Inquiring Readers: Servants and the working class are ever present as background characters in Jane Austen’s novels. Readers in her time were well aware of their important duties in all levels of Regency households. They were essential in the running of daily life and/or an estate, and therefore were given no distinction in Austen’s novels unless their roles moved the plot forward.


Without much explanation, Austen’s contemporaries could easily gauge the number of servants that the Bertrams or the Woodhouses employed (at least 7-9 inside their grand houses and more in the fields and gardens) against the socially downward turn the Elliot family and Dashwood women experienced by the number of their reduced help, which in the latter instance was three. The Dashwood women were able to maintain some kind of social status within their unenviable income of £500 a year and with the help of a friendly (and very rich) Mrs. Jennings.

Mrs and Miss Bates employed a maid of all work to help them with their daily chores, although they were dependent on the kindness of their neighbors to help make ends meet. Fanny Price’s parents in Portsmouth engaged two housemaids, impoverished as they were, their poverty due no doubt to Mr. Price’s drinking and meager income, which needed to stretch to clothe and feed a family of 12. Only Mrs Smith, Anne Elliot’s old school friend, an impoverished widow, was too poor to “afford herself the comfort of a servant.” (Persuasion, Chapter 16.) She lived in public accommodations in Bath, whose landlady employed only one servant for her lodgers.

Hogarth portrait of 6 Georgian servants, 3 men (boy to older men) and 3 women, all wearing caps

Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants, mid 1770’s. Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons , via the Tate Gallery.

Austen’s descriptions of her characters reveal much about the way they treated their help. Imagine having to work under Mrs. Norris’s direction or Mrs. Elton’s! Those two exacting women, neither of whom possessed an ounce of compassion, set the most stringent standards, yet still found time to complain about their staff’s performances.

Compare their attitude to Colonel Brandon’s, who treated underlings with respect and caring, or Mr. Darcy, whose housekeeper’s admiration for her master helped change Elizabeth’s opinion of the man she rejected for being too proud, distant, and arrogant. 

Austen’s oblique descriptions of other characters’ interactions with their servants – Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father), for example – causes the reader to contemplate poor James’s situation as his coachman. James was asked to ferry guests like Mrs and Miss Bates back and forth, regardless of time or weather, which was considered a terrible imposition by Austen’s contemporaries. Mr. Woodhouse’s cook, who probably failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards for boiling an egg or making gruel, must have suffered silently through his passive aggressive sighs of disappointment for not achieving perfection. 

Then there is Sir Walter Elliot, whose ego was twelve sizes larger than his income, and whose ability to employ the help he was accustomed to was reduced to such a degree that his daughter Elizabeth chose not to invite the Musgroves to dinner, but only to an evening get-together where the lack of servants would not be so obvious. Sir Walter’s major sin in the eyes of Austen’s contemporaries was to squander his fortune to such an extent that he had to rent out his estate and downsize to a mere townhouse in Bath.

Watercolor of a busy office in which prospective employers interview and look over potential servant applicants

Register Office for the Hiring of Servants, Thomas Rowlandson, Watercolour, 1800-1805, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons, Yale Center for British Art.

Servants and help in the Austen family’s household:

The Austens lived a rural life in Steventon Rectory, a life that fed Jane’s budding creativity. Servants in small villages did not necessarily live with their employers. A few might have lived with the Austens, but others worked during the day and returned to their families at night, or worked only the hours they were needed. (Worsley, p. 95.) Laundresses, for example, were employed only on certain days, for their work was strenuous, with intensive labor required for this task. 

“The Austen household was large, with eight children – six boys and two girls – as well as additional pupils, for Rev. George Austen supplemented his clerical income by taking in boy pupils as boarders. There was also a small farm, to supply the family with meat and vegetables, and there were maids and manservants to help with the work. – Jane Austen: A Life

As the above quote suggests, an active working family managed Steventon Rectory. The house sat on Glebe land, or land that yielded revenue to a parish church. An 1821 plan of the Glebe land shows Steventon house, its outbuildings, a yard, and fields. (Robinson Walker, detail from the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.) The family were hardworking. Rev. Austen visited his parishes, collected tithes, raised sheep and pigs, supervised the farm, oversaw the workmen, and taught a boarding school of young boys, among many duties. Mrs Austen tended to the kitchen, the kitchen gardens, chickens, and her alderney cow (which produced a copious amount of milk for its small size, which resulted in a rich butter). She guided her family, the household (including the boarders), and house servants. According to Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, (p. 7):

“…though the family always kept a cook, they did not aspire to a housekeeper to plan meals, organise stores and superintend the daily work of the kitchen. This was done first by Jane’s mother, later by Jane’s sister Cassandra, with Jane herself as subordinate…”

Linda Robinson Walker (Why Was Jane Austen Sent Away to School at Seven?) created an impressive table that shows the number of family members, students, and servants living, studying, and working in the rectory between 1775 and 1795. The chart totals the number of people living in the house, which ranged from 9-20 during that time. Within that total number she included 4-8 servants.

In a letter to Cassandra, Jane wrote fondly of Nanny Littlewart dressing her hair. Nanny is Anne Littleworth, who fostered Jane and Cassandra when they were quite young. Jane mentions as many as nine servants in her letters in 1798. The laundry, for example, “was to be handed over from Mrs Bushell to Mrs Steevens; there was a new maid: ‘we have felt the inconvenience of being without a maid so long, that we are determined to like her.’” (Worsley, p.95.)

In 1801, after Rev. Austen retired and the Austen parents and their two daughters moved to Bath, Mrs Austen expressed her desire to retain two maids, although she kept Rev. Austen in the dark regarding those plans. (Le Faye, Letter 29, p.69.)  At this time, the family’s income was drastically diminished, as were the number of servants. Not until the women moved into Chawton Cottage, did their peripatetic life become stable and a semblance of normalcy re-establish itself, including Mrs. Austen’s work in the gardens, with overseeing the chickens and kitchens and servants. 

Jane also visited many great houses: Stoneleigh Abbey, her mother’s ancestral home; Godmersham Park and Chawton House, both owned by her brother Edward, and Manydown Park, where she received, accepted, and then rejected a proposal from Harris Big-Whither, its heir. These visits acquainted her with the management of great houses and the numbers of servants required to service them and their extensive grounds. Her personal observations were reflected especially in her letters. 

