Mary Fillis and Dido Belle: Black Women You Should Know About

London isn’t just the Big Bens, red buses, and Buckingham Palaces (although they’re great too). It’s so much more than that. London is built on layers and layers, years, decades, millennia of history and every person who has walked its streets has contributed to that history in some way. Lots of these stories get forgotten or left out – sometimes because of time, often because of reasons related to gender, race, sexuality or class. I firmly believe that an integral part of any tour guide’s job is bringing these stories back into the limelight.

As The Black Curriculum put it very aptly last week, 72.6% of people in the UK learnt about the Great Fire of London at school. Only 9.9% learnt about the role of slavery in the British Industrial Revolution. A horrific legacy which is still affecting individual lives and our national institutions to this day. 
How many of us learnt about the multicultural nature of Roman England 2,000 years ago? Individuals born in or with heritage from North Africa who made England their home: from the “Lant Street Teenager” in Southwark in South London to the “Ivory Bangle Woman” in York.

How many of us learnt about William Wilberforce, the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century abolitionist? Possibly a slightly higher percentage, but then, as a follow-up question, do you also remember learning about the Black abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano? Or any of the other 10,000 to 15,000 Black people thought to be living in Britain by this point?

This year, in particular, there’s been more attention that ever in the mainstream about Black figures from our past, with many people seeking to reassess the history they learnt in school. There are so many resources out there. A great place to start is David Olusoga’s documentary, Black and British, currently on iPlayer. Check out New Beacon Books as well, specialists in African and Caribbean books, who have put together a selection of their important reads.
Think of my blog post today like an introduction, a jumping-off point for further research, focusing on several fantastic Black women who lived in London from the sixteenth to the twentieth century (and this is just part one).

I started off planning to feature five women in one post. I should have guessed I’d have too much to say about each one. I was already considerably over 3,000 words by the time I finished writing three of the profiles… I won’t subject you to that many words. So instead, I’ve bumped the total number up to six and I’ll post them fortnightly, two at a time, over the next six weeks. I’m writing this out, partly to get you excited and partly to force me to stick to a timetable. We’ll see if it works! 

The first two women I want to share are Mary Fillis and Dido Elizabeth Belle and I’ve featured them together because they would have had two completely different experiences of life of London. Fillis as a Moroccan-born servant living in sixteenth century London, and Dido Elizabeth Belle, a member of the aristocracy, the social elite, of eighteenth century England.


Mary Fillis

Everything I now know about Mary Fillis comes from Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors – a really fascinating and thorough exploration of Black people in Tudor England (a period from the end of the fifteenth century to the very beginning of the seventeenth). Mary Fillis was born in Morocco in 1577. Her mother is known only as Fillis of Morisco (meaning Morocco), who was a basket weaver and shovel maker. Mary Fillis left Morocco at a very young age, only about 6 years old. We don’t know the circumstances under which she left her home and her family behind her, but by around 1583/84, she was living in central London, on Mark Lane, near the Tower of London, as a servant in the household of merchant John Barker.

Mark Lane on the ‘Agas map’, first produced 1561, this edition 1633 (Photo: London Metropolitan Archives and Layers of London)

It is possible that Fillis was brought to this country as a result of trade between England and Morocco. Exports like arms and ammunition from England in return for products like sugar and saltpetre from Morocco. John Barker was involved in this trade in the 1570s, as an agent for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Trade with Morocco was hugely valuable to the English economy; by 1576, this trade was worth £17,775 (equivalent to £3.3m today). Already sounds like a lot of money, but its importance becomes even more evident when you consider that it was twice the value of England’s trade with Portugal at the same time.

