An Esteemed Black Member of Yarmouth’s 19th Century Middle Class.

By Haydn Brown.

The story of Edward Steele, and his sister Katherine Anne Steele, is of middle-class life. For Edward, it was in around Norwich and Great Yarmouth, but began in the heart of Caribbean slavery. Here, his story contrasts to the evils of a life forced upon someone who was of African descent, and the freedom and status achieved by him in Norfolk. His story, bought to you thanks to Richard C. Maguire, offers a brief insight into the issue of race in 19th-century Norfolk Society.

Edward Steele, Esq:
Edward Steele, Esq resided for many years in Regent Road, Yarmouth following his retirement from the military; first at No 8 then later at No 13. There he was long known and highly respected in the town’s society, despite being born in Barbados in 1785. For many years he had been an officer in the East Norfolk Regiment of Militia but died in 1873, in his 89th year, unmarried and having retained his faculties almost to the last.

Regent Road, Yarmouth at the turn of the 19th century. Public Domain.

There is no reason to think that Edward Steele had any connection to the history of Norfolk’s Black population. In fact, his story, and that of his sister Katherine Ann Steele, began in the heart of Caribbean slavery and racism. Both Edward Steele and his sister were born enslaved, the illegitimate children of a plantation owner in Barbados called Joshua Steele, from whom they presumably were named.

Joshua Steele (1700-1791):
Little is known of Joshua Steele’s life before 1750, but he eventually became an accomplished 18th-century ‘Gentleman and Scholar’. In 1750, he married a wealthy widow, Sarah Hopkins Osborn who had inherited a large plantation on the island of Barbados, called Hallett’s, which in 1774 held 131 enslaved people. She also had the lease of two other plantations that bordered Hallett’s: Byde Mill House plantation, which held 102 enslaved people and Kendalls, which held 184 enslaved people in 1774.


When Joshua’s wife died in 1757, he found himself the possessor of both enslaved people and plantations. Although interested in how this income might be increased, Steele showed no interest in the welfare of his enslaved people and kept silent about his own ownership status in general discussions.  Nonetheless, he needed the income from these plantations to fund his lifestyle and from 1775 he became increasingly concerned over their falling cash-flow, beginning to attend meetings of the Society of West India Merchants and Planters, which had been established to protect the interest of absentee landlords such as himself.

In 1780 Steele, possibly now eighty years of age, travelled to Barbados to examine his estates. There he was confronted with the reality that he had avoided for so many years. Appalled by, what he termed, the ‘brutality of my species’ Steele spent the next decade challenging the accepted way in which plantations were run. To the delight of abolitionists in England, he implemented changes such as banning the use of the whip, paying his slaves, having them sit in courts to judge their fellows, and even established a system of tenancy.


Steele remained on Barbados until his death in 1796 and fathered two children with Anna Slatia, one of the enslaved women on the Byde Mill plantation. The children were Edward, born in 1785, and Katherine (birth date unknown). The children remained enslaved, as did their mother. However, a few hours before Joshua died, he changed his Will. He left his plantation to his sister, Mary Ann Steele and his children, stating that the plantation was not to:

‘Become the property of any other person claiming in right of my said children, who are now slaves, but for their own proper benefit and not otherwise.’

As Joshua had probably intended, his Will led to a major court case. Firstly, disagreement flared between Mary Steele and the executor, Francis Bell, when Mary proposed to sell the plantation to a planter named Phillip Gibbes – disinheriting Edward and Katherine. Francis Bell, to his credit, disagreed. Mary Steele died before the matter was settled and Bell assumed control of the plantation. Gibbes continued litigation, however, claiming that his agreement with Mary Steele should be honoured, because Edward and Katherine, as slaves, had no rights!

The case was eventually dealt with and the wishes of Joshua Steele were ignored; the idea that enslaved people could be allowed to hold property was so dangerous that it was not allowed to be entertained in the Barbados courts.

Yet, while Edward and Katherine lost their inheritance, they did not remain enslaved. Francis Bell arranged for Edward and Katherine to be freed and for them to travel to England. Now free for the first time in their lives, the children received the education appropriate for the children of a gentleman such as Joshua Steele. Katherine went to a finishing school in Camberwell, London, while Edward was sent to school with Bell’s own son in Norwich. It seems possible that Bell may have been connected to the Bell family of Beaupré Hall in Outwell, Norfolk and that this led to Edward’s connection with the county of Norfolk.


Bell had been a loyal confederate of Joshua Steele for many years, and his allegiance to his friend’s last wishes was instrumental in enabling Edward and Katherine to make the transition from lives as enslaved people to lives as fully integrated members of Norfolk and London society.

Katherine Anne Steele:
Unfortunately, little is known about Katherine’s life after she arrived in England. Katherine married on 17 July 1807, in the St James Church, Clerkenwell, London. The man she married was ‘Henry White Esq.’ of the Parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, London. Although the marriage record lists her as ‘Catherine Ann Steele’, she signed it as ‘Katherine Anne Steele’. Katherine had married well, with no indication that her heritage as a mixed-race, formerly enslaved, woman had any impact upon her marriage prospects in early 19th-century England. The couple had at least one child, Mary Ann White, who became the major beneficiary of her uncle Edward’s estate on his death in 1883, where he described her as his ‘dear niece’ and the daughter of his late sister ‘Katherine Anne White’.

