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Discovering the Unexpected

Posted in Behind the Scenes on 09 Oct 2023

Warning: Please be advised that this blog contains discussion of historical racism and sensitive terminology from historical documents which readers may find offensive.

This blog was written by Graham Moore who was involved in a scoping project to uncover the lives and experiences of ethnically diverse individuals visible within the written archives at the Royal Berkshire Archives. The blog provides an indication of what was discovered and the difficulties in finding them. 

Please note that as footnotes cannot be displayed on this website in the same way as a Word document, they have been added in square brackets [ ] within the text. A bibliography has also been provided at the end.

Repeat warning: this blog contains discussion of historical racism and sensitive terminology from historical documents which readers may find offensive.

Histories of diversity in Britain have not, traditionally, focused on rural counties like Berkshire. Major port towns and economic centres like London, Liverpool, and Bristol tend to draw the spotlight [D. Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016), p. 86.]. Meanwhile, conventional wisdom often suggests that outside of these key cultural ‘melting pots’, historical Britain was populated near-uniformly by individuals of white, north European descent. However, recent research undertaken at the Royal Berkshire Archives shows that this was not, in fact, the case. Britain’s history of diversity is more widespread than one might expect, reaching even into the rural parishes of Berkshire – and sometimes, people with roots from across the globe might just show up in the most unexpected of places...

This is not to say that such an endeavour does not present a challenge to researchers. Diversity can often be rendered imperceptible by the format of traditional historical records themselves [I. Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate, 2008], p. 7.). Parish records, which tend to provide the largest amount of basic biographical information (baptisms, marriages, burials) for broader subsets of local populations, do not by design record elements of diversity such as ethnicity or differing cultural backgrounds. However, they are still the most exhaustive and ‘inclusive’ option available to the historian, and searching them is not necessarily fruitless [Habib, Black Lives, pp. 2, 17.]. Sometimes, incumbent record-keepers took their own initiative and began recording what Imtiaz Habib has termed ‘signifying’ information – additional notes in the parish record that can tell us more about a historic individual’s race, ethnicity, or cultural background [Habib, Black Lives, pp. 2, 12.].

These ‘signifiers’, despite their often problematic nature, offer an exciting opportunity for researchers to uncover stories of diversity within local English histories. Work undertaken by volunteers during parish record transcription projects at RBA has uncovered at least 50 entries in parish baptism and burial records featuring signifiers, found across a nearly three-hundred-year period from 1608 to 1883. My own recent analysis of this database, and accompanying records, suggests a high probability that there are even more diverse individuals to be found throughout Berkshire’s history.

Amongst these signifiers, a wide variety of Berkshire residents appears. Signifiers describing Black people and people of African descent are most common. At least 42 variations on ‘black’, ‘negro’, ‘African’ and ‘West Indian’ appear in the parish records, describing 39 different people [Several of these entries contain more than one signifier – for example Joseph Phillip Bacchus, baptised in Shinfield parish in 1799, is described as ‘a West Indian a Black Boy’: ref. D/P110/1/2.]. North Africans or Levantine people appear earlier in the records, described according to seventeenth-century terminology as ‘blackamoors’. ‘East Indian’, Chinese, and Aboriginal individuals are also signified, although with less frequency.

It is worth noting that these signifiers act as ‘received’ information. Realistically, they tell us more about how record-keepers viewed the described individuals than how those individuals have described themselves. For example, the Shinfield parish record-keeper who described Joseph Phillip Bacchus as ‘a West Indian a Black Boy’ upon the boy’s 1799 baptism is likely to have made such categorisations according to his own worldview and discretion [ref. D/P110/1/2.]. Joseph’s Afro-Caribbean background, it seems, was thought to be worth recording. Although signifiers give us an opportunity to locate persons of ethnic minority within the historical record, they do not always afford those people the chance to speak forth on their own terms.

Graph showing signifier usage frequency over time

Fig. 1: Signifier usage frequency over 25-year periods.