Engraving of Godmersham Park, Kent

Godmersham Park, Kent, 1824, John Preston Neal, digitized by the British Library.  Creative Commons. Wikimedia CommonsWikipedia.

Gossip and the lack of privacy between servant and employer: 

And now to the servant “problem,” meaning the lack of privacy they represented to those who were served, and the gossip among the servants that irked their employers. In Japanese cultures, where dividing walls consisted of screens largely made of wood frames and rice paper, people learned not to actively listen to their neighbors and intrude on their privacy. 

Servants in Austen’s era, who dressed, bathed, fed, and catered to their employers needs and whims could not help but notice their moods, hear their private conversations, or know about their most intimate habits.

In turn, as a form of self protection, employers simply chose not to notice their staff. Their schedules also did not coincide, for the staff were the first to awaken and the last to retire to bed. They entered rooms to stoke fires when their employers were still asleep, or cleaned and dusted them when those rooms were empty. If they did encounter each other, few exchanges, if any, occurred. 

There were some personal interactions, of course. A master spoke to his valet, steward and/or butler; the mistress to her personal maid, and to give instructions to the cook and housekeeper. These individuals acted as buffers between the employers and the majority of the staff. 

“A good servant was scarcely noticed by his or her employer. To serve is to wear a cloak of invisibility, as it is in Persuasion:

‘Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you, when you called yesterday?’ [Mrs Smith]

‘No. Was it not Mrs Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular.’ [Anne Elliot]” – (Worsley, 2017, pp 95-96) “

This short discussion in Persuasion demonstrated the matter of factness with which Austen (and Anne) regarded this exchange.

Servants were human, however. They gossiped about their betters below stairs or in the kitchens. Often, they were the source of gossip for their employers. Mrs Smith, who, as a cripple, lived a solitary life, learned all she wanted to know through Nurse Rook, who kindly helped her and told her about all the goings on. 

“Call it gossip if you will; but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.” – Mrs. Smith, Persuasion, Ch 17.

Some individuals, like Lydia Bennet, lost all decorum when she ran to show off her engagement ring to the servants. This was another method by which Austen alerted her readers to Lydia’s recklessness.


While Austen’s details of her characters and daily life were spare in her novels, her letters revealed personal observations that filled in the gaps for today’s readers. Suffice it to say that Jane’s contemporary readers easily understood her characters when she described their attitudes and treatments towards staff. Two hundred years later we have lost much of that knowledge and require annotation to fully understand the customs of that bygone era, but a lady in Austen’s time would have known how to maintain her dignity despite all the familiarity..

The most fitting ending to this short essay is a quote by Lucy Worsley about Mrs Smith’s network of information (p 96): 

“ Mrs Smith [revealed] to Anne the hidden spy network of servants, nurses and maids that brings her all the Bath gossip. Like Mrs Smith, Jane would notice more than most people did about the invisible people who kept households running.” 



Giles, K. Help! – Servants During the Regency, Randolph College, downloaded 6/2/21.

Jane Austen: A Life, Jane Austen’s House, downloaded 6/2/21

Lane, M. (2018) Jane Austen and Food, Lume Books (Kindle)

Le Faye, D. Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.) Oxford University Press

Mulan, J. (2013). What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Chapter 8: “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” (1st ed. U.S.). Bloomsbury Press.

Robinson Walker, L. (2005). Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question. Persuasions On-Line, 26 (No. 1 (Winter)). http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol26no1/walker.htm

Worsley, L. (2017). Jane Austen at Home (1st ed. U.S.). St. Martin’s Press

Posts about servants on this blog:

The Green Baize Door: Dividing Line Between Servant and Master, January 2012.

Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian Era, August, 2012.

Laundry, Georgian Style, August, 2011

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work, June, 2009.

Hiring Servants in the Regency Era and Later, May, 2009.

Footmen: Male Servants in The Regency Era, January, 2008.

Regency Life: Finding a Job as a Servant, June, 2008

Every Day Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washer Women, July 2007.

The Scullery Maid, November 2006.

Book cover of Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces by Harvey T. Dearden, using the popular profile image as a puzzle.Inquiring readers: Not only did I enjoy reading Jane Austen: The Missing Pieces, but spent many silent hours debating with its author, Harvey T. Dearden, agreeing or disagreeing with his points of view, and thinking back on my history of reading about and researching her life to find how I arrived at my own conclusions. This succinctly written book, only 168 pages long, including endnotes and bibliography, is packed with ideas and suppositions based on Jane Austen’s letters, novels, history, and the scholarly articles and books written about her. 


Like me, author Harvey Dearden is an amateur Janeite with a  keen interest in the topic, but whose area of expertise is in another subject area. In Mr. Dearden’s case, it is as an engineer; in mine it is as a professional development trainer. We do not pretend to be academics. Like amateur scientists in the 19th century who formed societies in pursuit of scientific knowledge, Mr. Dearden and I resemble Janeite enthusiasts the world over – those who study Austen’s novels and life to become well informed and are curious to learn more.

Mr. Dearden’s book, which examines questions regarding the many missing pieces in Jane Austen’s life and work, is divided into short chapters in a variety of topics, all of which pose questions or suppositions which readers and scholars have addressed about Austen for ages. Supporting evidence in these instances may be hard to find or might once have existed (such as in her letters to Cassandra and members of her family) but have either been destroyed or might be hiding undiscovered in an attic. 

Jane’s Face:

Here’s how my reaction and silent debate with Mr. Rearden’s conjectures worked, and why I took longer to read this book than I at first anticipated:

One tantalizing question most of us have is: “What Did Jane Austen Look Like?” The author addresses this in a chapter titled “Jane’s Face.” (p.99.) He refers to Cassandra’s small watercolor portrait of her sister, (which, in my instance, I saw as an American tourist in the National Portrait Gallery) and which he (and most of us) characterizes as an amateurish attempt; the engraved image included in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt, which was a supposed “improvement” upon Cassandra’s real life attempt; Jane’s engraved image on the 10 pound bank note; and recent forensic artists’ attempts at recreating her image in painting and sculpture according to family descriptions, family portrait resemblances, and physical traits that descendants have in common with the Austen bloodline. (Compare the images of actress Anna Chancellor, a direct descendent of the Austen family, [she played Caroline Bingley in P&P 1995] to Cassandra’s portrait of Jane and one of her father,  and you will see a family resemblance in the dark eyes, long nose, and smallish, tight mouth.)

