I recently noticed that the London Metropolitan Archives has launched a new database – Switching the Lens – Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1561 to 1840. This is an aspect of history that captured my imagination some time ago [ see, for instance, Suffrage Stories: Black And Minority Ethnic Women: Is There A ‘Hidden History’?] and I was interested to see whether this new database would make the uncovering of individual histories any more possible. Through the centuries there have always been some men and women of BAME heritage living in Britain whose lives have, for one reason or another, been recorded in some degree of detail; the great majority, however, have hitherto remained untraceable. I gave details of the Switching the Lens website in my previous post and can now tell something of another life I encountered there, represented by a single entry in the database.
Above we see the entry for the baptism of:
‘Eliza Catherine Herbert, illegitimate daughter of Henry Bennett Herbert, Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading to Africa, by a Woman of Colour passing under the name of Nance, and born 29 May 1798 at Cape Coast Castle, Africa.’
This entry in the baptismal register of the church of St John, Wapping, made in, I think, August 1805, allows us a glimpse into the history of a London family involved in the African slave trade, a story that shuttles between Wapping and Cape Coast Castle, the ‘Grand Slave Emporium’ built on what was then known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana.
Let’s start with Henry Bennett Herbert, the father of the girl who is being baptised. His position as stated, ‘Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa’, suggests a man of authority. However, the reality was rather different. In fact, Henry Bennett was only 22 years old and was already dead by the time he was appointed Secretary to the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa’. He had been born in 1777, baptized in St John’s, the Herberts’ family church, and had travelled out to Cape Coast Castle in 1795, aged 18.
Henry’s father, James Herbert (1735-1789) had been a cooper (a barrel maker) who ran his business from Brewhouse Lane, Wapping, and had been a freeman of the Committee of Merchants trading with Africa. Indeed, it is possible that the family connection may go back even further as various ‘Herberts’ are noted as serving with the Royal African Company in the early decades of the 18th century. Although, I haven’t found evidence that James Herbert had any direct investment in a slaving ship, the barrels his company made would most certainly have been the means by which goods were sent out to Africa on ships that, when they returned across the Atlantic, were carrying slaves. Brewhouse Lane, where the company remained until the 1830s, is very close to the Thames at Wapping, in an area then dominated by businesses supporting maritime trade.
After the death of James Herbert in 1789 the coopering business was inherited by Henry’s elder brother, another James (1764-1830). As the younger son, Henry had to seek his fortune elsewhere and doubtless felt himself fortunate to be able, through his family connection, to offer his services to the African trade. When approaching the Governing Committee in the Africa House he had no difficulty in finding the necessary guarantors; his brother James and another Wapping merchant put up £500, to which he himself added the same amount.
It was only after I had begun this research and was thinking about Henry Herbert’s situation that I remembered that somewhere on my bookshelves was a copy of William St Clair’s The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade, bought when it was published in 2007. Fortunately I was actually able to find it (not an occurrence that I necessarily take for granted). Re-reading it illuminated both Henry Herbert’s short life and the near-miracle, as it seems to me, of his daughter’s appearance at the Wapping baptismal font.
When he arrived at Cape Coast Castle in, I think, October 1795, Henry Herbert’s first position was as a ‘Writer’, that is, a clerk, but within a year he had been promoted to ‘Deputy Secretary to the Committee’. Promotion was swift in Cape Coast Castle; the death rate was very high among the young men who arrived full of hope. In fact, Henry Herbert was appointed secretary to the Governor and Council on 5 April 1800 but the news of this appointment arrived only after his death. He had ‘Drown’d in Bathing at Cape Coast Castle’ on 23 March 1800. Henry Herbert had weathered the ‘seasoning’, the period during which new arrivals succumbed to the multitude of diseases infesting Cape Coast Castle, only to be felled by the surf. In fact, I found that William St Clair, too, had noticed the cause of Henry’s death and in his book mentioned that ‘there are few records of officers swimming for pleasure – Mr Herbert, who defied the dangers, was duly drowned.’
Cape Coast Castle (mid-19th c)
Henry Herbert’s time at Cape Coast Castle coincided with the peak of the British slave trade and, to understand a little of what he would have seen and done, I would urge you to read The Grand Slave Emporium in which St Clair describes in quotidian detail both life there and the economy, more complicated than one might imagine, on which it was based. It is perfectly clear that Henry Herbert knew exactly what was happening in the dungeons hewn into the rock several stories below his airy officers’ quarters and was complicit in sending men, women and children out through the Door of No Return to the slavers’ ships waiting in the roads. However, the notice of his appointments and death can only furnish a very general picture of his years at Cape Coast Castle. The entry in the Wapping baptismal register adds a more personal dimension.
