The effigy of the frightful Robert Clive at the end of King Charles Street, facing St James’s Park, is a prime candidate for removal when Sadiq Khan’s review of London’s statues is completed. Clive’s presence also provides one of three “names” in a street that is otherwise devoid of anything to distract from an unending vista of Whitehall stone. The second is that of the street itself, christened in honour of Charles II, who was the monarch when it was built in 1682. The third, unlike the other two, is easily missed.
It appears on a plaque above most people’s line of sight on the wall of the Foreign Office. Similar in colour to the stone, it is so slight that it looks as though it might slip down at any moment. It refers to Ignatius Sancho, who escaped from a background of slavery to become a distinguished man of letters in 18th century England. Unlike Clive, he actually lived in the street. And there couldn’t be anyone less like him.
At a time of mass illiteracy, Sancho educated himself to compose music and to write to an exceptional standard. He was the first black person to vote, thanks to his ownership of a shop in the street (its position is marked by the small yellow circle is in the photo above). When his letters were published after his death – including an exchange with Laurence Stern, author of the hugely influential Tristram Shandy – they became best selling, attracting a distinguished list of subscribers, which included leading dukes, earls and duchesses, the Prime Minister, Lord North, and historian Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If such success had happened to a white working-class lad, it would have been extraordinary. For it to happen to a black slave at a time when Britain was still the leading slave-trading nation is almost unbelievable.
More than 250 years before Black Lives Matter, Sancho was feted as an example of what black people were capable of if only they were given a chance. He was one of a number of slaves who did well in Georgian London. Another was Oludah Equiano, who for a time lived locally and was baptised in nearby St Margaret’s Church, where Sancho was married and where his children were baptised. Equiano wrote a riveting page-turner of a book about his experiences as a slave. It too became a best seller, read by the Prince Regent among others on a distinguished list. Equiano, who had another name, Gustavus Vassa, given to him by a slave owner, soon became a leading light in the anti-slavery movement.
Sancho and his family lived above his shop thanks partly to a legacy given to him by the Duke of Montagu’s family, which had encouraged his education. He sold groceries – including, ironically, products of the slave trade like sugar, tea and tobacco – and received distinguished visitors, such as Whig politician Charles Fox, who would stop by for a gossip. It is even possible that Clive visited, as he was often in the area. Sancho’s neighbours were a motley collection of lower middle-class folk including victualers, bricklayers, sadlers, schoolmasters, bricklayers, surveyors and a “gentleman” or two.
The conclusion of all this is obvious. If the powers that be are looking for a new statue to replace that of Clive, what could be more appropriate than one of Sancho, who was actually a resident of King Charles Street. Or it could be of Sancho sitting back to back with Equiano. It is not known for certain if they actually met, though it would be curious if they hadn’t, as they both attended local churches and were among the initiators of a movement which, over 250 years later, has yet to reach its goal.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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