Mr. Dearden’s clear language, his engineer’s logic, and his talented wife, Linda’s, lovely pencil portrait of Jane Austen, based on a portrait bust by sculpturist Suzie Zamit, makes sense from his POV and logic. I respect his conclusion and the two artist’s representations, so why am I introducing my own interpretation? First, because Mr. Dearden invites inquiry and makes it clear that our informed guesses are as good as his.

Second, because I’ve been trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art and practiced as a successful local artist in Charlottesville for ten years. My experience painting a family member’s portrait places me in a unique position to discuss the difficulty of capturing a likeness of a stern-faced woman. Mom and Dad Sanborn (my in-laws) had their portraits captured by a local artist, a talented man who delineated their features perfectly. Dad’s face showed a kind, smiling man. Mom looked like a mirthless, tight-lipped school marm. She framed Dad’s portrait, hung it in his study, and tore her portrait up. She then commissioned me to paint her. Aaargh! 

I could have fallen into a trap, for I considered her first portrait an accurate representation of her features. What the artist did not capture was her personality. So I asked the family how they viewed her, and thought about my relationship with her and her kindness, sweetness, and willingness to put family and friends above herself. The changes I made in her portrait were to enlarge her eyes slightly and soften her prim mouth into a half smile. I removed many of her wrinkles and worked on the pencil sketches a long time before embarking on the painting. She loved it. The family loved it. And none realized that I had cheated in favor of personality over feature accuracy. What they saw in my portrait was MOM.

This brings me to Cassandra’s watercolor of her sister. We Janeites have formed a personal connection to Jane Austen and have our own perceptions of how she might have looked. Cassandra’s watercolor, drawn and painted by an amateur, portrays a tight-faced woman with arms crossed in a protective, stay-away-from-me body language. The painting is extremely small and I would have used a smaller brush to paint her features, but it also lacks any semblance to the descriptions that Jane’s family gave us: her sparkling eyes, her liveliness and sense of humor, and one who enjoyed a loving relationship as a daughter, sister, and aunt.

I speculate that Jane felt comfortable to be totally herself in front of Cassandra, and that she might have been thinking about writing, editing, or correcting a particularly difficult passage she’d been working on, thus the “resting bitch face.”  As for us, her fans, we are still searching for that illusive image that reflects our knowledge of her, our personal relationship with her, and our own interpretation of what she might have looked like.

I spent a long time on my reaction to this 7-page chapter to illustrate that, while Mr. Dearden’s book is succinct, well-thought out, and clearly written, his speculations inspired me to examine my knowledge of Austen and how and why I reacted the way I did to her many mysteries. At times I agreed with him completely, but at other times I paused to think back on how I came to a different conclusion. 

I suspect Mr. Dearden would enjoy a healthy debate, as would I. I’d like to add that reading this book gave me great enjoyment and pleasure, and much food for thought.

Addendum: Denise Holcomb contributed her image of Austen portraits in a Will & Jane exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. in 2016.  She took an image of the progression of 3 portraits of Austen, from Cassandra’s rendition to the Memoir engraving.

The book’s organization:

This book is organized in such a fashion as to facilitate how the author arrived at his conclusions. Sources are listed after each chapter. The bibliography lists most of the books and resources I’ve used, but a few are included from authors that I have not read before, such as Marian Veevers.  Mr. Dearden backs up his arguments using Austen’s letters from Deirdre LeFaye’s excellent, fully inclusive edition, direct quotes from family and friends, evidence in Jane’s novels, and examples of her manuscripts digitized online at the Bodleian Library, for example.

Images of Jane Austen taken in progression from 1810 to an engraved portrait in 1870, Folger Exhibit, 2016.

Image taken by D. Holcomb at the Folger Exhibit, 2016.

I loved how the author used his engineer’s logic to consider the size and weight of the quatros of letters from Jane that Cassandra must have stored over the years, and the difficulty and the considerable time it would have taken her to burn those that she did not want to keep for posterity. He used both LeFaye’s information and his precise mathematical skills to calculate the sheer effort it would have taken Cassandra to burn those letters. 

I feel that Mr. Dearden missed one opportunity when he introduced Charlotte Bronte’s three letters regarding her opinion about Austen’s talent and genius. I loved that he reproduced the letters in full, which placed some of her more controversial opinions in context. Bronte could not have known of Austen’s Juvenilia at this time, but it bears repeating that the lack of passion that she accuses Austen of not having was displayed in full in these exuberant scribblings of a young and budding genius. 

For Janeites who are new to this conversation, this book will be a valuable addition. I see it as a great conversation starter for a book group who could use its list of topics for discussion over a year of meetings, or as a source of Austen resources that add value to any Janeite’s library collection. The bibliography for the neophyte Janeite, combined with Le Faye’s meticulous listing of all her known existing letters, provide an immediate resource for those who are only familiar with Austen’s novels and would like to know more about Austen’s conversational style and the missing information about her.

Riddles and word games abound in Emma. This book puzzles out the many mysteries in Austen’s life and continues that tradition. Dearden’s conclusion fits my assessment of Austen and why her novels attract readers with different political backgrounds, religions, sexes, and ages the world over.

“She is celebrated for the nicety of her language and, preferring the rapier to the bludgeon, she could use it in a most cutting manner. There is plenty of evidence for this in her private correspondence. There is with Jane no self-indulgent ornamentation beyond the immediate purpose of her stories. She would have wielded Occam’s razor with admirable zeal.” 

Purchase the book:

Amazon US: Click here

Amazon UK: Click here

About the author: 

Harvey T. Dearden Linked In portrait

Author Harvey T. Dearden

Harvey T. Dearden is a Chartered Engineer who works as a consultant in the process industries (power, oil and gas, chemicals, etc.; basically those with something in a pipe)…He is married to an Anglesey girl and lives in north Wales. He has one child who is mum to Otts [to whom this book is dedicated.]

