Telling stories in eighteenth-century slander cases

A few themes kept coming up at the Litigating Women conference which I’ve just returned from. One of the discussions which I found most interesting was about narrativity and agency: have historians overstated the extent to which storytelling gave women agency? can the stories they told in court can really be thought of as theirs? does the fact that tropes about female weakness and dependence could be used to women’s advantage counteract the damage which these tropes did? One of the issues with ‘agency’ in this context is, I think, that it often seems to imply (temporary) escape from structural constraints. But most of the ways in which women exercised power in early modern society reinforced those constraints. When women told stories in court, they were often publicising the shame of other women. In this context, their ‘agency’ could be disempowering and oppressive, contributing to a wider context in which women’s bodies and behaviour were coercively regulated. ‘Power’ might be a more useful word than ‘agency’ here. Power can be a zero-sum game; it can be coercive or malicious; it can be exercised in a way which reinforces existing constraints.

The papers at Litigating Women also underlined how useful women’s testimony can be for social historians. We heard about inheritance, credit and debt; enclosure riot and sequestration; the community ties of servants and women who sold sexual services. I was especially struck by a paper by Susan McDonough about women who worked in the municipal brothel of late medieval Marseilles. While municipal legislation barred them from the environs of the local church and tried to relegate them to the margins of the city, they brought suits about slander and violence before judges who met at its very heart, in between the church and the marketplace. [1] The stories told by women in English slander cases, which I’ve been looking at for the eighteenth-century North, similarly include defamers asserting their authority over space. But the power which McDonough finds in these women’s testimony itself, standing in the centre of town which they were excluded from and speaking their part, is less obviously present in these sources.

Storytelling often worked to humiliate and disempower women. Carolyn Steedman has written about how the poor law forced its recipients to publicise their histories and circumstances: women who gave birth outside of marriage, or single women who were unable to maintain themselves, had to tell their stories to parish vestries and justices of the peace. [2] Poor women who appeared as church court witnesses might have their sexual and economic histories publicised through allegations brought against them. [3] As well as sexual insult between women, slander depositions describe men shaming women who they claimed to have sexual access to. [4] The witnesses who told these stories in court might enjoy them, especially if they personally disliked the defendant. But they might also resent being dragged into a case: one late eighteenth-century witness claimed that she had originally denied hearing a defamatory insult because ‘she did not chouse to have any Thing to do in the Business’, while another lamented ‘the Trouble she might have in being called on as a Witness’. [5]

This reluctance can’t be separated from these cases’ late eighteenth-century context. [6] Of the thirty-four cases from 1777-1800 which I’ve looked at in my PhD upgrade chapter, only one took place in a fully public space. This was at Sunderland’s corn market in 1787, and witnesses claimed that the slander had been met with cries of ‘shame’ from bystanders. [7] None of those who had allegedly cried out against the slanderer appeared in court to testify. Gossip had hardly lost its power: it’s still possible to hurt people by telling stories about them (I have a theory that the present-day equivalent of these cases is long Facebook statuses denouncing ex-friends or ex-partners). But the relationship between law, publicity and shame had been reconfigured. This is an obvious point, but the power of storytelling is entirely dependent on context. When I volunteered as a benefits adviser and as emotional support for litigants-in-person in a civil court, I met a lot of people who really wanted to tell their stories to someone sympathetic, but were uncomfortable relating them before a judge or framing them in the way the DWP required. This was as true for parents telling stories which reflected badly on their exes in custody cases as for people talking about their own long-term health conditions.

So I think we need to separate out several different issues about law, narrative and power. Did women gain authority from telling stories outside of court? Did telling stories in court give witnesses power? What did these stories do to/for both the plaintiff and the defendant in slander cases? All of this will vary by place, time, and jurisdiction. I want to use a 1739-40 church court case from the rural parish of Monk Hesleden (Durham) to suggest one possible set of answers.

The case was office-promoted by Sarah Hall rather than sued by her as a plaintiff, which suggests that the court took it more seriously than most slander cases. Sarah was sometimes described as ‘Mrs’, but I think this was about her social position rather than her marital status: no husband is mentioned anywhere in the case, and her crime is described as ‘fornication or incontinence’ rather than adultery. [8] She was suing a woman called Mary Harrison, but the case revolved around a story told by another woman, the fifty-one year old farm worker Mary Welch. Enclosed in the cause papers is a loose piece of ‘testemony’ from Mary, pictured below. It wasn’t written by her, as she couldn’t sign her name, but it was in the hand of someone significantly less literate than the clerks who wrote down official testimony. It read:

the testemony of mary welch Consarning Mrs sarrah hall I mary welch do de Clare that I See Mrs hall Siting one one Sack of Corn and Robert harle Siting one an othere a bout toue yards distanc from but I see nothing of ill acted by them the dores being all open october the 29th 1739 as witness my hand

test William Robinson [9]



When Mary came before the court as a witness in May 1740, however, she retold the story which had prompted Sarah to bring the suit. Mary said that she had been employed by Mrs Yeale, Sarah’s sister, at harvest time. One day, ‘as she was Going up to Harvest Work about their Hay in the Morning sometime before Dinner’, she noticed Robert and Sarah sitting on sacks of corn in Mrs Yeale’s barn. She stopped at the open door of the barn, where she ‘observ’d the said Robert Harle playing with his Red Handkercher Between his Leggs & Upon the Motion & Rising of the Hankercher the Privy Member of the said Robert Harle stood Cocking out & Erect & to this Deponents Memory about Halfway out of his Drawers But not Quite Bare but visible’.

She was still able to tell this story in vivid detail, no doubt in part because she had been repeating it so much. As Robert had no breeches on, she explained, only ‘a paire of thin Course Lynn Drawers as is u’sd by work people in time of Harvest, she thinks his Privy Members was more Expos’d to the View by the means thereof’. She added that she had told this story to Henry and Dorothy Clapham (or rather, had told them ‘that Robert Harle she Believed was in Great Haven Sitting before Mrs Sallee … with what He had Cocking Before Her’), and that she had been sent for by Sarah in October 1739. At Sarah’s house, she had been ‘Question’d pretty much about stories Relating to this affair & was told she Deserved to have her Ears nail’d to the Pillory in case the Stories Rais’d was true’. But she had replied, she told the court, that ‘she Had told no more than the Real facts’. [10]

But wasn’t it the case, she was then asked, that she had confessed ‘before diverse credible persons and especially before William Robinson’ that she had seen nothing indecent? And wasn’t it also the case that the defendant and one Dorothy Clapham had sent for her and pressured her to testify? [11] Mary answered that she had been with William when she had seen Robert and Sarah in the barn; she had told him the same story that she was now telling in court. The defendant and Dorothy had indeed sent for her, but she had simply told them – again we find an insistence that she would tell the story which she wanted to tell, on her own terms – that she ‘wou’d speak to the facts’. [12]

Dorothy testified on the same day as Mary Welch, and described her, rather than Mary Harrison, passing on the story. Mary W had come to her house on the Sunday before the citation was brought against Mary H, and had there, without being asked, reported the whole thing to Dorothy and her husband. Dorothy explained that the barn in question was ‘the Barne of John Halls But now Belonging to Mrs Francis Yeale & Sarah Hall Daughters of the said John’, underlining these witnesses’ long knowledge of Sarah’s family. (Dorothy was fifty; her husband’s occupation wasn’t recorded in the deposition, but she was able to sign her name.) Mary had repeated this story to her on several other occasions, she said, and never recanted it. [13] We also have personal answers from Mary Harrison. Even if she had spoken the words in question, she and her proctor argued, ‘yet were not the same spoke by her with any malitious Intent but as a Hear Say Story from the said Mary Welsh or some other person’. [14]

We can return, now, to our questions. Did Mary Welch (and Mary Harrison) gain power from telling this story outside of court? Did the women who testified in court? What did this mean for Sarah Hall? I’m going to start with the second question, because it lets me describe an important part of the case which I haven’t yet explained. Two witnesses testified about Mary Harrison’s role in spreading the defamatory rumour, Frances Yeale and Alice Forster. Both women were Quakers, and so testified without swearing an oath (‘according to the Statute in that Behalf’). In July 1739, they claimed, Mary Harrison had told them that Sarah ‘was Catchd in a Barne with one Robert Harle with his Breeches Down’. She had said this, moreover, ‘in a Very Malicious Manner’. [15] Both women were literate, and Mrs Yeale, at least, was from a substantial local family. She was also talking about her sister’s reputation, and about a family barn which at least partly belonged to her. Meanwhile, Dorothy Clapham portrayed herself as an unwilling audience for Mary’s story, while the interrogatories suggest that she was an ally of Mary H’s who testified against Mary W in order to help her. She may well have enjoyed the story outside of court (it seems perfectly possible that she had passed it on to Mary H), and she did get to assert her local knowledge as a deponent, but her testimony mostly sounds defensive. Only Mary Welch was eager to share her story both with neighbours and with the court.

