Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

197 : Featured in Victorian Fiction: ‘The Amber Beads’ of 1898

Black men and women were employed as servants in the Victorian era, as can be seen on the following pages of this website: Jamaican valet Andrew Bogle in Dorset in the 1830s and 1840s [page 161], child nurse Harriet Jacobs in Berkshire in 1845 [page 151] and another American, ladies maid Julia Jackson who appears in the London census of 1861 [page 160]. There was the African gardener George Watteau who lived in Chislehurst, Kent from the 1880s and died there in 1931 [page 155], the Jamaican servant Ann Styles who lived in London working for the same family for over sixty years [page 131], and others.

Most Victorian British novelists seem to mention black people in their stories set in Britain although Dickens did not — in his Oliver Twist he made the London king of thieves Fagin, a Jew: the behaviour of Henry Murphy (who seems to have been from Guadaloupe) in 1834 must have been his inspiration [see page 094].

The prolific writer Fergus Hume (see Wikipedia) had a collection of short stories published in 1898. Hagar of the Pawn-Shop: The Gypsy Detective included his ‘The Amber Beads’, which was republished in Hugh Greene’s The Crooked Counties in 1973, and also in Greene’s Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Crooked Counties by Penguin in 1976. This story of sixteen pages involves a West Indian house servant in London (‘a tall and bulky negress’) named Rosa who pawns the amber bead necklace. In fact she was impersonated by a white man, and the story involves family plots and suicide – and the black servant is given the necklace and an annuity. Her employer was the widow of ‘a West Indian gent’ and they lived in Bedford Gardens. Oddly, perhaps, this was where the widow and two daughters of African American actor Ira Aldridge (died 1867) lived in the 1890s.

Estimates of the numbers of servants in late Victorian Britain agree that at least one million people did such work, and so we should not be surprised that contemporary fiction included black servants.