This book is a family affair and I wish to record my gratitude to my daughter, Lucy Dearden Jones for the editing, my wife, Linda Dearden, for the portrait sketch of Jane and first proofreading, and to my niece, Alexandra Parkinson, for the book cover.

By Brenda S. Cox

“”By our sufferings, since ye brought us 

To the man-degrading mart,— 

All sustain’d by patience, 

taught us Only by a broken heart,— 

Deem our nation brutes no longer . . .” – Quote opening The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. The quote is from William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Such narratives at this time often began with quotes from Cowper’s anti-slavery poems, or from the Bible.

We’ve been looking at the situation of black people in Jane Austen’s England. We started with “‘Women of Colour’ in Literature of Jane Austen’s England,” considering Miss Lambe of Sanditon, Olivia of The Woman of Colour, and other fictional women of the time. Next, we learned a little about black people in general in Austen’s England, based on statistics and records, in “Black England: No Wall of Separation?” 

What about the lives of individual black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England? Most of those people were in the lowest “ranks” of society and didn’t leave journals or diaries. Scholars are trying to piece together some of their lives. For an example, listen to Gretchen Gerzina’s talk on Pero Jones and Fanny Coker, an enslaved man and a free woman working as servants in a 1780s Bristol household. 

Today I’ll introduce you to some of the most well-known black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England; people that Jane Austen may have heard of or read about. I can only give you a brief taste of their fascinating stories. For each one, I’ll give you links so you can explore further if you wish. For some, you can read their stories in their own words.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) by David Martin (1737-1797). Public Domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg

Dido Belle

Austen must have known about one real mixed-race woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804). Dido’s father was a British naval captain, Sir John Lindsay, and her mother was a black enslaved woman named Maria. Lindsay was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, who became Chief Justice of England and made several rulings benefiting black people in England. Lindsay asked his childless uncle and aunt to raise Dido, and she grew up in the Mansfield household.

When another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, lost her mother at the age of six, the earl and his wife took her in and raised her along with Dido; they were around the same age. A portrait of the two girls as young ladies shows an apparently close relationship, though the white girl takes the central place in the picture. It is unclear exactly what Dido’s position was in the household. One guest noted that she did not eat dinner with the family and their guests, but joined them afterwards. She then walked arm-in-arm in the garden with her cousin.

The earl became very attached to Dido. In his will he confirmed her freedom and left her money. Dido married a white French servant, John Davinier. Her money enabled him to rise to the status of “gentleman.”

Dido’s white cousin Elizabeth Murray married wealthy George Finch-Hatton, a friend of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. On a visit to her brother in 1805, Jane visited the Finch-Hattons. She was not impressed with Lady Elizabeth, writing on Aug. 24, 1805, “Lady Elizabeth for a woman in her age & situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself.”

It seems likely that Austen would have known about Elizabeth’s adoptive sister. She might conceivably have met her if Dido visited while Jane was at Godmersham, though we have no record of a meeting. Perhaps Austen was imagining how Dido Belle became a beloved member of the Earl of Mansfield’s family when she wrote Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is a little like Dido in that she arrives as a marginalized member of the household, but eventually becomes a valued family member.

For more on Dido Belle, you can listen to “Dido Belle and Francis Barber” or read Paula Byrne’s Belle.  (Byrne also has a chapter (12) on Dido in The Real Jane Austen.) The movie Belle  gives an imaginative portrayal of what Dido Belle’s life might have been like, based on the few facts that we have. Etienne Daly has been researching Dido and her family, and you can find his posts on All Things Georgian

Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), 1768. Public domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IgnatiusSancho.jpg

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), born on a slave ship, ended up in England. The Duke of Montague took an interest him, educated him, and made him his valet, then his butler. Sancho eventually owned a grocer’s shop in Westminster. He was also a composer and art critic. He mixed with people like Thomas Gainsborough, who painted his portrait. Sancho married a black woman and had six children. He owned enough property that he could vote; he is the first known African-background person in England to have voted in a general election.

Sancho’s letters were published in 1782, after his death. Sancho supported the abolition movement; one letter condemns “the Christians’ abominable traffic in slaves” as “uniformly wicked.” In another he expresses his faith by looking forward to heaven, “the promise of never, never-ending existence and felicity.” He also wrote to encourage a young man who had recently gone to India to stay firm in his faith: “Read your Bible—As day follows night, God’s blessing follows virtue—honor and riches bring up the rear—and the end is peace—Courage, my boy—I have done preaching.”

You can read the original Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1784), with a memoir of his life. Modernized paperback versions with more commentary are also available, as well as Dr. Gerzina’s talk on Sancho

Samuel Johnson, one of Austen’s favorite authors, left most of his possessions to his black manservant, Francis Barber. Samuel Johnson, from a portrait attributed to John Opie R.A., 1911.

Francis Barber

Samuel Johnson, whose writings Jane Austen appreciated, thought highly of his black manservant, Francis Barber (1745-1801). Born enslaved in Jamaica, Barber was brought to England as a child by his master Richard Bathurst. Bathurst had him baptized him and named him. When Bathurst died, his will freed the boy.

Barber worked as Johnson’s servant. Johnson, who was against slavery, educated Barber and treated him like a son. Barber’s black friends came to visit him in Johnson’s home. Barber left Johnson for a few years, working for an apothecary, and then in the navy. Johnson got him out of the navy and brought him back. Barber married a white wife, Elizabeth, and had five children. They all lived in Johnson’s home.

When Johnson died, he left money, an annuity (yearly income of £70), and most of his possessions to Barber: property, books and papers, and other items. Barber and his wife moved to Lichfield, where he eventually ran a village school. 

Barber’s children and grandchildren married white people. Most became manual laborers, blending in with the poorer population of London. Barber’s son Samuel grew up to become a Methodist lay-minister (a preacher who was not ordained).⁠

For more on Francis Barber, you can check out Dr. Gerzina’s talk, or this biography.

Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography went through multiple editions and was published in multiple languages. archive.org/details/lifeofolaudahequ00equi_0

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was the most famous formerly-enslaved person in Austen’s England. From the Igbo people group in Nigeria, he was enslaved as a child, owned by a series of people and traveled the world. Through trade, he earned enough to buy his freedom from a Quaker master when he was about 21. After several people in Georgia and the West Indies attempted to kidnap Equiano and re-enslave him, he decided to move to England. From there he worked as a seaman on long voyages.

