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Ignatius Sancho
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Ignatius Sancho has been called “probably the best-known man in eighteenth century London ”. He was born on a slave-ship in 1729 but both his parents died soon afterwards. He was brought to England by his owner at the age of two and given to three unmarried sisters near Greenwich . His mistresses did not believe in educating slaves, but Sancho taught himself to read and write “by unwearied application”. He was encouraged in this by the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, who lived nearby and gave him books. When Sancho, aged twenty, ran away from his mistresses, the Duchess of Montagu engaged him as a butler.

While in this job, Sancho wrote poetry and two plays; visited the theatre often and tried to become an actor. He also composed songs and instrumental pieces and wrote a “Theory of Music”. He began to move in literary and artistic circles: his friends included the great actor Garrick and the writers Samuel Johnson and Lawrence Sterne, as well as painters and sculptors. Gainsborough painted his portrait in 1768.

Sancho married a black woman from the Caribbean called Anne, with whom he had six children. In 1773 he left the Montagu family, and the following year he and Anne, helped by a legacy from the Duchess, opened a grocer's shop in Westminster , where they were visited by a stream of famous friends.

After his death in 1780, one of his friends collected and published his Letters , which were an immediate sell-out. He wrote lively and often very sharp descriptions of eighteenth-century life, including a famous first-hand account of the1780 Gordon Riots, when a mob of Londoners went on the rampage in protest against proposed rights for Catholics:

“…the shouts of the mob – the horrid clashing of swords – and the clutter of a
multitude in swiftest motion – drew me to the door – when every one in the street
was employed in shutting up shop. …This instant about two thousand liberty boys
are swearing and swaggering by with large sticks – …I am not sorry I was born in

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