Wrexham’s hidden Black history: Who was John Meller’s coachboy?
The link between Britain and Africa has a long and ugly history, a history punctuated by the transatlantic slave trade.
Though the trade was based on taking enslaved Africans from the West coast of the continent to European-owned Caribbean colonies, a handful slaves were taken back to Britain and employed as servants.
Slavery within the confines of the British isles itself had not been legal since the Norman invasion of 1066 and, as a result, the black population of the UK grew from a number of freed or runaway slaves who sought refuge in Britain.
Wales was no different and, in fact, it is believed that the first black person to come to Wrexham was an 18th century servant.
Unfortunately his name and life have been lost to history, a sad reflection of how black people were considered in British society.
The servant is the subject of a famous painting called John Meller’s Coachboy which still hangs in Erddig Hall in Wrexham, once owned by Joshua Edisbury the former High Sheriff of Denbighshire.
Thanks to serious debts and the threat of bankruptcy, the hall was sold to John Meller, the then Master of the Chancery.
This anonymous servant, as suggested by the title of the painting, served as one of Meller’s servants, specifically one who would load up his coach and help the coach driver.
However, despite the title of the portrait it is thought that the anonymous servant may have worked as an entertainer or musician due to the presence of the horn in his picture.
The Erddig accounts for 1719 record a payment of £5 (more than £1,100 today) to someone referenced only as “the black” while a letter from the Rector of Marchwiel to John Meller in 1721 states: “I know no reason, if the Major (Meller’s brother-in-law) send his black to me today, but that he may be christened this morning.”
This points to evidence of the servant’s presence at Erddig, suggesting that he was in Meller’s employment.
However, more recent research and study of the boy’s uniform, showed adequately in the portrait, suggests that it came from the late 18th century and thus was not painted in Meller’s time.
This suggests that the painting was commissioned or acquired by Philip Yorke, a later owner of Erddig, to commemorate a particular servant who had stuck in the memories of residents.
Meller died childless and his possessions including the hall and painting were passed onto his nephew Simon Yorke.
The painting was then added to the collection of Simon’s cousin Philip Yorke, becoming part of a famous collection of servant portraits at Erddig.
Yorke added text to the painting, detailing the hardships of the coachman in the picture, as well as the influence of the famous emancipator William Wilberforce (1759–1833) in challenging the transatlantic slave trade.
In the top left corner of the frame are the words John Hanby, aged 25, although these words were later overpainted.
Whether the servant’s name was John Hanby, we will never know, but the famous portrait and its context is the closest thing we have as to a record of Wrexham’s first black resident.
It is also a reflection of how society treated ethnic minorities in Britain and how we must never forget the racial issues and inequalities that have plagued us.