Episode 118: Francis Barber in Georgian London

Today, we’ll be delving into the life of Francis Barber. This tale encapsulates themes of humanity, society, and the complex historical ties that bind London with the wider world. It’s a narrative that engages with notions of identity, social mobility, and the human desire for self-determination, set against the backdrop of eighteenth-century London.

 I am thrilled to be speaking with Michael Bundock, an esteemed barrister and Honorary Research Associate in the English Department at University College London. Michael has an impressive breadth of expertise in eighteenth-century history, literature, and law. He has authored a captivating book titled “The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Enslaved Jamaican who became Samuel Johnson’s Heir.”

Host: Hazel Baker – London Tour Guide

Guest: Michael Bundock

Michael Bundock, an esteemed barrister and Honorary Research Associate in the English Department at University College London. Michael has an impressive breadth of expertise in eighteenth-century history, literature, and law. He has authored a captivating book titled “The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Enslaved Jamaican who became Samuel Johnson’s Heir.

Beyond his academic accomplishments, Michael serves as a director of Dr Johnson’s House Trust, the charity responsible for owning and operating the iconic Dr Johnson’s House in London, now converted into a small museum. It serves as a touchpoint for scholars, history enthusiasts, and anyone keen on exploring the life and times of Samuel Johnson, as well as those who lived within his orbit—most notably Francis Barber.

Portrait, possibly of Barber, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1770s

Episode 118: Francis Barber in Georgian London Transcript:

00:00:00] Hazel Baker: Hello, and welcome to our London History Podcast, where we share our love of London. It’s people, places, and history. It’s designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know. I am your host, Hazel Baker, a Qualified London Tour Guide and CEO and founder of londonguidedwalks.co.uk

Each episode is supported by show notes, transcripts, photos and further reading, all to be found on our website. Click on londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast and then select the episode that you fancy. And if you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year.

So get that cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy. Today, I am thrilled to be speaking with Michael Bundock, an esteemed barrister and honorary research associate in the English department of University College London. Michael has an impressive breadth of expertise in 18th-century history, literature and law, and he’s generously taken time out of his busy schedule to share his insights with us.

He has authored a captivating book titled The Fortunes of Francis Barber, the true story of the enslaved Jamaican who became Samuel Johnson’s heir. We’ll be delving into the life of Francis Barber. This tale encapsulates themes of humanity, society and the complex historical ties that bind London with the wider world.

It’s a narrative that engages with notions of identity, social mobility and the human desire for self-determination, set against the backdrop of 18th-century London.

Hello, Michael!

[00:01:59] Michael Bundock: Hello,  and thank you very much for having me on.

[00:02:02] Hazel Baker: No, very welcome. I, when I read your book, I must admit I had loads of questions afterwards because I just wanted to know more about him and I wanted to know more about why I’d never heard of him before.

So I think maybe a good place to start would be to give our listeners a brief summary of the fortunes of Francis Barber.

[00:02:23] Michael Bundock: Yeah, sure. Francis Barber was born in Jamaica in about 1742 and he was born into slavery. He was brought up in slavery there for about eight years. Then he was brought to England in 1750 and he became a servant in the household of Samuel Johnson, the famous man of letters of the 18th century who was at that time working on what was to become his great dictionary of the English language. And Johnson was living at that time in his house in Gough Square, which you can still visit today. It’s a museum and well worth a visit. Dr Johnson’s House

So Barber lived there for a number of years as part of Johnson’s household. He left after a while and I tell the story of his work in a number of spheres. He worked for an apothecary for a couple of years as a sort of errand boy. And then, interestingly, he joined the British Navy. This is during the Seven Years War.

And he served for a couple of years in the Navy. before he returned to Johnson’s household. And he lived there for much of the rest of Johnson’s life for about another 20 years. And Barber married, he married a white woman called Elizabeth Ball, and I talk about that aspect of his life in the book and the reactions that different people had to this quite a controversial thing in 18th century London There was some support some hostility.

We can talk about how Johnson took the barber family as they became as the barbers had children into his household and they lived in his house until Johnson died in 1784 And when he died, he made Barber effectively his heir, and Barber inherited a substantial sum of money. And again, this is a big controversy in 18th-century London, which I talk about in the book.

And the Barbers moved to Lichfield, Staffordshire, which was where Johnson had come from originally. They lived there for a number of years, first in some comfort, but then fell into some poverty. And at one point Francis Barber set up a school there, and he may have been the first black schoolmaster in Britain. He ran this school for a number of years. He died in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1801. And in the book, I trace… his descendants and bring the story down to the present day, because there are still direct descendants living in Staffordshire. So that, in very brief, is the story of Francis Barber.

