Inspirational black histories and the National Trust

Mary Prince

Sean Douglas is the National Trust’s Senior Podcast Producer. In this role he has access to hundreds of years of records, artefacts and tangible built heritage which he recognises is a storyteller's dream come true. He reflects on how the stories offer a deeper understanding of the way British history connects with everyday lives.

As a Brit with Afro-Caribbean heritage working for the National Trust, it’s often the associated stories of servitude and slavery that connect me with my personal historic lineage. However, when I’m digging in the National Trust archives, from time to time I do come across stories that give a different perspective on the black historic narrative. So, this year for Black History Month, I’d like to share some of the most inspirational black histories associated with the places we care for. 

Mary Prince (1788–1833), Runnymede, Surrey

Mary Prince, author. Illustration by Benjamin Wachenje
Illustration of Mary Prince, author
Mary Prince, author. Illustration by Benjamin Wachenje

In 2015, the Trust commissioned artist Hew Locke to produce an artwork celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, Surrey. The resulting piece, The Jurors, features 12 bronze chairs, each etched with a scene representing key moments in the struggle for freedom, law and equal rights.

The Jurors art installation at Runnymede, Surrey
The Jurors at Runnymede, Surrey
The Jurors art installation at Runnymede, Surrey

The fifth chair in the collection pays homage to two inspirational black female writers, Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) and Mary Prince (1788–1833). Phillis was the first enslaved African to be published in America, with her 1773 book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. 

Chair 5 of The Jurors, commemorating Mary Prince
Close-up image of chair 5, commemorating Mary Prince
Chair 5 of The Jurors, commemorating Mary Prince

Mary Prince was the first black woman to publish an account of her experience of slavery in the British colonies. Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary endured years of brutal treatment before travelling to London in the 1820s and escaping her former owners. Once in the UK, she joined forces with abolitionists Thomas Pringle and Susanna Strickland, both of whom wanted to abolish slavery. Together, they used Mary’s first-hand accounts to write and publish her book, The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave. 

In addition to the literary achievements of Phillis and Mary, what I find equally inspirational is the role their writing played within the abolition movements of the UK and USA. The story of abolition often focuses on the role of European men, but a lesser-told story is the role women played in the movement.

Mary’s book was used in the female abolitionist movement to bring the realities of slavery from the Salt Plains of the Caribbean into the homes of London women. However, the success of the book also made Mary a target for members of the anti-abolitionist movement, who charged her with libel for some of the accounts in her book.

Almost 200 years later, in her birthplace of Bermuda, Mary’s story is still an inspiration to thousands of islanders. Alana Anderson, President of the Bermuda National Trust, says: ‘It is the stories of our ancestors, such as Mary Prince, that show us that one voice is powerful. One voice can transcend time and one voice can make a difference.’

In 2012, Mary Prince was declared a Bermudan National Hero and in 2020, Bermudans began celebrating an annual Mary Prince Day in late July.

A Young Coachman (1770–1799), Erddig, Wrexham

A Young Coachman by an unknown artist, British (English) School, 1770-1799 at Erddig, Wrexham
A Young Coachman portrait
A Young Coachman by an unknown artist, British (English) School, 1770-1799 at Erddig, Wrexham

As someone with little knowledge of art history, when I first saw the image of A Young Coachman, I was relatively uninspired. It wasn’t until I spoke to Alice Rylance-Watson, the Trust’s Assistant National Curator, that I began to understand its significance. There are many images of black sitters in the Trust’s portrait collection, so for me the existence of this painting wasn’t too much of a surprise. It was when I took the time to contrast this image and the artistic treatment of this individual with that of more typical depictions of black sitters in the Trust's collections that my views on A Young Coachman started to change.

Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, Lady Elizabeth Noel and an Attendant by Sir Peter Lely, 1660-1665, at Petworth, West Sussex
Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, Lady Elizabeth Noel and an Attendant by Sir Peter Lely, 1660-1665, at Petworth, West Sussex
Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, Lady Elizabeth Noel and an Attendant by Sir Peter Lely, 1660-1665, at Petworth, West Sussex

Although the above oil painting, Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley, Lady Elizabeth Noel and an Attendant, was painted in around 1660, roughly 100 years before A Young Coachman, the image does show a more typical treatment of a black sitter in portraiture. Examples of this can be seen in paintings throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this image, Lady Elizabeth is prominently positioned in the frame, bathed in light with her gaze directed towards the viewer, giving her a sense of importance. In contrast, her attendant almost blends into the background. He has no connection with the viewer. His eyes are transfixed on the task at hand. The contrast in position and treatment of the two sitters reinforces the disparity in their wealth and status.

With A Young Coachman, we see a rare instance of a black sitter being the sole subject of a portrait. Unlike Lady Elizabeth’s attendant, the coachman has been given a sense of prominence. He stands proudly defiant, holding the gaze of the viewer. His contemporary uniform gives him a professional air, often images of this era show black sitters dressed in exotic clothing and jewellery.

The sense of the coachman being a man of influence at Erddig, is further reinforced when you learn of the portrait’s origin story. A Young Coachman was commissioned by Phillip Yorke, Erddig’s owner in the late 18th century, but records suggest that the coachman may have been a member of staff at Erddig years before this. The coachman may have in fact worked for Phillip’s great uncle, and if this is the case it’s unlikely that Phillip and the coachman would have met. So what was it about the coachman that inspired Phillip to commission this painting all those years later? 

What’s exciting for me about this image is what we don’t know. What was it about him that meant his likeness could be described for the portrait after so many years? Did he have an exceptional musical talent or personality? Or was he simply an exceptional coachman? For me, it’s the possibilities of who he might have been that makes this image so inspiring.

