FROM Montego Bay to Marske by the Swale is a long way, but that is the journey taken by a “negro servant” who adopted the name of John Yorke when he settled in North Yorkshire.

He arrived in 1772 as a slave from a plantation in Jamaica when his owner’s daughter, Elizabeth Campbell, married John Yorke of Richmond. At some point, he adopted his new master’s name as his own.

But in 1772, a landmark court case resolved that it had never been legal to keep slaves in England. Some were set free; others remained tied.

By 1778, John Yorke was described as being “a negro servant belonging to John Hutton” of Marske Hall, near Richmond. The Marske parish registers show that on August 8 that year, he was baptised in the village church.

The register says he was “supposed then to be about 17 or 18 years of age and could say his catechism in a tolerable way”.

His was a rapid entry into the Church of England, because the day after his baptism, he was confirmed in Richmond church by the Bishop of Chester.

The Yorkshire gentry must have felt that John was a decent sort of a fellow, and that view was confirmed when he saved a gamekeeper’s life during a moor fire. As a reward, he was given his freedom and a cottage, and in 1799, he married a Yorkshire girl, Hannah Barker, at Kirkby Ravensworth church – the one high on Kirby Hill above Holmedale. They had seven children.

John Yorke’s story is one of those that researchers at the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton have been looking in to during Black History Month this October.

His story is quite well known, but the researchers indexing the quarter sessions court papers have unearthed other tales, like that of John Buxton “blackman, native of Bengal”, who was arrested for vagrancy in Thornton in North Riding (the papers don’t say which of many Thorntons) in 1802.

He had come to Britain with his master, an Army captain, who had suddenly died, leaving him “to the mercy of all well disposed Christians to enable him to procure his passage to his native country as this climate does not agree with him, (he) would wish to return as soon as convenient”.

Another story concerns Paul de la Tuer, a “travelling Negro melodist”, who, in August 1869, was arrested in Richmond for stealing the pair of boots he was wearing. In custody, he explained that in his “common lodging house” in the town, he had been offered the boots for three shillings by Henrietta Smith, and had bartered her down to 1s 9d.

It was only when he was arrested that he had discovered that the boots had been stolen from innkeeper John Thomas Morton of Bedale. Henrietta was subsequently arrested for the crime and Paul signed his witness statement against her with a cross.

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