Thomas Anson

This is a guest blog written by independent researcher Audrey Dewjee. Audrey has more than 40 years of research, mainly examining and unearthing the history of Black and Asian people in Britain. She collaborated with the project while it was in the research stage, allowing access to her personal database of runaway advertisements that she had painstakingly built up over the period.

Nelson Mundell’s blog about Caesar, who absconded from Novar Estate in the Highlands of Scotland in 1771, inspired me to write about a runaway from another remote location, this time in Yorkshire, in 1758.

At the end of the 1990s, I started my own runaways database which covers the years 1659-1795.  Thomas Anson was one of the earliest entries on my list.

‘Thomas Anson’, Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Britain database, University of Glasgow [accessed 13.11.18]

                                        R  U  N     A  W  A  Y,
From Dent in Yorkshire,on Monday the 28th of Aug. last,
THOMAS ANSON, a Negro Man, about five Feet six Inches High, aged 20 Years or upwards, and broad set, Whoever will bring the said Man back to Dent, or give any Information that he may be had again, shall receive a handsome Reward from Mr. Edmund Sill of Dent, or Mr.David Kenyon, Merchant in Liverpool.[1]

The Sills were yeoman farmers and their farm, High Rigg End, was situated high on the slopes of Whernside, near to the village of Dent.[2]  At 2,415 ft. (736 m.), Whernside is the highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and it is subject to harsh weather conditions. 

High Rigg End from the Barbon Road, c.2000 (Audrey Dewjee)

Like many of the farmers in the area, the Sills looked for a means of supplementing their income to tide them over difficult times when failed harvests, floods or other disasters befell them.  Most residents of Dent supplemented their income by knitting.  The “Terrible [i.e. terribly good] Knitters” of Dent were famous both for the speed and quality of their work.  At a time before industrialisation, hand knitting was a very important skill and the people of Dent, both male and female, learnt to knit at a very early age.  They were especially known for their knitted stockings which were sent to London and other parts of the country.

However, some residents of the town looked further afield for an income and in particular to aspects of the lucrative transatlantic trade and plantation economy of the Americas.

John Sill (brother of Edmund who placed the runaway advertisement) was a merchant in Redcross Street, Liverpool, and in 1757 he became part-owner of two ships – the Dent and the Pickering– which both sailed for the West Indies in September of that year.

Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 19 August 1757

The Dent (owned by John Sill and David Kenyon) set sail at the end of September, 1757, arriving in Jamaica on 6 January, 1758.[3]  She returned safely to Liverpool on 24 September, 1758, with a cargo of sugar and cotton.  Shortly afterwards on 31 October, the Dent was sold and subsequently renamed the Planter.  John Sill was no longer one of the owners.

The Pickering, bound for Cork and St. Christophers (St. Kitts), left Liverpool a few days before the departure of the Dent, arriving at Cork on 24 September, 1757.[4]  I have been unable to find any record of her reaching her destination or returning to Liverpool.[5]   

A clue to the fate of the Pickering may lie in Gomer Williams’s History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque, with an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade, published in 1897.  In Appendix III on page 665, a ship named The Pickering is included under the heading of “List of Vessels trading to and from Liverpool Captured by the Enemy during the Seven Years’ War, 1756-1763”.  This is not definitive evidence as the Master’s name is not entered on the list.  However, this disaster might explain why John Sill ceased investing in shipping, as his name doesn’t appear again in the Plantation Registers after 1758.[6]

Four weeks before the Dent arrived back in Liverpool, Thomas Anson absconded from Dent Town.  How did he get away?  Where did he go?  Did he succeed in evading recapture?  I have wondered about his fate for well over 20 years.  No doubt David Kenyon placed the advertisement in the paper as he was based in Liverpool and was already in business with the Sill family via his ship-owning partner John.  The advertisement was repeated in the same newspaper a week later.

At some point John Sill went to Jamaica where he bought a plantation called Providence situated near Montego Bay.  When he died in 1774, he left his estate to his nephews – Edmund, John and James, the sons of Edmund Sill of Dent.  At the time of his death, there were 266 enslaved workers on the plantation which produced sugar, rum and molasses.[7]  Profits from the plantation, which was subsequently run by overseers, enabled the brothers to buy up land and farms in and around Dent and towards the end of the century they built a new mansion for themselves in Deepdale which they named West House.