They do, however, permit us to make interesting research conclusions when compiled into useable datasets. For example, the chart above (Fig. 1) shows signifier usage frequency over time, divided into 25-year periods. The line shows total signifiers per period; the colour-coded bars below show the frequency of each different signifier. The graph clearly shows a dramatic increase in signifier frequency between 1725 and 1825, rising to a peak from 1750. This is not wholly surprising, as it noticeably correlates with increases in English international trade, and colonial exploits [Habib, Black Lives, p. 193.]. However, in order to better explain this historical phenomenon – and to understand the presence and experiences of this rising population of ethnic minorities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Berkshire – it is worth looking at this data from a different angle. 

Map of Berkshire showing Geographical distribution of signified individuals, 1750-1825

Fig. 2: Geographical distribution of signified individuals, 1750-1825. Mapped in QGIS using OS packages and BASA/BRO data, by G. Moore (2022).

The above map (Fig. 2) shows the geographical location of signified individuals, sorted by parish, in the peak period between 1750 and 1825. Each purple datapoint is proportionally sized to the number of signified persons recorded in that parish during the time period. Digital mapping techniques like this are useful in enabling us to better visualise conclusions from datasets which have clear geographical components. In this case, we can begin to draw two engaging conclusions from Fig. 2. 

Firstly, that there was a clear presence of ethnic minority individuals in Berkshire along key trade routes. This route predictably follows the Thames between New Windsor and Reading. At Reading it takes an interesting turn. Instead of following the riverway up towards Oxford, as one might expect, it seems that the historical presence instead extended along the route provided by the old Bath Road (now the A4), towards Thatcham. This concurs with the idea that minority presences were often a ‘function of geography’, and closely related to international trade routes [Habib, Black Lives, p. 196.]. However, in Berkshire’s case we are beginning to see an interesting extension of that ‘function’ away from the traditional major ports and into the inland counties and their sometime agricultural communities. For William Dove, a ‘negro traveller’ buried in 1739, Aldermaston may have felt a world away from London and Britain’s other major mercantile centres [ref. D/P3/1/2]. And yet, as this map begins to suggest, even such rural parishes were another key part of England’s internal network of movement.

But this trade route only accounts for one of two geographical ‘strands’ visible in the mapped data. Emanating westwards from Old Windsor we see another geographic trend, with several notable groups of signifiers in parishes like Winkfield, Warfield, and Easthampstead. Not being connected by any major travel route, these require a different explanation. Unfortunately, the answer lies more clearly within a history of exploitation. Fashionable country estates, like those increasingly found in the parishes around Windsor and typically belonging either to aristocratic families or wealthy merchants from the London metropole, were often host to individuals of ethnic minority – whether they were there willingly or not.

Take, for example, the parish of Winkfield. With 5 signified individuals, Winkfield holds the highest number for the 1750-1825 period. Of these five, three are noted as ‘servants’ to resident individuals: George James and Mary Charlotte, ‘natives of East India and servants to Mr Drake’, and Thomas, ‘black servant to Hugh Watts esq’ [ref. D/P151/1/4.]. For wealthy estate-owners in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, Black slaves and servants – or indeed, any non-white individual living and working in servitude – were much sought after as a status symbol [Olusoga, Black and British, p. 87.]. The use of such labour as a status symbol set by the traditionally privileged classes, which the more up-and-coming cohorts of society sought to emulate, explains this second ‘strand’ of historical presence [Habib, Black Lives, pp. 194-195].

This blog post offers but a small glimpse into the research avenues available using records stored at the Royal Berkshire Archives. Berkshire, it becomes increasingly apparent, has long been a county with its own history of diversity. Of course, this is not necessarily a history of progressivism; in many cases these life stories are, necessarily, tied up in a larger history of trade and empire, slavery and colonialism. Suffice to say that each of the 48 individuals uncovered by our research thus far have their own unique story and historical experience, waiting to be uncovered. We must not ignore these aspects of Berkshire’s history – even, and particularly, where they may cause us to challenge and rethink our ideas and conventions. To quote Jacob Selwood, ‘the story of difference is also the story of Englishness’ [J. Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2010), p. 17.]. Only by understanding the means by which we have included, and excluded, others over the course of history can we fathom the nature of our present communities.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Olusoga, David, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016).

Habib, Imtiaz, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate, 2008).

Selwood, Jacob, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2010).