Everywhere In Chains - Wrexham's First African?
'A Negro Coachboy' is one of Erddig's most famous paintings. Traditionally the painting was known as 'John Meller's Coachboy'. John Meller was the owner of Erddig in the early 18th century.
In the late 18th century, Philip Yorke, then owner of Erddig, decided to commission portraits of his servants. This painting was seen as the first in the series. Philip Yorke wrote a poem to accompany the portrait of the coachboy:
"Of the Condition of this Negre
Our information is but megre;
However here, he was a dweller,
And blew the horn for Master Meller.
Here, too he dy'd, but when or how,
Can scarcely be remember'd now,
But that to Marchwiel he was sent,
And had good Christian interment.
Pray Heav'n may stand his present friend,
Where black, or white, distinctions.end.
For sure on this side of the grave,
They are too strong, tw'ixt Lord & Slave.
Here also liv'd a dingy brother,
Who play'd together with the other,
But, of him, yet longer rotten,
Every particular's forgotten,
Save that like Tweedle-Tum & dee,
These but in notes, could [n]e'er agree,
In all things else, as they do tell ye,
We're just like Handel and Corelli.
O had it been in their life's course
T'have met with Massa Wilberforce,
They wou'd in this alone, have join'd,
And been together of a mind,
Have raised their Horns to one high tune,
And blown his Merits, to the Moon."
The poem tells of a black horn player – servant of John Meller. The Erddig accounts for 1719 record a payment of £5 to 'the black' whilst a letter from the Rector of Marchwiel to John Meller in 1721 says 'I know no reason, if the Major (Meller's brother-in-law) send his Black to me today, but that he may be christen'd this morning.'
Perhaps here is the subject of the painting?
Recent research, however, suggests the coachboy's uniform dates from the late 18th century and that the poem itself was an addition to the painting hiding a name - 'John Hanby'. It now seems likely the portrait was not painted in John Meller's time. The portrait was possibly acquired by Philip Yorke to commemorate a particular servant who had stuck in the memories of local people.
The poem hints at the changed attitudes to slavery since the time of John Meller. Maybe the great abolition debate taking place during the 1790s encouraged Philip Yorke to celebrate the coachboy who had once worked at Erddig.
It is unlikely we will ever know the real identity of John Meller's coachboy. Instead it is more interesting to think about how and why he came to be in Wrexham, what he thought about living and working here in Wales nearly three hundred years ago, and how local people reacted to possibly Wrexham's first African.
- Jeremy Cragg
- The National Trust
- CyMAL Museums Archives & Libraries Wales
- National Waterfront Museum, Swansea