Resource created by Harewood House Trust.
This resource was created using research and content developed in collaboration with the Leeds-based Diasporian Stories Research Group for the 2021 exhibition Bertie Robinson: A Footman from St Vincent. The Diasporian Stories Research Group are dedicated to the research and dissemination of local Black and Asian histories.
Harewood House Trust is also grateful to Dr Emily Zobel Marshall for providing valuable support and feedback in the development of this teaching resource. Thanks should also be given to the individuals and organisations who have given permission for images and archival material to be reproduced as part of this resource.
This resource tells the story of Bertie Robinson, the first known Black member of staff to enter service at Harewood House. It provides contextual information and uses primary historical documents to explore Bertie’s life as a footman. Bertie’s voice is missing from the historical record, and this resource uses questions to prompt the reader and support the development of critical skills for studying history.
Note: Some primary documents in this learning story include terms which are recognised as being discriminatory and offensive. They are included here to enable historical study, to provide context, and as evidence of the political and social climate at the time.
Talking openly about colonial history, and how it affects the world today, will involve potentially difficult and challenging conversations. It may contain triggers around lived experience of racism, migration, abuse and violence. There may be pupils in your class whose ancestors were enslaved, or who were involved in the trade in enslaved Africans.
You may wish to talk about ground rules with the class and look out for language around ‘otherness’ and difference and be prepared for sensitive conversations and potential emotional impacts on pupils.
- KS3 History: ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901
- KS4 History: Britain: migration, empire, racism, transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans.
- What uncertainties might Bertie have had around what his job would be at Harewood House, and how he would be treated by the Lascelles family and/or other servants?
- How might people in Yorkshire view Bertie when they saw him with the Lascelles family?
- Look at the letters from Bertie’s mother, Amelia to the 5th Countess.
- What do you notice about the language Amelia uses when addressing the Countess?
- What about the language she uses in the body of the letters?
- Why do you think that the language Amelia uses is so deferential? Think about the differences in wealth between Amelia and the Countess, the fact that Amelia is a descendant of enslaved people, and the Countess’ family were enslavers, Amelia is Black and the Countess is White, Amelia’s perception of Britain as the ’Mother Land’.
- Bertie was a descendent of enslaved people. To what extent does this affect how he might be treated by the Lascelles family?
- To what extent does it affect how he might think he will be treated?
- Are these similar or different?
- How might Bertie have felt about leaving his family and his home?
- Think about the emotions he might have felt, for example, excitement at the opportunity, and apprehensive about the responsibility of helping to financially support his family.
- Bertie was 13 when he left St. Vincent. How might this affect how he felt about leaving?
- Bertie was with the Lascelles family for nearly 30 years before he stole the £50.
- What might this tell us about how well Bertie did his job?
- Bertie was proved guilty of stealing the money. Do you think his punishment by the Earl was fair? Do you think Bertie would have felt like it was fair? Make sure you give reasons for all your answers.
- What similarities might there be between the reasons that people migrate to Britain today and Bertie’s possible reasons for coming to England? What differences might there be?
- We do not have any records from Bertie himself, so we do not hear his voice in his story.
Write down 10 questions you would ask Bertie if you could. To help, think of all the information we are missing in the story, such as reasons for Bertie’s actions, how he was feeling at different times and how he was treated, as well as the fact that he was living far away from his family with no immediate forms of communication.
Now look at your questions and see if there are any you can make more specific. For example, rather than ‘Do you enjoy being a footman?’ you could ask ‘What aspects of being a footman do you enjoy, and what do you dislike?’
- Bertie chose to steal £50 from his employers, rather than asking them for help. Why do you think this might be? Use the written extracts from diaries, letters and memoirs, and contextual knowledge to list all the factors for and against Bertie asking the Earl and Countess for help.
- Look at the three different photographs of Bertie.
What similarities and differences are there between them?
What questions do they raise?
How reliable are they as historical sources?
How useful are they for a historian researching Bertie’s life with the Lascelles family?
- To what extent was the racism against inter-racial marriage at the time Bertie was living in England a product of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans? Use primary documents from this resource and contextual knowledge in your answer.