps a doctor, an heiress, a dandy, or even a prince!

For those who might be interested, here is a non-exhaustive list of the references I consulted in writing What’s an Earl Gotta Do:

Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 by Daniel Livesay

Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina

Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited by Vincent Caretta

The Rookeries of London by Thomas Beames, first published in 1850

Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England by Sonya O. Rose

Sin, Organized Charity, and the Poor Law in Victorian England by Robert Humphreys

The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise

An Account of a Meat and Soup Charity Established in the Metropolis, pamphlet published “By a Magistrate” in 1797

An Affectionate Pleading for England’s Oppressed Female Workers by William Shaw, 1850

An Essay on the Wages Paid to Females for Their Labour by Joseph Tuckerman, 1830

Extract from an Account of The Ladies Society for the Education and Employment of the Female Poor, pamphlet published April 1804

Some Hints in Regard to the Better Management of the Poor in a Letter to a Noble Lord, anonymous pamphlet published in 1784

The Climbing Boys: A Study of Sweeps’ Apprentices, 1773-1875 by K.H. Strange

Chimney Sweeps: Yesterday and Today by James Cross Giblin

The State of Chimney Sweepers’ Young Apprentices and Sentimental history of Chimney Sweeps in London and Westminster, published in 1773 and 1785 respectively, both by Jonas Hanway