By Alice Millard, Research Assistant
Please note that some of the language used in the original records includes offensive and insensitive terminology. The inclusion of these terms is not an endorsement of such language, but are there to authentically represent the original document.
In August 2021, I began trawling through the transcripts of baptisms, marriages and burials for each parish in West Sussex. I was looking for individuals whose ethnicity may have been described as one other than white, or members of a diasporic community. As part of ongoing intersectionality work in the archive, I then started to compile a database of such individuals, in the hope that research could be conducted into their lives.
One such entry appears in the New Shoreham baptism register. On 2 April 1794, a boy called John Henry was baptised by his parents, Marcus and Elizabeth Thomas. Marcus is described in this entry as “a Negro man” – an archaic word thought to have come from the Spanish for black. Marriages between white British people and black African or West Indian people at this time were rare but not unheard of, and there was certainly a small population of people with black ancestry in Britain. Author Gretchen Gerzina estimates between 1% and 3% of London’s population was black. However, the rarity of such a marriage makes this baptism entry particularly notable.
I was intrigued about how Marcus had come to be in the small port town of New Shoreham in 1794, along with his wife and son. Marcus was not a very common name, and it would be reasonably unlikely to have two young black men called Marcus Thomas in Britain at the same time. I also knew that, in order to marry, both bride and groom would have needed to be baptised, so I decided to track him down in further records.
Searching Ancestry, I found a baptism entry in St Martin in the Fields (Westminster) parish register for a 19-year-old Jamaican man called Marcus Richard Fitzroy Thomas on 22 April 1787. Despite the additional middle names, the age of this Marcus would fit with that of the Marcus in New Shoreham. At this point, I was quite excited to have just found a potential baptism record. However, a mere few seconds later, I spotted something which would change the course of this research.
The baptism entry above Marcus’s was for the third Earl of Harrington’s son, Fitzroy Henry Richard Stanhope. Both Marcus and Fitzroy were baptised in the same church on the very same day. The similarity between both names struck me as more than just a coincidence. I found myself wondering if it were possible Marcus was, in some form or another, attached to the Stanhope family. I decided to look into the life of the third Earl, Charles Stanhope.
Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington, was born 17 March 1753 to William Stanhope, second Earl of Harrington, and Lady Caroline FitzRoy. Stanhope spent most of his life in the military and commanded several regiments over his career. In 1780, Stanhope led a regiment in Jamaica against a French invasion, defending one of Britain’s largest slave colonies. He, and his wife Jane, returned to Britain in 1782. Upon his return, Stanhope commissioned a portrait by the renowned artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. This portrait, now held by the Yale Center for British Art, depicts Stanhope in archaic armour alongside a young black page boy.
Left: Charles Stanhope, third Earl of Harrington, and Marcus Thomas, 1782, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. From the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale Center for British Art.
It was fashionable for wealthy families during the 17th and 18th centuries to have young black children employed as ‘decorative’ pages. It was thought that the presence of an elaborately dressed black child in their household would symbolise their wealth and status to visitors. It was also common for wealthy families to commission portraits of themselves alongside black children. Many wealthy families in Britain and across Europe had built their businesses by exploiting the labour of enslaved Africans, and were therefore dependent on slave colonies for continued income. Black children were often taken from such colonies as household trophies.
The presence of the (otherwise unknown) black page boy in the painting, and the knowledge that there was a Marcus baptised alongside the Earl of Harrington’s son, led me to believe they could be the same person. Up until this point, it had been suggested that the identity of the boy – whilst possibly a person in the Earl’s household – could have been included as a symbol of the Earl’s military achievements in Jamaica. With all these revelations, I decided to send an email to the Yale Center for British Art informing them of my research. Happily, Yale replied and were equally as excited as I was. After some discussion, and several emails later, they were able to confirm that “Marcus” had visited the artist’s studio a day after the Earl had – both presumably to sit for the painting.
This was as much proof as we needed; the boy in the painting was indeed called Marcus and had probably been taken from Jamaica to England by the Earl in 1781-2.
The timing of Marcus’s baptism is interesting. As I now knew he was around 13 years old at the time of the painting, it took another six years before he was baptised. Baptising servants who had not been received into the Church of England was common practice, and I had already found several instances of black servants being baptised elsewhere in the county. So, why was Marcus baptised aged 19, and not earlier? Perhaps the Earl of Harrington had agreed that Marcus was approaching full adulthood and would release him from employment in his household. However, this is just speculation.
