Sale of a Slave in Hertford, 1768

A boy called Howard

By Jill Barber

Hertford Borough Records, 31 December 1768
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

This memorandum, dated 31 December 1768 was found in Hertford Borough Records. It reads:

‘The Corporation Seal was put to a Bill of Sale dated 12 October 1768 (in the presence of the Mayor) from James Baillie and Elizabeth his wife to Alexander Bell of a mulatto boy slave named Howard, son of a negro woman named Flora, the property of Mrs Elizabeth Baillie then living in the Island of Jamaica.’

Who was the father?

Howard, the boy being sold, is described as a ‘mulatto’, which means his father was a white man. It might have been James Baillie himself, or one of his sons or overseers on his plantation.  Men were encouraged to have sexual relationships with enslaved women, as any children they had automatically became the property of their ‘owner’.  Slave children were a commodity that could be bought and sold.  It is particularly shocking to find that sale taking place in England, in the quiet county town of Hertford.

A butcher and cattle dealer

The Mayor of Hertford at this time was Benjamin Cherry, an eminent butcher and cattle dealer who left a fortune of £30,000 on his death in 1785. His ghost is said to haunt Jenningsbury Farm, near Hertford Heath, where he killed himself just before Christmas 1785, apparently by accident, by jumping into the moat.  His grandson, another Benjamin Cherry, built Brickendon Grange.

Support for slavery

What was the Mayor’s link with James and Elizabeth Baillie?  Was this an official transaction, or was Cherry acting in a private capacity?  As the sale was entered in the official Borough Record Book we can assume that the other Aldermen would have known about it.  Did they all support slavery, or did some raise concerns about the fate of the little boy?

What happened next?

No more is known about the fate of Howard, and his mother Flora.  The bare record gives little hint of the emotional distress it caused. Flora has not only experienced the trauma of enslavement, and possibly forced to have sex against her will, but now her child is being cruelly taken away from her.

Document Ref: Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies, HBR/vol 21/p 593

This page was added on 22/02/2011.

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  • This was quite a surprise to me, the sale of a slave in Hertford, because I had always understood that Britain claimed as a Christian country not to accept slavery within its boundaries – although contributing to it in every other way beyond its shores. However medieval documents record the bequest of servants in wills who were virtual slaves. It is possible to take a different view and suppose that the servants/slaves in question were affectionately regarded and were being assured of safe futures when owners died. There are always 2 sides!

    By Joan Woolard (11/09/2011)