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Margaret, Servant, 1710

Margaret was baptised at St John’s Church, Hackney, in 1710. Her children, Joseph and Katherine were baptised at the same time.

In 1710 Hackney was still surrounded by fields. Many rich people built houses in Hackney. They liked to get away from the crowded streets of London. Large houses needed many servants. By this time a lot of Black people were being brought over from the West Indies to carry out this work.

Although Margaret is given the title servant, she is unlikely to have been paid.

Portrait of African Girl, c.1740

Madame Mitchell’s House

Voice calling ‘Margaret, Margaret!’

Margaret: That’s my Mistress, Madame Mitchell. I wonder what she wants now?

I live here in Church Street, in Hackney, in this year of our Lord 1710 My daughter who is 14, and my son who is seven, are here with me too. This is a comfort… and yet a curse.

Portrait of African Girl, c.1740
Portrait of African Girl, c.1740

Madame M: Where’s Joseph? Why isn’t he ready? Tell Katherine to send him up.

Margaret: Yes Ma’am.
This is a grand house, one of Hackney’s finest, or so Madame would say. It has six bedrooms, all with their own closets. But we share one room and one bed between the three of us. I clean, and do the laundry, which gives me a bad back. My daughter cleans and helps the cook – she works long, long hours; and my youngest – well look at him.

Mare Street near the church, 1740
Mare Street near the church, 1740

Madame M: Ah, there you are boy, why haven’t you got your turban on – no Margaret you’re hands are covered in soot from cleaning the fireplace. Come here Joseph.

Margaret: He’s got up in pink silk suit with lace cuffs, and a yellow silk turban with a ridiculous white feather stuck in the top. She dresses him up as if he were a doll, because it’s the fashion to have a little black boy as a page, and has him follow around after her all day, and sometimes half the night if she is going dancing at the Assembly. The child comes home so tired he can hardly stand up.

People at Vauxhall Gardens
People at Vauxhall Gardens

Mind you, her own little boy is almost as miserable. He goes to school on Lower Clapton Road and learns Latin and French and geometry, which he hates.When his maman is not looking, the two boys sneak off together and play ‘Ring a ring a roses’ on Holywell Mount where they buried the people who died of the plague and covered them over with earth and lime.

Madame M: Margaret, Margaret do make haste and finish.My guests will be arriving and you know how the sight of you upsets poor Lady Chapman.

Margaret: Occasionally I get a little time off, and then me and my boy go walking, across the fields, beyond the church and out towards Hummerton.
There’s plenty of new houses that way too. Hackney is the fanciest of places these days. All of Master Mitchell’s merchant friends want to move here, he says, and take the fine air, and build a grand home for themselves.

View of Hackney
View of Hackney

Margaret: I know where most of these moneymen get their riches from though. From cargoes of sugar and rum and tobacco. From working slaves on their plantations. These fine ladies and gentlemen sipping tea in their drawings rooms would choke to see how their sugar got made. But I know- I’ve seen it.

Madame M: Margaret. Bring the tray through when I call.

Margaret: My Master Mitchell is a sugar merchant. He travels to the West indies every year. Four years ago now, he decided to bring us back with him to England, along with a few men to be trained as footmen. I’ll never forget the long days and nights on that ship, my children cold and sick and half scared to death. Master Mitchell figured we would be cheaper. And we are. And there is nothing we can do about it. Madame Mitchell insisted we be baptised, and then having done her Christian duty by us, she is now at liberty to treat us as slaves.

Madame M: There now Joseph, stand straight, don’t scowl so. There, hold my fan, and then, when you hear the bell, hold my train while I receive my guests. There Margaret, doesn’t Joseph look better when he smiles.

Black boy dressed in turban
Black boy dressed in turban

Margaret: Yes Madame.

What really frightens me is what will happen in a few years time. My little girl is almost grown up now. A man – a ‘gentleman’ tried to pull her into the pub, the ‘Mermaid’ last month. Assumed that because she was black he could do as he liked by her. She was too quick for him that day. And what will happen when my boy grows too big to be her pet? Will Madame keep us all three then? I hear young men are sold at the coffee shops in the city every month. How might he buy his freedom, and live where he chooses?

Madame M: Here they are. Joseph, what did I tell you? My dress. You can go now Margaret.

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