Ignatius Sancho: Mycenae House, 2021


Illustrated presentation to Mycenae House Local History Group
  Jan 25, 2021

As part of this presentation I performed all the music referred to, which I have been unable to reproduce here.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough (1768)

Thank you for inviting me, and I would like to begin by acknowledging that among the sources I have drawn on for this presentation is the Greenwich Education Pack, Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780): Life and Times, which was prepared by Ann Dingsdale.

My interest in Ignatius Sancho dates back to 1997 when I read in the Sunday paper about an exhibition at the NPG featuring Ignatius Sancho. At the time I was music adviser to Greenwich and Lewisham and was interested in finding out about people who could act as role models in areas (such as ‘classical’ music) where the existing evidence was very much focused on white European (and male) composers. The Sancho exhibition and the book that accompanied it opened up a whole new area of research & interest for me. This led to a major education project in 1998-9 which involved creative projects in drama, dance & music and included the production of an education pack which was distributed to all schools in Greenwich, Lewisham and Westminster, the areas of London where Sancho lived. Subsequently, in collaboration with other organisations including the Equiano Society, colleagues and I were involved in several events locally and in Westminster, celebrating Sancho’s life and work.

What I will present to you this morning is a brief summary of Sancho’s life, together with a short exploration of his writings, including his views on slavery, interspersed with performances of some of his music, and finishing with some pointers for those of you who would like to pursue further your interest in Ignatius Sancho.

I’ll begin with an example of Sancho’s music: the Minuet No 6, from his first collection of music, published c1767.

Minuet 6 from ‘Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German-Flute & Harpsichord, composed by An African’ (c.1767)


It’s quite sobering to reflect that the composer of this music began life on board of a slave ship between Africa and the Americas.  The main source of information about Sancho’s early life is an account written in 1782 (two years after his death) by Joseph Jekyll (1754-1837), later a lawyer & MP.  Jekyll’s account, particularly in respect of the early events in Sancho’s life, is uncorroborated, and sometimes seems to contradict Sancho’s own statements. However, there is some evidence that Jekyll was in contact with the Sancho family in the early 1780s, and so it is possible that his account drew on information gleaned from the Sancho family, in particular Sancho’s wife Ann and son William.

Jekyll’s account states that Sancho was born in 1729 on board a slave ship headed for the Spanish West Indies. His parents having died soon after his birth, he was brought to England and given to three maiden sisters in Greenwich. This was not an uncommon practice in C18 England, where black pages and servants were often found in the homes of the wealthy, as is evidenced by a number of portraits of the time. Ann Dingsdale’s research into local Rate Books has led her to suggest that these were the Legge sisters, Elizabeth, Susannah and Barbara, living on the estate of their brother, the Earl of Dartmouth, at the western edge of Blackheath.

Sancho, not surprisingly, appears not to have enjoyed his time with the sisters. He wrote to Laurence Sterne in 1766:

The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience’. 

However, their neighbour, John, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749), whose house stood on the south-west corner of Greenwich Park, came to his rescue.

Plan and elevation of Montagu House, Blackheath, J Smith, 1755

Montagu House and Blackheath, by Paul Sandby, c1780

Montagu was interested in the intellectual abilities of black people, and had already supported a Jamaican, Francis Williams, by giving him an education in classics and mathematics.  The Duke was impressed by Sancho’s intelligence and frequently brought him home to give him an education which probably included reading, writing and music.  These efforts did not meet with the approval of Sancho’s three mistresses, who are said by Jekyll to have threatened him with deportation and a return to slavery in the West Indies.

Unhappy in his situation, Sancho eventually sought refuge with the Montagu family and the duke’s widow (Lady Mary, nee Churchill, (1689-1751, dau of D of Marlborough) agreed to hire him as her butler. On her death in 1751, she left him a legacy of £70 and an annuity of £30, quite large amounts for a servant of only 2 years standing.

Over the next 15 years, Sancho is said to have squandered his money on gambling, women and the theatre.  He certainly had an interest in the theatre, and was disappointed that a speech impediment prevented him from having an acting career. His acquaintance with the actor, David Garrick (1717-1779) probably dates from this time.

However, during this period he also married Ann Osborne, a woman of West Indian origin, on December 14th, 1758 and their first child was born in 1762.  

