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The forgotten grave of a Highgate mistress and her former slave

PUBLISHED: 07:00 26 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:33 26 July 2020

The Hornsey grave where Joseph Walker and Harriet Long, who died two months apart in 1841, are buried together. Picture: David Winskill

The Hornsey grave where Joseph Walker and Harriet Long, who died two months apart in 1841, are buried together. Picture: David Winskill

Archant

Beneath the wild, overgrown weeds of a Hornsey churchyard lies a curious and forgotten tale of a mistress and servant buried side by side.

The grave reads: 'Jacob Walker, a native of Virginia, in America the faithful slave, in England the faithful servant.' Picture: David WinskillThe grave reads: 'Jacob Walker, a native of Virginia, in America the faithful slave, in England the faithful servant.' Picture: David Winskill

Beneath the wild, overgrown weeds of a Hornsey churchyard lies a curious and forgotten tale of a mistress and servant buried side by side.

Nestled near St Mary’s Tower in Hornsey High Street, a 159-year-old tombstone marks the plot where Harriet Long and Jacob Walker were together laid to rest in 1841.

The story of how the pair, a white mistress and Black servant, came to be buried together – thought to be the only grave of its kind – follows a tale of historic, cultural and racial significance that charts Britain’s role at the centre of the slave trade, to the rise of the abolition movement.

The Ham&High spoke with the Hornsey Historical Society about how the grave is a stark reminder of the past – and what we can learn from it today.

‘In America the faithful slave, in England the faithful servant’

Harriet Long was from Virginia in the US. She was widowed in 1826 when her first husband, Joseph Selden – father to two of Harriet’s children – was killed in a duel over a game of cards.

In 1827, Harriet remarried to an Englishman, George Long, and the couple crossed the Atlantic a year later for the husband’s new post at University College London.

Harriet brought with her Jacob Walker, a Black servant thought to have worked for the family in Virginia.

The eastern face of St Mary's Tower in Hornsey, previously part of the parish church. Picture: ArchantThe eastern face of St Mary's Tower in Hornsey, previously part of the parish church. Picture: Archant

The Census of 1841 lists the Long’s family address as Jackson’s Lane, Highgate – believed to be in a large house called Southwood Lawn that was later demolished.

In June 1841, Harriet died with ‘schirrus’, a type of cancer. Only two months later, Jacob died of smallpox.

As Jackson’s Lane was then a part of Hornsey, Harriet and Jacob, both 39, were buried together in what was, at the time, Hornsey’s parish church (of which only St Mary’s Tower now remains).

A story surfaced that Jacob was found dead on top of Harriet’s grave the day after her funeral – but death certificates disprove this legend.

However, the fact they were buried together, a mistress and servant – the only grave of its type – remains a mysterious story and one that highlights their remarkable, if not unusual, bond.

While much of how and why these two were inseparable remains unclear, the inscription of their grave can be explained by the development – and subsequent dismantling – of the slave trade in the UK and the US.

The Hornsey grave reads: “Jacob Walker, a native of Virginia, in America the faithful slave, in England the faithful servant.”

Kenwood House and a ‘landmark’ ruling

Black Lives Matter protests - here in Crouch End - have ignited debate, reflection and criticism of Britain's colonial ties to the slave trade. Picture: Lucie GoodayleBlack Lives Matter protests - here in Crouch End - have ignited debate, reflection and criticism of Britain's colonial ties to the slave trade. Picture: Lucie Goodayle

How Jacob could be a slave in America but a servant in England was determined by a landmark ruling of 1772.

At that time, British wealth was founded on the slave trade. Since the 16th century the empire had transported hundreds of thousands of Black slaves by ship in dreadful conditions to work on its colonies’ plantations.

In 1772, the abolition movement – which fought to end slavery – was gathering momentum but its cause, directly opposed to the means of the empire’s economic pulse, was deeply unpopular.

At the time, the Lord Chief Justice was William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, who lived in Kenwood House, on the northern tip of Hampstead Heath.

Lord Mansfield was presented with the case of a runaway slave, James Somerset, who like Jacob Walker, was from Virginia in the US.

James had escaped from his owner, Charles Stewart, who had brought him over from the States, but he was later captured and chained to a ship on the Thames to be sold to a planter in Jamaica.

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The abolitionists caught wind of James’s sale and, fighting for his freedom, took his case to court in front of Lord Mansfield.

Faced with the immense power and financial clout of Britain’s slave industry, Lord Mansfield repeatedly adjourned the case, but it had become a huge story, drawing national attention, and he was forced to make a judgement.

Black Lives Matter protesters in Highgate in June. Picture: Nicole GeorgiouBlack Lives Matter protesters in Highgate in June. Picture: Nicole Georgiou

On June 22 in 1772, Lord Mansfield ruled there was no ground in English law for James to be abducted and forced into slavery.

Passing judgement at Westminster Hall, Lord Mansfield said: “The power of master over his slave has been extremely different in different countries.

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after reasons, occasion and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory.

“It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.

“Whatever inconveniences therefore may follow from this decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England and therefore the Black must be discharged.”

James was released and the historic ruling was taken to grant freedom upon Black people in Britain; to ban slavery in the country.

While the ruling was deemed monumental at the time, slavery continued on plantations – the ruling did not apply to British colonies – and it was not until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed.

However, winding forward 69 years to 1841, Lord Mansfield’s ruling does explain why the inscription of Harriet Long’s and Jacob Walker’s Hornsey grave is such – “in America the faithful slave, in England the faithful servant”.

The Lord Chief Justice’s judgement of 1772, which granted “freedom” upon slaves, meant that when, in 1828, Jacob followed his mistress Harriet to the UK from the US – which didn’t formally abolish slavery until 1865 – he was no longer a slave, but a servant.

Reflections in 2020

In Hornsey churchyard, we have a mistress and her slave buried together – the only joint grave of its kind.

Its inscription is dictated by a landmark ruling decided at Kenwood House.

So, in 2020, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests which have brought renewed reflection on Britain’s colonial past, what – if anything – can we learn from this story?

Janet Owen, an archive volunteer for Hornsey Historical Society, said: “We cannot put the ideas we have in 2020 back to 1841, or indeed 1772.

“If we were transported in Doctor Who’s time machine we just would not recognise the thought processes, the way that people’s brains were wired in comparison with ours.

“It’s just a different world. The past is a foreign place.”

Janet says while history “cannot” be judged through the moral and social compass of 2020, the consequences of history – Black slaves suffering at the hands of the British Empire – can be.

Of Lord Mansfield’s ruling in 1772, Janet said: “We must look at situations like this and say yes it was a landmark decision, but many people’s attitudes still didn’t change and the world remains imperfect all these years later.

“However, it did highlight how the abolitionists were prepared to stand up and be mocked by the society of their day.

“They believed slavery was wrong and they were prepared to put their money and their mouths with their beliefs.

“So that’s another thing can take from this Hornsey story – that we must follow up our beliefs and stand up for them regardless of what is going on in society.

“We always rely on people of all centuries to do that, to not go with the flow and say ‘oh isn’t it dreadful’ – but actually do something about it.”

This story has sourced archive information from: Hornsey Historical Society’s Janet Owen, and Roy Hidson, author of The Lady and the Slave - a Hornsey mystery, and from historian David Olusoga’s book, Black and British: A Forgotten History.


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