A Return to Edward:
It is not known where in Norwich Edward was schooled; however, he was to make his permanent home in Yarmouth, and it appears that this was a consequence of his military service. Edward served with the East Norfolk Regiment of militia for many years, although he is also recorded as being a member of the ‘Norfolk Regular Militia’ at one point.

Officer of the Norfolk Militia, 1759. Wikimedia.

He made steady progress through the junior officer ranks, being listed as a Lieutenant in 1824 and 1826, but had become a Senior Lieutenant in 1832. It may be that he eventually rose to the rank of Captain, since his 1873 obituary in The Ipswich Journal, listed him as ‘formerly Captain in the East Norfolk Militia’.

The Royal Barracks, Great Yarmouth (looking south, with the coast on the left).

Edward had, up to at least 1841, lived at the Royal Barracks, Yarmouth, which were situated at the South Denes. The barracks had begun as a naval hospital in 1809, and was was later converted to a general military barracks, capable of accommodating about one hundred men. It may have been that he was resident in one of the ‘four excellent family houses, for officers belonging to the establishment, handsomely constructed with every requisite for convenience, and suitable to the comfort of the inhabitants’ that were to be found in the courtyard.

During this period Edward appears to have had a full social calendar and to have been actively engaged in the intellectual life of the town. Three letters from him while living at the Royal Barracks survive, giving us a small glimpse into his life during late 1833. All the letters were written to Charles John Palmer (1805-82), the Yarmouth antiquary and historian. The first two letters, from June and September 1833, were written in respect of a manuscript entitled ‘Love and Money’ that Palmer had written. Steele promised to examine the manuscript and ‘endeavour to form a proper opinion of it’. Having done so, he was able to inform Palmer that the manuscript was missing certain pages. The other letter relates to social engagements.

In December 1833, Palmer invited Edward Steele to spend Christmas at his house, but Edward had already agreed to spend it with his ‘my old neighbour Mr Buckle at Hethersett’. It is clear that Edward and Charles Palmer were good friends, for Edward was also involved in Palmer’s editing of ‘Manship’s History of Great Yarmouth’ and was one of the subscribers to the completed work.

Antique Steel Vignette – “St. Nicholas Church, Yarmouth” published by W Cobb & Co, Quay

Edward was also involved in his local church, St Nicholas. Described in 1806 as being in ‘a very decayed state’ St. Nicholas saw a series of restoration projects during the 19th-century. In 1840 Edward was one of a group of local gentlemen who established a committee to raise the funds required to restore the church’s organ, which was described as:

‘Once the pride of, but now the town’s disgrace’.

Whereas other restoration projects at the church caused some controversy, the organ project was successfully managed by Edward Steele and the other committee members, and the completion of the repairs in 1844 was seen as a major success for the town’s community. Edward also appeared to have found such activity suitable for his talents, as he was also responsible for supervising the restoration of the organ at The Chapel of Saint George, King Street, (which was a chapel of ease for St Nicholas), in 1844. His talent in this area appears to have become known across the County, since around 1850 he also designed the wainscot for the organ at All Saints, Necton, which lies to the west of Norwich.

The Chapel of St George,  King Street, Great Yarmouth 1891. Francis Frith.

Sometime between 1841 and 1851 Edward moved to a house at 8 Regent Road following his retirement from army service; the 1851 census shows that he was unmarried, sixty-five years old and a Lieutenant on half-pay. His household consisted of a female servant, Christiana Heighs, who was aged 41 years and unmarried. This arrangement was unchanged a decade later, but at the time of the 1871 census Steele, now eighty-five years old, was cared for by two female servants, Mary Britton, aged 65, and her daughter Charlotte.

Edward’s death, at age eighty-eight, was recorded in the register of the church he had been so heavily involved with. No mention was made of his colour, or of his birthplace, just that he had been born in 1785. Indeed, no official document made any mention of his colour. The censuses of 1841, 1851 and 1861 noted merely that he was born in Barbados. The 1871 census noted on that he was a ‘British subject’. It seems that his access to a good education, and presumably some degree of funds from his father’s estate had given him the necessary entrée into middle-class society. His middleclass credentials appear to have removed any issue of race. Richard C. Maguire further says something on this:

“Indeed, the complete absence of any evidence for racial antipathy towards him is an interesting fact, that should cause us to re-evaluate any preconceptions about attitudes to race in a county such as Norfolk in this period. To most people in Norfolk, it seems that Steele was perceived by his class position rather than his racial heritage, he was simply ‘Edward Steel Esq., gentleman’.”


Source: THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS IN NINETEENTH- AND EARLY TWENTIETHCENTURY NORFOLK by Richard C. Maguire. Norfolk Archaeology XLVII (2017), 511–522.

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