[00:05:03] Hazel Baker: Originally drew you to the story of Francis Barber then, and what inspired you to write a book about it?

[00:05:10] Michael Bundock: I suppose it brought together a number of interests. I have, I am very interested in Samuel Johnson and I’m, and I have the privilege of being a trustee of Dr. Johnson’s house, the, charity which owns and operates his house as a museum.

I knew Johnson’s story. I was very familiar with it. And Francis Barber appears. As a sort of footnote or in the text of every biography of Johnson, he’s mentioned somewhere or other he’s recognized as part of the Johnson story. And I was quite interested in bringing him out of the shadows a bit because Johnson is such a dominant force and a big personality and there are so many biographies of Johnson.

I was more interested in following up on what Barber’s story might be. And I was also partially, it brought together a number of interests. Because I’m embarrassed, I’m interested in some of the legal aspects around slavery in 18th century London and its legal status. The fact there were enslaved people in Britain in the 18th century, as opposed to just in the colonies and overseas, is something we often forget.

And the other thing which really drew me to the story is that there’s a very famous portrait, the original was painted by Joshua Reynolds in the 1770s, and it now hangs in the Meenor Gallery in Houston Texas, but there’s a copy in Johnson’s house of a portrait of a young black man, and there’s much discussion about whether or not this may or may not be a portrait of Francis Barber.

So in a way that is my starting point into the story was who is this person who merited a portrait by Joshua Reynolds in the 18th century and what is his story?

[00:06:52] Hazel Baker: It is a fascinating portrait as well. I’ll put a link in the show notes for everybody as well.

And when you’re researching the book, Michael, what was it that you uncovered in terms of information about Francis’s early life in Jamaica? Was there anything that surprised you there?

[00:07:13] Michael Bundock: I don’t think, as a general picture of, I had some idea about slavery in Jamaica and in the other colonies in the 18th century, and so much has been written about it the general picture of the appalling treatment which enslaved people experienced in living in the and dying in forced labour.

I was familiar with that as an overview. I think one aspect which I had not realized was how young people would be put to work. There are records, and I quote some of them in the book, of children as young as three being involved in working in the fields collecting rubbish, or whatever it may be, and I think that aspect was new to me.

[00:07:59] Hazel Baker: Yeah, it’s I’ve recently read about Mary Prince. I read her autobiography. Yeah. And, it starts off with her being sold as a child with her younger brothers and sisters. And I was just like, hold on a minute, am I really prepared to be reading this? And yes and the living conditions as well. And I think it’s bring, also bringing the… a bigger picture together. We’re hearing stories of individuals, but this was on a mass scale as well, which we forget.

[00:08:26] Michael Bundock: Yes, I think one of the, one of the great things about getting into a story like Francis Barber or Mary Prince is that and there were so many names and people who were involved in enslavement, and of course, they’re completely forgotten because there are no records and so on.

So sometimes you get an individual like Barber where there is more to write about them and it opens a window. Onto this whole world of enslavement, both in the colonies and then in Britain and into the lives of the black community in 18th century London. So it just shows you, gives you a whole different perspective of life in London and elsewhere at that time.

[00:09:06] Hazel Baker: Yeah, absolutely. And do we know anything about how Samuel Johnson was treated? Barber at all. Because we’re talking about breaking a few prejudices and societal norms there. Do we have any information about that?

[00:09:23] Michael Bundock: We do know quite a bit about that. And Johnson was well known for his charitable nature and for taking in waifs and strays, really, into this household in Gough Square.

So there was a whole number of people who lived there. There was Anna Williams, a blind poet. There was a quack doctor who was probably an alcoholic as well, who lived in the house. There were others who were working on the dictionary as well. So if you can imagine a very crowded household of people, almost all of them financially dependent on Johnson.

And it should be said this was probably a bit of a two-way street, because Johnson… At exactly the time when Francis Barber joined the household, Johnson’s wife had died probably two weeks before that. And we know that Johnson was… temperamentally subject to depression at different times of his life and certainly at this time He’s at a very low point and this is probably the background to Francis Barber joining the household the connection was that the son of Barber’s slave owner was a friend of Samuel Johnson, and he probably suggested that the presence of a young boy in the house might lighten the mood, which was fairly gloomy at that time.

So it becomes part of this household of dependents. And as I say, initially, it’s very much a case of Barber as a servant in the house, so he’s financially dependent and so on. But Johnson clearly takes a great interest in him, and interestingly, he has him taught to read and write by a writing master.

