Dr Johnson’s Jamaican heir

Francis Barber went from childhood slavery to freedom in Fleet Street with Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson was one of the most famous literary figures of the 18th century. There are numerous books about Dr Johnson; his house in Gough Square is a major attraction that celebrates his dictionary. Now his faithful servant and friend of 32 years has a biography of his own.

The Fortunes of Francis Barber, by Michael Bundock, is the most thorough account yet of the child slave who ended up living with Johnson as a father figure. Visitors to the house near Fleet Street will have seen the portrait – a copy of a Joshua Reynolds (above) – widely believed to be Barber.

His story begins with the sugar plantations in Jamaica (“a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves,” as Johnson described it). In 1750, Barber – then known by his slave name Quashey – was taken to England by his owner Colonel Bathurst. It was a lucky escape: 143 other slaves were sold in Jamaica.

Black people were uncommon in Georgian London, though Bundock notes that some were employed as servants as a “fashionable novelty”. It must have been a bewildering experience for the boy, who was about eight (his date of birth is unknown). He was baptised and took the name Francis Barber; Johnson always called him Frank.

Johnson was friends with Bathurst’s son, who thought the boy might help lift Johnson out of his despair following the recent death of his wife, Tetty, in 1752. And Gough Square was always busy with guests benefiting from Johnson’s charitable nature. Employed as a servant, the young Barber complained about being scolded by the blind poet Anna Williams. She had previously lived in the Charterhouse nursing her father until a ruling that women were not allowed to stay.

With his height, booming voice and physical tics, Johnson must also have been an intimidating figure for Barber. Then there was the 32-year age difference, though Johnson always got on well with younger people. Barber spent time in the garret where the dictionary, published in 1755, was prepared over several years.

Johnson paid for tuition, though Barber did not receive a formal education until he went to school in 1768 – at the age of 26! Some of Johnson’s friends were appalled at the expense, though he encouraged Barber: “You can never be wise unless you love reading.”

Barber had attempted to live his own life. Having been made ‘free’ in Bathurst’s will (though slavery in England was not legally contested until 1772), Barber left Gough Square. In 1758, he joined the Royal Navy; Johnson was bereft. By 1760, he pulled strings to have Barber discharged. The servant had no choice but to return to his master.

Barber’s duties were not onerous: serving food, answering the door and delivering messages. Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale mocked the servant for leaving his master to feed oysters to his ailing cat, Hodge. “Mr Johnson always went out himself to buy Hodge’s dinner, that Francis the Black’s delicacy might not be hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped,” she wrote.

‘You can never be wise unless you love reading’

In 1773, Barber married a white woman, Elizabeth Ball, of Hatton Garden (their union prompted some racist remarks). The couple had four children, three of them surviving into adulthood, including a son named Samuel. From 1776, the Barber family lived in Bolt Court with Johnson, whose devoted companion nursed him through his final illness. Johnson died, aged 75, in 1784.

In what seemed a scandalous decision to some of his friends, Johnson named Barber his legal heir. He died a wealthy man and left his servant an annuity of £70 a year (an annual payment worth around £7,500 today) and the enormous sum of £1,250 in trust.

Unfortunately, Barber seems to have been poor with money. Having moved to Johnson’s home of Lichfield, Barber started an elementary school – he may have been Britain’s first black schoolmaster – though it did not last. He died in 1801, aged 57 or 58.

More than 260 years since Francis Barber arrived in Gough Square, his story remains fragmentary; the portrait in the house may not even be him (it could well be Reynolds’s servant). But his was undoubtedly a remarkable life – the Jamaican slave who ended up as heir to Dr Johnson.

 “The Fortunes of Francis Barber” by Michael Bundock (Yale) is out now