From Plantation to Salvation

Our speaker in October was Sue Bray, a local historian who works for the Outreach Project run by the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum.

Sue began by saying that Francis Barber was an incredible man who is important in the history of Black people in Britain. His is one of many stories about Black people which can contribute to our understanding of their former place in society; but which are rarely taught in history classes.

Francis Barber, known as 'Quashey', was born about 1742 on an estate in Jamaica that had been owned since 1649 by the Bathurst family. The family's slaves were obtained from West Africa to work on their very fertile land. The infamous "triangular trade" involved transporting goods from Britain were shipped from Britain for sale in Africa, there a new cargo of slaves was collected and shipped to America and the West Indies. Commodities such as sugar were then brought back from the Carribean to the United Kingdom. The conditions on board these ships were horrendous and survival on the eight week voyage was poor - half of the human 'cargo' often died. An example of "man's inhumanity to man".

Quashey was a common name for slave boys in the Orange State of Jamaica and Richard Bathurst took him in as a houseboy. It is said that he was an engaging little boy, precocious and charming.

Eventually the estate by the Orange River became unprofitable and the Bathursts returned to England, to live near Lincoln Cathedral. Samuel Johnson would have had no knowledge of the child who had been brought back to England. He hated slavery and considered Jamaica "a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness".

In 1752, Francis (or Frank) was living in Lincoln. Meanwhile, in London, Samuel Johnson was in a deep depression; having stopped work on the dictionery. His friend, Dr Richard Bathurst, gave him Frank to help cheer him up. Johnson was beguiled by the little boy and his depression lifted. Frank's education had already been started by the Bathurst family and Johnson continued to school him. The little boy lived in the attic; he practised writing and he watched Johnson at work.

Anne Williams, a friend of Johnson's wife, Tetty had an eye operation (without anaesthetic!) at Johnson's London home in Gough Square but this was was unsuccessful and she went blind. Anne did not get on with Frank. He ran away to work as an apothecary's apprentice in Cheapside, where Johnson continued to visit him.

Frank then joined the Navy, serving on HMS Raven. Johnson considered life a sailor worse than going to jail and paid for Frank's release from the service. Frank was then 25 years old, well educated, and very attractive to women. Johnson treated him as his son. Boswell also got on well with him. Frank obviously had certain freedoms in Johnson's house as his fellow countrymen were allowed to visit in a back room. London society found this shocking!

In 18th century London, 8% of the population were black. They had their own food and clubs, with "No Whites Allowed" written on the door. After his Dictionary was published and he was granted a Royal pension, Johnson left London to travel, often living with friends. In 1773, Frank married Elizabeth 'Betty' Ball at St Dunstan's in the West (Fleet Street, City of London). They had five children, including two sons named Samuel, but their first child, Samuel, died just 14 years old. Johnson invited the family to live in what was now his London home at Bolt Court, off Fleet Street.

In 1782 Johnson's health began to fail and he was cared for by Frank and his wife. He died the following year with the ever-loyal Frank beside him. Society was shocked by Johnson's will as Frank was to receive # 70 a year (about # 9,000 today). However, the bulk of Dr Johnson's estate, including the proceeds from the sale of his house in Lichfield, was left in trust for an unnamed religious association; this was probably "The Associates of Dr Bray".

Frank may have been the first Black schoolteacher in Britain (according to Bundock), but his schoolteaching career was very brief. The school was about a mile away from Edial, where Samuel Johnson had established a school 60 years before. That project ended in failure within two years; so did Frank's venture. Nothing is known of this school, but it may have been an elementary establishment where young pupils might follow on in a charity school.

Now that his family was living in Lichfield, Frank's inheritance dwindled and the struggling family was helped by Boswell. (Frank is mentioned frequently in Boswell's "Life of Johnson"). Some memorabilia of Johnson, that had once been owned by Frank, are now in the Birthplace Museum; these had been sold to pay off debts. By 1801, Frank was in poor health and he died after an operation in Stafford Royal Infirmary. (There is an account in "The Gentleman's Magazine"). He was buried in a pauper's grave, possibly in St Mary's church at Stafford. After his death, Frank's wife and surviving daughter Ann opened a school in Lichfield, but this again was not financially viable.

Sue told us that the City Council is planning to erect a Blue Plaque on Cruck House (in Stowe Street) to commemorate Francis Barber later this year.

At this point our speaker concluded her talk; but continued to answer questions. She related how a family from Stoke-on-Trent, looking for their family history, had been directed to the Birthplace Museum. There they discovered that they were descended from Francis Barber - which accounted for family members having either blond hair and blue eyes or black curls! The story is that Frank's son, Samuel, lived in Burslem and found employment with the famous potter, Enoch Wood.

For further reading Sue suggested Michael Bundock's book "The Fortunes of Francis Barber", (Yale University Press, 2021).


In April 1760 Samuel Johnson joined "The Associates of Dr Thomas Bray"; an Anglican clergyman who was troubled by the poor missionary efforts of the Church of England. In 1723, Thomas Bray had formed a Trust to convert and educate black people in the colonies. Johnson was committed to this cause and supported it for the rest of his life. He donated 10 guineas in May 1784 shortly before his death.

Lorna Bushell
October, 2022