Black History Month – Harwich and Boreham

Portrait of a late 18th century sailor (from Wikipedia Commons)

It’s time for some parish register finds which show black people living in Essex hundreds of years ago. Last year, it was coincidentally in October that I spotted William Essex, “a black native of Madagascar” in Wivenhoe’s baptism register – so these are the people I’ve found since, in Harwich and Boreham.


No surprise that we should find folk from far-flung places in a busy port town like Harwich. It’s also well known that black sailors worked alongside white sailors, for instance at the Battle of Trafalgar. Arny Webb has been busy transcribing the registers for this town, and he’s found the following:

  • John Quesy, a Negroe of John Phillipson’s esqr jnr. Baptised on 4th January 1738/9. It’s not clear what John Quesy’s status was – was he a free man and worked for Phillipson (or Phillips)? But ‘Quesy’ is interesting as it suggests he already had a surname and didn’t need to be lumbered with an Englishman’s.
  • John and Henry Phillips, baptised on 18th October 1745. Beside both names, it says “a negroe servant of Captain Phillips.” I think it’s fairly clear that they were taking the captain’s surname. Were they servants in his house, or were they on board his ship?
  • William Ramsey, “a negro boy from London born in Guinea, aged 16 years.” Baptised 25th January 1769. It’s possible William had come from London on a ship and was working as a sailor. He may have taken his surname from the village of Ramsey, which is a few miles from Harwich.


New Hall, once Beaulieu Palace, in Boreham, near Chelmsford was a royal palace, and by the late 1600s was owned by George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle. On 20th June 1679, Marelia “a negro girl” was baptised at New Hall’s chapel. Many of the staff required to run such a large house appear in Boreham’s register, and although it doesn’t say so in the register, Marelia may well have been amongst the retinue of servants. I hope Marelia wasn’t a slave, although it’s likely that Monck did own slaves in colonies abroad.

Marelia is the earliest person of colour I’ve found referred to in Essex parish registers, but that’s not to say that black people weren’t in Essex earlier. Of course, 2,000 years ago there may have been people from Africa who arrived with the Romans in Essex (before the East Saxons were ever heard of). As ever, I wonder what became of them. Did they settle in Essex, and are there people reading this who can count them among their ancestors? Or did the coasts of other countries beckon, and they went travelling over the seas again?