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Yorkshire Family Discover Ancestor was a Slave

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.

John Yorke was an African slave, brought to the Yorkshire Dales. The image below is a record of his baptism at Marske near Richmond in 1776. The original baptism record refers to Yorke as a 'Negro Servant'. This was only discovered in 2007 when a lady, Mrs Thornton from Bradford was researching her family history.

She had no idea that six generations back she was descended from an African slave!

Baptism record of John Yorke, a slave of 1776

Mrs Thornton discovered that her descendant came from Fish River plantation near Montego Bay in Jamaica. He was brought to England by the owner's daughter Elizabeth Campbell, who married a wealthy widower John Yorke, of Richmond. Mrs Thornton believes he was given his new master's name, John Yorke, but by 1772 John was 'owned' by John Hutton of nearby Marske Hall. If you look at the baptism document you can read that John was with his owner for four years before he was baptised, but he was allowed to keep his first owner's name of Yorke. What we don't know for sure is how old John was when he first came to Yorkshire.

What Mrs Thornton did find out though, was that John's life improved after he saved a gamekeeper's life and was given a cottage. The family he raised there has 130 descendants, but only 14 in the male line. Mrs Thornton is descended from John's prizefighting son William, born in Marske in 1803. His son George moved from North Yorkshire to Bradford to work at Bolling Iron Works. He died in 1910.

George Yorke sits on a velvet upholstered chair.  He is wearing a three piece suit, a tie and a watch chain.
Photograph of George Yorke, grandson of John Yorke

Mrs Thornton said: 

"When I found out I was related to a slave I was amazed. But when I learned about John and his life and of his family I was very proud. 
I think he too would be proud of what has happened to his family over the years.

I feel quite humble that I have come from stock which suffered untold hardship.

To think that, if not John, then one of my ancestors had to come across from Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship and suffer those horrors is very moving."
Mrs Jenny Thornton (nee Yorke) as a child

This document is quite difficult to read partly because it is in handwriting that we are not used to reading, and partly because there were different spellings or abbreviations used over 200 years ago. We have created a transcript that explains some of the different spellings from today. In those days there wasn't a common form of spelling. People just wrote down what they heard. This meant where there were different accents in different parts of the country the spelling of words would vary.

Slavery in Britain was still in full force at this time. However pressure was forming against the practice. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787. William Wilberforce, the MP for Yorkshire at the time, led the parliamentary campaign for abolition, which was abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Discussion Ideas

  • What do you think it must have been like being a slave, probably being taken from your parents and travelling thousands of miles in extreme hardship? Zoom out of the map below to appreciate how far Marske is from Montego Bay in Jamaica, where John came from before arriving in Yorkshire.
  • We know that John came from Jamaica but it's likely that he or his Mother were captured as slaves in Africa before that. Discuss what journeys and experiences he might have had. 
  • Do any forms of slavery still exist today in the world?
  • Talk about what it would be like to learn more about your own family history. There might be 'skeletons in the cupboard'. What do you think that expression means? What kinds of surprises might you find? How would you feel, for example, if you discovered there had been someone in your family who'd had lots of money in the past but none of it had been 'inherited' or passed down to your family?
  • What do you think the word inherited or inheritance means? What would you like to inherit? It doesn't always mean money, it could be qualities or talents. Mrs Thornton says she is proud to come from 'stock of untold hardship', suggesting that being strong in troubled times is important to her.  

Activity Ideas

  • We know that John had been with his second 'owner' for four years when he was baptised at 17 or 18, but what we don't know is how long he had been in Yorkshire before that. Write a story imagining you are John coming to Yorkshire and tell your readers what it was like and the life you had experienced before.
  • Write another account from the slave owner's view point. How might a slave owner's needs in Yorkshire be different from that of a slave owner in Jamaica? 
  • Research your own family tree and see how far back you can go, be careful though if you find 'skeletons in the cupboard'! 
  • It is possible that some of John's descendants returned to Africa. Most slaves in Jamaica were captured in West Africa originally. Write a story imagining you are a descendant of John's returning to West Africa. Think about the period it would it be and why you are returning? You might be e.g. a musician or a photographer, or just interested in your family roots. What are the differences between the culture you have come from and the new one?