If you are walking along King Charles Street in Whitehall, close to the entrance to the grandly classical Foreign Office, it is easy to miss a plaque fixed high up on the wall. I missed it for decades.
The plaque tells us that at number 19 Charles Street – as it was then called – a grocery shop was run by Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), who had escaped slavery to become a well regarded writer, a playwright, a composer and a London celebrity.
Sancho was feted by Dr Johnson, painted by Gainsborough and a correspondent of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, whom he actively encouraged to campaign against slavery. When a book of his letters was published on a subscription basis – today we would call it crowdfunding – the subscribers read like pages from Debrett’s.
It was fashionable in those days for some aristocrats to have a black butler. Sancho was employed by the enlightened Lord Montagu, who encouraged him to educate himself, which he did with enthusiasm. When the onset of gout prevented Sancho from performing his household duties, Montagu helped him to set up his grocery shop where he also sold sugar and tobacco – ironically, products of slavery.
Charles James Fox (1749-1806), the radical Whig politician, was a prominent visitor to the shop and Sancho apparently voted for him in the 1780 election, which he was able to do thanks to his property rights as a Westminster shopkeeper. He was almost certainly the first black person to vote in Britain.
Sancho, who must have acquired his forename Ignatius from an early encounter with Jesuits, is buried in Victoria Street at Christchurch Gardens, a patch of greenery situated near the Albert pub.
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