We can’t know exactly what lay behind this case, but there are four possibilities:

  • The story was a lie, and Mary initially recanted but then changed her mind. Mary didn’t see anything indecent in the barn, and made up the story as a way to humiliate her employer’s sister. When the case came to court, Mary decided or was persuaded to retract what she had said. Later, after talking to Mary H and Dorothy, she reconsidered and retold the lie as a witness.
  • The story was a lie, but Mary stuck to it. Mary made up the story, but she didn’t take it back. William Robinson, with the help of other people who wished to defend Sarah, wrote her loose ‘testemony’ and marked it with a cross. Mary did not sign her official testimony with a cross.



Mary’s mark in court


  • The story was true, but Mary recanted. Mary really did see the scene which she described to her neighbours and the consistory court, but was initially intimidated into denying it when the case appeared in court.
  • The story was true, and Mary stuck to it. Mary was telling the truth, her loose testimony was forged, and her insistence that she had told the same story the whole time – with Sarah’s attempts to intimidate her falling flat – reflected her behaviour throughout the case.

In all four scenarios, the story serves the same purpose. Whether Mary had made it up or not, it allowed her to critique a woman whose local power far exceeded her own. We don’t hear much about occupations in this case (I’d check the names against other local records if I was in the North East and writing about this for something more than a blog post!), but we do find out that Robert Harle was wearing the coarse linen drawers ‘us’d by work people in time of Harvest’. Part of this story’s scandal came, then, from the fact that it accused Sarah of fornication with a farm worker. In my MSt, I looked at a late seventeenth-century London case where a woman called Isabel Neighbours testified against one Mr Cutting, who’d tried to get her indebted husband arrested by the bailiffs: other witnesses allegedly heard her say that she was ‘resolved to be revenged of’ him. Isabel’s testimony was exceptionally detailed, relating even the mundane parts of a conversation with Mrs Cutting a year before (Mrs Cutting had asked ‘how she did and how her Husband did, to which this deponent required thus very well I thank you’). This conversation led to Isabel telling Mr Cutting that his own wife accused him of sleeping with his landlady, causing an argument in which Mr Cutting, ‘having a Knife in his hand, threw [his wife] back against the Barre and sayd he would Cutt her Throate’. [16]

Though Isabel was accused of making up her testimony in the name of revenge, another witness (whose testimony was not questioned) made the same claims about the substance of the case, Mrs Cutting having accused her husband of sleeping with their landlady. [17] The case had been brought by the landlady against him. Isabel’s story was distinctive only in that it publicised Mr Cutting’s treatment of his wife and was far more detailed, suggesting that she had rehearsed it many times outside of court. Malicious storytelling was not necessarily about making scandalous behaviour up, but using it to cause as much damage as possible. This was reflected in the legal basis of church court slander cases, which were concerned with malice and injured reputation rather than the truth of defamatory words.

Stories could cost the people who told them. Slander made sense in early modern England because people knew a lot about each another’s lives, lived in close conditions, were tied into networks of service, credit and debt. But this also meant that stories could be easily traced back to their tellers, potentially affecting their credit (in both the moral and the economic sense) and employment prospects. Isabel perhaps thought she had nothing to lose; Mary Welch, however, had been employed by Mrs Yeale at the last hay harvest and might wish to be employed by her again. Spreading a scandalous rumour about her sister can’t have helped, especially as Mrs Yeale came to court as a witness. At the same time, any power which Mary managed to claim through telling the story was directly proportionate to the power lost by Sarah.

In this case and others, witnesses talked about what they themselves described as ‘Stories’. When Sarah (allegedly) told Mary that she deserved to be pilloried if ‘the Stories Rais’d was true’, she presumably meant the stories told about Mary’s storytelling. If only in a desperate attempt to avoid culpability, Mary Harrison’s defence that she had retold it only ‘as a Hear Say Story’ drew a line between malicious storytelling and reporting what was being said by other people. In a 1768 case from Lanchester (Durham), a witness described ‘Mrs Bowerbank charging Dorothy Jons, for Raising & telling of stories against Mrs Whinney’ and Dorothy denying this. But ‘Mrs Bowerbank Knowing the said Dorothy Jons to Vary in her Stories, she the said Dorothy Jons said Did you doubt her, what wou’d you have me swear my self to the Devil, then said Mrs Bowerbank to this Respondent, pray Remember what Dorothy Jons has said’. There was an implicit distinction between the story told by this witness (who had answered Mrs Bowerbank, she told the court, that ‘she wou’d, if Ever Call’d in Question’) and the stories told by Dorothy. [18]

So what does this tell us? Most cases don’t allow us to trace the power relations behind slander even in this partial and speculative way; those that do are often unrepresentative. Few slander cases were office-promoted in eighteenth-century Durham, and sexual insult was usually much more laconic than the story told by Mary Welch. But Mary was more invested in her narrative than most witnesses, not less, and so I am going to try to draw some tentative conclusions about storytelling, power and agency from this material. Telling shameful stories did give women a certain power: Sarah was clearly angry, and presumably also upset, about the damage which Mary had caused. Telling stories about social superiors had a significance of its own, though it was especially dangerous. At the same time, storytelling inside and outside of court was a very different experience. Witnesses described slander defendants confidently denouncing plaintiffs and vowing to ‘prove’ their insults; when cases were pushed through to a sentence, however, they usually lost. Justices of the peace seem to have settled slander cases by urging the person accused of slander to recant even when they denied the words in question. [19]

Despite the vivid stories told by witnesses, then, these cases are largely about slanderers being punished for their defamatory narratives. The stories which gave women the most power over their neighbours were condemned, even when they were told by witnesses like Mary Welch, Isabel Neighbours and Dorothy Jons rather than defendants. Slander testimony often gives us insights which we wouldn’t get in any other source, and women’s engagement with the church courts tells us a lot about law, gender and neighbourhood. But many of the stories which we’re most struck by were being punished rather than legitimised. We need to situate these cases within the legal and local contexts which gave them meaning: to separate out the experiences of witnesses, plaintiffs and defendants; to foreground what we know about women’s engagement with the law, trying to recover their willingness or reluctance, knowledge or uncertainty; to think carefully about the distance between a story told on the street and a story told in court.


[1] Susan McDonough, ‘Out of the brothel and into the court: prostitutes and criminal law in late medieval Marseille’, Litigating Women: negotiating justice in courts of law, c. 1100-1750. Swansea University, 28-9 June 2017.

[2] Carolyn Steedman, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class: Work, Self and Sociability in the Early Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2013), 78.

[3] Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, & the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2015), 144.