Record of Sancho's marriage

Finding himself in straitened financial circumstances, he again sought service with the Montagu family and in 1766 became personal valet to the new Duke of Montagu  [George Brudenell (1712-1790), later Montagu, son-in-law of the previous Duke & Duchess]. This was a position of considerable responsibility, and entailed being responsible for the duke’s personal appearance and accompanying him on all his public activities. Vincent Carretta, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Sancho’s letters, offers this perspective:

Black men were especially desired as servants in wealthy households – and particularly in the public roles of butler and valet – because they were associated with the exotic riches of the empire and thus served as the most obvious indicators of their owners or employers. (Carretta, Ignatius Sancho, intro pxii)

It was on a visit to Bath with the Duke in 1768 that Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) who had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Duchess, also painted one of Sancho, reputedly taking a mere 1 hour & 40 minutes to do so.

The Sanchos had 7 children between 1762 and 1775, though three of them died young. After some years, Sancho’s declining health (described by Jekyll as ‘repeated attacks of the gout and constitutional corpulence’) meant that he was no longer able to fulfil his duties as valet, and the Duke helped him set up a grocery shop early in 1774 at 19, Charles St (now King Charles St), Westminster.

Sancho's trade cards

James Walvin offers this reflection on Sancho’s position

As Sancho tended to his counter and customers – taking tea with favoured or famous clients – his wife Anne worked in the background, breaking down the sugar loaves into the smaller parcels and packets required for everyday use. Slave-grown sugar, repackaged anad sold by black residents of London, themselves descendants of slaves – here was a scene rich in the realities and the symbolism of Britain’s slave-based empire. (Walvin p97)

During his time as a shopkeeper, Sancho conducted extensive correspondence with a number of people. As well as comments on slavery, he described the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the parliamentary elections in the same year. Sancho is the first Black Briton on record as having voted in a British general election – he is listed in 1774

Poll record, 1774. 

Sancho appears about half way down

and again 1780, where he cast his vote for the opposition leader, Charles James Fox.

Towards the end of 1780 his health deteriorated and he died on 14 December.  During his lifetime, he published one set of songs and three books of instrumental music as well as two plays (now lost).  His letters were collected by Frances Crewe, one of his correspondents, and published in 1782.

SONG: SWEETEST BARD (setting of Garrick’s Ode)


As I have said, soon after Sancho’s death, Frances Crew(e), one of his younger correspondents, began to collect Sancho’s letters from her friends and published them in 1782.

In her preface she states that

Her motives for laying [the letters] before the publick were, the desire of shewing that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European; and the still superior motive, of wishing to serve his worthy family. And she is happy [TO]in thus publicly acknowledge[ing] she has not found the world inattentive to the voice of obscure merit.

The 2 volumes of Sancho’s letters were sold by subscription, which involved at least partial payment in advance. Interest in the letters was substantial, and sales were so successful that Sancho’s widow, Ann, received more than £500 from the over 1200 subscribers, as well as a fee paid by the booksellers for permission to publish a second edition. They were extensively reviewed, and in all there were 5 editions between 1782 and 1803. The last two were published by Sancho’s son, William, who transformed the family shop in Westminster into a printing and publishing venture. Subscribers to the first edition ranged from former fellow servants to aristocrats, and the list includes several dukes and duchesses, as well as politicians like Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, and writers like Edward Gibbon. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the 1784 Dublin edition.

Title page of the 1802 edition, published by Sancho's son, William

Sancho’s letters are essentially private correspondence.   In an age before telephones and email, they were the means by which he kept in touch with his friends and acquaintances. It is not surprising, therefore, that they contain a lot of relatively mundane details of everyday domestic activities. However, they do give us an insight into his lifestyle and attitudes and the breadth of his erudition.

To Miss Leach, July 26, 1775

I am reading Bossuet’s Universal History, which I admire beyond any thing I have long met with; if it lays in your way, I would wish you to read it – if you have not already – and if you have, it is worth a second perusal. Mrs Sancho rejoices to hear you are well – and intrusts me to send you her best wishes. – I hope you continue your riding – and should like to see your etiquette of hat, feather, and habit. – Adieu. – May you enjoy every wish of your benevolent heart – is the hope and prayer of your much obliged humble servant, Ign Sancho

He was clearly devoted to his family, referring to his wife and daughters as

My best half and the Sanchonetta’s (to Mrs H, Feb 9, 1774)

And elsewhere wrote while on duty outside of central London:

I am heartily tired of the country; - the truth is – Mrs Sancho and the girls are in town; - I am not ashamed to own that I love my wife (to Mr Meheux, Nov 8, 1772)

Family concerns, particularly health matters, are a regular feature:

to Mrs Cocksedge, July 4, 1775
Mrs O[sborne – wife of Anne Sancho’s brother] is with us – she was, this day, observing poor Lydia [dau,  1771-6] with a good deal of compassion – and said she knew a child cured by roses boiled in new milk; - observed that you had, at this very time, perhaps bushels of role-leaves wasting on the ground. - Now my petition is – that you would cause a few of them to be brought here [you] - ...they are good dryed, but better fresh – so when you come to town think of honest Lydia.

