Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section


Strong, Somerset and Sharp – liberating black slaves in England

This is Guildhall Library’s second exhibition for Black History Month, and we start by looking at parish register entries for black people in the City and then follow up two particular entries to discuss the men whose famous cases gave slaves legal rights in England and changed public opinion.


Black presence in London

By 1800 it has been estimated that there were between 15,000 and 20,000 black people living in London, mainly as free men and women, not as slaves or servants. It is very difficult to find references to these Londoners as most primary sources do not record race or colour of skin when a person is named.

In January this year we asked our readers to tell us about any entries they found which did indicate racial origins or skin colour, so that we could build up a picture of Black and Asian Londoners in and around the City. So far this project has found 207 entries in our records, all but two in parish registers, mostly baptisms of adults.

Why so many adult baptisms?

In 18th century Britain and in the colonies, it was popularly believed that baptism made African slaves free. Some early legal judgments on slavery referred to slaves as “heathens” as a justification of the slave trade, and passages from the Bible were used to suggest that becoming a Christian conferred freedom.

As a result, many plantation owners refused to allow their slaves baptism and several American colonies passed laws which explicitly outlawed freedom by baptism. However there was no British legal opinion until 1729, when the Attorney General and the Solicitor General ruled that “baptism doth not bestow freedom” (the Yorke-Talbot ruling).

Nonetheless a popular belief persisted that coming to Britain and being baptised released you from slavery though not service – so that you could not be bought and sold. Many slaves brought to Britain by their masters did seek baptism, finding a sympathetic clergyman and English godparents. Many such baptisms are recorded in our parish registers. (Our website contains a full list of the entries found to date.) Some entries from the parish of St Sepulchre Holborn are on display in case no.1 (Guildhall Library Ms 7221/1).

Jonathan Strong

One of the entries found was for Jonathan Strong, baptised on 22 July 1765 at St Leonard Shoreditch, “a blackmoor, about 18 years of age” (GL Ms 7496/7). Strong was brought as a slave from Barbados to London and was savagely beaten  with a pistol by his master David Lisle so that his head was swollen, he was nearly blind and he could hardly walk. He was abandoned by Lisle in the street.

Jonathan Strong found his way to the surgeon William Sharp in Mincing Lane, where Sharp treated the poor of the City of London for free. Sharp’s brother Granville noticed Strong’s condition and asked him about his shocking injuries. The occasion is recorded in Strong’s own words in Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp (London, 1820), page 33 which is on display in case no.1.

William Sharp arranged for Jonathan Strong to be admitted to St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he received treatment for four months. On his discharge, the Sharp brothers found him employment as errand boy with Mr Brown, a surgeon and apothecary in Fenchurch Street, with whom he lived for two years.

Lisle saw Strong by accident one day. Having followed him home, Lisle planned to sell the slave he had left in the street and obtained £30 for him, to be paid when Jonathan Strong was aboard a West Indian ship ready to sail. Lisle therefore paid two slave-hunters to kidnap Strong and deliver him to the Poultry Compter (a jail in the City of London) until a West India ship was ready to sail. A drawing of the Poultry Compter with a map showing its location are on display in case no.1.

Jonathan Strong desperately appealed to Granville Sharp for help. Sharp took his case to court. The action was heard at Mansion House on 18 September 1767 before the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Kite, who discharged Strong because “the lad had not stolen anything, and was not guilty of any offence, and was therefore at liberty to go away”.

In the court room, in front of the Lord Mayor, the captain of the ship attempted to seize Jonathan Strong but Sharp prevented him being taken away. The Jamaican planter who had bought Strong sued the Sharps for trespass for depriving him of his property. The Sharp brothers engaged lawyers to defend them, who to their dismay quoted the Yorke-Talbot ruling of 1729 that a slave did not become free on coming to England, he did not become free by baptism and that any master might compel his slave to return to the West Indies.

Granville Sharp

Granville Sharp “could not believe that the Laws of England were really so injurious to natural Rights” and began studying the law to conduct his own defence. He was a clerk in the Ordnance Office at Tower Hill and had “never opened a lawbook (except the Bible) in my life”. He was determined to defend himself, his brother and Strong and combat the cruelty and injustice of slavery.

Having read widely and traced the original sources of the laws of England, he was convinced that slavery was not sanctioned by English law and showed his findings to lawyers at the Inns of Court which succeeded in intimidating the Jamaican planter’s lawyers. In 1769 once their suit had failed, Sharp published his answer to Yorke-Talbot, A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery; or of Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men, in England. His conclusion was that any person who came to England and lived there became a subject of the King and therefore subject to Habeas Corpus which prevented forcible removal to another country. He also used humanitarian arguments - “a toleration of slavery is, in effect, a toleration of inhumanity”. This was the first major anti-slavery work by a British author. Sharp received letters privately welcoming his book, some from lawyers but the book was only reviewed once and there was no other public reaction.

