Lockdown Research: Switching The Lens – And Discovering William Antonio, A Black Butler

Original page containing the baptismal entry for William Antonio, 17 March 1833

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.

This image at the head of this post is, in fact, the first record of William Antonio’s baptismal entry in the register of St Peter’s Church, Regent Square, in the northern section of Bloomsbury, London. For whatever reason, the whole page was amended and in the process the entry for William Antonio was slightly altered.

Amended page containing the baptismal entry for William Antonio, 17 March 1833

As you’ll notice, the original entry described William Antonio as ‘a slave’. That epithet was removed when the entry was finalised, although I doubt that was the reason for the page being rewritten.

At the time of his baptism William, who was born of unknown parents in Africa, though where we do not know, was reckoned to be about 27 years old, indicating a birth c. 1806. His age and, of course, that date varied a little in the censuses taken over subsequent years and when he died in 1868 his birth date was estimated as 1808.

As you will see, at the time of his baptism William Antonio was living as a servant in a house in Wellington Square, now demolished but then very close to the church in Regent Square. Although we don’t know for which family he was then working, in 1841 he can be found on the census as the only live-in manservant in the home of James Fordati in Upper Bedford Place, Bloomsbury. In the years between his baptism and the 1841 census he had married ,the wedding having taken place in 1834 at St Giles in the Fields. The bride was a widow, Mary McDonald, and the marriage register reveals that neither party could write. However, by the time of the next census in 1851 William Antonio is now a widower, although I cannot find a record of the death of his wife.

It would seem that for at least some of his marriage William Antonio lived in the home of his master and, presumably, his wife lived elsewhere as she is not recorded in the 1841 census for the Fordati household, However, the 1841 census gives no indication of marital status and it could, of course, be that she was already dead. James Fordati was a general merchant living, with his young family, in a Bloomsbury town house, close to Russell Square.

By 1851 William Antonio had moved households. On census night, however, he was not in post but was a visitor in the home of Robert Whurl, a tailor, at 2 Colbridge Place, which appears to have been a section of Westbourne Park Road, Paddington. William Antonio is described as a widower, aged 34, born in Africa, and by occupation a butler. My supposition is that he may at this time been butler in the household of Anselmo de Arroyave, a merchant living at ‘7 Palace Gardens, Paddington’, now known as 7 Kensington Palace Gardens. For, although on census night a manservant and a page were present in that house, no butler is recorded. It was most definitely a household that would require the services of a butler and my deduction is that this merely happened to be William’s night off.

I am making the suggestion that William Antonio was by 1851 a member of de Arroyave’s household based on a reading of his will, dated 21 September 1868, four days before his death. By this document William Antonio left a number of items he prized to Anselmo de Arroyave, his ‘old master’, and other members of the family. This, I feel, indicates a very close association with this particular family over a considerable period of time.

So, to recap, we know that in 1841 William Antonio was a manservant in a merchant’s household in Upper Bedford Place and that by 1851 his position had been elevated to ‘butler’, probably to the de Arroyave family. I know that in 1843 the de Arroyaves were living in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, and my guess is that it was around this time that William Antonio changed masters. I feel it would have been unlikely that he would otherwise have looked for a new situation outside the area of London with which he had, for at least ten years, been familiar.

6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens

The de Arroyaves moved to 7 Palace Gardens in 1847, as the first occupiers of the grand, stuccoed house that is now part of the Russian Embassy. And then in 1852/4 de Arroyave built 9 Palace Garden, a similarly imposing pile, into which the family moved. A butler would have played a very important part in running a house such as this; William Antonio was clearly a man o’parts. It might have been fashionable for an owner of a grand London house to employ a black page or footman, considering them a decorative asset, but I’m sure a butler would only have been appointed on his merits.

But it is clear that, however well-positioned he was as a butler in a wealthy household, William Antonio had a dream of becoming independent. For by 1861 he had left a life ‘in service’ and set himself up. the census tells us, as a ‘bath chairman’. He had moved only a very short walk away from Palace Gardens and was now living at 10 Royal Hill, the name then of the southernmost stretch of Queensway, leading down to Bayswater Road. William Antonio was now a lodger in the home of Charles Pendal (sometimes spelled Pendall), a trunk maker, and his wife, Matilda. He had, presumably, saved sufficient money to purchase at least one bath chair, offering his services to those sufficiently incapacitated as to require some vehicular assistance.

A 19th-century bath chair

William Antonio had picked a good position from which to carry out his new business – situated as he was just across the road from Kensington Gardens. One can imagine that a bath chairman would be much in demand with invalids (so plentiful in the mid-19th century) wishing to take a breath of fresh Kensington air. In fact, his business did prosper, enabling him to purchase a second bath chair and, presumably, employ another man as a chair pusher.

Until a few days before his death we know no more of William Antonio, other than at some point after 1861 he moved to 85 Moscow Road, a few minutes walk away from Kensington Gardens. The house was multi-tenanted and it is doubtful that he occupied more than one room. He did, however, value his few possessions and took great care, on his deathbed, to apportion them to those he esteemed.

The first few lines of his will deal with items he is leaving to members of the de Arroyave family. Just to give a little background: Anselmo de Arroyave (1778-1869) was a merchant, born in Spain and naturalised in Britain in 1833. By his second marriage (his first wife had died young) he had four daughters who survived infancy. One incident in his long life is particularly apposite in connection to William Antonio’s circumstances for in 1843 de Arroyave was one of several character witnesses for the defendant in the trial at the Old Bailey of another Spanish-born British merchant, Pedro de Zulueta, who was charged with slave-trading. Zulueta was, in the event, acquitted, but there was a general feeling that this was only because of the difficulty of proving his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And the doubt seems to have most certainly been there in the minds of anti-slavery campaigners, such as Thomas Clarkson, who cross-examined de Arroyave as to the extent and nature of his support for Zulueta.

But, whatever the rights or wrongs of that trial, there is no doubt that de Arroyave was held in considerable regard by his one-time butler, himself a former slave. For in his will William Antonio left de Arroyave ‘my watch and appendages’ and to Mrs de Arroyave ‘one of my Bath Chairs’. To the former Inez de Arroyave, now Mrs Travers, the youngest daughter of the family, he left ‘one gold pin’, to Major Puget, the husband of another daughter, Florence, he left ‘one gold pin and two scarves‘, and to another daughter, Georgiana, he left a ‘silk umbrella’. I do hope these bequests were received in the spirit in which they were given. William Antonio’s estate was valued at under £100; when Anselmo de Arroyave died the following year he left the equivalent of £2 million.

William Antonio itemised many other of his possessions, for instance leaving his ‘pictures, window blind and wash stand’ to ‘Mr Casey’, who I think must be Henry Casey, gas fitter, who in 1871 was living at 85 Moscow Road. The executor of the will was William Jackson, a watchmaker, who lived at 2 Queens Road (that is, Queensway), and to him was left £10 and a ‘frock coat and plaid scarf‘, and to his daughter, ‘the cane armchair’. Other names are mentioned, but they are either too common or else the legal hand has rendered them too illegible for me to be able to identify them with any certainty. After all the bequests, William Antonio asked one of the women mentioned ‘to dispose of [the residue] in charitable purposes’. By the tone of the will it would appear that William Antonio took a quiet satisfaction in remembering his friends and patrons. The will, signed only with his mark, as he obviously never did learn to write, is a testament to the life of a survivor, a man who emerged out of slavery and then out of ‘service’ to lead an independent life.

Copyright All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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  1. #1 by Hazel Conway on January 7, 2021 - 12:41 pm

    Such an interesting story. Thank you.

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