Sadly, Lydia died the following year, but before then, the Sanchos’ 2nd son, William, had been born -

To Miss Leach, Dec 14, 1775, shortly after the birth of William:
Mrs Sancho, thank heaven, is as well as you left her, and your godson thrives – he is the type of his father – fat – heavy – sleepy – but as he is the heir of our [the] noble family, and your godson, I ought not to disparage him.

A  letter late in 1773 appears to have been written at the time he was preparing to set up his business in Westminster:

The principal thing we aim at is in the tea, snuff, and sugar, with the little articles of daily domestic use – in truth, I like your scheme, and I think the three articles you advise would answer exceeding well – but it would require a capital – which we have not – so we mean to cut our coat according to our scanty quantum ....... and if it please the Almighty to spare me from the gout, I verily think the happiest part of my life is to come – soap, starch, and blue, with raisins, figs &c – we shall cut a respectable figure – in our printed cards. [to Mrs H, Nov 1, 1773]


In June 1780, Lord George Gordon led a popular uprising in protest at laws designed to give a small measure of toleration to Roman Catholics.

Under the cry of ‘No Popery’, the protest turned to anarchy as the mob broke windows, set fire to buildings and set free the inmates of Newgate Prison.  Over 1000 people died. From his shop in Westminster, Sancho described the events in four letters to his friend John Spink, the first clearly written while the disturbance was still taking place:

June 6 1780
In the midst of the most cruel and ridiculous confusion, I am now set down to give you a very imperfect sketch of the maddest people that the maddest times were ever plagued with.— ........  - the insanity of L[or]d G[eorge] G[ordon] and the worse than Negro barbarity of the populace.....

There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats—besides half as many women and children—all parading the streets—the bridge—the park—ready for any and every mischief.—Gracious God! what's the matter now? I was obliged to leave off—the shouts of the mob—the horrid clashing of swords—and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion—drew me to the door—when every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop.—

Jun 9
Government is sunk in lethargic stupor—anarchy reigns—when I look back to the glorious time of (a) George II and (a) Pitt's administration—my heart sinks at the bitter contrast. We may now say of England, as was heretofore said of Great Babylon—"the "beauty of the excellency of the Chaldees—is no more;"—the Fleet Prison, the Marshalsea, King's- Bench, both Compters, Clerkenwell, and Tothill Fields, with Newgate, are all slung open;— Newgate partly burned, and 300 felons from thence only let loose upon the world.

Sukhdev Sandhu (p70) summarises three aspects of Sancho’s significance as a letter-writer: firstly that he wrote all his letters himself without the help of a ‘ghost-writer’, secondly his appreciation of the need for form and structure; thirdly his style – playful and jokey as well as didactic and moralising.



This was a time when the issue of slavery was being hotly debated. Campaigners such as Granville Sharp (1735-1813), Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) and William Wilberforce (1759-1833) were actively promoting the case for abolition. Their efforts culminated in the Somerset case of 1772, when Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England against his/her wishes. The judgement did not declare that slavery was illegal in England, but it was a significant, though partial victory, a step on the road to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery in 1833.

Evidence of the achievements of black Britons lent weight to the arguments of the abolitionists, so the writings of Sancho and his later contemporaries Olaudah Equiano (1745 - 1797) and Ottobah Cugoano (1757 - after1791) gave powerful support to the abolitionist cause.

Sancho’s letters contain some direct references to British imperialism and slavery. Writing to Jack Wingrave, who had made some disparaging remarks about the native people in Bombay, he says:

In ... one of your letters ...—you speak .... of the treachery and chicanery of the natives. My good friend, you should remember from whom they learnt those vices:—the first Christian visitors found them a simple, harmless people—but the cursed avidity for wealth urged these first visitors (and all the succeeding ones) to such acts of deception—and even wanton cruelty—that the poor ignorant Natives soon learnt to turn the knavish—and diabolical arts which they too soon imbibed—upon their teachers.

He continues:

I must observe your country's [sic] conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East—West Indies—and even on the coast of Guinea.—The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all christian navigators—is money—money—money—

While acknowledging that commerce could be an activity beneficial to all, he attacks its application to human trafficking:

In Africa, the poor wretched natives — ..... — are rendered so much the more miserable [by] the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves—and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings—encouraged by their Christian customers—who carry them strong liquors—to enflame their national madness—and powder—and bad fire-arms—to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.—But enough—it is a subject that sours my blood


In the summer of 1766, inspired by a passage he had read in one of Sterne’s sermons, Sancho wrote to ask the author Laurence Sterne to write something opposing slavery. He introduced himself thus:

It would be an insult on your humanity ... to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call "Negurs."—The first part of my life was rather unlucky ... A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro' God's blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—

He then went on to outline his request:

Your Sermons have touch'd me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse is this very affecting passage—"Consider how great a part of our species - in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!"—.........