[4] E.g. DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1755/4/5: ‘the Defendant said that Jane Moody was
a Whore & that Robert Sanderson the Defendant’s Husband had told her so and that Before he was Concerned with his Wife he had made Jane Moody a Whore as often as he Pleas’d’; Cheshire Archives, EDC/5/1788, Davies c Rome: ‘the plaintiff Elizabeth Davies, was then the subject of Conversation between the said Thomas Rome and Henry Hearon, and he then heard the said Thomas Rome speaking of her say to the said Henry Hearon, “that he had fuck’d Bet Davies before he had, and that she was with Child and he could prove it”’.

[5] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1787/2/16;  DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1790/9/5.

[6] On the decline of defamation as a ‘significant public act’ by the late eighteenth century, see Robert Shoemaker, “The Decline of Public Insult in London 1660-1800,” Past & Present 169 (2000), 97–131.

[7] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1787/3, fo. 9b.

[8] Amy Louise Erickson, ‘Mistresses and marriage: or, a short history of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal 78 (2014), 39.

[9] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4, loose document.

[10] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4/8-9.

[11] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4/6.

[12] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4/9.

[13] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4/7.

[14] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/5/8.

[15] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1739/4/3-4.

[16] London Metropolitan Archives, DL/C/241, fo. 119a.

[17] Ibid, fo. 242b.

[18] DUL, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1768/21/7.

[19] DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1786/9/9.

Early modern borders

A 1686 petition from the ‘inhabitants’ of Boothstown, a hamlet in the township of Worsley (now in the city of Salford), complained about an ‘idle loose fellow come into our hammell that goes by the name of Shropshire Tom’. Tom was ‘harboured by’ two local men who ‘sometimes imploy him in worke’. But when he was not working for them, ‘he idles about and doth not follow a Certaine imploy for his lively hood but if he be spoken to begins to be heady and give bad language’. ‘We have’, the petitioners declared, ‘noe need of Any such person Amongst us’. The quarter sessions bench ordered that he was to be sent to a house of correction if he did not leave Boothstown within the next ten days. [1]

At the next quarter sessions, Tom himself petitioned the bench. His name was Thomas Haldren, he informed the court; he was ‘by birth a Shropshireman, but upon the account of visiting a relation which he had in Lancashire came into the Cuntry’ in 1684. He had found employment during this stay, and worked intermittently in the area ever since: with a man named Richard Farnworth in Boothstown for a fortnight; then with Richard’s brother for seven weeks; with a man in Astley for another three weeks; and from May 1685 to Christmas with a man in neighbouring Boothsbank. He was now ‘hired by the weekes & lives with one Geofrey Partington in the Boothstown’. He had been ‘advised in strictness’ that his legal settlement was in Boothstown, but the township didn’t need to worry, for he was ‘a hard painefull workeman a Single man and no way like to be chargeable to any’.

Thomas did not just describe himself differently from the earlier petitioners: he called their right to speak for the local community into question. ‘Many of the Inhabitants of Boothstowne’, he argued, ‘as by the Certificate underwritten may appear were no way privie nor consenting to such a peticion’. The ‘Certificate’ is torn, so we can’t know how many people signed, but we do know what they were signing to say: that he was, in their opinion, ‘an honest labouriouse man’. [2] This case underlines the vulnerability of casual labourers under the settlement laws, and how hostile established residents could be to migrant workers. But it also points to two other things which I am especially interested in: conflicting attitudes about whether one migrant labourer was ‘idle’ or ‘honest’, and the participatory nature of what we might think of as early modern border control.



Keith Snell has argued that ‘local xenophobia was assuredly one of the root features in the attitudes and cultures of labouring people in the past’. [3] A rising proportion of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century rural people married within their own parish, and Snell describes marked hostility towards men from elsewhere who tried to court local women. [4] Men from different parishes could be hostile to one another more generally, and fights broke out during ‘perambulations’ (walking the bounds of the parish). [5] Snell pays particular attention to the stereotypes and proverbs about people from other parishes described by nineteenth and twentieth-century folklorists, which supposedly stretched back to the early modern period. [6]

But if parochial prejudice was enduring, it was not static. Rising pressure on parish resources from the late eighteenth century, ‘Napoleonic wartime pressures and anti-foreigner rhetoric’, and the early nineteenth-century agricultural depression probably led to ‘inter-parochial rivalries and forms of exclusion intensifying over this period’. The settlement laws, Snell argues, also encouraged animosity: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators blamed them for stoking ‘ill feeling’ and ‘hostile divisions’ between parishes. [7] Did settlement disputes really reflect local opinion, though? In April 1777, the vicar of Ponteland (Northumberland) recorded in his diary that:

There were £6 & 5 1/2collected in the Church for Jane Doncaster Widow; which is to assist in her maintenance ‘till there can a Parish be found for her; which I apprehend, after the best enquiry will be found to be this.

Her ‘Grandson in Law’, he added, had offered to maintain her at the parish charge. [8] Like Thomas Haldren, Jane had local relations even if she was not local herself: this obviously complicates the question of whether she was viewed as an insider or an outsider. It’s likely that the death of her husband had raised her settlement as an issue. Nonetheless, this entry suggests that ‘enquiry’ about which parish someone belonged to did not necessarily reflect hostility towards them. Settlement disputes happened when the line between belonging and not belonging was contested. In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that local opinion always corresponded to whichever option saved the parish most money.

Richard Gough’s 1701 History of Myddle is suggestive about what settlement meant for the parish elite. While Gough proudly detailed the cases which he had helped Myddle to win, he presented them as a triumph for parish government rather than parishioners in general. In fact, he reserved his greatest ire for a local family which he disapproved of. Elizabeth Gittins, ‘an idle, wanton wrench’ born in Myddle, had prompted two settlement cases by marrying a ‘drunken Cobler’ from Condover. After describing the moral failings of their children, Gough insisted that

most of the cause of all this came from the mother, who brought up her Children in idlenesse, and favoured them in theire bad courses; and it is noe marvel that shee was noe better, for her mother Sina Davis and her Children have for many years been a charge to us. Shee, viz. Sina Davis was a crafty, idle, dissembleing woman. [9]

Petitions seeking the removal of migrant workers were authored by ‘inhabitants’ – drawn from the higher ranks of local society – or parish officers (churchwardens and overseers of the poor). Poor petitioners, in contrast, pleaded that they hadn’t been paid wages for work they had done and might be pushed into destitution, or that the person they were supposedly lodging with had been charged with ‘harbouring’ and kicked them out. [10] Greater popular participation is described in churchwardens’ accounts, which record a range of people being drafted in to help police parochial boundaries. In the London parish which I studied in my undergraduate dissertation, male paupers were employed as ‘warders’, patrolling the parish and expelling strangers. [11] This was in the seventeenth century, but parishioners in eighteenth-century Morpeth (Northumberland) were still being paid to help remove the unwanted poor. The construction of a workhouse in 1750 didn’t replace these older patterns of inclusion and exclusion: one woman ‘went into the Poor House’ in 1754, but had her ‘Lying In and Removal’ recorded the next year. [12]

People engaged with early modern borders in a variety of ways. A young man who started a fight at a parish perambulation and a pauper who served as warder were perhaps both practising ‘local xenophobia’, but they were doing this in ways which reflected different relationships to the parish as an institution and unit of identity. Snell’s suggestion that the Napoleonic wars strengthened parochial prejudice is interesting: the relationship between identification with nation/empire/race and local identity is something which I’d love to read more about (suggestions welcome). But in my sources, local relationships rather than generalised grievances seem to take precedence.



