What parish registers reveal about Surrey’s 1700s Black history
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Di Stiff, collections development archivist of Surrey History Centre, said: “Surrey’s parish records are perhaps our biggest source for looking at the population of the county prior to the introduction of the national census.
“The registers are hugely important for people tracing their family history and they are a key source for seeing how many Black people were resident in the county.
“In many early parish registers the churchwardens who compiled them often included descriptive comments about the physical traits of those being baptised, married or buried.”
Many of those found in parish registers were servants, enslaved under another name, and then recorded as belonging to wealthy European white households.
Di adds that some records use language that would not be seen as acceptable today.
She explained that Surrey was significant back in the 1700s and 1800s because of its close proximity to both London and the naval city of Portsmouth.
“With Surrey being located on the Portsmouth Road, connecting London to the naval city, we know that there are a number of records where Black people are among those making use of this route, either heading to the port for work or travelling on to other parts of the world either to trade or to fight,” she said.
“Commonly, people stayed overnight in Send or Ripley, so we find many travellers, strangers and passengers on the Portsmouth carriages, as well as soldiers, among those taken ill or involved in accidents, and subsequently buried in those parishes and recorded in the registers.”
Although it’s worth noting that the first believed possible reference to a Black person in Surrey’s parish registers dates back even earlier than these stories to 1577, when the burial of ‘a child of black Richards, a stranger’ is referred to in Kingston-upon-Thames records.
Surrey History Centre is always keen to hear from those with more information on the county’s history, and encourages anyone with stories to make contact.
Here are four stories which show what we can learn from early Surrey Black history through parish registers.
The Cuffee family
Putney parish records show two Black people starting a family in the early 18th century, and the ‘Cuffee’ or ‘Coffee’ family were crudely nicknamed such by contemporaries due to the colour of their skin.
George Cuffee, named as “a black youth” in parish registers, was buried in 1752, possibly the same person as the slightly differently-named ‘George Cuffe’ baptised in Putney in 1749, such were the sad infant mortality rates at the time.
Tracing the ‘Cuffee’ family history is difficult because there were so many people who were given that name, or variants around it at the time. Slave registers show that the name was a common one among the enslaved.
Peter was based in Walton, a person who is described as being a Black adult and ‘of John Fredericks Esq.’
This may refer to Sir John Frederick of Burwood (1708-83), if not another member of the Frederick family, a land-owning family of Burwood Park, Walton. They were descendants of Christopher Frederick, who was serjeant surgeon to James I.
Sir John Frederick of Burwood married Sussane [sic], the daughter of Sir Roger Hudson of Sunbury, who was director of the South Sea Company, associated with the Royal African Company and the trade supply of West Africans to Jamaica.
This means Sir Roger may well have facilitated Peter’s arrival in the UK.
A parish record from January 6, 1715 shows a Black man ‘of riper years’ named Caesar being baptised in the Richmond area, similarly describing him as ‘of Mr Vandeput’. This is possibly referring to Edward Vandeput, a son of Sir Peter and Dame Margaret Vandeput who married in August 1674.
This couple had 22 children, including Edward Vandeput, who was mentioned in the same parish register. Dame Margaret would also go on to found Christ’s School in Richmond.
The parish register for Merton includes the baptism of Fatima Nelson, also referred to as Fatima Hamilton, a Nubian maid for Lady Emma Hamilton who was baptised on April 26, 1802.
Fatima was almost definitely brought to the UK by Admiral Nelson, who lived in Merton Place with Emma Hamilton, his mistress.
Fatima is believed to have been brought to Lady Hamilton during the initial brief period of British occupation in Egypt, 1801-1803.
Thank you to Surrey History Centre for its help with this article.