Equiano became a leader of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. His autobiography was published in 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  ran through nine editions in England, and was widely read in the US and translated into Dutch, German, and Russian. (Equiano’s owners gave him several names when he was young; Gustavus Vassa was one that he continued using in England.) Equiano traveled around the country promoting his book and campaigning against slavery.

Equiano vividly describes his African childhood and his experiences on a slave ship and as an enslaved man. (Some scholars believe he was actually born in South Carolina rather than in Africa, but his autobiography describes his childhood in Africa.) He tells of the abuses suffered by slaves, and the challenges he faced as a free black man.

In 1774, Equiano was dramatically converted to Christianity. More than 20 pages of his autobiography describe the various people who shared passages from the Bible with him, his own conviction of sin, and finally his vision of “bright beams of heavenly light” coming into a “dark place” as he accepted Jesus’s death for his sins. He became a member of the Church of England. Equiano often tried to persuade others to become Christians. He attempted to get ordained and go as a missionary to Africa, but the bishop chose not to ordain him.

In 1786, Equiano was asked to help with a new project. At first he was enthusiastic about the idea. The government was planning to send a group of black people to Sierra Leone in Africa to set up a colony there. Equiano was to supervise the provisioning of the ships. However, he complained of corruption and poor, insufficient supplies, and was dismissed from his position. The expedition did take place, but the colony faced huge difficulties and many died.

Equiano closed his autobiography with a plea to end slavery, and instead to trade with Africa for goods like indigo and cotton. He went on to explain that he had included many seemingly small details of his life, since he had learned to see the hand of God in all those details, and to learn lessons “of morality and religion” from all that happened; he hoped his readers would also learn from his experiences.

For more on Equiano’s life, I recommend his autobiography. It was very popular in the eighteenth century, though we don’t know if Jane Austen ever read it. Modern versions with additional material are also available. For a briefer survey, listen to Dr. Gerzina’s talk.

Like many black writers of the time, Gronniosaw included his Christian testimony in his memoir.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1705-1775), an African prince from Nigeria, became a Christian while he was enslaved in America. Like many of the formerly-enslaved people who wrote their stories at this time, he includes his faith experiences. His owner was a Reformed Dutch minister who sent him to school. Gronniosaw was converted when he read Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted, so he was obviously very literate. He wrote, “I was so drawn out of myself, and so fill’d and awed by the Presence of God that I saw (or thought I saw) light inexpressible dart down from heaven upon me . . . I seemed to possess a full assurance that my sins were forgiven me. I went home all my way rejoicing . . .”.

Gronniosaw was eventually freed and settled in England. He was influenced by multiple denominations there. He became friends with the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, joined a Baptist church, shared his testimony with Dutch Calvinists, and received help from Quakers. When he wanted to marry a white English woman who had helped him grow in his faith, the leaders of his church objected: not because of race, but because she was poor. He paid off her debts and married her anyway. She was a weaver; he worked at whatever jobs he could find.

 Gronniosaw, like most black people in Britain, was not born in a British parish and therefore not eligible for parish help when he was in need. In his memoir he describes one severe winter when he and his wife were both unemployed and “reduc’d to the greatest distress imaginable.” He did not want to beg, but when their “last bit of bread was gone” he had to ask for help. They moved elsewhere and his wife found work again as a weaver, but the situation was still difficult. He thanks God for the “charitable assistance” of others and looks forward to relief in heaven.

You can read Gronniosaw’s story in his own words in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.

Mary Prince’s autobiography increased public outrage over the abuses experienced by enslaved people in the West Indies.

Mary Prince

The only autobiography of a black woman in England that we have from this time is the story of Mary Prince (1788-183?). Mary was born into slavery in Bermuda. She later lived in Antigua, where Moravian missionaries taught her to read and write in a Bible class. She joined the Moravian church, which helped many enslaved people in Antigua. Mary married a freeman in the church, though the Church of England there apparently did not allow slaves to marry. A Moravian missionary attempted to buy Mary’s freedom, but her owner, John Wood, refused to let her go. He took her away from her husband and brought her to England.

In England she fled from the Wood family’s cruelty. The Anti-Slavery Society took her in. She worked as a servant for the secretary of the society, and the society helped her published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, in 1831. At the end of her story, she is enjoying the kindness and hospitality of Christians in the Anti-Slavery Society, and appreciates going to church three times on Sunday. But she longs for her husband and her home, and cannot return because that would mean returning to slavery.

Gretchen Gerzina shares some of Mary’s story on Britain’s Black Past,  using some of Mary’s own words. You can read Mary Prince’s autobiography in various editions, and on google books. The Moravians also record information about Mary.

Black Clergy

We also know of a few black or mixed-race clergymen in Austen’s England. Brian Mackey, the son of a white father and a black West Indian woman, held two church livings in 1805.  We only know about his racial background because one of his contemporaries, clergyman William Holland, was his parents’ neighbor and wrote about Mackey in his diary. Nathaniel Wells, mentioned in last month’s post, had two sons who became clergymen. Philip Quaque (or Kwekwe) was a black African who studied in England, was ordained, and married an English wife. In 1766 he returned to Cape Coast, Africa, as the Church of England’s first African missionary. For more on black people in the Church of England, I recommend Black Voices: The Shaping of Our Christian Experience by David Killingray and Joel Edwards, which includes extensive quotes from black people in England over the centuries.

These are only a few of the many black people who lived at least part of their lives in Austen’s England. I hope you will have a chance to read some of their stories in more detail. And please tell us about others you are familiar with!


Note: Last month when I talked about mixed-race Nathaniel Wells and his wealth and position in society, I should also have said that Wells, as his slave-owning father’s heir, owned slave plantations, and the enslaved people apparently were not treated well. Gretchen Gerzina tells more of his troubling story in Britain’s Black Past

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

Other Sources

  • William Holland, Paupers and Pig Killers, 106. Jan. 25, 1805. (On Brian Mackey)
  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)
  • Dr. Johnson’s portrait is from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Johnson_(1911)_Frontispiece.png
  • You can find further resources here.

