Ignatius Sancho: in profile

Ignatius Sancho was an abolitionist, writer, composer and shopkeeper. Born on a slave ship, he was kept enslaved in Greenwich until he was 18, when he escaped to become 
a butler for the Duchess of Montagu. On her death he received an annuity of £30 which enabled him to open a shop in London and become a property owner. Sancho is the first black Briton known to have voted in 
a British election.

When did you first hear about Sancho?

I was chatting to Tilda Swinton while filming The Beach in Thailand and mentioned that I’d always wanted to find out more about the black Britons who lived in the UK before the Windrush generation – my parents’ generation. That led me to Gretchen Gerzina’s book Black England and it was there I learnt about him. He was a strange, amazing figure and needed to be written about, hence my novel.


What kind of man was he?

He was physically obese and referred to himself as “Sancho the Fat”. He also suffered from gout. But despite being a one-time slave, he moved freely in society and had friends among all classes, even the nobility. He also had a kind of vanity about him which you could see in his deportment, and the way he dressed and spoke. He was erudite and loved to show off his education, while his letters show he was determined to be British.

What made Sancho a hero?

His determination not to be cowed by the conditions that his people faced at the time. Born a slave, the fact he was able to rise above that status and become a shop owner who could vote, makes him an extraordinary black Briton. I also admire his determination to be creative – for instance, he wrote catchy dance tunes.

What was Sancho’s finest hour?

First, escaping from the three Greenwich ladies who treated him like a pet when he was a boy and a young man.

Second, becoming a musician of such quality that he was able to write a book on the theory of music and dedicate it to Princess Charlotte. Third, opening a grocery shop.

And lastly, becoming the first black Briton to vote, in 1774; in 1780, he voted for the Whig politician Charles Fox, a proto-abolitionist and a customer at his shop. But his entire life was a finest hour when you consider the barriers he had to break through.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

Yes, the fact that he was such an ardent monarchist. I think “class” is still a big problem in this country and a lot of that is down to us having a feudal-type system with a monarch.

Can you see any parallels between Sancho’s life and your own?

Yes, in the way that we both had humble roots, overcame obstacles to achieve success and became proud black Britons.

What would you ask Sancho if you could meet him?

I’d ask him what his early life was like when he was kept as a slave by the ladies in Greenwich. That’s still a mystery.

Paterson Joseph is an actor who has appeared in Peep Show, Noughts + Crosses and Vigil. His debut novel, The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, is out on 6 October (Dialogue Books)


This content first appeared in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine. Paterson Joseph was talking to York Membery

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York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.