Abd-al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth I in 1600 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fillis would have been serving in a very lavish household – a home full of expensive linen, silverware, silk cushions and (probably my favourite detail) six satin chairs, specifically “for gentlewomen to sit on”. Fillis worked here for a number of years, but by 1597 we know she had moved on, so at least by the time she was 20. We know that she had left by then because in 1597 she got baptised at St. Botolph’s Aldgate, and in the parish register is said to be working in the household of Millicent Porter, a seamstress living in East Smithfield. Porter relied on quite a small household so she would have needed Fillis for a variety of jobs, from general housekeeping to the more skilled aspects of being a seamstress. It would seem like the two women also became quite close; when Fillis decided to get baptised, Barker became her godmother. 

St. Botolph’s Aldgate (Photo: Eluveitie, Wikimedia Commons)

Porter died in 1599 and unfortunately we lose track of Fillis after that. 
What’s compelling about Fillis’ story, however, is imagining what she made of her life and also the sense of autonomy and determination which, I believe, shines through what little we know about her. Admittedly this is personal interpretation and we can’t know for sure, but it does seem a brave decision to move from an affluent, stable merchant household to that of a lower status and less wealthy seamstress. What this move would have afforded Fillis, however, was the opportunity to learn a trade (that of a seamstress), and ultimately, I hope, a trade which would have subsequently allowed her to support herself. In addition, her decision to get baptised would have integrated her more fully into Tudor society, for example, allowed her to marry and potentially start a family. 

Generally, the further back in time we go, the less detail we have about people’s lives. The amount of information at our disposal is often reduced just that little bit more for every one of the following boxes you can’t tick: white, male, heterosexual, rich.
There are two burial records of African women named Mary in St. Botolph’s parish registers, in 1623 and 1631, when Fillis would have been 46 and 54 respectively. Both women are described as “poor”. It is, however, impossible to know if this is our Mary. Mary was a very common name at this time and how are we to know that Mary hadn’t moved to another part of London or the country by the time she died, just as she had earlier in her life? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, however, because ultimately we will probably never know for sure, but I, myself, like to believe that those logs don’t refer to Mary Fillis, the seamstress of London.


Dido Elizabeth Belle

We’re going to swing right to the other side of the economic spectrum now. Dido Elizabeth Belle was certainly not a servant. She was of the aristocratic elite, the top tiers of English society in the eighteenth century. 

She was the daughter of Maria Bell, who was of African descent and John Lindsay, a white man and British Navy Officer. Between 1757 and 1767, Lindsay was sailing off the coast of West Africa and the West Indies, which is when the two met. While we don’t know for sure how they met or the context of their relationship, we know that, subsequently, a pregnant Maria was brought to England by boat where she gave birth to her daughter, Dido, at the end of June 1761. She was taken in by her great uncle, William Murray, future Earl of Mansfield, at Kenwood House and first appears in the records at the age of 5, when she was baptised at St. George’s Bloomsbury.
Maria, her mother, stayed in England until 1774, so until Dido was 13, but it’s not exactly clear where Maria was in Dido’s young life, whether she lived with her daughter, or was kept from seeing her, or possibly that she didn’t feel ready for motherhood – she’s thought to have been as young as 15 when she had Dido. It’s impossible to know. Either way, in 1774, Maria left England for America where she built a house in Pensacola on a plot of land given to her by Lindsay.

St. George’s Bloomsbury
Kenwood now (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) and Kenwood in 1788 (Photo: English Heritage)

Dido remained at Kenwood and grew up with the companionship of her cousin, Elizabeth Murray. Despite prevailing racist attitudes in English society, she appears to have been brought up as her cousin’s equal. She was taught to read, write, and play music, as all aristocratic young ladies were. She was given an annual allowance of over £30 and an additional 5 guineas for her birthday every year. It’s worth noting that her cousin received a much greater £100 allowance, but this could quite possibly have been more to do with Dido’s illegitimate status, as she was born out of wedlock, than her skin colour. You can see the portrait of the two of them below.

Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray, David Martin, c.1799 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Believed to have been painted c.1799, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the painting and what we can infer from it. Straight away, this painting is different to the vast majority of others of the period because it depicts a Black woman. Furthermore, if we consider the small number that do, this painting again sets itself apart because the Black person in question, Dido, is not depicted as ornamenting or subservient to the white sitter, in this case, Elizabeth. Dido is expensively dressed in what is believed to be an ivory satin dress, jewels in her earrings and on her turban, and a beautiful pearl necklace.
Saying that, the two women aren’t completely equal. Dido is still positioned slightly behind Elizabeth, and Dido’s outfit, with the turban and ostrich feather and the tray of fruit that she’s holding are symbols often used to accentuate the perceived “exotic” nature of the subject, particularly if you contrast that against Elizabeth’s more conventional dress. Dido is not, however, just a prop, she is a real human being. There is a humour and energy in her eyes. She instantly draws your attention, despite being in the back, not Elizabeth.

William Murray, David Martin, 1775 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Another member of Dido’s family who I’ve already touched upon was her great uncle, William Murray. Not only was he the Earl of Mansfield from 1776, but between 1756 and 1788 he was also Lord Chief Justice, the most powerful judge in England. In fact, Dido even acted as something like a secretary for Mansfield, helping him with his legal correspondence. 
As Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield presided over many cases concerning slavery, still legal in the British Empire until 1833 (and in operation in many places long afterwards). In hindsight, a couple of Mansfield’s cases have been singled out as important on the road to the abolition of slavery, in particular, that of the Zong slave ship in 1783.

It’s horrific to imagine that during the voyage to Jamaica, the Zong’s captain and crew threw at least 120 Black men, women, and children overboard (although I’ve seen other estimates for as many as 142), with some of them still shackled, because the crew claimed they were running low on water. It’s then even worse to consider that this case only found its way to court as an insurance dispute rather than a murder charge, to determine whether it was a “genuine” act of jettison or fraud. Basically, because the insurers didn’t want to pay for the lost “cargo”. Initially the insurers were held liable to pay the slavers’ compensation, but they appealed. During the appeal hearing, Mansfield summed up the previous trial, that the jury had “had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board…” This time, however, the judges, let by Mansfield, ruled instead that the captain and crew might have been at fault (I know. Crazy?!) and the previous verdict was dismissed. Though the entire case is problematic, no one was ever actually charged for murder, and there’s no evidence that the retrial ever took place, the significance of the case was that it drew so much public attention. People were forced to acknowledge that fellow human beings were still being treated as cargo and property, and they were confronted by just some of the horrific conditions Black people endured on the slave ships. It was very important in bolstering the abolitionist cause. 

In considering Mansfield’s role in all of this, it’s difficult to determine how much his opinion of this “odious” trade, as he described it, was influenced by Dido, but it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have been affected by the similarities he saw between his own mixed-heritage great niece and the awful treatment of enslaved African people.

Lord Mansfield died in 1793. In his will, he left Dido an annuity of £100 and a lump sum of £500 (£40,000 in today’s money), but probably most importantly for Dido was the single line which read, “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom”. She was obviously already a free woman, but Mansfield was determined to protect her and prevent any ambiguity as to her status after his death. 

That same year, Dido married John Davinier, a steward, She left Kenwood and the new couple moved to Pimlico. While Mansfield’s death meant that Dido no longer enjoyed the elite status she had once had, her inheritance left her comfortably well-off. She and Davinier had two sons who survived to adulthood and she died in 1804 at the age of 43.


There’s so much more information out there, if you’re interested. For more about Black people in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then I would definitely recommend Black Tudors. Similarly, for more about Dido Elizabeth Belle, there is a lot about her on the English Heritage website, or there’s the film, Belle (2013) which is a great historical fiction adaptation of the story. I’ve also listed my sources below if you’re so inspired you’d like to read more!

Please note: this post contains affiliate links, so if you decide to order one of the books I will earn a small commission. Thank you for supporting small businesses!

Sources:

General

Mary Fillis

  • M. Kaufmann, Black Tudors, (London 2019)

Dido Elizabeth Belle


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