William St Clair describes how ‘It was part of the welcome for a young officer arriving in the Castle to be supplied with a local sexual partner, one of the ways in which the British embraced local laws and customs without attempting to change them.’ He stresses that the arrangements made with ‘wenches’, as such women were known, while not regarded as marriages were certainly not informal casual sexual encounters. ‘Wenches’ were free women, not slaves. So, ‘Nance’, the woman named as Eliza Catherine’s mother in the baptismal register entry, was very likely Henry Herbert’s ‘wench’ and may have remained so for most of his time at the Castle. I noticed that St Clair, quoting from the will of a Castle officer who died in May 1795, mentions that in his will the man left a bequest to ‘my wench Nance’ and I did just wonder if she had found a new protector in Henry Herbert after his arrival a few months later. It may be a coincidence that two ‘wenches’ were named ‘Nance’, although most whom St Clair cites have African names. The Europeanised name may suggest that ‘Nance’ was of mixed race, as, naturally, there were by now numerous offspring of officers and ‘wenches’ living in and around the Castle.’
The news of Eliza’s birth in May 1798 must have been relayed to Wapping, a letter then taking about three months to travel between Africa and London. It is to be supposed that Henry’s mother, Elizabeth Herbert (for whom Eliza was obviously named), took a very real interest in the welfare of her grand-daughter and on hearing, in mid-1800. of the death of her son planned to bring young Eliza to England. My research leads me to think that this was probably not a very common occurrence. The Monk children, of whom I wrote here, were brought from India by their father, but in the case of Eliza Herbert it would seem that her family would have had to negotiate at a distance with ‘Nance’, if she were still alive, or, if not, with the officials of Cape Coast Castle, in order to take custody of the child and had then to arrange for her to be accompanied on the long sea journey to London. We do not know when exactly she did arrive for, although her baptism took place in 1805, she shared the occasion with a cousin, Susanna, daughter of her uncle James. It may merely have been convenient to baptise the two girls at the same time.
Detail of John Rocque’s Map of London (1746) showing Princes Square
Princes Square (now renamed Swedenborg Sq) in 1921 (London Metropolitan Archives)
But we can say with certainty that by 1805 Eliza Catherine Herbert was a most welcome member of the Herbert family and remained so for the rest of her long life. When, in 1817, her grandmother wrote her will it was to Eliza (‘the natural daughter of my son Henry Bennett Herbert) that she left all her personal and household possessions, in addition to setting up a financial trust in her favour. She also appointed guardians for her, because Eliza was at that time a minor. The will makes clear that Eliza was then living with her grandmother in her house in Princes Square (later renamed Swedenborg Square and now erased). As Land Tax Records show that at the time Eliza was baptised Elizabeth Herbert was living on the north-west side of Princes Square, in one of the early-18th-century houses built for prosperous merchants, we can assume that Eliza had been brought here when she first arrived in London
Wapping, 1896, showing, to the left of the image, Brewhouse Lane and area marked ‘Cooperage’ (Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Scotland)
The Herbert coopering business continued to be successful under the management of Eliza’s Uncle James, who in the early 19th century owned three ships involved in the British South Seas Whaling trade. The firm also, of course, produced the containers necessary for transporting the fishing products. His son, James Henry Herbert, inherited the business, moved out of insalubrious Wapping to Tottenham, and had retired by 1851, dying 20 years later by no means a wealthy man. Such is the fate of family businesses; they rise and then they fall. The unmarried women of such families have little agency in creating wealth, relying on the investments made for them. However, with the money inherited from her grandmother Eliza Herbert was able to lead what would appear to have been a reasonably comfortable life.
I cannot discover where Eliza lived after her grandmother’s death in 1827. She was now 29 years old and may have been able to continue living in the Princes Square house for a while but I next found her in the 1841 census living at 10 Holland Place, in north Brixton. The street has now vanished, but was in the area between Clapham Road and Brixton Road, south of the Oval. The 1841 census does not produce much information and we learn from this only that Eliza was of ‘Independent’ means’ and had not been born in Lambeth. At first I assumed she was living in this house as a lonely boarder but further investigation into the ramifications of the Herbert family revealed to me that Arthur French, the 70-year-old head of the household, had been a Wapping cooper, whose aunt was mentioned as a friend in the will of Eliza’s grandmother and that Anna Maria Pillar, the other woman of independent means listed as living in the house, was actually one of Eliza’s many cousins. So, although it’s ridiculously sentimental, I was pleased that she was living among friends and family.
Ten years later Eliza was still in the same house, although the head of household had changed. (In fact Arthur French had died barely a month after the 1851 census.) She is now described as ‘Fundholder’ and her place of birth is given as ‘Africa’. I have, however, been unable to find any link between Eliza and the other two women living as boarders in the house. Life may not have been quite so comfortable as it had been ten years earlier; there was now only one servant rather than the three who had previously waited on the household.
