Report of Meeting Thursday 2l May 2015

Susan Dench: 'The Black Settlers of Cumbria'

 by Phil Rigby

The O.T.L.H.S. met on Thursday, May 21st, at Orton, to hear a most interesting account from Susan Dench, of Carlisle, of very early black settlers in our county. In practice, Mrs Dench confined her account to those who had settled in Cumberland, because that was where she had started, and so far she has not had opportunity to widen her research.

Nonetheless, the assembled group was fascinated by her account of those black folk who did settle, mostly in the west and north of the county, and mostly from the late eighteenth century onwards. The majority settled in the Whitehaven area, as at that period it was one of England's major ports, though it did not have very much link with the three cornered slave trade, between West Africa, the West Indies or the southern U.S.A., and Britain, which gave rise to most of this settlement.

Much of Mrs. Dench's information has been gleaned from baptismal records, as slaves were regarded as chattels, like farm animals, and so not baptised till they came to Britain. Most of them came as domestic servants to prominent families with a link to the slave trade, or with the military. In some cases they came as mariners, having been pressed into service crossing the Atlantic westwards, proving competent, and being kept in employment as the ship returned to Britain.

Two men in particular were described by Mrs Dench. One, John Anthony, came to Carlisle in the 1790's with a military family and stayed here for the rest of his life. The other, John Kent, was remarkable in that he became the very first black police officer anywhere in Britain, employed by the Carlisle City Constabulary as early as the 1830's, subsequently being employed as a railway signalman on the main line approaches to Carlisle Citadel station at Crown Street box, and then as an attendant in the first class waiting room. Both these men, and many of those in the west of the county, married white women and had children, though with the inevitable dilution of the particular ethnic characteristics over the generations, this is no longer obvious in their present-day descendants.

Mrs Dench supported her most interesting talk with a display of documents and other material, and all agreed that it was a most worthwhile evening.