For more on individual black lives in Austen’s England, check out Professor Gretchen Gerzina’s series, “Britain’s Black Past,” on BBC radio.

I also recommend recordings of this year’s excellent Race and the Regency series from Jane Austen and Co.


You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.


Inquiring readers: Earlier this week, Tony Grant wrote about the history of Robert Geffrye and the Almshouses in Shoreditch. This post discusses his experience as a guide in an 18th century room. This post links to online images to that room. Enjoy!

Almshouse, number 14, has been set up to show what a pensioner’s rooms would have been like in the 1780s and also a hundred years later in the 1880s. The almshouses were used as charitable houses for the poor for 200 years.

Plan of houses

One of the things I do as a volunteer at the museum is to take visitors around these historic rooms and discuss the history of the building and the lifestyle of the pensioners who lived there. 

The ground floor consists of the 1850s rooms. Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, and these almshouses existed and were in use throughout her lifetime. The world she portrays in her novels is often of the rich landowning gentry and the village community. This other world of poor, mostly  illiterate people lived at the same time as she, and I think we should be aware of them.

When I bring a group into the almshouses, we enter the front door and assemble in the downstairs room with display boards, and a few chairs and a table to show some handling artefacts. By this point, as we walk from the reception area on the opposite side of the almshouses, I have already given the group some background information about Robert Geffrye and the building, and the purpose of the almshouses. 

Once inside the building, I give a quick health safety talk about moving around the almshouses and point out low door lintels. It is important that visitors touch nothing. All are original artefacts from the 18th century.  I tell them about the meeting point if the fire alarms are set off. The room we are in is located in the first ground floor rooms. Another room of the same size and shape is located on the opposite side  of the entrance door on the ground floor and there are two more rooms on the first floor at the top of the flight of stairs. Each almshouse was built  for four pensioners, hence the four room layout.

I then take the group into the room opposite.

Let’s return to the year 1780 in Shoreditch, just north of the City of London at The Geffrye Almshouses on The Kingsland Road. This ground floor room is set out as it would have been during the 1780s, the first century the almshouses existed.

Map of The Museum of The home (2)

The room appears sparsely furnished. The windows show some light entering the room. The giant London Plane Trees that replaced the original lime trees over 100 hundred years ago cast a shadow in the room, especially in the summer when the trees have their full leaf canopy. The windows today are the Victorian sash windows that replaced the original shuttered windows, but apart from that, everything is as it would have been in 1780. 

A gnarled oak table is positioned under the window, with the wood grain deeply fissured in places. On the table are a pewter plate, a horn mug, and iron and bone handled knife and fork. An iron candlestick holds a candle. I usually light the candles in this room for the visitors to get the full effect of how lighting would have been. Nowadays, we use modern candles with the flame standing bright and true and straight. 

A cylindrical tin hanging on the wall gives us more of an idea of the lighting in this room in the 18th century. It contains tallow candles. These were made from animal fat. They were cheap. When lit they generally smoked and gave off an unpleasant smell. The reason they were kept in this tin container is so that the rats could not eat them. A pair of what look like iron scissors lie near the tallow candles. By trimming the candle wick the smoking, and, hence the smell, could be reduced.  A small iron cone with a long thin handle was used to snuff the candles.  

I always point out the floorboards. This was a luxury for poor people. Generally, workers’ homes had earth floors, which got damp in wet weather and rotted their wooden furniture. Two of the chairs in the room look rather low, with their seats close to the floor. You can see how the legs have been strengthened with cross pieces. The legs have been gradually cut down as they rotted from the floor upwards. 

The bed is a strong wooden frame with ropes stretched across the frame to make a netting for the straw filled mattress to lie on. A coarse woollen blanket covers the bed. Underneath the bed you see a large chamber pot. This was the container the occupants would urinate and defecate in. Each day they emptied their chamber pots into a cesspit at the back of the buildings. The cesspit was emptied regularly by night soil men.

As the diet was mostly vegetables, I surmise that the contents of the cesspit was put onto the local market garden fields as compost. 

Water was obtained from two pumps within the grounds outside of the almshouses. The Geffrye Pensioner was provided with clean fresh water from the “New River,” a canalisation of the River Lea from James Ist’s time. The River Lea starts from a country town called Ware thirty miles north of London. Many springs, including those at Sadlers Wells, feed the river during its course. 

Many Londoners did not have the benefit of clean fresh water. Some aquifers around the city supplied a few pumps, but many people got their water from The Thames, which became more and more filthy as the decades went by. One of the almshouse rules actually stated that the pensioners must not sell water to the local people. The pumps were padlocked and the pensioners were supplied with keys to access the pumps.

The fireplace is an interesting point in this room. It has an iron grate, and iron hooks allow pots to be hung over the flames. A bucket with coal was used to fuel the fire. A tinder box with a piece of flint , a piece of iron to strike a spark, and oiled wool to catch the sparks were used to ignite the fire.

A large iron pot that stands next to the fire was for cooking a vegetable stew called pottage, which was their main diet. Meat was expensive and, unless they managed to trap and catch a rabbit in the local fields or once in a while got hold of an old chicken, they very seldom had meat. 

Pewter plates are interesting. In the 18th century, pewter was an amalgam of tin, antimony, and lead. They didn’t know that lead was poisonous, probably because the effects took a long time to build up in the body. By the cuts and scrapes on the surface of the pewter plates in this room small grains of lead must have gotten into their bodies with every meal.

There is no evidence of written material in this room:  the pensioners in the 18th century were probably illiterate, although they had skills in the iron trade and had been very talented ironworkers.

The small room attached to this main living area stored items such as jugs, plates, brushes, and other utensils.

I then take the visitors into the basement to view the store rooms for coal and the washing facilities for their clothes. A large cauldron, heated by coal from underneath, was used to boil a mixture of water, an alkali made from wood ash, and a certain amount of urine as a bleaching agent. The smell must have been awful. I really can’t imagine they often washed their clothes. Maybe once a year. They had to dry their clothing either in front of the fires in their rooms or in an area at the back of the almshouses. Washing could not be hung at the front for passersby to see. 

And so a visit to some of the poor of the 18th century ends. 