As the National Trust continues research into the background of this image, technology has created even more intrigue around our mystery coachman. 'Infrared scans revealed that the portrait of the coachman was actually painted over an existing portrait of a sitter called John Hanby,' says Alice Rylance-Watson, Assistant National Curator. 'The canvas was deliberately reused for the coachman's image. We will probably never know why Philip Yorke decided to do this, but he might have wanted to highlight the coachman's story at a time when the abolitionist movement was growing momentum. Yorke wrote a verse to accompany the portrait, and in it he suggests that the coachman's life might have been different had he not pre-dated William Wilberforce, a famous advocate for the abolition of the slave trade.’

George Saunders (1935–2015), Birmingham Back to Backs, Birmingham

Tailor and shop owner George Saunders, Birmingham Back to Backs
George Saunders
Tailor and shop owner George Saunders, Birmingham Back to Backs

57 Hurst Street is one of the buildings that make up Birmingham’s Back to Backs, a community of houses, looked after by the National Trust. They tell stories of the working classes from the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, including immigration and entrepreneurism in this 'city of a thousand trades'.

In 1974, George Saunders took over number 57 to start the expansion of his tailoring business. Just like his father and grandfather, George trained as a tailor on the Caribbean Island of St Kitts, but after hearing of the opportunities for tailors in the UK, George made his way to the Midlands town of Birmingham. When George arrived in the UK, the reception he received was less welcoming than he had hoped. Even after studying for the British equivalent of his tailoring qualification, George still struggled to find work.

George recalled: ‘There was an advertisement for a tailor in the city of Birmingham and I decided to write an application for the job. And a letter came back to me saying that I was “… just the man that they're looking for. Please come for an interview." I got myself nicely dressed up with a tie and everything like that, and I went in to see the man. The man looked at me and said to me, "The vacancy is gone." I was dumbstruck.’

Rather than allowing this treatment to deflate his spirit, George was motivated to set up his own tailor's shop in a suburb of Birmingham in 1968. In 1974, he moved the operation to the city centre location of Hurst Street. The business quickly expanded from one shop unit to three, occupying all three floors of the building as well as a small factory a short distance away.

The shop front of George Saunders, tailor on Hurst Street, part of Court 15, Birmingham Back to Backs
The shop front of George Saunders, the tailors, on Hurst Street, part of Court 15, Birmingham Back to Backs
The shop front of George Saunders, tailor on Hurst Street, part of Court 15, Birmingham Back to Backs

During the 70s and 80s, George’s alterations and designs kept the city’s Rockers, Mods and New Romantics looking sharp, and the stars of stage and screen looking stylish. His business’s reputation spread, with orders coming in from as far afield as Libya and from high profile clients like the Ministry of Defence, who George supplied with riding breeches and those iconic red jackets worn by the Queen’s Guard.

When George set up on Hurst Street in 1974, he was one of a cluster of tailors in the area, but when he retired in 2001, ‘George Saunders Tailoring’ was the last tailor standing. Clifford Saunders, George’s son (who also continues the family tradition as a tailor), reflects on what he feels made his father such a successful businessman and role model to him and many in the community. ‘He was a good tailor, and he knew how to make his clothes, and he worked hard, and people could see that in him and they respected him for it. And that's why he got where he is today, that's why he lasted so long.'

Matthew Henson (1866–1955), Maryland, USA

Matthew Henson, pioneering polar explorer, 1866-1955
Matthew Henson, pioneering polar explorer
Matthew Henson, pioneering polar explorer, 1866-1955

Polar explorer Matthew Henson is a bit of a curveball on my list of inspirational black histories associated with the National Trust, as he doesn’t have any direct links to the places or collections we look after. However, he is the inspiration for the latest National Trust podcast episode I’ve produced.

As a member of the first successful expedition to the North Pole in 1909, Henson’s story in some way illustrates the transformative nature of the outdoors. Born into a Maryland family of sharecroppers, Henson’s options for life in America were limited. But his thirst for adventure gave him the opportunity to travel the world, pick up multiple languages and become an exceptional sailor and navigator.

Although he wasn’t credited initially for his contribution to the 1909 expedition, almost 30 years later he was made an honorary member of the New York’s The Explorers Club. More recently he’s had an action figure, postage stamp and US naval pathfinder launched in his name.

Social reformer and joint founder of the National Trust Octavia Hill’s founding principle was the idea that all parts of society should have access to wild and green spaces. And while the Trust and other conservation organisations continue to provide free access to open spaces decades after Henson’s heroic expedition, many from black and minority ethnic communities still feel and experience barriers when accessing the great outdoors. 

Walkers on Mam Tor, Derbyshire
Walkers on Mam Tor, Derbyshire
Walkers on Mam Tor, Derbyshire

The 2020–21 lockdowns have been a catalyst for so many of us to renew our connection with nature. As a result, many people from black and Asian communities have been taking to the trails for the first time. In my latest podcast I explore the barriers and benefits experienced by new converts to the joys of outdoor recreation. 

Before working for the National Trust, my image of the charity was of stately homes, fine art and cream teas – a million miles from anything I thought had to do with black history. In my four years here, I’ve been encouraged by some of the black history narratives that the Trust has highlighted across a number of our places. My hope is that as I continue to tap into the Trust’s knowledge, research and collections, I’ll come across many more positive and inspiring black historical stories.

This article is written by Sean Douglas, the National Trust's Senior Podcast Producer.

Podcast producer Sean and his sister beside the trig point at the top of Pen y Fan

Podcast episode 101: Black hiking

As a black Brit from London, going out for a hike used to feel like an alien concept to podcast producer Sean. However, after four years working at the Trust, he’s now developed a love for all things wilderness. His sister, like many others, has never been for a hike in her life. Can Sean convince her to embrace the outdoors, or will she be on the first train back to London?