Sharp assisted other runaway slaves to find safety and brought other cases to court, seeking in vain a definitive judgment on the legality of slavery in four separate cases. Finally, another man came to him for help – James Somerset.

James Somerset

Somerset was an African slave sold in Virginia to Charles Stewart, a colonial customs official, later based in Boston. He arrived, with Stewart, in London in 1769 and was baptised as James Summersett on 20 February 1771 at St Andrew Holborn. The entry is displayed in case no.2 (GL Ms 6667/12). He left Stewart’s service on 1 October 1771. Stewart hunted him, and he was seized and confined in irons aboard a ship bound for Jamaica on 26 November 1771.

His godparents, Thomas Walklin, Elizabeth Cade and John Marlow, applied for a writ of habeas corpus to prevent his removal and sale in Jamaica and paid for James Somerset’s bail. Somerset visited Granville Sharp and persuaded Sharp to become involved.

Sharp masterminded the proceedings, organising counsel to argue the case. He  published an appendix to The Injustice of Tolerating Slavery which drew on the cases he had brought previously and implicitly criticised Lord Mansfield. Indeed, he arranged for James Somerset to deliver a copy directly to Mansfield. (A copy is held in Guildhall Library, B:S 531.)

West Indian planters rallied round Stewart, determined too that this should be a test case, and framed their response to the habeas corpus very carefully. They said that “negro slaves” were chattel goods, that Somerset was a slave according to the laws of Virginia and Africa, and that his master had detained him to send him to Jamaica for sale.

The case was heard in February 1772 and attracted a great deal of press and public attention. After a great deal of arguments on both sides, the argument centred on whether slavery was legal in England and whether an English court should uphold colonial laws which did not have an English parallel.

Lord Mansfield was the eminent lawyer of his day, indeed of the eighteenth century. He had a natural conservative bent and was well aware of the economics of slavery. He tried to persuade Elizabeth Cade, Somerset’s godmother, to buy him and Charles Stewart, his former owner, to set him free. Both refused because they wanted the case settled and the law made clear.

On 22 June 1772 Mansfield delivered his judgment. He knew the significance of the case and said “Fiat justicia, ruat coelum” (Let justice be done, though the heavens fall). His decision was carefully worded and focused on the legality of forcible deportation. He argued that Stewart was not entitled to seize and deport Somerset by the laws of England. The laws of Virginia supported slavery but there was no law in England which did and in “a case so odious as the condition of slaves” there must be a positive law. “No master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service… and therefore the man must be discharged.”

Did Lord Mansfield free slaves in England?

Well, the St James’ Chronicle and general evening post (held in Guildhall Library Printed Books) and the Middlesex Journal, both of 23 June 1772 and Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal certainly thought so, reporting “That every slave brought into this country ought to be free, and no master had a right to sell them here”. Other papers more accurately reported that the Somerset case had decided only that black slaves in England could not be forcibly removed from England.

The trial had been attended by a large number of Black people who celebrated the verdict with delight. A ball for Black people only was arranged at a pub in Westminster where Lord Mansfield’s health was drunk. James Somerset wrote to a friend that the judgment meant all slaves were now free.

There were still many slaves in England long after 1772 – adverts for finding and returning runaway slaves like the one on display in case 2 continued to appear in English newspapers, especially in Bristol. West India planters ignored Mansfield’s judgment, or got round it by apprenticing their slaves. They lobbied, unsuccessfully, for an Act of Parliament to reinstate the Yorke/Talbot ruling.

What had changed was the tide of public opinion. The case of James Somerset had excited much public interest and was widely reported in newspapers who portrayed it as a drama with human interest as well as great legal importance. Many English people found that they could not tolerate a man or woman being owned as a chattel, especially in London, where a free (albeit poor) Black community developed in the late 18th century. The slave trading ports of Bristol and Liverpool were more aware of the foundations of their prosperity.

What happened to Strong, Somerset and Sharp?

Jonathan Strong never fully recovered from his beating and died in April 1773.

Nothing is known of James Somerset after 1772.

Granville Sharp continued his anti-slavery campaign, recruited William Wilberforce as a campaigner, and was involved in a high-minded but disastrous scheme to repatriate freed slaves to Sierra Leone. He died in 1813 and has a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading

All the unattributed quotations in this leaflet are drawn from Granville Sharp’s own writings, and are all contained in Prince Hoare Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. composed from his own manuscripts, and other authentic documents (London, 1820).

We have also drawn heavily on Folarin Shyllon, Black slaves in Britain (London, 1974) and (to a lesser extent) Peter Fryer, Staying power: a history of black people in Britain (London, 1984) and the Dictionary of National Biography entries for Granville Sharp and James Somerset.