In sources which aren’t specifically concerned with settlement, migration appears only indirectly. I’ve noticed it most in sources from Newcastle, where a significant Scottish population was – according to Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton – taken for granted by my period. [13] In 1663, one woman defamed another by claiming that her mother had been burned as a witch (only possible in Scotland, and directed at someone with a Scottish surname); in 1738, Jane Moor was asked if it was true that she had been whipped through Aberdeen for stealing silver spoons. Both conversations took place on Newcastle’s quayside, and both defamees were defended by other local women. [14] When Mary Murrow (another Scottish surname) stole clothes from a woman in North Shields in 1745, she left them with a woman who she told that ‘she was going to Scotland and desired [to] take care of them till she came back again’. [15]

Geographical knowledge probably varied from person to person, and one witness in Jane Moor’s case talked about ‘some Town in Scotland’ rather than Aberdeen. [16] But even in these suits for slander and theft, foreignness comes across as more incidental than incriminating. James Oliphant, who I’ve previously written about, moved back to his native Scotland when his house in Newcastle was destroyed by a flood – yet his lengthy rant about how much he was hated locally did not mention his Scottish origins. While the desire to exclude undesirable people does feature in my sources, it corresponds to neither exclusionary local identity nor the enforcement of parochial boundaries. When Jane Hardy was reminded that Thomas Dunn, who she claimed had stolen sheep from two men she knew,

had taken a House to Live in Butterwick Aye says Jane Hardy I am Sorry for it for He is as Great a Rogue as any is in the Countrey & the Scum of the Country. [17]

Later that year (1738) on Newcastle’s quayside, William Douglas told Peter Smith that he was ‘a Rogue & Sayd he would make the said Peter Smith Run his Country’. [18] And in West Rainton (Durham) in 1782, one banksman’s wife said about another, ‘Why don’t they put that Whore out of the Town?’ [19] (A banksman was someone who stood at the bank of a pit and loaded the coal into a wagon.) Snell argues that local xenophobia inhibited the unity of what was, by the end of the period he is writing about, described as a ‘working class’. [20] But the records of neighbourly litigation – including quarter sessions petitions against abusive neighbours – suggest that the (contested) distinction between honest and dishonest people was a more significant check on solidarity. Eighteenth-century northerners did not believe that all their neighbours were honest and all migrants were dishonest. The practices of exclusion invoked in early modern testimony were not those set down by the laws of settlement.



[1] Lancashire Archives, QSP 617/13.

[2] Lancashire Archives, QSP 618/4.

[3] Keith Snell, ‘The culture of local xenophobia’, Social History 28:1 (2003), 3.

[4] Ibid, 20-21.

[5] Ibid, 8, 17-18.

[6] Ibid, 9-14.

[7] Ibid, 23-6.

[8] Woodhorn Archives, ZBK/C/1/A/2/18.

[9] Richard Gough, The History of Myddle, ed. David Hey (London, 1981), 256-8.

[10] Lancashire Archives, QSP 36/3, QSP 36/9, QSP 36/20, QSP 183/15 (in which five families were left homeless after their landlord was indicted for harbouring); London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SP/1640/6, WJ/SP/1645/11, WJ/SP/1645/12, WSP/1691/7/2.

[11] Edwin Freshfield, ed., The Vestry Minute Books of the Parish of St. Bartholomew Exchange, Vol. 1, (London, 1890), 63.

[12] Woodhorn Archives, EP 28/87.

[13] Gwenda Morgan & Peter Rushton, Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law: The Problem of Law Enforcement in Northeast England (London, 1998), 10.

[14] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/2, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/9.

[15] National Archives, ASSI 45/23/1, 56Q.

[16] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/9/6.

[17] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/2/3.

[18] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/13/1.

[19] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1782/5/6.

[20] Snell, ‘Local xenophobia’, 3-4.


Law & esteem in mid-eighteenth century Newcastle

On the 22nd of September 1750, the Reverend Edmund Tew gave a sermon as part of the Carlisle assizes (a regional court which tried the most serious cases referred by county sessions). He spoke about the relationship between king, people, and law. Monarch and judge alike were bound by ‘the Rules of Justice and Equity’, he said: bound, then, to oppose the practice of ‘assailing Characters and Reputations, and of torturing modest, humble Witnesses, by less pertinent or injurious Questions; whom the Solemnity of the Place is sufficiently apt to terrify’. Leading witnesses astray, taking advantage of their social inferiority and the grandeur of the assize proceedings, could ‘by no Means be the Praise of a GENTLEMAN’. Nor could ‘loading Mens Characters with Reproaches’ be excused, for every man was ‘justly tender of his Honour and Reputation, which are to maintain him in Society’. [1] Tew was a justice of the peace as well as a cleric, and it is easy to read what Norma Landau has described as a ‘patrician’ model of magisterial behaviour into this sermon: ‘patrician’ justices drew their authority from a national, disinterested legal culture rather than (as ‘patriarchal’ justices did) their prominence within local hierarchies of power. [2]

But Tew’s activity as a local JP was not like this. He was the rector of the village of Boldon, but most of the people who approached him – he kept a notebook from 1750 to 1764 recording his business with them – were from the urbanising parishes of South Shields, Sunderland and Monkwearmouth. [3] The year that he warned his audience in Carlisle cathedral about ‘loading Mens Characters with Reproaches’, he noted that one Shields woman was ‘a notorious scold and impudent woman’, while two others from Monkwearmouth were ‘extremely bad – one a common woman and one a fortuneteller’. The following year, he described several Monkwearmouth women as ‘of ill fame only’; a man and woman from South Shields as ‘both persons of bad character’; a man and woman from Monkwearmouth Shore as ‘2 very touchy people’; and a South Shields barber as ‘a very bad man, and son-in-law to Mary Haddock’, the woman he had deemed ‘of bad character’ two months earlier. In these two years, Tew recorded denying warrants four times when approached about instances of slander, including to a Shields carpenter ‘for a man’s calling his wife whore etc’. [4]

My PhD is concerned with local cultures of esteem in six Northern counties (Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire and Cheshire) between 1660 and 1800. The social and cultural changes of this period have significant implications for how reputation was worked out and expressed, not least its relationship to community regulation. The law was still intertwined with the local, oral culture of esteem in Restoration England: one question which I will need to answer is whether this had changed by the end of the eighteenth century. Seventeenth-century law provided, James Sharpe’s study of early modern crime tells us, the ‘framework and ideological cosmography within which village tensions could work themselves out’. The eighteenth century saw this framework gradually replaced ‘by a justice which, however flexible in relation to specific local circumstances, was essentially that of the gentry and, at one or two removes, the state’. [5] David Lemmings also finds an overarching change in how England was governed in the eighteenth century: he describes this as a shift ‘from consent to command’. As both practices of governance and elite attitudes became more ‘rational’, legal culture and local culture drifted apart.

The legal culture which early modern people lost was, Lemmings says, about both ‘communal self-government under the law’ and a ‘culture of grass-roots participation in legal processes determining issues of life and property’ which ‘betokened freedom, consent, and equity, virtues that respected the dignity and interests of ordinary people’. [6] But both litigation and governance in early modern England were often less about equity than defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion; enforcing power relations within households and neighbourhoods; articulating and re-inscribing norms of local behaviour. [7] Similarly, ideas about equity, impartiality and truth were embedded in processes of social and cultural exclusion. [8] When people talked about the law in early modern England, they were also talking about social relationships. This was truer than ever in the eighteenth century, and is made explicit in a print account of a 1760s murder trial which I’ve been reading. Here, we see one way in which law, esteem, and society could be framed in the mid-eighteenth century North East.


