Black History at the Palace

Eleven years prior to the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act – the bicentenary of which is commemorated this month – a noteworthy event took place at the Palace.  On October 1st, 1796, the parish clerk wrote in the Bishopthorpe Parish Register:

Edward Anson, an adult negroe[sic], baptised in the Archbishop’s Chapel.

Black people were not always identified in the records so this entry in the parish register is unusual in itself.  So who was Edward Anson?  By 1796, he was not likely to have been a slave here, in Britain.  The fight to abolish the slave trade was quickly gaining ground and the work of campaigners such as William Wilberforce M. P. and Granville Sharp (grandson of former Archbishop of York, John Sharp [1691 – 1714]), received much support.

Edward Anson’s name is hardly of African origin, which indicates that he or his forebears were likely to have once been slaves, probably in the West Indies where it was not unusual for them to be renamed by their masters.  Estate owners from the West Indies frequently brought their household slaves to Britain to work as servants, so it could be that this is what happened to Anson.

If that was the case, why was he in Bishopthorpe?  Did he work for Archbishop William Markham [1777-1807], or one of his visitors, or a member of his family?  It is interesting to note that, at that time, two of the Archbishop’s children had connections with the West Indies and possibly had the opportunity to bring black people to the Palace.

First, the Archbishop’s son, John Markham, a naval officer, was sent out to the West Indies in May 1795 in the Hannibal.  The following year – the year of the baptism – he was invalided and returned home to England.

Second, in March 1797, Elizabeth, the Archbishop’s daughter and her husband, William Barnett of Aberford, were at the Palace where their eldest son was baptised (at St. Andrew’s Church on this occasion).  From this entry in the parish register, we learn that Elizabeth’s father-in-law, the Honourable William Barnett, was “of the Island of Jamaica”.  Was either party responsible for bringing Edward Anson to the christening in the Chapel?

The above suggestions are, admittedly, a matter of conjecture, but are plausible.  The baptism raises a number of  intriguing questions, but provides no easy answers!  Let us hope that Edward Anson spent a contented life, whatever his circumstances.  One thing that is certain: the Act of 1807 ensured it was illegal for British ships to trade in slaves and eventually led, in July 1838, to the freedom of enslaved people in the British Caribbean.

For more information on Black History, visit the exhibition site at The National Archives

Linda Haywood


The Parish Registers of Bishopthorpe

Dictionary of National Biography: John Markham and Granville Sharp

James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery ( London, 1992)

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