That’s very interesting and significant, I think. Quite a bit later, it actually sends him to the renowned Bishop’s lot for grammar school for several years to be educated in pretty much the way in which Johnson had been educated in Lichfield, Staffordshire much the same sort of education. So you get some indication that Johnson is regarding Barber’s something more than just a servant. And it develops more into an almost father-son relationship. There is still that authoritarian side. Johnson is very much the head of the household. So for example, when Barber leaves and joins the Navy for a couple of years, Johnson pulls strings to get Barber pulled out of the Navy. And while this is Johnson probably thinking he’s doing BBarber a good term because Johnson had a horror of being at sea and being in the Navy.

In fact. It was Barber’s independent and free choice, and there was nothing to indicate he wanted to leave. In fact, we know he didn’t want to leave. So this is Johnson acting pretty much in a heavy-handed manner of a father figure, and probably rather unwelcome. So there’s this mix of different elements to their relationship.

But then you get the aspect, as I said, when later on when Barber marries… Excuse me. Johnson takes his wife and then his children into the household. They become part of this extended household. And gradually, as the years pass, this enormous role reversal takes place. Johnson gets older, he gets more ill, and he becomes more dependent.

And towards the end of his life… There’s many of the household I’ve left, or I’ve died of, who’s left at the end, Francis and Elizabeth Barber, and indeed their children. And if you read most of the biographies of Johnson, you have no thought that when he’s living towards the end of his life in this household, but there are young children running around as well.

And these are Francis and Elizabeth Barber’s children. And Johnson, we know, loved children. It’s just an aspect that’s been overlooked. So you get this role reversal where John, where Francis and Elizabeth become… the people who are looking after Johnson and then in a sense perhaps the roles reverse again when Johnson dies and he leaves Barber sufficient money for him to be independent making him his heir.

So we’ve got this developing relationship and it’s very interesting to trace all these different aspects of it and how it changes over. It’s really a long period of time and it’s from 1752 when Johnson and Barber meet to 1784 when Johnson dies. So it’s a long time that they’re living together apart from those periods when Barber is away in the Navy or at school earlier on.

[00:13:57] Hazel Baker: You named the book The Fortunes of Francis Barber. Can you speak about the significance of the term fortunes in this context?

[00:14:06] Michael Bundock: Yes, I rather like the ambiguity in the title, and I was obviously thinking of fortunes in both senses. So in one sense, it’s simply talking about fortunes in the sense of what happened to him, the good and the bad.

So he tells the story of his life. But in the other, also it was the fortune in the sense of money the inheritance. And how he went from abject enslavement in Jamaica to later on in his life, a substantial inheritance for Johnson. And I rather like that play between the two senses of fortunes in the title.

[00:14:46] Hazel Baker: Yeah, it’s intriguing really with Barber becoming Johnson’s heir. Obviously, that wasn’t the original intention but… As you mentioned about Johnson giving him the opportunity to be literate. to have the tools to stand on your own two feet and earn an income more than just a physical job. That’s really quite admirable and interesting there. But what about how it turned from master servant relationship to becoming family?

[00:15:24] Michael Bundock: Yes, I think it’s come back to this fact that it’s such a long time they’re actually living in the same household. It’s a long developing relationship starting when Barber is a very young boy almost straight out of enslavement in Jamaica, and then through the years in growing up and having these various experiences of work; the apothecary the navy education, and so on, and marriage and I suppose especially after the marriage, and after they’d had children, then, by this time, Barber is very much an adult, obviously, and so the dynamic of the relationship has changed. And it becomes much more one of friendship.

So it’s not one of equals. Johnson is always there’s always an element of the father figure in him. But nonetheless, there is much more that Barber brings to Johnson than he had as a very young, young boy in the household. And then this culminates in this extraordinary legacy.

So when Johnson dies, he leaves him an annuity, which is about the annuity was 70 pounds a year. And by it’s hard to get points of comparison to modern money, but the easiest way, to work out what that is when he served in the Navy. He was paid 11 pounds a year, so now he’s got 70 pounds a year as an annuity.

And on top of that when Johnson’s possessions and effects and so on, were sold, Barber gets about 1,500 pounds. So in comparison with the 11 pounds a year, we’re talking about very significant sums of money sufficient. Certainly, it should have been to make Barber and his family secure for the rest of their life.

[00:17:17] Hazel Baker: What happens then too, you mentioned him setting up a school and finding times being hard where has the money gone?

