Cesar Picton's simple gravestone. Photo: Howard Benge
Howard Benge is one of the runners up in our Black History Month Journalism Competition. He works in the heritage sector.
Here he tells us the unusual story of Cesar Picton, bought as a slave in Senegal as a tiny child but dying as rich man in Kingston upon Thames.
Every town has its stories and tales of people, myths and legends. When I arrived in Kingston upon Thames 8 years ago, I was told many of these stories. Some were very bold, some horrific and some just ridiculous.
For me, the story of one person stood out from the rest. When he was six years old, Cesar Picton was brought to Kingston from Senegal, became a servant in the household of an aristocratic family and ended up a wealthy gentleman.
What we know about Cesar is found through documents in the local records and archives. In 1761 he was brought from Africa by Captain Parr, an officer of the British army who had been working in Senegal.
In a meeting with Sir John Philipps, Captain Parr gave Cesar to the Philipps family as a gift. It was mentioned in Sir John’s journal that he was given Cesar along with “a parakeet and a foreign duck.” Early on Cesar had been taken from his home, his family, if he had one, and was treated as a commodity.
The blue plaque marking Cesar Picton's house. Photo: Howard Benge.
He lived with the Philipps family in Kingston at Norbiton Place, a large mansion house on the outskirts of the town. From the records kept in the parish church, we know that he was baptised on 6th December 1761. We don’t know if he was brought up a Christian in Senegal. It was most likely that he was brought up a Muslim, as most of the population of Sengal was at that time.
Nothing is known about him from those early years in Senegal. Who was he, did he have a family, and was he rich or poor? Senegal was a major slave trade departure point in the 18th century. Maybe Captain Parr just bought him in a slave market. We do not even know his birth name. He was named after Picton Castle, the Philips family home in Wales.
I wonder what upheaval he suffered being taken from Senegal to Britain by boat and then put in an incredibly wealthy household. I doubt he even spoke English at that time.
Cesar was brought up as a servant. It was not unusual to have black servants in wealthy households, but from letters it looks like the Philipps family were abolitionists. They were against the slave trade and supported overseas missions. Cesar was educated by the family, became very religious and hard working.
He was close to Lady Philipps and mixed with the family on equal terms, often entertaining visitors with them. When Lady Philips died in 1788 Cesar was left £100 in her will. This was a considerable amount and it gave him independence.
In his early 30s Cesar’s life completely changed. He set himself up in business, becoming a coal merchant in Kingston. Much of his money had to be spent in the outlay of the business, such as rent on the premises he worked from and £10 to the Kingston Corporation so he could trade. This was a hefty sum.
At first he rented a house on the high street, but was so successful in business he was able to buy it. This was a fashionable residence with moulded ceilings and an ornate staircase. It was named Picton House after his death and is still on the High Street with a plaque on the front to commemorate his life.
Cesar Picton's house still exists today. Photo: Howard Benge
As his business grew, he bought more property and was left additional wealth when other members of the Philipps family died. Eventually, he lived the life of a gentleman, renting a cottage on a country estate in Tolworth. After that he bought a large property in Thames Ditton for £4000. Cesar Picton was doing very well in the world of business and society.
Towards the end of his life, he wrote and re-wrote his will. That still survives today and tells us a little more about his life. He left two watches, gold chains, rings, brooches and a tortoiseshell tea chest.
He died in 1836 at the age of 81. He lived a long life, indicating good health, but was obviously a large man. At his funeral a four-wheeled trolley was needed to carry him into the church with planks and rollers to lower him into the vault.
Cesar’s wish was to be buried in the parish church in Kingston, but there was no pomp or ceremony about his funeral. By his request he was buried in a plain and simple way.
We can see the footprints of Cesar. Picton House is on the High Street. His house in Thames Ditton still survives and is still one of the largest properties there. We have the records and documents of his life, the business transactions, tax payments, and the parish records. The spot where he was buried in the church is marked with a plaque that simply says “CP 1836.”
Many locals know about Cesar Picton from talks, books and leaflets. Ann-Marie Olufuwa runs the local group MeWe who celebrate African and Afro-Caribbean culture though drama and music.
I asked about her thoughts on Cesar Picton. She said, “His is a very positive story for a Black man in Britain during the years of the slave trade. In many ways he was one of my forebears. I am Black with African roots and trying to achieve something in Kingston. I’m looking forward to re-telling his story in the future.”
What I want to know is more about the man. What was he like, what did he take pleasure in? Being Black, did he suffer any minority issues in Kingston, or were people welcoming towards him? I often wonder if, in his adult life, he had any memories of his first 5 years in Senegal.
Did he ever think about his natural family, what his life was like there, or would have been like if he was not brought to Britain? If he did, did he ever tell anyone? There are some things the records can never show us.