But what happened to Marcus after his baptism in 1787? Sadly, little is known about his life afterwards. There is a marriage between a Richard Fitz Roy Augustus Thomas and Elizabeth Plaxton in St Martin in the Fields (Westminster) on 24 January 1793 which, given the uniqueness of his baptised name, seems likely to have been Marcus.
This is where we come back to the baptism entry in New Shoreham. I have not been able to confirm if this baptism of John Henry Thomas is related to the Marcus Thomas of the painting. However, it feels more than a coincidence and, until I can prove otherwise, I think it may well be the same Marcus.
Marcus died 16 July 1816, aged 48, and was buried in St Martin in the Fields burial ground in Camden under the full name of ‘Marquois Richard Henry Fitzroy Frederick Augustus Thomas’. The burial register notes he came from the workhouse. The lot of the black community was limited in Georgian Britain; many had come to the county alone and were financially poor, some living in poverty. Whilst owning slaves within Britain was against the law, many black employees were taken advantage of due to racial prejudice and opportunities for exploitation. However, the workhouse day book for St Martin in the Fields shows that Marcus entered the workhouse on 3rd July, and that it was his first admission. This suggests he was financially stable, only requiring the services of the workhouse when he became very ill; workhouses offered rudimentary care for the sick.
Being able to identify Marcus has been an exciting and fascinating journey of research. That this previously unknown boy, stood gazing up at the third Earl of Harrington, now has a name and a story is testament to the potential for wonderful stories waiting to be uncovered in archives.
Since this blog was published in May 2022, further details about Marcus’s life have come to light.
The first of these updates concerns John Henry Thomas, the son of Marcus and his wife Elizabeth, who was baptised in 1794 in New Shoreham – the record which started this whole research project. As pure research serendipity, I stumbled across (via Ancestry.co.uk) a burial for John Henry Thomas in Sunderland in 1797. His burial entry records that his parents were Marquis Richard Fitzroy Augustus and Elizabeth Thomas. So, between John Henry’s baptism in Shoreham in 1794 and his burial in Sunderland 1797, the Thomas family had moved more than halfway up the country. For what reason remains unknown.
The next update came from searching the Westminster Rate Book index on FindMyPast.co.uk.
There are two Westminster Poor Rate Book entries for a Marquis Thomas: one in 1803 where he is listed as living in the ‘Leicester Fields’ area of St Anne’s, Soho; the other, also for 1803, a Marquis Thomas is listed as living in ‘Whitcomb Street’ in St Anne’s, Soho.
Given the unusual spelling of the forename, I believe this is the same Marcus.
Following this, I began looking for further potential children born to Marcus and Elizabeth. Presuming Elizabeth did not die early and given that Marcus is recorded as living until 1813, I thought it likely that they had at least one further child.
I found a possible daughter, Anna Maria Jane Thomas, who was baptised to a Marcus and Elizabeth Thomas in Bexhill-On-Sea, East Sussex, on 6 July 1801. The very same Anna Maria Jane Thomas was buried, aged four, in St Anne’s, Soho, on 19 March 1805. I believe this is likely to be the same Thomas family, as the Earl of Harrington had a daughter named Anna Maria (and we know Marcus was ‘fond’ of using the Earl’s familial names as his own), as well as the fact we have evidence that Marcus lived in St Anne’s, Soho.
What was particularly interesting about Anna Maria’s burial entry is that her address is given as ‘Swan Alley’. I decided to use Horwood’s 1790s plan of London (available here), which includes the names of streets, courts, and alleys in detail, and cross-reference it with Google Maps. After a bit of searching, I believe Swan Alley is now known as Flaxman Court.
Lastly, I found a possible son called Augustus Thomas, who was buried aged 13 months in St Anne’s, Soho, on 28 April 1805. As with Anna Maria, Augustus was also recorded as being from Swan Alley.
After the initial joy of finding these additional details on Marcus’s life, I realised that they only add to the mystery. Why did he move from Westminster to Shoreham, Shoreham to Sunderland, Sunderland to Bexhill-On-Sea, and then back to Westminster? My initial thoughts go to whether he was in a militia – groups who moved around frequently and often with young families in tow – or perhaps he was even involved with trade. Sadly, surviving records which would reveal this information are very unlikely to exist.
 Gerzina, Gretchen (1995). Black London: Life before Emancipation. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-8135-2259-3.
3 thoughts on “The Boy in the Painting: Marcus Thomas, b.1768-d.1816”
A remarkable story and an historical insight to life at that time.
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What a fascinating discovery and story!
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