Having had an extended May Bank Holiday, Exploring London returns with our usual coverage this week…
The subject of the new film Belle, the life of Georgian-era Dido Elizabeth Belle was nothing short of extraordinary.
Born in 1761, Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an African woman who had apparently been captured from a Spanish ship when Havana was captured from the Spanish in 1762 (Lindsay had captained a ship in the fight).
Baptised at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, in 1766, Lindsay subsequently sent Dido to live with his uncle William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield – Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Initially residing at the family house in Bloomsbury Square and later at Kenwood House in Hampstead, she was raised alongside her orphaned cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray who was also in the earl’s care.
She spent some 30 years living at the property and while her status remains something of a mystery, it is thought she was treated more as a companion to Lady Murray than a servant – indeed her familiarity with Lady Murray did prove somewhat shocking to some. Her presence in the house also led to some criticism of Lord Mansfield’s judgements in cases related to slavery.
Following the Earl of Mansfield’s death in 1793, Belle – who has acted as his secretary later in his life – was awarded £500 outright and a £100 annuity and had her freedom confirmed in Mansfield’s will. In December that year she married a Frenchman and gentleman’s steward (possibly at Kenwood House), John Davinier, at St George’s Hanover Square, London. The couple are believed to have had at least three sons and lived in Pimlico before Belle’s death in 1804. She was buried in St George’s Fields and her remains were later moved when the area was redeveloped in the mid-20th century.
A turbaned Belle is famously depicted in a portrait with Lady Murray which now hangs in Scone Palace at Perth in Scotland (property of the current Earl of Mansfield). The portrait was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany but it’s now generally accepted it was not created by him.
Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, opens in the UK next month.