In August 1764, a notice was placed in the Newcastle Chronicle lamenting the ‘uncommon Sufferings, of a worthy family, who have always deservedly enjoyed the Esteem and Affection of all who knew them’. They had been charged with the murder of a maidservant. But on their side, the notice declared, were: the judge, who had ultimately declared them innocent; ‘a Number of Gentleman of the most respectable Characters’ who had ‘warmly interested themselves in their Vindication’; and ‘all the Publishers of the News Papers, in agreeing to pass over, in Silence, the scandalous, false, and malicious Reports, so industriously propagated against them’. The support of these allies – representatives of the law, the gentry, and the press – proved their innocence, and revealed nothing less than ‘the Sense of the World, and Sentiments of the thinking Part of Mankind’. [9]

Four years later, a pamphlet defending Mr James Oliphant – surgeon, gentleman and head of the family in question – appeared in print. Its title page quoted from the sermon given by Dr Lowth at the 1764 Durham assizes, where the Oliphant family had been tried. The quote aligned Mr Oliphant with the law as it should work, those who had found him guilty with legal malpractice. Because ministers and officers, Lowth had said, were tasked with proceeding ‘agreeably to known Rules, and in subservience to the Laws; these become responsible for Mal-Administration’. [10] From its outset, then, the account staked Mr Oliphant’s claim to the disinterested culture of the law. The pamphlet was allegedly sold by ‘all other Booksellers in Great-Britain’ as well as in Newcastle and Edinburgh, and it aimed to transcend the local world which had found him guilty. Local prejudice had driven him ‘to appeal to the impartial world’, its introductory section explained, for he had ‘an unreserved confidence in the justice of the public’. [11]

The account put forward a dichotomous understanding of eighteenth-century society. On one side was a local culture marked by prejudice and delusion, represented by those who had charged Mr Oliphant with murder; on the other was a national culture marked by intelligence and impartiality, represented by the Oliphant family, their friends, and the tract’s readers. The author’s imagined audience had not picked up the pamphlet for its lurid account of intrigue in a better-sort household (though this was a flourishing genre at the time); they did not ordinarily concern themselves with other people’s domestic affairs. ‘The events, indeed, are of a private nature’, he wrote, ‘but not the less interesting to every lover of freedom, every friend of human kind’. [12] ‘Every impartial, intelligent inquirer’ was expected to react the same way: to be horrified by the injustice of the case, the potency of popular prejudice and the powerlessness of a gentleman and his family against it. [13]

The ‘impartial world’ was also expected to agree with Mr Oliphant about how esteem should work. Before describing the coroner’s inquest, the account paused to relate the ‘general character of the persons composing this family’. Honourable ancestry, professional skill, and personal virtue defined the character of Mr Oliphant; an abundance of these last two qualities meant that ‘few men better deserv’d, or enjoy’d in a higher degree, the esteem of mankind’ than his father-in-law; his wife was ‘a lady of distinguish’d accomplishments and humanity’. The maid who had been accused alongside them warranted less praise: ‘it may suffice to observe, that she had been well educated, was a girl of simple inoffensive manners and of a good disposition, and had always behav’d herself in a very becoming manner’. [14] Reputation was at the heart of the case in another way, too: the Oliphants’ relationship with their alleged victim had been shaped by their attempts to govern how she was esteemed. All they had wanted, the notice in the Newcastle Chronicle lamented, was to ‘reclaim an unfortunate Girl from Vice and Infamy, without exposing her to public Shame’. [15]

Eighteenth-century servants were usually reliant on the ‘characters’ (the eighteenth-century antecedent of job references) which they had been given by former masters and mistresses. Dinah Armstrong, however, was hired on the basis of the ‘plausible account the Girl gave of herself’ and her ‘good countenance’. [16] This turned out to be an unreliable character reference. Shortly after taking her in, Dinah’s new master and mistress left her and their children with a friend as they travelled to Scotland. When they returned, the friend reported that Dinah had stolen three damask napkins. They did not find these napkins when they searched her chest, but they did find a sheet marked with the initials of a lady who had recently dismissed her: she had been planning to cut it into shifts for herself. Mrs Oliphant took pity on her– it turned out that she really was in need of underwear – and

took an opportunity to exhort the Girl in the tenderest manner, to a virtuous and industrious course of life, as the only means of making her happy; and at the same time made her a present of some linen. [17]

But she still denied stealing the napkins, and so Mr Oliphant sought help from a neighbour who was an ‘intimate acquaintance’ of his, a parish officer, and a ‘gentleman of great humanity’. This neighbour agreed that the Oliphants’ attempts at reforming Dinah were ‘laudable and benevolent’, and he, too, tried to persuade her to confess. [18] But it did not feel benevolent to Dinah: she told her sister (according to testimony at the inquest) that Mrs Oliphant ‘had sent for Mr Green a parish officer to threaten [her] about some linen that was missing which she … declared she knew nothing about’. [19] After this admonition, she sank into an ‘extremely dull and sullen’ mood, later retreating into the cellar by herself. [20]

The Oliphants lived in a four-storey house on the first arch of the Tyne Bridge – these houses were yet to be swept away by the flood of 1771 – and their cellar opened out onto the banks of the river. When the other maidservant went downstairs to look for Dinah, she saw a fleeting shadow on the cellar wall; the door out to the river left open; and, when she approached it and looked out, Dinah lying on the sand thirteen feet below. Yet, when she returned to the cellar after running to tell her master and mistress and looked down at the river banks again, there was no-one there. [21] Five days later, after much searching and confusion, a keelman came to their door to report that a girl’s body had been found floating in the Tyne: they had taken it ashore at Dunston, a nearby village ‘where a number of people employed about the coal-works live’. [22]

It was at this point that the other culture broke in on the Oliphants’ rational, genteel world. The crowd which gathered around the body ‘could not, by the exertion of their faculties’, imagine that the mark around Dinah’s neck meant anything other than that she had been hanged (the Oliphants insisted that it was left by the necklace or ribbon which she wore). A young surgeon, passing by, endorsed their view. ‘After this’, the pamphlet declared, ‘the most extravagant and uncharitable notions, the most ridiculous and absurd opinions, were adopted and espous’d by the unthinking multitude, ever ready to condemn without examination; always rash and precipitate in their judgments; credulous, and at the same time obstinate’. [23]

This culture was – had to be – represented as the culture of the lower sort, and so those who took part in it were assigned a humbler status than they are, in practice, likely to have had. ‘A Jury were impannel’d, out of the lowest people in the place’, the pamphlet alleged, ‘all strongly infected by the popular prejudice; and so violent was the contagion, that even the Coroner was unable to secure himself against it’. [24] (Peter King has compared complaints that eighteenth-century jurymen were impoverished and ignorant with records of those eligible for jury service in Essex, and concluded that they were resented not for their poverty, but because they were middling-sort men who did not side with the gentry.) [25] When Mr Oliphant travelled to Dunston, he thought the people he encountered there ‘an enraged mob’: how, he wondered, could anyone’s case ‘depend upon the determinations of such a rabble as he then found himself among’? It got worse. He was repeatedly interrupted by the ‘encircling mob’ as he addressed himself to the coroner; Dinah’s sisters were among them, ‘busied in inflaming the populace’. When Mr Oliphant ‘begg’d’ to be listened to, one of the sisters

grew quite furious, thrust herself forward to Mr Oliphant, and call’d him a murdering dog, and indulg’d herself in the most scurrilous language and abuse. Mr Oliphant requested one of the Jury he might first be heard out, but one of the Jury interposing, said, “We will hear her, she has as good a right to be heard as you, altho’ you be a Gentleman.” To which Mr Oliphant reply’d, “If that be your opinion and method of proceeding, Gentlemen, I think I have already said enough” so left them, and returned to the Coroner. [26]

The social implications of rationality were, in this passage, laid bare. Only the disinterested voice of a gentleman could tend towards justice and equity. In Mr Oliphant’s impartial world, the irrationality of the populace meant that it forfeited its right to be listened to.


Let’s return to David Lemmings’ description of the legal culture left behind: ‘communal self-government under the law’ on the one hand, ‘freedom and equity’ on the other. For James Oliphant and his defenders, the discernment of the impartial world could not be reconciled with a culture of reputation based on what legal tracts were still calling ‘common fame’. It was ‘extraordinary’, the pamphlet insisted, that ‘these outrages and severities are effected in Britain, the esteem’d land of liberty and good sense’; it should shock ‘every Briton concern’d in the preservation of his birth-rights’. [27] Yet the ‘popular prejudice’ held up as shocking here – not only the allegedly unjust indictment, but the entire social process leading up to it – was the usual logic of early modern regulation, of shame sanctions and communal calculations of worth.