The Museum of the Home encourages us to ask questions about what ”home” means. Because of the history of the buildings themselves, however, we have to ask questions about  Sir Robert Geffrye.  What is his legacy today?



  • Kathy Haslam : A History of the Geffrye Almshouses,  Published by The Geffrye Museum 
  • Penelope Hunting :  Riot and Revolution ( Sir Robert Geffrye 1613-1704)  Published by The Geffrye Museum 2013

Early Life of Robert Geffrye

Robert Geffrye was born at Tredinnick Farm near Landrake in Cornwall in 1613. His father was a yeoman farmer. That meant, unlike a tenant farmer, he owned his own land. He was baptised at St Michael’s Church in Landrake on the 24th May 1613. The local vicar, Roger Jope, chose children from the area to teach the basics of reading and writing. He discovered in Robert a quick and intelligent child. At that time, learning to read and write opened opportunities to any able boy.

A number of national and international incidents happened in the early years of Robert Geffrye’s life. In 1623 and again in 1630, storms affected the crops and many families were left hungry. In 1618, the 30 Years War began in Europe. A period of continuous war over three decades between Catholic and Protestant states in Europe and particularly amongst the Germanic states ensued. Even though Britain was not officially a participant in these wars, James Ist still provided an army of 30,000 English troops to support his Protestant allies. In 1625, three hundred young Cornishmen were conscripted to fight. In 1627 a failed raid on La Rochelle saw the returning English army of 5000 men billeted on Cornish households. Landrake was no exception. Because of the unruly nature of some bands of troops stationed in Cornwall, martial law was imposed on the area. Poor prospects and many dangers beset the young teenage Robert Geffrye.

A young man wanting to get on in life obtained an apprenticeship, especially with one of the great livery companies in the City of London. This was a route to prosperity and advancement. Many Cornish men had made their fortunes by joining such livery companies and many prominent Cornishmen had links to the livery companies. For instance, Richard Randall the Deputy Vice Admiral in Devon had a longstanding connection with The Ironmongers Company. Richard Peate, another Cornishman, made a lucrative career with The Ironmongers and became their senior warden. Robert Geffrye went to London at the age of 17 and applied successfully to join the Ironmongers as an apprentice with Richard Peate.

Robert Geffrye’s father paid Robert Peate the £200 apprenticeship fee. Apprentices became part of their masters family and boarded with them for the seven years the apprenticeship lasted. Robert Geffrye lived with the Peates at Whitecross Street, Finsbury, and initially would have been set to work sweeping the warehouse floor, and packing and weighing goods. Towards the latter years of his apprenticeship he would have worked in the counting house dealing with bills, and learning the elements of book keeping and correspondence, and so became acquainted with Peate’s customers. Daniel Defoe had been an apprentice with the Butchers company. He wrote that on the completion of an apprenticeship, a young man could, 

“turn his hand to anything, or deal in anything or everything.”

Robert Geffrye completed his apprenticeship with credit in August 1637. He was given the freedom of the city, which gave him privileges within the city. He later became a liveryman of the company, putting him in a position of authority, checking standards, and attending church services, dinners, and ceremonies in the name of the company. His dealings were with men who had trained and achieved the same status he had. This put him on a trajectory within the political and trading establishment of the city. 

In 1667 and again in 1687, Geoffrey became the Master of the Ironmongers Company. In 1674 he became the Sherriff of London, an important role in the 17th century. Officeholders had important judicial responsibilities and attended the justices at the Central Criminal Court, The Old Bailey. In 1676, Robert Geffrey became an Alderman and eventually the Lord Mayor of London in 1685. 

Painting of ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company

Samuel Scott, ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company – Google Art Project.

Robert Geffrey’s life and his rise in importance and influence came during a tumultuous time, starting in his youth with The Thirty Years War, the reign of Charles 1st during the English Civil war, when war was waged between the Parliamentarians known as The Roundheads, who were who were mostly Puritan, and the Cavaliers who were monarchists and Church of England followers. The monarchy was defeated, leading to the execution of Charles 1in 1649. Scotland proclaimed his son, also Charles, as King Charles II, whose army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when he escaped to The Netherlands.

The following nine years were known as The  English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell died, Charles II was invited back to England in 1660 and was welcomed in London in May of that year. Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James became King James II. 

Robert Geffrye lived through The Plague year of 1665, followed by The Great Fire of London in 1666. More conflict followed, including a successful attack by Charles II, a Roman Catholic, on The Medway ports with a Dutch fleet. The victory caused problems among many of the Protestant aristocracy and  government ministers. They wanted to get rid of Charles II and, backed by the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, to usurp him. Monmouth’s army was defeated at The Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. He was captured and executed and many of his followers were pursued by Judge Jeffryes  and condemned to death at the famous Bloody Assizes.

James II was able to consolidate his power and reigned until 1688, when he was deposed by William of Orange. During this tumultuous time, Robert Geffrye must have been a very astute politician and able administrator to navigate those times. You have to admire him for his tenacity.

Later life and the Almshouses

During his life Robert married a mercer’s daughter, Priscilla Cropely. They lived in Lime Street, very close to Leadenhall Market in the City and by the Ironmongers Hall. They had no children.

In 1653 he joined The Levant trading company. It is recorded that he traded cloth to Leghorn in Italy. Robert Geffrye  became an administrator in The Levant Company trading with Northern Europe, the Mediterranean  and Turkey. In 1670 he profited from the slave trade by his investments and involvement in the Royal African Company, and in 1680 Robert Geffrye became a joint owner of the trading ship, The China Merchant. He and his fellow owners wanted to hire their ship at first to The East India Company. 

He  became an administrator in The Royal African Company whose whole purpose was the ”Triangular Trade” with the Guinea Coast of West Africa, The West Indies, and Britain. All these great trading companies had strong links to The Ironmongers Company, trading in cloth, tin, lead, pewter, calico, spices, pepper and slaves. It is rather chilling seeing a list of their trading interests with slavery as just one more item on the list.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Robert Geffrye devoted his time to charitable work. He became the president of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals. Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife Priscilla were childless. She predeceased him by many years. When he died in 1704 at the age of 91 years, he left a small fortune of £13000. In his will, some of the money went to financing a school in his home village of Landrake in Cornwall, but a substantial amount of the  £13000 was left to build almshouses for poor deserving people who had worked mainly for the ironmongers and fell on hard times when they retired. 

