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Francis Barber and Dr. Johnson at Gough Square

Dr. Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square off Fleet Street where he lived from 1748 till 1759 affords us a vivid glimpse into life in eighteenth century London. It also proudly displays a striking portrait of a young black man.  Further investigation into the story behind this painting unveils a reassuring story of companionship, kindness and affection that grew out of the long relationship of care and trust between the great lexicographer and his servant, friend and eventual heir Francis Barber. 

This is widely believed to be a portrait of Francis Barber dating from the 1770s but this cannot be definitively proven. This copy hangs at Tate Britain but there are many versions as the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, encouraged his students to make copies of their own in his studio. Another theory is that it could be a portrait of the artist’s own black servant. A copy takes pride of place in Dr Johnson’s house.

Think back to the 1750s.  It was a time when the Atlantic economy was booming.  Many British families were growing rich from the huge fortunes made by planters in the Caribbean on the back of the suffering and sweated labour of thousands of enslaved people.  London was a hostile environment its black population thought to number some 10,000 to 15,000 souls in the second half of the century.  Many were free. More were enslaved whilst others were runaways, sailors or servants.  It was not until 1772 that the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield put enshrined the notion of the essential humanity of black people by ruling in law that an enslaved person was a man and not simply an article of property and could not be forcibly taken out of England against his will.   Britons however, proud of their liberties, proclaimed that they ‘never, never shall be slaves’.

Francis Barber was born into slavery in about 1745 on a plantation in Jamaica belonging to Richard Bathurst, father of one of Dr Johnson’s many friends. His original name was Quashey or Kwesi, a name given to boys born on a Sunday in the languages of the Gold Coast (now Ghana).  He was brought to England by his owner who may have been his father.  He was sent to school in Yorkshire but when Francis was seven his owner died bequeathing him his freedom and a legacy of £12.00.   The family sent the boy to live as a valet to Dr Johnson whose wife Tetty had recently died.  They knew their friend was devastated by his loss and would appreciate company in his house.

Francis stayed with Dr Johnson for some time, providing a reassuring presence for his grieving master but soon used his legacy to buy himself an apprenticeship to an apothecary on Cheapside.  He continued to run errands for the household and visited often.  In time of war in 1758 Francis left again to join the navy and served two years as a landsman on fishery protection duty out of Yarmouth.  Dr Johnson persuaded his friend the great novelist Tobias Smollett, who had served as a navy surgeon, to pull strings at the Admiralty to get Francis discharged on the exaggerated grounds that he was “a sickly lad of a delicate frame and particularly subject to a malady in his throat and very unfit for His Majesty’s service”.

On his return from sea Francis undertook light duties as servant for Dr Johnson by then living in slightly reduced circumstances at 1 Inner Temple Lane. He became a continuous presence in his life and was allowed much freedom to entertain his friends.  Johnson wrote of Francis that he “carried the empire of Cupid farther than most men”.  Certainly, Johnson’s devotion had the tenderness of a parent.  He prayed with him, gave him moral guidance and in 1767 sent him to the grammar school at Bishop’s Stortford for five years.  That must have been a strange experience for the 22 year old Francis not only as the sole black student but also because he was six years older than any of the other scholars. During these years Dr Johnson sent him letters every week, one of which he signed off with the words, ‘Do not imagine I shall forget or forsake you‘.

On his return to London Francis’s place as surrogate son was secure.  During Johnson’s famous 1773 tour of Scotland with James Boswell Francis took charge of the household at Temple Court entertaining his friends and bride to be Betsy Ball whom he married in 1776 at St Dunstan’s in the West church on Fleet Street.  The couple, who had their first child in 1781, lived together with Dr Johnson until his death in 1784.

During these final declining years of the great author’s life Francis provided vital support.  He took care of Johnson’s affairs, sent proof sheets to James Boswell for the new work on the Lives of the Poets and read to him in English and Greek.  The literary world owes credit to Francis Barber who only complied with Johnson’s request that his papers should be burnt when the old man was standing over him and watching.  Without this defiance on the part of Francis we would now know much less about this towering man of letters.

Dr Johnson suffered a stroke in 1783 and realising that his end was near he sent for his solicitor and drew up a will which was witnessed by no less a figure than the great Royal Academician Sir Joshua Reynolds. Francis was present at the deathbed of the great man of letters on 13 December 1784.  The legacy left him all of Dr Johnson’s household goods, £70.00 a year for life and care of the books and papers. In a touching note he also included his wedding ring for Barber as ‘a memorial of tenderness’ for his service.  Even his legal executor and author of another biography, Sir John Hawkins, vehemently opposed Johnson’s legacy to Barber and did little to explain the complexities of his trust fund to him.

James Boswell’s biography acknowledges Francis’s importance as the chief source for his account of Johnson’s reaction to the death of his wife in 1752: “That his suffering upon the death of his wife were severe, beyond what are commonly endured, I have no doubt, from the information of many who were then about him, to none of whom I give more credit than to Mr. Francis Barber, his faithful negro servant, who came into his family about a fortnight after the dismal event.

Following his mentor and benefactor’s advice Francis and his family moved to Lichfield, his native city, soon after Johnson’s death.  There the couple set up a school.  Francis may possibly have been England’s first black schoolmaster.  The school struggled and the family faced financial difficulties.  Francis and his wife had to sell many of the treasured domestic objects they had inherited from Dr. Johnson to collectors of memorabilia.  In 1799 he appealed to the Lichfield magistrates for assistance under the Poor Laws and sadly died of pneumonia in Stafford Infirmary in 1801.  Descendants of Francis and Betsy Barber still live in the West Midlands. One, Cedric Barber, was featured in David Olusoga’s 2016 BBC series “Black and British”.   It is estimated that as many as two to three million people in Britain have a black Georgian ancestor buried in their past.

What are we to make of this long connection of trust and companionship? The life of Francis Barber stands as an anomaly of individual friendship and kindness in an age of oppression. Both Dr. Johnson himself and his biographer James Boswell were staunch opponents of slavery.  Johnson wrote scathingly of the ‘negro drivers of the American colonies’ and once proposed a toast to the ‘next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies’.  Boswell attended early meetings of the Committee of the Slave Trade in 1787. They were both perhaps ahead of the zeitgeist in this regard.  Writers such as Edward Long who published his 3 volume History of Jamaica in 1774, promulgated racist views and strongly condemned interracial marriage.  These views represented the prevailing orthodoxy of the times and prefaced the decades long struggle that was about to commence to safeguard the Slave Trade and retain the institution of slavery in the British Empire upon which so much of the wealth of the nation was derived.


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