In 2007 Kenwood House in London hosted a unique and fascinating exhibition, charting the entwined lives of two very different individuals.
Dido Elizabeth Belle and The First Earl of Mansfield
Dido Elizabeth Belle grew up at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London NW3, (now an English Heritage property, 020 8348 1286). She was the great-niece of William Murray, The First Earl of Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans.
Dido was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain, and a woman (of whom it has been previously suggested, was enslaved) whom Sir John encountered while his ship was in the Caribbean.
She was sent to England by Lindsay, and from the 1760s, Dido was brought up in aristocratic surroundings at Kenwood House by the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died.
Lord Mansfield was England’s most powerful judge. His famous ruling in 1772, over the James Somerset case, was interpreted by many to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England. This was not necessarily the case, as in reality it merely prohibited slave owners from forcefully sending their slaves back to the Caribbean, but the way that it was received marked a significant milestone along the long road towards the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.
Many feel that it was likely that his affection for Dido influenced his decisions, but as Lord Chief Justice, he had to balance this with a careful reading of the law, and was reluctant to overturn the whole system which though he, and many others felt was ‘odious’, had brought many economic advantages to Britain.
Dido lived at Kenwood for 30 years. Her status in the household was commented on by several visitors. One said that her great-uncle "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said".
However, her position in the household may have been that of a loved but poor relation and she did not always dine with guests. When Lord Mansfield died, he carefully recorded in his will that Dido was a free woman. In 1794 she became Mrs Dido Elizabeth Davinier and left Kenwood for married life. After this her story fades from the Kenwood records.