For my purposes, the most important question is: what happened when these two eighteenth-century cultures of esteem, the literary and national and the oral and local, confronted one another? Both Tew’s justicing book and The Case of Mr James Oliphant suggest that in the mid-eighteenth century North East, the latter continued to shape not only how most people understood reputation, but also how most people understood the law. Even after Mr Oliphant was ultimately declared innocent, he remained guilty in the eyes of many local people: he claimed to be greatly injured as a result.

In practice, the social contours of law and reputation were probably less marked than the Oliphant case suggests. Elsewhere in mid-eighteenth century Newcastle, an apprentice hostman called Ralph Jackson recorded a number of trials and executions in his diary. ‘Went to Court and saw Richard Trotter Sentenced to be Hanged’, he noted in 1750. In 1752, he wrote that ‘I got my Breakfast and went upon the Key but most people was gone to see the unfortunate Owen Macdonald executed for the murder of Robert Parker, Cooper’. And in August 1756, he heard ‘one Curtis’ charged with murder at the town court. ‘Some were of opinion’, he added, ‘that Curtis wou’d not have suffer’d had it not been that he obstructed an Officer in discharge of his Duty’. [29] It’s worth wondering how different Ralph Jackson’s ‘most people’ were from Mr Oliphant’s ‘encircling mob’ (and whose opinion did he hear at the town court?).

There was nothing new about better-sort men asserting their right to enforce the terms of both law and reputation, or about a gentleman’s word taking precedence over everyone else’s. But there was, I think, something novel about the cultural distance described in Mr Oliphant’s account – the distance between the culture of esteem allegedly shared by the ‘thinking Part of Mankind’, and everyday interactions in South Shields, Monkwearmouth, Newcastle or Dunston. In the long run, the terms of the ‘impartial’ legal culture became dominant (today, you can find them in below-the-line comments on any British news site), while law itself became detached from the workings of neighbourhood. But in the 1750s and 60s, the popular understanding of law and reputation still structured local life. A gentleman who distanced himself from this culture could find himself isolated and embattled, unable to either understand or fully escape from the communities around him. A clerical justice, however patrician, was immersed in it.



[1] Edmund Tew, The Queen of Sheba’s Notions of Government, Considered, in a Sermon Preached at Carlisle Assizes (Newcastle, 1750), 16.

[2] Norma Landau, The Justices of the Peace, 1679-1760 (London, 1984), 3-4.

[3] Gwenda Morgan & Peter Rushton, The justicing notebook of Edmund Tew, rector of Boldon (Woodbridge, 2000), 5.

[4] Ibid, 29-33.

[5] James Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750 (London, 1984), 87, 93.

[6] David Lemmings, Law and Government in England during the Long Eighteenth Century: From Consent to Command (New York, 2011), 21, 5-6.

[7] Steve Hindle, ‘A sense of place? Becoming and belonging in the rural parish 1550-1650’ in Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington (eds), Communities in Early Modern England: Networks, Place, Rhetoric (Manchester, 2000) 97; Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996), 268-76.

[8] Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1994), 42-3.

[9] Newcastle Chronicle, 25 August 1764.

[10] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, a Surgeon, Respecting a Prosecution … for the Suppos’d Murder of a Female Domestic (Newcastle, 1768).

[11] Ibid, vii.

[12] Ibid, viii.

[13] Ibid, xii.

[14] Ibid, 11-3.

[15] Newcastle Chronicle, 25 August 1764.

[16] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, 1.

[17] Ibid, 2-3.

[18] Ibid, 4.

[19] Ibid, 25.

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] Ibid, 4-7.

[22] Ibid, 9-10.

[23] Ibid, 14-6.

[24]  Ibid, 17.

[25] Peter King, ‘“Illiterate Plebeians, Easily Misled”: Jury Composition, Experience, and Behavior in Essex, 1735-1815’ in J. S. Cockburn & Thomas Green, Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800 (Princeton, 1988), 304.

[26] The Case of Mr James Oliphant, 20-1.

[27] Ibid, viii.

[28] Clifford E. Thornton (ed.), Bound for the Tyne: extracts from the diary of Ralph Jackson, apprentice hostman of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1749-1756 (Newcastle, 2000), 7-8, 25, 43.

Race, temporality & distance

At the most recent session of KCL’s early modern reading group, we talked about chronologies of race. We discussed overarching narratives which tried to explain when race became immutable and biological, on the one hand, and on the other, political: was the late eighteenth century, as readings by Nicholas Hudson and Roxann Wheeler suggested (from different angles), a turning point? To tell this kind of story about the emergence of race, several people felt, was to impose a later understanding of what makes it salient as a category (racial boundaries must be biologically impermeable, racial relationships structured by national-political context). Our modern nature/nurture divide was largely absent throughout the early modern period, and it isn’t obvious that racial difference had to belong to nature rather than culture to seem fixed. George Boulukos has convincingly argued that the late eighteenth-century trope of the ‘grateful slave’, who was deeply thankful to a humane master, defined those who were or had been enslaved as inherently other. No white Englishman could be grateful for bondage, however benevolent; if Africans could, they must be essentially different. [1] The line between nature and nurture here is so blurred as to be unworkable.

There’s another problem, too. If you try to tell a story about race which moves between Europe and its colonies, or one which explains the attitudes of transatlantic sea captains, slavers and absentee planters alongside people who’ve never even thought about going to the colonies, you find that you are necessarily talking about multiple, divergent timelines. By the eighteenth century, a colonist or captain could move between a world of detailed, rigid slave-codes and the racial unclarity of his European metropole. [2] In Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic, Jennifer Palmer discusses Paul Belin de Marais, a planter who moved back from Saint-Domingue to France in 1740. His model of slave-ownership, shared by other planters in 1730s Saint-Domingue, rested on personal relationships between slave and master: knowing who could be trusted to act as a slave-driver, granting customary perquisites like permission to raise pigs and poultry on the plantation, using promises of future manumission to reward (but also tie further into relationships of obligation) trusted slaves.

As Belin lived out the rest of his life in France, norms shifted in Saint-Domingue. Absenteeism and the codification of race – laws now began to categorise by colour rather than enslaved status – supplanted the discretion which planters had formerly governed by. In 1769, Belin stated in his will that his favourite slave was to be freed. But by this point, planters needed permission from the colonial government to free slaves, and had to pay a manumission tax; this was a long, reluctant process for his heirs. When they came to govern the plantation – they had never been to Saint-Domingue – they treated it as a rational economic enterprise. While Belin had granted his slaves piecemeal, discretionary perks as part of an ongoing personal relationship with them, his descendants sought to improve conditions to enhance profit and meet French standards of humanity. In 1774, Belin’s nephew wrote that ‘it would be good to recompense the women who raise their children with care; humanity requires that one treat them positively; it is further in the interest of the Proprietors, [as] Créole nègres have a greater value than nègres brought over by boat’. [3] Distance and temporality were bound up with one another: to cross the Atlantic was to enter into a story of race with different meanings and mileposts.

But how do we think about this temporality, or ‘lived time’? I’ve found the work of David Carr, who has written about this from a phenomenological point of view, useful. For phenomenologists, consciousness or experience must be of something: it is ‘intentional’, in that we direct ourselves towards the thing which we experience or are conscious of, and we do this in a specific way (by perceiving it, imagining it or representing it). This orientation is bound up with how we position ourselves in time. Husserl described this as about ‘retention’ (for example, holding the last note of a melody in mind as you hear the next; a type of remembering which is a constitutive part of your present experience of an object) and ‘protention’ (the next note you expect to hear; a type of anticipation which is a constitutive part of your present experience of an object). [4] A group or nation is also temporal in this way: membership of a community ‘gives us access to a past, a tradition, and a temporal span that is not so much something we know about as something that is part of us’. The intended past and future are part of who we are, and they shape the character of our present experience.