[00:17:26] Michael Bundock: It’s an interesting question. I’m not quite sure I’ve been able to answer that. He moved to Lichfield, Staffordshire. So, Johnson died in 1784 and about three years later Francis and Elizabeth and their children moved to Lichfield, which was Johnson’s home, where he’d been born and brought up, and was a very well known name.

And Johnson had visited there with Barber, so Barber was already known there. And it had been Johnson’s recommendation that this was what Barber should do after Johnson had died. And I think Johnson had in mind that Barber might find support there because of the people who knew Johnson. There would be people who were willing to assist him if necessary.

It was obviously a cheaper place to live. than London. And it was also perhaps an element of being a bit out of harm’s way. There’d be less temptation to dissipate money and so on. So I think he thought it would be better for Barber from those points of view. And initially that was right. And he moved there.

and seems to have been accepted as a fairly respectable and welcome member of the community. It’s telling, I think, that he was elected by the local residents a dozener, so he served as a minor local official for a while. But the very fact they were willing to vote him on suggests he was held in some respect.

But there are signs, there were a couple of people have said he was improvident, was the word they used, with money. So somehow he’s spending a lot of money. There are certainly big medical bills. The family don’t have good health. And he complains in a number of letters about spending so much money on apothecaries.

So some of the money goes there. But exactly how he got through quite such a lot of money we don’t really know, and especially as the annuity should have lasted for the rest of his life, and I think he almost certainly cashed that in and spent it in some way. But certainly he managed to work through the money, and towards the end of the 18th century, he’s living in some poverty, and he and his wife took to selling off.

mementos of Johnson which collectors were interested in buying just to get some money to live on. That story, really.

[00:19:55] Hazel Baker: So Johnson’s other contemporaries, so Joshua Reynolds we’ve nodded to and also Oliver Goldsmith they all had interactions with Barber. So can you delve into those relationships?

[00:20:10] Michael Bundock: We know a little, not much. Reynolds is perhaps That’s the more interesting Reynolds, we know a bit about his attitudes to issues of color and so he wrote about the equality of black and white people and later became an abolitionist this is when the abolitionist, the formal abolitionist movement began towards the end of the 18th century and we do of course know that he painted.

this famous portrait of a young black man, who may or may not be Francis Barber. It may be Joshua Reynolds own servant. We know he had a black servant, and we also know from contemporary records that he painted him on a number of occasions. And in the book I talk about the arguments whether, for whether it is Barber or whether it’s not.

And the position is rather inconclusive. But I think what you can say is that it is a fantastic portrait and very striking because it is unlike so many portraits of the time, which have a black person in them and many contemporary pictures. That black person will be a servant in the background holding a horse or carrying some goods or something like that.

This is not, this is a portrait of a young black man. It’s quite formal. It’s a figure of some. Some nobility, almost. It’s painted in much the same way that Reynolds would have painted any nobleman or some other political figure or whatever, and it’s very striking. And it’s a wonderful portrait, so whether or not it’s of Francis Barber, we do know it’s of a young black man who lived in London in the 1770s.

And it’s a very striking portrait, and the copy which hangs in Dr. Johnson’s house now is one of the proudest possessions there, I think. And the

[00:22:06] Hazel Baker: ways do you think that Barber influenced Johnson’s work and views, particularly concerning slavery?

[00:22:15] Michael Bundock: I think Johnson’s… views on slavery had developed. He was certainly very opposed to slavery from, and you can see this in his writing from as early as the 1740s. So this is before, obviously before he met Barber in 1752. And it comes out on a number of occasions. in his writing and also in his conversation as recorded by a number of his contemporaries, and especially in James Boswell’s Great Life of Johnson.

So we know, in general, Johnson’s attitudes to slavery. But what I think we can say is that the arrival of Francis Barber in his household sharpens his thinking, I think, and sharpens that opposition. Because, of course, for the first time he has first-hand evidence of what it means to be enslaved. He can and presumably does talk to Francis Barber about his experiences as an enslaved person.

And I think we can see that influences writing. In that period of the 1750s, the later 1750s, after Barber was in his household, Johnson wrote more about the issue of slavery. So I think to that extent, the very fact of somebody… who knew what it was like, who could tell Johnson this is the real experience, as opposed to Johnson’s knowledge, which otherwise was derived, of course, from reading, from travel accounts, especially, and from histories and so on.

So it had all been previously at second hand, and now here’s somebody living in this household who has been born and brought up. in slavery. So it’s clearly a very vivid force and I think that’s why you can see Johnson addressing the subject more in the 1750s.

[00:24:21] Hazel Baker: And how has Barber’s story been remembered or indeed forgotten in both Jamaican and British histories?