I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour's attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your manner, would ease the yoke of many, perhaps occasion a reformation throughout our Islands — but should only  one be the better for it —Gracious God! - what a feast to a benevolent heart!
Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—....... figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself, Reverend, Sir, &c. I. SANCHO
[NB: amalgamation of unedited & edited versions, see Penguin p331]

Sterne replied to Sancho and kept copies of the letters, which are included in his correspondence, published in 1775.

There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James's, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, 'ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—
‘tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make 'em so. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying

It casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.

And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]
L. Sterne

And Sterne did, indeed, publish the ‘tender tale’ he referred to, in  Tristram Shandy, Vol. 4, Ch. 65.



Sancho published four collections of music over a 12-year period from c1767 to 1779, a total of 62 short compositions.

The Collection of New Songs, published in 1769, is perhaps the most interesting part of his output. The songs are written in the fashionably gallant style, with texts by Shakespeare, Garrick, the Greek poet Anacreon, and an anonymous ‘young lady’.

The three collections of instrumental pieces consist mainly of minuets and country dances, and were published in 1767ca, 1770ca and 1779.  They are written within the conventions of the time and can mostly be played on various combinations of instruments.  Some of the country dances consist simply of a melody line, others have a bass line in addition, while some the minuets are scored for a small ensemble.  Several of the dances have the instructions written below them, and some have been transcribed for modern-day performance.

One can imagine the music being performed at a concert such as this, at Montagu House in 1736

[Here is one of Sancho’s most affecting compositions: MUSIC – MINUET 11]


Where can we find traces or evidence of Ignatius Sancho’s life and work today? The ‘Letters’ are published in several modern editions, including the Penguin edition of 1998 and CUP of 2015.  An original copy of the 5th edition of 1803 is held in the British Library, but perhaps more interestingly, in the same location are held the only surviving manuscript letters in Sancho’s own hand.

These are among the papers of William Stevenson, one of Sancho’s correspondents. There are 12 letters written to Stevenson, three to Stevenson’s father; and then a further 7 letters written by Sancho’s children, William and Elizabeth, to Stevenson, thanking him for his financial support after their parents’ death.  All can be viewed online at the BL site.

Letter to William Stevenson

The originals of three of the music collections are held in the British Museum, while the fourth is in the Library of Congress. A facsimile edition of all four collections was published in 1981. There is a small selection of recordings on YouTube and other online sites.  The steps for several of the dances have been reconstructed by historical dance groups, and can be found in diagrammatic and video form on sites such as Regencydances.org.

We also know what he looked like.

The Gainsborough portrait shows Sancho at the age of around 39, during his time in service with the Montagu household. It is held in the National Gallery of Canada.Then there are the places where Sancho lived and worked.  The Legge sisters lived in or near Dartmouth Row, at the top of Blackheath Hill. Montagu House stood near the SW corner of Greenwich Park. It was later the residence of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of George IV, who had it pulled down in 1815. However, contemporary engravings and paintings of the house can be found online.

All that remains now is a section of the wall and part of Queen Caroline’s Bath House. A plaque on the wall nearby commemorates Ignatius Sancho.

There is another plaque on the wall of the Foreign office in King Charles Street (off Whitehall),  indicating that Sancho’s grocery shop once stood near the site. 

Not far away is St Margaret’s, Westminster, where Sancho and Ann Osborne were married in 1758.  The burial ground, where Sancho was laid to rest, stretched down from the church either side of what is now Victoria Street. Part of the burial ground is now a park, at the junction of Broadway and Victoria Street) where Sancho is? commemorated at one of the gates.

For more determined researchers, there is evidence of Sancho and his family in the Westminster Rate Books and baptismal records of St Margaret’s Westminster. These can be accessed online, for instance at sites where you can trace your ancestry.

Finally, there are his descendants. Four of the Sanchos’ 7 children survived to adulthood and may well have had children of their own, and so it is likely that there are descendants of Ignatius Sancho alive today. It is something of a coincidence that my next-door neighbour is related to a family of Sanchos (pron Sanko) who are trying to trace their ancestry to Ignatius.  Her nephew, Jadon Sancho, is currently in the England football squad.

In closing, I would like also mention the work of the actor, Paterson Joseph, who has taken on Sancho as a sort of ‘alter ego’. He has performed his play - Ignatius Sancho: An Act of Remembrance – in London and USA and is currently writing Sancho’s fictional autobiography as well as planning a film on his life.