Photo of the Geffrye Almshouse

The Geffrye Almshouses, image by Tony Grant

An almshouse is a charitable home for poor people of good character. The Ironmongers Company set up a group of officers called the Geffrye Charity Committee. They took nearly nine years to find a suitable site to build the almshouses–a site near the city so it had convenient access to the committee based at Ironmongers Hall.

They wanted the site to be conspicuous to passers-by so that Robert Geffrye’s legacy could be seen and admired. They first looked at a site in Old Street that the Ironmongers owned and a site in Bow was also considered. By 1711, the committee was still looking for a site and in November of that year they published an advertisement. A Mr Hunt, who owned a large plot of land fronting the Kingsland Road, responded, and sold the site to the Ironmongers for £200. 

There were other charitable foundations in The Kingsland Road too. Just to the north of this new site, The Drapers had built an almshouse. To the south, The Framework Knitters also had their almshouses. The area, although close to The City, consisted mostly of market gardens and arable farming. Clay pits in the area provided clay for brickmaking. In 1712, the Geffrye Charity Committee drew up their architectural plans for the almshouses. Someone who was not an architect must have been a competent draughtsman, for the plans were very good. The almshouses were well designed in a typical 18th century style copying Christopher Wren and aspects of Inigo Jones.

Tenders were submitted in 1712 for building the houses. Robert Burford, a carpenter, was employed to build the central great room and six almshouses located on the north side. Mr Halsaul, also called a carpenter in the documents, was contracted to build six more almshouses on the south side. In the documents they are merely called carpenters, but they were more likely to have been members of the Carpenters Guild, who had their own building apprentices. The central Great Room was used as a meeting place and to socialise for the first two years of its existence. It was soon turned into a chapel  for Sunday services, which the pensioners were required to attend.

The chosen site sloped to the west. To make it flat, the Committee encouraged people to dump their waste on the land to fill in the dip. Six hundred carts of soil were transported to cover the ground. The actual buildings were constructed at the back on solid ground that had not needed levelling. This provided ground for a solid foundation and left the front area to be grassed over as a  lawn for recreation, and room for Lime trees to be planted. Twelve houses were completed by 1712 with the great room in the middle. Two more houses were added, one to each wing in the following two years, making fourteen altogether.

The Geffrye Charity Committee insisted on high quality materials for the buildings. Today you can see how well constructed they are. The interiors are well designed. The floors are made of strong sturdy oak boards and the interior walls and ceilings are plastered. An American lady I showed round once finished the tour by saying, “ I’m ready to move in now.”

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

In December 1714, the first pensioners moved in. The criteria for becoming a pensioner was that you had to be 56 years old at least, poor, and of good character. The rules in the Geffrye Charity Committees documents state, 

“any member or their widow that shall have been Liveryman or Freeman of The Company of Ironmongers shall be preferred.” 

This did not mean that people who were not from the Ironmongers Company could not get in, but Ironmongers were given preference. Until 1740, on average between forty to fifty pensioners lived in the almshouses.

Robert Geffryes’ endowment provided a  Geffrye pensioner with a single room that had a small walk-in cupboard in one corner. They were given a pension of £6 a year. Each pensioner was provided with six sacks of coal a year. A new gown was given to each every Lady Day ( March 23rd). They were required to make ,”petticoats,” from their old gowns. Some of these official pensioners – male – often had wives, and it is thought some even had children living with them. £6 per year was not enough to live on for some. They could petition for extra funds from the almshouse poor box or the Ironmongers Companies estate. Many received extra money in this way. Some were also employed in work in the almshouses. The matron, groundskeeper and chapel clerk were employed from among the pensioners. A chaplain was also employed but he was not a pensioner. The Chaplain held a position of authority over the pensioners.

The committee made up rules for the pensioners to live by and were based on the rules enforced by other almshouses, so they were not unique. 

  • Pensioners could be fined for blasphemy. In this case they would be expelled from the almshouses to return to their parishes. This was not a good thing to happen. Living off their parish made them extremely poor. 
  •  If they were found guilty of adultery or lewdness they could be expelled. 
  • Staying out overnight could bring a fine. The gates were closed from 7pm in the winter and from 9pm in the summer.
  • Rule number 8 stated that a pensioner had to be. “of good life and conversation.” They were expected to get on well with the other pensioners and support each other when ill. Rule number 10 related to drunkenness. A fine would be given. Cases were heard at the Geffrye Charity Committee meetings held in the great room, to begin with. Generally, they were  lenient and expulsion was very rare. 

The almshouses today are called “The Museum of The Home.” Over the last three years a government grant from the lottery fund of £18 million pounds has been given to the museum to extend and develop its work. The basement has been lowered and refurbished to contain exhibitions and displays on the theme of The Home, which covers many aspects. Documentary films have been made about the home lives of local Shoreditch residents and their background. Various themes, such as migrant camps, sleeping rough on the streets ,”games in the home,” and other aspects of home life are covered. The key element about these new exhibitions and displays is to instigate discussion and to ask questions.

The ground floor has remained as the middle class English period rooms from Tudor times to the 21st century. A new addition called “The West Indian Front Room” has been installed as the 1970s room. Eventually, over time, the museum will move away from being predominantly a museum of middle class rooms to rooms that cover all of society. The roof has been opened up to contain a research library.

An important element of the museum’s work is its ground-breaking educational work with schools, colleges, and universities.  A new education block has been built at the back, a major element of the museum. The museum is now famous for its important outreach into the local community. Molly Harrison, the curator of the museum from 1949 into the 50s and 60s, developed child-centred exploratory education techniques, which many museums in Britain and the world over still use today. 

The second part of this series, which is a guided tour of the 18th century room in the Almshouses, will be posted on Thursday of this week. “Welcome to a Guided Tour of the 18th Century Room in the Museum of the Home at the Geffrye Almshouses, Part II.”



  • Kathy Haslam : A History of the Geffrye Almshouses,  Published by The Geffrye Museum 
  • Penelope Hunting :  Riot and Revolution ( Sir Robert Geffrye 1613-1704)  Published by The Geffrye Museum 2013
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