In 1793 the London Foundling Hospital received a petition from ‘Black Peggy’, a native of Bengal.
Being a poor unfortunate girl just arrived at the age of fourteen was on my voyage to England with Mrs Harding, unhappily seduced by my fellow-servant James Murray by a false promise of marriage, but on our arrival at Ostend he knowing of my pregnancy left me friendless and unprotected. Nothing but the kind humanity of my mistress could have supported me through this scene of misery and repentance and who is still inclined to be my friend could I conceal my disgrace by your benevolence. This gentleman urges me in the most supplicating manner to entreat and solicit your generous aid and protection to the unhappy infant of your very humble petitioner.— Black Peggy
Peggy’s mistress, Mrs Elizabeth Harding of 2 Buckingham Street, recommended acceptance of the child because of the girl’s penitence and past good conduct.
On May 4, 1793, Peggy’s two-month-old daughter was admitted to the Hospital as Foundling No.18142. She was baptised with the name Jane Williams and sent as a nurse child to Dorking. Sadly Jane died a year later and was buried at St Martin’s Church in Dorking on May 11, 1794.
It is not clear whether Peggy was of Asian or African descent. African slaves were brought to Bengal in the 18th century.
I believe that Peggy’s mistress was the wife of Thomas Harding, an officer in the East India Company’s Bengal Army.
In May 1794 Elizabeth Harding was granted permission by the East India Company Court of Directors to return to her husband in India.
At the same time Thomas Parry Esq – was he the Company director? – was authorised to return a black servant named Peggy to Bengal on the Royal Admiral with no expense to be incurred by the Company.
In the passenger list for the Royal Admiral, Peggy is recorded as the servant to Mrs Anna Maria Freeman who was returning to her husband in Bengal. The ship sailed from Plymouth in August 1794 and the two women landed at Calcutta in February 1795.
The homeward passenger list for the Royal Admiral shows Anna Maria Freeman and her black servant, now named as Peggy Harding.
This link to her previous mistress surely confirms that this is the Foundling Hospital’s ‘Black Peggy’? What had happened to cause Mrs Freeman to leave again for England on the Royal Admiral in August 1795? Did she discover that her husband had died in her absence? Frustratingly I have been unable to identify with any certainty who her husband was.
Mrs Freeman and Peggy left the ship in the Bristol Channel on January 8, 1796. Less than a month later Anna Maria Freeman, described as a widow, married William Fairfax in Bristol. Fairfax had been the first mate in the Royal Admiral on the 1794-1796 voyage to India and back.
For now, the story of Peggy ends here. Perhaps she is the black female servant called Peggy who sailed on the Houghton to Bengal in the spring of 1797?
The author is lead curator of East India Company Records.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.