All three brothers died young, leaving their sister Ann heiress to their fortune and occupier of the new house.  She survived until 1835, dying at the age of 69.  In her will she left legacies to many relatives as well as people in the local area.  On Emancipation, her heirs benefited from the compensation of £3783 1s. 8d. paid for the 174 enslaved workers on Providence plantation.[8]

So, what happened to Thomas Anson?  I’m pleased to say that he did indeed escape from the clutches of Edmund Sill.  Recently I have been researching and writing for the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire project.[9]  As a consequence I have been in touch with a number of old colleagues from BASA (Black and Asian Studies Association).  I met up with John Ellis to compare our databases (mine of parish records and runaways; his of 18th century Black soldiers and military bandsmen) to see if we had people in common.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that a Thomas Anson, born in Africa, had been discharged from the 4th Dragoons in 1768, aged 30.  As the name and age fit with the details in the runaway advertisement, I am certain this is the same man.  He had joined the regiment in 1760, and served eight years as a trumpeter. 

How did he find his way to the 4th Dragoons?  He was not the only Black runaway to do so around that date.  James Williams and Joseph Blenheim also enlisted in the regiment and were subsequently discharged on account of “being a slave” and “being the property of” their masters.  Both absconded a second time – James in 1756, and Joseph in 1758.[10]

At the beginning of 1760, the 4th Dragoons were in Scotland, returning to England later in the year.  They were then stationed near London and probably remained in England until 1764 when the 4th returned to Scotland for a year.  This was at the time of the Highland Clearances.  The Regiment returned to England in 1765 and was reviewed by King George III in 1767.[11]

The Dragoons were mounted regiments.  Thomas Anson would have been dressed in an elaborate uniform and ridden a fine horse.  As John Ellis explains,

In battle the role of a trumpeter was an extremely important one; they were the battlefield communication system, accompanying troop commanders and other senior officers and being responsible for relaying orders over the din of battle.  However once such order as chargereform and retreat had been given, trumpeters drew sabres and participated in whatever action their unit was engaged in.  Unfortunately trumpeters suffered a major disadvantage in battle, and because fashion and tradition dictated that they were dressed in the reverse colours of their regiment, they became popular targets for enemy fire (the greatest incentive for killing a trumpeter was the obvious damage that would be done to the enemy’s ability to communicate).[12] 

Luckily, the years 1760-68 were fairly quiet ones for the regiment, so Thomas Anson would not have been involved in a major battle.

He was discharged to pension on 7th June 1768 after eight years’ service because he had “lost his tooth,” which no doubt meant that he could no longer blow his trumpet.[13]  At least he had the benefit of a continued income and therefore would not be completely destitute.

Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Regimental Registers of Pensioners, 1717-1775.

Nowadays, very few people are engaged in researching British Black History.  Discovering what happened to Thomas Anson demonstrates the importance of sharing information with others who continue to carry out this research.

Audrey Dewjee


[1] Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 8 September 1758.

[2] Dent Town, as it was known in the 18th Century, used to be in the West Riding of Yorkshire but, after the county boundary changes in 1967, it is now in Cumbria.

[3] Lloyds List, No. 2321, 7 April 1758. 

[4] Lloyds List, No. 2270, 7 October 1757.  The owners of the Pickering were David Kenyon, John Sill, John Atkinson, and her Master, John Hughes – see Liverpool Plantation Registers, 27 August 1767 – National  Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives and Library, C/EX/L/3/1-4.

[5] A ship named Pickering with a different Master (William Fish) arrived in Liverpool from Tortola on 11 August 1758, but this was a different vessel. 

[6] The Liverpool Plantation Registers contain the text of owner’s declarations under the Act for preventing Frauds and regulating Abuses in the Plantation Trade, 7-8 William and Mary (1695-6) chap. 22, recording, amongst other details, the vessel’s name, home port, where built, the name of the master, type of vessel, tonnage, and name of owner or part-owners.  Liverpool Plantation Registers: National Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives and Library, C/EX/L/3/1 – 4.

[7] Details from the online database of Legacies of British Slave-ownership, University College London,  [accessed 10/12/2018]

[8] Ibid.  [accessed 18/01/2018]

[9] African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire  [accessed 10/12/2018]

[10] Whitehall Evening Post, 17 February 1756; London Chronicle, 16 March 1758.

[11] I am grateful to John Ellis for information about the 4th Dragoons.

[12] John Ellis, ‘The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century’, MA thesis, University of Nottingham, 2000.

[13] Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Regimental Registers of Pensioners, 1717-1775.

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