Communities, for Carr, are spaces where people encounter one another ‘not as objects to be known but through common projects … others are experienced as co-workers and co-participants in the ongoing undertakings which give meaning and structure to our common surroundings’. [5] This is very close to how Palmer defines intimacy: we should move beyond a focus on sexual relationships, she says, and instead think about ‘shared labour and experiences’. [6] But intimacy of this kind was always fragile: a change of master or law, or a move from colony to metropole, meant a different meaning and structure for racial relations. To be of African descent in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world was to be forcibly moved between different temporal worlds. A marital separation case which I am working on allows us to see something of this dynamic.


John Webb was nineteen years old in 1785, when he appeared before the Court of Arches, the appeal court for marriage cases in southern England. He had been born, he said, on the coast of Guinea, but ‘taken from his native place’ to Kingston, Jamaica ‘when he was very young’. Some years later, he ended up at sea – presumably during the Revolutionary War – and was taken prisoner by a Spanish ship. He was rescued by an English captain, who kept John as a (free, he insisted) servant for a while before recommending him to a friend. This friend was John Nicholson Inglefield, a celebrated naval captain whose accusation of adultery the lawsuit rested on. [7] The logs of Captain Inglefield’s ship, the Scipio, describe a world in which the passing of time was marked by vicissitudes of weather, executions and whippings, irregular divine service by the chaplain, leave at Sheerness. [8] This was the temporal backdrop to the relatively lax racial attitudes described by historians of the navy: black sailors were ‘experienced as co-workers and co-participants’ within this social world, although, as Nicholas Rogers has pointed out, the shared naval project was about enshrining racial inequalities more broadly. [9]

But John served the captain at home, too, as the footman in his household in the Kent village of Singlewell (though he was not paid for either role; Captain Inglefield took his ship’s pay and bought his clothes with it, keeping him in a state of dependence). Here, again, there was a very different temporal rhythm – and different rules about proximity and distance. John testified twice before the Court of Arches. The first time, he described his mistress’ sexual advances; the second, he deposed that this first testimony had been a lie extracted from him through the intimidation of his master. (In light of the testimony given across the case as a whole, the second story ends up looking more plausible.) The alleged advances took place in a context of forced intimacy: she ‘put her Hand about his Neck and kissed him’ while he was sweeping the parlour and could not get away from her; similarly, she ‘put her Hand under his Apron and unbuttoned one of the Flaps of his Breeches’ while he was dressing her hair. [10]

Defences by the other servants in the Inglefields’ household – none of whom believed that anything had happened between John and Ann Inglefield – point to the ways in which the social  distance built into genteel eighteenth-century households countered their physical closeness. There were ‘four Bedrooms nearby together’ on the second floor of the house at Singlewell: John’s, the coachman’s, a spare room, and the room in which the Inglefields slept. These were laid out so that John ‘must have gone through the Coachman’s Room to have gone to the Bedchamber of his said Mistress’. But James Harris, the coachman, did not think that he had. Not only had he seen nothing suspicious, but, he told the court, his mistress ‘always appeared to him the Deponent rather to dislike and be afraid of the said John Webb, which he attributed to his being a black’. [11] Hannah Baker, an eighteen-year-old maidservant (probably seventeen at the time she was describing), seemingly assumed that John was being accused of attempting to seduce his mistress rather than the other way around. She deposed that

many times when the said John Webb who used to dress her hair has been busied in that employ, [Ann] has rung her Bell and ordered her to blow the Fire and in short employed her in any trifling thing so as to keep her in the Room with her whilst she has been dressing, in order as she now verily believes to prevent her being left in the Room alone with the said John Webb. [12]

When the captain was absent, Hannah added (other servants said this too), Ann did not let anyone wait at table ‘but as soon as the things necessary for dinner were taken in always discharged the Servant ‘till she rung her Bell’. [13] The use of bells to summon servants has played a prominent (though contested) role in the history of privacy: here, it helped to maintain a distance between mistress and servant which prevented the intimacy of the household from constituting shared understanding and experience. [14] This distance meant that different understandings of race did not necessarily come into conflict. In the questions which Ann Inglefield submitted to the court, her letters and her own print account of the case, she represented John Webb in a way which suggested that he was inherently other. Her printed ‘justification’ contained the most telling description of his status. The truth couldn’t come to light, she wrote, for as long as ‘the Black remained with Mr. Inglefield as his Sailor, his Servant, and, in the Operation of his Servile Mind, his Slave’ (emphasis added). [15]

Ann had insisted throughout that John was a slave, though ‘given or lent to’, rather than bought by, her husband. But this passage opens up the possibility that she was defining slavery by its psychology, rather than by legal or economic position. Doctor Compton, one of Ann’s members of counsel, took a similar line. He put John’s behaviour down to ‘the operation of fear, which is natural upon the mind of one in his station’. It was, he explained, ‘not absolutely necessary that there should be ground for’ this; the point was that John was ‘under the impression of fear – no matter whether justly or not, if it actuated his mind’. [16] Doctor Harris, on the same side, agreed:

There were chains, and dozens, and everything against the boy, if he denied it … To say to a captain of a man of war, a monarch and a despot; “Sir, you lie” … considering who it was; his situation on board the ship; used to the habit of a slave; in fear of being sent back again to Africa: why a white boy would have been intimidated under the circumstances; but a negro certainly must be in a worse situation than any body else. [17]

We are back, then, to the question of nature and nurture: what does it mean to have a ‘servile mind’, or to experience the fear ‘natural upon the mind of one in your station’? A 1752 tract on the education of children warned, echoing John Locke, that educators must avoid ‘beating … or other servile punishments; for a slavish discipline makes a slavish temper’. Servile punishments countered ‘the calm use of their reason’ and, with it, their progression to manhood: children ‘love to be treated as reasonable creatures’, the author explained, ‘and the sooner you treat them as men, the sooner they will become such’. By extension, someone with a slavish temper could possess neither reason nor manhood. [18] In 1789, Philadelphia’s Abolition Society cautioned, after all, against emancipation. ‘Reason and Conscience have but little influence over [a slave’s] conduct, because he is chiefly governed by the passion of Fear’, they warned. ‘Under such circumstances Freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself.’ [19] Here, fear played the role that George Boulukos assigned to gratitude. In othering slaves and ex-slaves, it mitigated against any shared project, any sense that interracial relationships were based on the same underlying narrative.

There was an alternative: we find it in the lofty aspirations of John Clarkson, who escorted black Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone in 1792. In the new colony, he wrote, ‘they … are to become Men’. But this would take work. The ships they travelled on should be designed so that they would not evoke memories of slave ships; the new colony should make a concerted effort to dismantle colour discrimination. He aimed at nothing less than creating a new temporal present which would incorporate both black and white settlers, with an intended past which remembered but repudiated slavery and an intended future based on black self-government. [20] Intimacy could only take place where people were situated in the same lived time and the same lived space: the logic of race, which Clarkson hoped to dismantle, meant that this could only happen in fleeting and unstable ways (Sierra Leone did not, in the end, become a haven of equality).