That there is an entry for Somerset in the new DNB shows the extent to which the history of black people in Britain is becoming part of the academic mainstream in British history. Several books have been very recently published which may well have more to contribute but we have not been able to read and consider them at the time of writing. These are: Simon Schama ,Rough Crossings (BBC Books); Steven M Wise, Though the Heavens may fall (Yale) which is specifically about the Mansfield judgment; Adam Hochschild, Bury the chains: the first international human rights movement.



The captions to material used in the exhibition are given below:

Display case 1

1 St Sepulchre Holborn baptism register 1768-87. Guildhall Library Ms 7221/1.

The register is open to show the baptisms of two black men in their twenties  on 26 August 1782. In January this year we asked our readers to let us know about any entries they found for Black and Asian Londoners. Most of the 207 entries found so far have been baptisms of adult black men and women, probably because of a widespread belief that slaves could be freed by being baptised as Christians.  


2  View of St Sepulchre, Skinner Street, with a figure on the right driving cattle.

       Print of engraving by S Lacey of Thomas Hosmer Shepherd’s drawing, London, circa 1830, held in Guildhall Library Print Room, Pr.523/SEP.

3  Public architecture: inside view of the Poultry Compter, drawn in June 1811, by John Thomas Smith (London, 1813) held in Guildhall Library Print Room, Pr.484:POU.

Jonathan Strong, whose baptism we found, was beaten and abandoned by his master and rescued by Granville and William Sharp. He was recaptured and imprisoned by his former master in the Poultry Compter in September 1767. The Compter was an ancient jail on the north side of the Poultry in the City of London, first referred to in 1477 but probably longer established than that. Ned Ward called it a “hellish inferno” in The London spy (London, 1703).

4  Photocopy of John Rocque’s map of London published as The A-Z of Georgian London (London, 1981) showing the location of Poultry Compter and the Poultry Compter entry from the London Encyclopaedia ed. Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, London, 1983). 

The entry confuses Jonathan Strong with James Somerset and mistakenly calls Somerset the last slave in England. (See display case 2 for more about this myth.)

Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. by Prince Hoare (London, 1820) held in GL Printed Books, AN 13.1.12.

These memoirs, based on Sharp’s writings and documents, describe Sharp’s anti-slavery campaign and show how his passionate interest was sparked by Jonathan Strong’s ill-treatment (described here) and his subsequent recapture and imprisonment. Strong’s testimony at the bottom of page 33 is an unusual survival of a black man telling his story.

Display case 2


1   James Somerset’s baptism on 12 February 1771 at St Andrew Holborn Guildhall Library Ms 6667/12.


His surname is given as Summersett, one of several variations on Somerset which appear in the original and secondary sources about his famous legal case.


2  Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, great niece of Lord Mansfield, with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted by Johann Zoffany, 1779.

 Dido, born around 1762-3, was the great-niece of Lord Mansfield, the daughter of his nephew John Lindsay and Belle a slave who became Lord Mansfield’s housekeeper. She lived at Mansfield’s London residence, Kenwood House, first as a companion to her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, then as a secretary to Mansfield, though she was also in charge of the dairy and poultry yard.

This fascinating portrait (held at Scone Palace, the ancestral home of the Earls of Mansfield) indicates her ambiguous position in the household – she did not generally dine with the Mansfields but joined the ladies after dinner. She is mentioned in contemporary sources, leading to speculation then and now that she softened Mansfield’s attitude to slavery. 

Cobbett’s complete collection of state trials, vol.20 (London, 1814).

The volume shows Lord Mansfield’s judgment on the abduction and imprisonment of James Somerset, referred to in the volume  as “the Negro Case”. Mansfield ruled only on the unlawfulness of abducting a slave from England but there was a belief then and now that he had freed all slaves in Britain. This belief  was reported as fact in several newspapers the day after the judgment (23 June 1772) and appears in many historical and reference works (for one  example of many, see the London Encyclopaedia entry for Poultry Compter in display case 1 downstairs in Printed Books section).

4  Photograph of an advert for the return of a runaway slave which appeared in The London Gazette, 17-21 April 1690.

The advert describes his steel collar with his master’s name, the steel cuff on his wrist and the iron chain connecting the collar to the cuff. In the Gazette it appears below a notice about a stray horse.

5 London Chronicle, 28 April 1774.  

This news story about a black man, a former servant, being abducted and imprisoned on a ship bound for St Kitts shows the changing tide of public opinion clearly, by reporting the actions of the “several Gentlemen” who served his former master with a habeas corpus and by describing the black man as a “poor fellow”.  

Last updated October 2005


Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section