Archives volunteers uncover county’s black history

Historic stories of the experience of black people in North Yorkshire are being revealed by the County Record Office in Black History Month this October.

example of records from County Record Office

During an ongoing project to index quarter sessions court records among the County Record Office’s extensive archive in Northallerton, volunteers have recently discovered telling glimpses into the lives of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds living in and passing through North Yorkshire.

North Yorkshire County Councillor Greg White, Executive Member for Customer Engagement, said: “Many of these stories make uncomfortable reading, reflecting a time of slavery and oppression, but we need to consider them in the context of their time. It is important, particularly during Black History Month, that we remember the injustices of the past, acknowledge the progress that we have made and accept that we still have some way to go.”

A well-known North Yorkshire tale is that of John Yorke, an African slave brought from a plantation in Jamaica to the Dales, whose baptism entry offers an insight into his life. Baptised on 8 August 1776 at Marske Church, Swaledale, John was described as “a Negro servant belonging to Mr Hutton”. At the time of his baptism, he was thought to be about 17 or 18 years old and had been with the Hutton family of Marske Hall for over four years. John was later freed, and went on to marry and live locally with his family.

The archive collection has also revealed other stories about the experiences of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

John Buxton travelled from Bengal with his master, Captain Harrington, in 1799, but following the death of his master he travelled the country with companions Sarah Dixon, from Kidderminster, and John Anthony, of Bombay. The three were taken before the court as vagrants while passing through Thornton in the North Riding in 1802 when John Buxton stated in a petition that he wanted “to procure his passage to his native country as this climate does not agree with him”.

In August 1869, Henrietta Smith was indicted for feloniously stealing a pair of boots from John Thomas Morton of Bedale. A witness in the case was Paul de la Tuer, who was described as a “travelling Negro melodist” who was passing through Richmond when he met Henrietta Smith, who sold him the boots. He was initially charged with the theft as he was found wearing the boots by PC William Johnson, but became a witness once Henrietta Smith was taken into custody.

In 1797, John Bulman of Stoneykirk, Scotland, was working as a cook as a crew member on board a ship transporting 170 slaves from Guinea when the slaves rose up against the company, leading to Bulmer and five other seamen leaving the ship by longboat. They were picked up three days later and he was returned to Liverpool. His story is recorded in the quarter sessions court records when he was found begging in Thornton in 1798.

Cllr White said: “With records dating back to the 12th century, the County Record Office archive is a rich resource that can illuminate many aspects of North Yorkshire’s history and heritage that might otherwise be forgotten.

“Our County Record Office is a living archive and our archivists not only collect and preserve records dating from almost a millennium ago right up to the present day, but also make them freely available to the public for study.”

Learn more about what the County Record Office.

This story was published 17 October 2019