Kenwood's slave trade exhibits given online revival

PUBLISHED: 17:07 11 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:08 07 September 2010

March marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade and Kenwood House staged a major exhibition telling a story rarely told. It has now been given a second life on the internet – reporter Josie Hinton finds out more. A UNIQUE story o

March marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade and Kenwood House staged a major exhibition telling a story rarely told. It has now been given a second life on the internet - reporter Josie Hinton finds out more.

A UNIQUE story of slavery and compassion at Kenwood House will live again online, after being added to English Heritage's website.

The new web pages, entitled Slavery and Justice: The Legacies of Dido Belle and Lord Mansfield, brings to life the story behind the illegitimate great niece of the first Earl of Mansfield, William Murray, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans.

Dido Elizabeth Belle grew up at Kenwood House, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield's nephew Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain, and a woman Sir John encountered while his ship was in the Caribbean.

She was sent to England by Lindsay, and from the 1760s Dido was brought up in the aristocratic surroundings of Kenwood House by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died.

Despite there being few reminders of Dido Belle in the collections at Kenwood House, English Heritage is keen to make sure that her story is not forgotten.

"Up until Dido's death in 1804, there are small snippets of information which help piece her life together but it is during her time at Kenwood that we get a true feel for her place in the history of the Black presence in London and Lord Mansfield's role in the long struggle for the abolition of the slave trade," said a spokeswoman for English Heritage.

When the slavery and justice exhibition ran last year at the stately home on Hampstead Heath, this portrait (pictured) of Dido and Lady Elizabeth Murray was moved down from the collection of the Earl of Mansfield in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland.

Now that the exhibition has ended and the portrait has been returned, Kenwood bosses were keen to keep the important story alive - hence the new internet pages.

"Now that this fascinating and telling portrait of Dido Belle with her cousin Lady Elizabeth has returned to the present Lord Mansfield's home and the exhibition has come to an end, this new information available online will ensure that this extraordinary history is accessible to everyone, and that Dido Belle remains in our memories," said the spokeswoman.

In his time, Lord Mansfield was England's most powerful judge. His famous ruling in 1772 over the James Somerset case was interpreted by many to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England.

This was not necessarily the case, as in reality it merely prohibited slave owners from forcefully sending their slaves back to the Caribbean, but the way that it was received marked a significant milestone along the long road towards the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.

Many feel that it was likely that his affection for Dido influenced his decisions, but as Lord Chief Justice, he had to balance this with a careful reading of the law, and was reluctant to overturn the whole system which, though he and many others felt it was "odious", had brought many economic advantages to Britain.

When Lord Mansfield died, he made sure in his will that Dido was a free woman and in 1794 she became Mrs Dido Elizabeth Davinier and left Kenwood for married life.

Now that the exhibition about her life is over, the information is preserved on English Heritage's website www.english-heritage.org.uk


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