Life as a slave in Preston and the North West in the 18th and 19th centuries

Posted on - 17th October, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
Painting featuring a slave Pic: The Collection at Althorp
Painting featuring a slave Pic: The Collection at Althorp

What was life like as a slave in Preston and Lancashire? Little survives of individual records for Black people in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. However a few parish records exist. By the 18th century approximately 15,000 non-white people lived in England, most acting as domestic servants. Black servants were regarded as fashionable and often featured in portraits.


Slavery challenged in England

In 1772 the status of slavery in Britain was challenged in court. Slaves in England were often given local names after baptism.

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‘Somerset’, an African slave, brought a court case against his master, who wanted him to return to the West Indies. He probably had help from the abolitionists.

Even in England slaves were sold like a commodity. Below a boy is offered by a bookseller in Bristol.

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Somerset won the case and this changed the status of slaves in Britain.


Baptism was thought to confer freedom. Findmypast states:

“It was widely believed that a Christian baptism guaranteed full freedom and although this was not the case, Christianity certainly provided them with a new kind of acceptance in British society.”

Treatment of slaves

As a slave it was impossible to have a family, own property or support children. After the court case all this changed.

Ex slaves who escaped the mould

Not all ex slaves had poor lives. Some became renowned musicians, business people and shop owners.

Joseph Emidy was captured as a slave by the Portuguese in West Africa in the 1790s. Somehow he learned the violin and was good enough to play for the Lisbon opera. Disgracefully he was press ganged on to a British Navy ship in 1795. Here he worked as the ship’s fiddler. Eventually he was released in Truro, Cornwall, where he became a violin teacher. He married a white tradesman’s daughter and they had a family. By the time of his death he was a renowned composer and well respected musician.

Painting of Joseph Emidy playing for the aristocracy
Joseph Emidy plays for the aristocracy

The life of a domestic servant

The less talented worked as domestic servants. This was a hard job even for the mostly white staff of large houses. In the 18th and 19th century domestic service was very close to slavery. You were not allowed to fraternise with the opposite sex or even see your family. Wages were poor and you were under constant scrutiny.

Not even your name was your own. Often you were to be known as Mary even if your real name was Celeste.

Servants in Preston

If you were lucky you would be working for a middle class family in a large town house. Winckley Square was an area of professional tradespeople, such as lawyers. Consequently, they could afford to employ a few servants.

Town house on Winckley Square Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
Town house on Winckley Square Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker

The lowest ranking servant was the scullery maid, she would get up at 5am to light the coal fires and the kitchen range, and she scrubbed the floors, sinks, pots and dishes. A scullery was a room reserved for washing dishes and doing the laundry.

Oil painting of a scullery maid by Jean Simeon Chardin
Oil painting of a scullery maid by Jean Simeon Chardin

By the Second World War, most of the middle classes could no longer afford servants. However, a few of the larger houses still have servants, to this day.

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