[00:24:30] Michael Bundock: I’m not sure that I know in Jamaica whether there’s been any particular any memory or record of Barber preserved there. It has been preserved in Britain, and perhaps more in recent years.

I think a couple of reasons for this, partially, generally, there’s much more interest in Black British history. And there have been television series, especially David Oneshoga’s series and the accompanying book. And there have been a number of really good books like Gretchen Katsina’s book recently reissued about Black Britain.

So there’s more known generally about Black British history and that in itself has generated more interest in Black British history. And also the other aspect is that more people are interested in tracing their roots. And that has been something that’s developed very much in recent years. And so I think bringing those things together, people are much more interested in Black British history and how it’s affected modern-day Britain and how it’s become part of the population.

They’ve become much more aware of it. The fact that there was a black community in 18th-century London still occasionally gets people thinking that black history began with the Windrush. It began long before that. And I think that those two things brought together have created more interest in Barber.

Certainly in Lichfield, Staffordshire, I think there’s more interest in him just recently. A plaque was unveiled on Stowe Street, where he lived in Littfield to mark his presence there. And there’s a plan to put a plaque on the house in Goff Square, where he lived here. And another interesting development from a London point of view is that just recently there’s an office block in Goff Square which is now occupied by a firm of solicitors, Goodman Ray, and they recently renamed the block Francis Barber House. So if you’re going to Goff Square now to visit Dr. Johnson’s house you can also take a look at Francis Barber House just facing it on the other side of the square.

So there are all these kinds of developments of people wanting to recognize the aspect of his history. And I suppose, from my point of view, from writing the book I had an interesting experience just recently. I got an email from somebody who was in Chicago, who wrote to me and said, I think I might be a descendant of Francis Barber.

And I looked into it a bit, and sure enough, they were, because we knew that one of Francis Barber’s descendants had emigrated to the USA, and this family in Chicago were able to trace… their family roots back to that person. Similarly, in England, Francis Barber has direct descendants, father to son and still living in Staffordshire.

So those links are still here and perhaps those links into the population, they’re almost more important than the plaques and the history books, because those are living links. And it’s fascinating to talk to somebody like Cedric Barber, whom I’ve met on a number of occasions, who is his direct descendant and is fascinated by this link.

A link with the past.

[00:27:49] Hazel Baker: And how do you think the story of Francis Barber challenges or perhaps adds to our understanding of 18th-century London and society?

[00:28:04] Michael Bundock: I think, I come back to this reminder of the black community in 18th century London. There’s lots of other evidence of that. There are obviously a number of very well-known figures. Like Elauda Equiana and Ignatius Sancho and others who whose names are known and there are biographies of them and so on.

And I think Francis Barber’s story is another one that contributes to that bigger picture of what was going on in London and in Britain generally in the 18th century. And we get that broader picture of society than perhaps, We have before and I think also it, the idea of there being enslaved people in Britain and that when I talk to people about the book, many of them, that was a new thing.

I think everybody thinks of slavery as something that happened over there. It was something in the West Indies or in the colonies on the American mainland and not something. There weren’t people who were enslaved walking down the Strand or Fleet Street there were and I think it’s a reminder of that aspect as well and that, that whole story of how there were still people who were of slave status here that’s another interesting and important aspect I think that comes out of the story.

[00:29:27] Hazel Baker: And are there any other intriguing characters of London’s history you’re considering writing about in the future?

[00:29:33] Michael Bundock: There are and I’m working on a book at the moment on Granville Sharp and he was the first British abolitionist, so it taps into the same story he was very much involved in he knew Johnson, but he became active in abolition.

This is about 20 years before there was a formal abolition movement, 20 years before William Wilberforce and so on. He became a one-man campaign to get slavery declared illegal in the courts and brought a whole series of cases culminating in the Somerset case in 1772 in an attempt to get slavery declared illegal.

So he’s a very interesting person and his story connects in many ways into Francis Balder’s story and they’re from a rather different perspective.

[00:30:26] Hazel Baker: It’s good to get different angles though, isn’t it? Yeah maybe you can come on another episode and talk about him then.

[00:30:33] Michael Bundock: I hope so. That’d be a great pleasure.

[00:30:36] Hazel Baker: Michael, that has been absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much. And hopefully, people have learned a little bit about Francis Barber and also have been inspired to learn a little bit more. Thank you. That’s all for now. Until next time!

Listen now to discover more about London's history

Latest podcast episodes

Latest Episodes

Upcoming Guided Walks

Scroll to Top