It was the sort of love story that inspires writers, but the romance of famed poets Elizabeth Barrett Barrett and Robert Browning hid a dark secret.
Although there are countless thousands of love stories in English literature, many of them well-known, one of the greatest is a work not of fiction, but of fact, a true romance concerning two monumental 19th Century poets – Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, who was born in County Durham, and Robert Browning. Part of their story is well-known, having been told in The Barretts of Wimpole Street on stage in 1930, on film in 1934 and 1957, and in a 1964 musical. Mr Barrett’s determination that none of his 11 children should ever marry has always been ascribed to his domineering Victorian paternalism, but it is now becoming increasingly accepted that he was trying to expunge any trace of his own mixed blood, something quite scandalous in polite society at that time, in his family make-up. An added complication is that his wife may also have had mixed blood running through her veins!
COXHOE Hall, a large house five miles south of Durham City, in which the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806, and spent the first three years of her life, sadly no longer exists.
For many years, until the entry of her baptism in 1808 was found during the late 19th Century at Kelloe in the records of the early-Norman parish church dedicated to St Helen, her birthplace was not known.
Elizabeth is commemorated in the church with a plaque erected by public subscription in 1897. On it she is described as a great poetess, a noble woman and a devoted wife.
Coxhoe Hall, owned during Elizabeth’s time by her Uncle Samuel who rented it to her father, had been created in 1725 with castellated towers, 20 bedrooms and wonderful internal plaster work designed by James Paine and created by Giuseppe Cortese.
Surrounded by terraces, tennis courts and a walled garden, its south-facing hillside location beside Coxhoe’s medieval village was accessed by a tree-lined avenue.
In 1817, it was sold to Anthony Wilkinson of Durham and, in 1850, to mining engineer Thomas Wood, whose family continued to live there until 1938 when the East Hetton Colliery Company acquired the estate for the coal which lay beneath it.
The more coal mines and industries sprang up or were expanded nearby, the less attractive Coxhoe Hall became as a home.
During the Second World War, it was used first as a barracks, then as a prisoner of war camp for Germans and Italians and when hostilities ceased it became the property of the National Coal Board, who declared the house unsafe.
It was demolished in August 1952.
Elizabeth’s father was Edward Barrett Moulton, who added an extra Barrett to his surname on the death of his maternal grandfather whose estates in Jamaica he inherited.
He, therefore, became Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, and Elizabeth’s birthname was Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett, although she later usually shortened it to Elizabeth Barrett Barrett.
Often overlooked by historians is the fact that Edward had an elder sister, Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, born like him at Little River, St James’s, in Jamaica, on March 22, 1783.
She travelled to England as a youngster, probably with Edward.
In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Kate Retford writes that in Jamaica: “Sarah and her two brothers, Edward and Samuel, sailed to England in late September 1792 in order to continue their education. Sarah was sent to Mrs Fenwick’s school at Flint House, Greenwich, along with other children from Jamaican colonial families.”
Retford continues that a year later her grandmother wrote to England from Jamaica: “Asking her niece to commission a portrait of my dear little Pinkey, to have her picture drawn at full length by one of the best Masters, in an easy careless attitude.
Sarah probably began sitting for Thomas Lawrence, painter-in-ordinary to George III, at his studio in Old Bond Street soon after the receipt of this letter on 11 February 1794.”
Sarah died shortly after recovering from “a cough”, on November 6, 1794, and the finished portrait was displayed in the Royal Academy Exhibition the day after she was buried.
It was for a time in the possession of her brother Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, Elizabeth’s father, and was in the family until 1926.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning believed that it was from her grandfather, Charles Moulton, that she inherited her own mixed blood and throughout her life often referred to her “dark skin and full lips” and once described herself as “little and black”.
Robert Browning, Elizabeth’s husband, himself of West Indian stock inherited through his grandmother, wrote notes on Elizabeth’s father’s early life in a copy of his wife’s collected poems: “On the early death of his father he was brought from Jamaica [he was a native of St James’s there] to England when a very young child, as a ward of the late Chief Baron Lord Abinger, then Mr Scarlett, whom he frequently accompanied in his post-chaise when on circuit. He was sent to Harrow, but received there so savage a punishment for a supposed offence by the youth whose fag he had become, that he was withdrawn from the school by his mother, and the delinquent was expelled. At the age of 16 he was sent by Mr Scarlett to Cambridge, and thence, for an early marriage, went to Northumberland.”
It appears, however, that he knew John Graham-Clarke and his family even before he went to Harrow School and would seem to have lived for much of the time, after arriving in England aged seven, with the Graham-Clarkes.
Browning’s probably-deliberately- simplistic explanation of how Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett came to be living in the North-East needs to be significantly augmented for a greater insight into his family history and early life to be more clearly understood.
Fortunately, in 2008, Sean Creighton published in North East History a valuable piece of insightful research which includes the following from a section under the sub-title The Barretts of Jamaica: “One of the most powerful families in Jamaica was the Barretts. In 1794 or 1795 Edward Barrett and members of his family came for a visit to England with the intention of leaving his grand daughter Elizabeth and her mixed-race ward Mary Trepsack in England after his return to Jamaica. In 1795 six black children of George Goodin Barrett, deceased, and Elissa Peters, one of the family’s slaves, were sent over to the guardianship of John Graham-Clark, [Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maternal grandfather] the Newcastle businessman and Jamaican plantation owner. George Goodin had also granted their freedom. He left each of them 2,000 Jamaican pounds.
He wanted them educated in England.”
The January 6, 1796, edition of the Morning Post and Fashionable World reported Goodin’s death: “In October last, at Cambridge-Pen, in St Thomas’s in the East, Jamaica, GEORGE GOODIN BARRETT, Esq Member of the Assembly for the Parish of St James, an Assistant Judge of the Grand Court, and Colonel in the Militia of that Island.”
He was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s great uncle who: “never had a white wife, but, in the period 1785-1794, fathered six children by Elissa (or Eliza) Peters, a mulatto slave who was settled at Oxford Pen, one of the many Barrett properties”.
The six children were not given the Barrett name and friends in Jamaica suggested that they should be separated from Peters as soon as possible.
Edward Moulton Barrett’s wife was Mary Graham- Clarke, four years his senior and daughter of the John Graham- Clarke mentioned above who, like the Barretts, also had extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica which, again like the Barretts, were worked primarily by slaves.
Edward and Mary were married in 1805 at St Nicholas’ Church, whose parish included Kenton.
Fabulously wealthy, with assets which would today be worth £20m, Graham-Clarke, who had first come to Newcastle when billeted there as a member of the East Yorkshire Grenadier militia, also owned ships which traded between Newcastle and Jamaica as well as sugar refineries, a brewery in Pilgrim Street, flax-mills and glassworks.
In 1780, he married Arabella Altham, their daughter Mary being born in 1781.
During the 1790s, the original Kenton Lodge was built for him, he and his family living there until 1809. He also owned or leased Fenham Hall.
The family of Edward and Mary Barrett Moulton Barrett was a fairly large one, consisting of, besides Elizabeth, two other daughters, Henrietta and Arabel, and eight sons – Edward, Charles, Samuel, George, Henry, Alfred, Septimus, and Octavius.
Not many of these, however, can have been born at Coxhoe; for while Elizabeth was still an infant – apparently about the beginning of the year 1809 – Mr Barrett moved with his family from Coxhoe Hall to his newly-purchased 500-acre estate of Hope End, in Herefordshire, among the Malvern Hills.
Various lists still include Elizabeth Barrett Browning as one of the Top 100 Black Britons and the truth may never be known.