By 1861 Eliza Herbert had moved a short distance and was living at St Ives Cottage, St Anne’s Road, now obliterated, but it was just south of Holland Place. Once again she is a boarder, now described as ‘Lady’ and with her birthplace as ‘Africa’. Besides the householder (a commercial traveller), his wife and daughter there was only one other boarder, a teenage ‘shipbroker’, and one servant. Ten years later she had moved again, further west to 2 Grosvenor Place, a boarding house in a terrace on Camberwell Road (now demolished, but it was opposite Addington Square) Here she gave the 1871 census enumerator her exact place of birth, ‘Cape Coast Castle’.
Thus it would seem that for about 40 years (between the 1840s until the late-1870s) Eliza Herbert lived alone, as a boarder, occupying a room or two in the homes of strangers. This, doubtless, was the lot of hundreds of thousands of unmarried women, but I don’t think the actuality was as forlorn as it might appear because my researches show that during this time Eliza Herbert was always living close to ‘family’. For it is likely that the reason she remained in the Brixton area for so much of her life was because she was still very much in touch with the descendants of the French family, friends of her grandmother.
You will remember that in 1841 Eliza Herbert was living in the Brixton home of the former Wapping cooper, Arthur French. Also in the household was Arthur’s daughter, Grace, who by 1861 she was married to a successful building contractor, Benjamin Gammon, and living in Loughborough Park Road, in the northern part of Brixton. Interestingly, their house was named ‘Herbert Lodge’. Grace’s son, born c 1852, had been given ‘Herbert’ as a first name, suggesting to me there was a strong connection between Grace and Eliza.
The bond was made manifest by 1881 when the census finds Eliza Herbert, now 82 years old, living in the home of a young couple, Johanna and Robert Pearce, at 8 Church Road, Brixton. For Johanna Pearce was the daughter of Grace Gammon (nee French) and, with ‘Elizabeth’ as her second name, was Eliza Herbert’s god-daughter. Church Road is now St Matthews Road, running between Effra Road and Brixton Hill. No 8 was a charming early-19th century villa, long since demolished.
Josephine Avenue, Brixton, photographed c 40 years after Eliza’s death. It was noted on the Booth’s Poverty Map (c. 1898) as a ‘middle-class, well-to-do’ street
By 1886, when Eliza Herbert wrote her will, she had moved with Johanna and her husband to a new house, close by, in Josephine Avenue. It was here that, on 21 March 1890, she died. Her estate amounted to over £800 (roughly £100,000+ in 2020) – suggesting that the funds she had inherited had served her quite well during her extremely long life. She left her personal effects to be divided between Johanna Pearce and Herbert Gammon. Incidentally, I can’t help wondering what happened to all the household and personal possessions she inherited from her grandmother. Did she carry any Princes Square furniture and china with her from house to house or had everything been long since scattered?
And what, you might ask, is the point of all this? Well, I suppose it shows that a child, born in a far off country, out of wedlock, to an African mother, far from being repudiated by her British family, was welcomed and cherished. Knowledge of her unorthodox origin, which transgressed early 19th-century ideas of both morality and race, does not appear to have affected her family relationships. Her grandmother, referring to her as ‘the natural daughter of my son…’, was quite open about her status. Indeed, Elizabeth Herbert allocated far more care in her will to Eliza’s wellbeing than to those of her other grandchildren, the assumption being that they would be provided for by their fathers. And, as we have seen, care for Eliza continued down through the generations of the French/Gammon family.
And what of Eliza’s appearance? Was her genetic inheritance obvious? We don’t know. She lives now only in official documents and that is not the kind of thing of which they speak. Nor do we know anything about Eliza’s attitude to her origins, other than she was quite happy to admit to having been born not only in Africa, but specifically in Cape Coast Castle. I am assuming that she left the Castle when too young to retain any memories, but she could not have escaped thinking about her mother. Was ‘Nance’ a name that Eliza knew? Was she talked of when, as a child, Eliza lived with her grandmother in the house in Princes Square? Did Eliza subsequently take an interest in Africa, read books about it, or, perhaps, support missionary work?
As to her personality, we can only assume that Eliza was amiable, capable of maintaining family friendships throughout her long life. In her will she made bequests not only to Johanna Pearce and to Herbert Gammon, but to a number of cousins. Alas, it is the fate of single women that their memory disappears so entirely. If she had married and had children Eliza’s story might have been handed down, even surviving into the 21st century but, as it is, only an outline of her life can be resurrected, mapping a journey that brought her from Cape Coast Castle to Brixton, via Wapping.
And, of course, Brixton in the late 19th century being very different demographically, it is entirely a coincidence that this child of Africa, born above slave dungeons, should have spent her last years living a stone’s throw away from Windrush Square, now an implicit memorial to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.
Apart from re-reading St Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium, research for this article has, of necessity, been drawn from online sources. I have, in particular, mined a plethora of records held by ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk. While doing so I realised that numerous family researchers have fatally muddled their Herbert family trees. The secret, I find, is to read all available wills.