As black servants were dragged between racial contexts, they made use of the stories available to them. At the end of the eighteenth century, free black servants began to place newspaper advertisements looking for new masters. They described the same qualities which appear in advertisements placed by masters about ‘Negroes’ (a word they did not use about themselves): time spent in England, good manners, skill at hairdressing and playing the French horn. But they also described an identity, based on histories of service and skill, which the terms of their future employment were to be defined by: ‘has been four years at this shop, to learn to shave, and dress and cut hair, which he does extremely well; and also can have an undeniable character from the master of the shop’; ‘[n]one need apply but gentlemen of distinction, as his character is undeniable, and will bear the strictest enquiry from a gentleman he just left’. [21]

Christening worked this way, too: to get christened was to assert expectations about the place you hoped to occupy within English society. John Webb had run away from Singlewell to get christened in London a year before the Inglefield case (until then he was just known as ‘Jack’), without his master’s knowledge or permission. When he returned but refused to admit – to his master; he told the other servants – where he had been, the captain ‘beat him very severely’. [22] A witness who’d lived next door to the black servant at the heart of another late eighteenth-century adultery case, Joseph Alamaze, explained that she had met him as

a slave belonging to Mr. Facio, a merchant … [who] went abroad to Florida, and left Joseph Alamaze with a brother of his in England; soon after which, he got himself christened, and since that time the witness hath always known him to go by the name of Joseph Alamaze … soon after he got himself christened, he went into the service of Alderman Bull, and was in his service at the time of his being Lord Mayor … the witness hath since known him to be in several different places in the capacity of a livery-servant. [23]

The significance of christening was wider than what it did(n’t do) to a slave’s legal status. John Fielding complained in 1762 that the popular – customary, you could say – belief that christening made a slave free was powerful enough to ensure that christened slaves were protected by members of the public. [24] In the Inglefield case, Doctor Compton speculated that the captain had beaten John because ‘there used to be an idea pretty prevalent, that when a black was made a Christian he became a free man; the idea might be impressed upon Captain Inglefield, that he had made himself a Christian merely to exempt himself from his power’. [25] Black servants in England tried to represent themselves, contrary to ideas about Africans and colonial subjects, as people who could expect to be treated well. This was most marked in free servants’ advertisements, which implied that a shared project of English gentility should structure their future households. In this way, black servants sought (and offered) intimate interracial relationships, relationships which could protect them from the vulnerability to displacement which was inherent in the logic of race.


At a talk I went to last year, Sir Hilary Beckles explained that his family saw themselves as English in Jamaica: only when they came to England did they find that here, other understandings of belonging crowded out their own. In modern Britain, as in the eighteenth century, stories about race, nation and empire are imposed over racialised people’s own sense of who we might be. These stories are especially powerful in the current moment of nationalist populism, but go largely unchallenged in our media and politics. The current leadership of the Labour Party has talked repeatedly about its desire to ‘change the narrative’ on austerity: to replace a past which traces the financial crisis to Labour spending, and a future which requires cuts to welfare, with a story which is nostalgic for and looks forward to a kinder, more communal world. But neither they nor anyone else, in the face of this growing nationalism, have framed anti-immigrant feeling – inextricable from stories about who white English people are, have been, and should once more be – as about a narrative which might be changed.

In the long eighteenth century, we can see the beginnings of this sense of what it means to be English and white, and what is deserved as a result. Edward Barlow, born to a poor family in Prestwich in 1642, was invited to move to the West Indies as a young man: ‘as for work there was little or none at any time that I should do’, he was told, ‘for they had slaves or niggers which did all the work, which made me very willing to go along’. It was a trap to lure him into indentured service, and his uncle warned him away from it: but the promise of whiteness-as-power was, all the same, persuasively enticing. [26] Later, servants and labourers used colonial comparisons to complain that they did not have the advantages which they ought to. In 1747, a footman lamented that ‘we should be favoured with more Respect and Humanity, than we are by many of you, especially the poorer Sort of you, who make us Slaves and Negroes’; a 1788 petition from the Newcastle keelmen asserted that they were ‘made worse than the slaves in foreign countries’. [27] The same complaints – that English workers were treated as badly or worse than slaves – were voiced by wealthy pro-slavery writers to derail debates on abolition. [28]

Distance was built into this subjectivity. If I complained, in contemporary Britain, that I was treated ‘like the workers in sweatshops in foreign countries’, I would be asserting that my sense of what it is to be British includes that I deserve better treatment than some people elsewhere. But my notion of those people might be very vague: the contradiction between my sense of what I am entitled to and they are not, and their own sense of who they are, would only become explicit if we were actually confronted with one another. In his recent book The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, Justin Gest observes that his interviewees were not so much worried about

being labeled a racist, as they were about the effect of such a label on the perceived veracity of their grievances. Racism is, in this sense, not a branding. It is a “mute button” pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of loss – from a position of historic privilege, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface “I’m not racist” is not a disclaimer, but rather an exhortation to listen and not dismiss the claims of a purportedly new minority. [29]

Being called a racist acts as a ‘mute button’ when someone’s sense of their past, present and future – their sense of themselves – rests on a (perhaps unarticulated) story which is incompatible with racialised people having their own take on things. As a result, this sense of self resists interracial intimacy: it blocks shared understanding and tries to maintain its temporal distance from racial others, however physically close they are. Carr argues that narrative brings us closest to the experience of historical (and contemporary) actors, for everything we do ‘gets its meaning from the place in which it is located, the past it comes from, and the future it is meant to realize … action itself has a narrative quality’. [30] It’s worth, I think, trying to write about race in this way: keeping in mind not so much a single overarching chronology, but the location, remembered past, and unrealised future of racial subjectivities.

[1] George Boulukos, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture (Cambridge, 2008), 22.

[2] Philip D. Morgan & Sean Hawkins, Black Experience and the Empire (Oxford, 2004), 97.

[3] Jennifer L. Palmer, Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (Philadelphia, 2016), 20-44; quoting 41.

[4] David Carr, Experience and History: Phenomenological Perspectives on the Historical World (Oxford, 2014), 33-6.

[5] Ibid, 52-5.

[6] Palmer, Bonds, 20-21.

[7] Lambeth Palace Library, VH 80 44/9, fols. 1a-3b.

[8] National Archives, ADM 52 2520 /2, fols. 2a-19a.

[9] Nicholas Rogers, ‘War, Race and Labor in American-Caribbean Waters’ in Felicity Nussbaum (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century (London, 2005), 225.

[10] VH 80 44/9, fols. 1a-2b.

[11] VH 80/44/11, fols. 5b, 56a.

[12] VH 80/44/11, fol. 23b.

[13] Ibid, fol. 25a.

[14] See the historiographical discussion in Tim Meldrum, Domestic Service and Gender, 1660-1750: Life and Work in the London Household (Harlow, 2000), 77-83.

[15] Ann Inglefield, The Justification of Mrs. Inglefield (London, 1787), xxx.

[16] Anon, The Arguments of Counsel in the Ecclesiastical Court, in the Cause of Inglefield (London, 1787), 20.

[17] Ibid, 12.

[18] J. Waugh, Education of Children and Young Students in All Its Branches (London, 1752), 7-8.

[19] Quoted in Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (London, 1988), 115.

[20] Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (London, 2009), 356.

[21] Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, June 20, 1772; Morning Chronicle, Nov 13, 1792.

[22] VH 80 44/11, fol. 17b.

[23] The Cuckold’s Chronicle: being select trials for adultery, incest, imbecility, ravishment etc. (London, 1793), 310.

[24] Sir John Fielding, Extracts from Such of the Penal Laws as Particularly Relate to the Peace and Good Order of this Metropolis (London, 1762), 143.

[25] Arguments of Counsel, 24.

[26] Basil Lubbock (ed.), Barlow’s journal of his life at sea in king’s ships (London, 1934), 27.

[27] J. B., The Footman’s Looking-Glass (London, 1747), 21; J. M. Fewster, The Keelmen of Tyneside: Labour Organisation and Conflict in the North-east Coal Industry, 1600-1830 (Woodbridge, 2011), 118.

[28] Roxann Wheeler, ‘Slavery, or the New Drudge’ in Srividhya Swaminathan & Adam R. Beach (eds), Invoking Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Imagination (Ashgate, 2013), 164.

[29] Justin Gest, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (Oxford, 2016), 73.

[30] Carr, Experience, 195.