Home Work and Community
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Relationships and Religion *
Servants, Ayahs and Alternative Employment *
Fighting for the Empire *
On the High Seas *
The Black Poor *
The Wealthy Few *
Black Loyalists *
Indian boy *

Servants, Ayahs and Alternative Employment


Working in Britain

Slaves toiling on sugar plantations in the Americas, beaten by the sun and by their masters - this is the most common image of Black people in this period. But in Britain, although Black and Asian people very often worked as servants, they also found employment in a variety of other occupations. Some of these workers were enslaved, others free. Often, the records do not specify which.

'A Taste of the High Life', engraving by Hogarth- opens new window
'Taste in High Life'
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Extract from Dr Johnson's will  - opens new window
Dr Johnson's Will
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Servants and Ayahs

The presence of Black servants in Britain was confirmed in a report published in 1764. Africans and Asians were employed as domestic servants and footmen in a variety of households, some of them famous. Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, employed a 'blackmore' cook, who, he said, 'dresses our meat mighty well'. Joseph Nollekens, Royal Academy sculptor, employed a Black female servant nicknamed 'Bronze'.

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In India, female domestic servants or nursemaids, known as ayahs, were very popular. Many accompanied East India Company employees and their families on the long sea voyage back to England. This arrangement was attractive for many Asian women, as ayahs were not generally paid a wage, whereas travel of this kind involved a fee. However, although they were promised their passage back home, often they were left stranded, especially in London. Some may have become prostitutes in order to survive.

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Often, African servants were regarded as status symbols. Draped in ruffles, lace and satin, they were generally expected to be at the beck and call of their masters and mistresses, who took them everywhere in a vulgar attempt to flaunt their wealth. Details of their daily lives can be pieced together from the letters and diaries of their employers. Magistrate John Baker makes a diary entry in 1760 that refers to his Black servant, the interestingly named Jack Beef - who, Baker proudly declared, was fitted with livery made by his 'own London tailor'. Some worked in royal households. George II and Queen Victoria both had Indian servants.

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Pages

In London's coffee houses, Black children were sometimes sold as presents for upper-class ladies. Boys and girls with very dark complexions were particularly prized as pages; their 'blackness' helped to highlight the owner's pale complexion at a time when 'white' skin was seen as a sign of purity and beauty. These children were, in effect, viewed as pets by their owners.

How happy these pages were is questionable. Newspapers frequently carried advertisements for a 'pet' to be restored to his or her master or mistress.
Importing Negroe Servants - opens new window
'Importing Negroe Servants'
(127KB)
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Alternatives

Local records reveal that people referred to as 'Black' were employed in a variety of different jobs. While this was not common, opportunities did exist. There was a Black publican in Doncaster and a Black coal merchant in Kingston. Thomas Jenkins was an African farmhand who later spent a brief period studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. There, he met with objections to his presence, so he travelled to London where he trained and worked as a teacher at the British and Foreign School Society. A servant named Mingo was made keeper of the Harwich lighthouse in the will left by his master, Royal Navy surveyor Sir William Batten.

 

 Mingoe, from servant to lighthouse keeper - opens new window
Mingo - from Servant
to Lighthouse Keeper (198KB)
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By the mid-eighteenth century African and Asian people had become part of the fabric of British society. The history of White employers cannot be separated from the history of the men and women who worked for them. African, Caribbean and Asian people lived and laboured beside English washerwomen, domestic maids, cooks, sailors and soldiers.
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References and Further Reading

Costello, R., Black Liverpool: The Early History of Britain's Oldest Black Community 1730-1918, Liverpool, 2001

Gerzina, G. H., Black London: Life before Emancipation, New Jersey, 1995

Lock, G., Caribbeans in Wandsworth: Contributions of Caribbeans and their Descendents, London, 1992

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, New York and Ibadan, 1977

Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, London, 1973


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