Cesar Picton

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Plaque on Picton House, Kingston, summarising Picton's life

Cesar Picton (c. 1755 – 1836) was presumably enslaved in Africa by the time he was about six years old. He was bought and brought to England by an English army officer who had been in Senegal, and in 1761 was "presented" as a servant to Sir John Philipps, who lived at Norbiton Place, near Kingston upon Thames in Surrey. Picton later became a wealthy coal merchant in Kingston.

Slave to servant[edit]

Sir John Philipps was a British Baronet and Member of Parliament. His journal for November 1761 recorded the arrival of Picton in his household, along with the gift of "a parakeet and a foreign duck". He was soon baptised by the Philippses, who were supporters of missionary work – although it is quite likely that he had been born into an Islamic family. Initially rigged out as an exotic page-boy, with a velvet turban (cost 10 shillings and sixpence) in the rococo fashion of the day, he became a favourite of the family, especially Lady Philipps.[1] When Picton was about 33, Horace Walpole wrote in a letter of 1788: "I was in Kingston with the sisters of Lord Milford [Sir John's son]; they have a favourite black, who has been with them a great many years and is remarkably sensible",[2] "sensible" at this period meaning "possessing sensibility". He had clearly achieved an unusual status in the household. Picton took his surname from Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, the Philipps's country estate in Wales, which was then a significant site for mining coal.[3]

The legal status of slaves imported into England was ambiguous when Picton arrived, but they were certainly not regarded or treated in the same way as slaves in the British American colonies. The situation was clarified considerably by Somersett's Case of 1772 (when Picton was in his late teens), which ruled that no person could be a slave in England itself. By the time of Somersett's case, most black servants seem already to have been regarded and treated as free, at least by the time they reached adulthood.[4]

Tradesman to gentleman[edit]

Following the deaths of Sir John in 1764, and his wife in 1788, and the sale of Norbiton Place by their son,[5] Picton used a legacy of £100 from Lady Phillipps to set up in business as a coal merchant in nearby Kingston. The move from servant to tradesman was a common one; Picton was presumably well-known to the owners and upper servants of the many large houses in the area after nearly thirty years at Norbiton. The three unmarried Phillipps daughters had moved to nearby Hampton Court on the sale of the house, and since they all later left him legacies (in total by 1820, £250 and £30 a year), they may well have encouraged their friends to buy coal from him. In the phrase of the day, he had "connections". In addition, it is probably no coincidence that the Phillipps' estate at Picton was a centre of coal mining; he may well have sourced his supplies from them, to mutual advantage, and perhaps had already been involved in managing their affairs.[1]

Picton House, Kingston

His original premises at 52 High Street, Kingston Upon Thames backs onto the River Thames. Picton lived here for the first years of his business, initially renting, but in 1795 buying it and other property including a wharf onto the Thames for unloading the coal, and a malthouse.[1]

In 1801 Picton was convicted for poaching with an unlicensed gun and fined five pounds.[6] The fine was relatively trivial for Picton and someone of lower social status may have faced execution or transportation to Australia for the same offence. Picton appealed the decision using the services of a London attorney, who challenged the conviction on the grounds that the magistrate's record of the year of the offence was incorrectly recorded. The King's Bench held that this was "surplusage" and not material to the validity of the case, so the conviction was upheld. Picton's race was not mentioned in either the judgement or the report of the appeal that appeared in The Morning Post.[7][8]

In 1807 Picton let his Kingston properties and moved to a rented house in Tolworth, perhaps marking his retirement aged 52 from active trade. He was by then described in deeds as a "gentleman" and by 1816 he bought a house with a large garden in Thames Ditton for an above-average £4,000.[9] He died in 1836 at the age of 81 and is buried in All Saints Church, Kingston upon Thames.[1] He was evidently a very large man as a four-wheeled trolley was needed for the coffin.[10]


Picton was successful in business and became rich. While this was in contrast to the majority of black people in Britain at the time, some did achieve status and prosperity, for example writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano and Mayfair shopkeeper Ignatius Sancho. Other successful black businessmen worked as publicans and lodging-house keepers, providing some evidence of black upward social mobility.[11]

Picton left a portrait of himself in his will (along with several other paintings), but its whereabouts is not known. It emerged in 2007 that the portrait of Picton depicted in a mural of Kingston's history, commissioned by the Council, was actually of either Olaudah Equiano or Ignatius Sancho.[12] He is not known to have married, and all his bequests were to friends, including 16 mourning rings. Although Picton lived through the main period of the British abolitionist movement, no involvement by him is known.

Both his former homes, in Kingston High Street and in Thames Ditton, have Grade II listed status and display commemorative plaques.[1][13] Both are known as Picton House, although the Kingston building was called Amari House between 1981 and 1985 when it was headquarters of Amari Plastics Ltd.[14] A meeting and reception room, the Picton Room, at Kingston University is named in his honour.[15]

Picton is a character in the children's novel Jupiter Williams by S.I. Martin, set in 1800.[16]

During Picton's time in Kingston, the area also gave rise to a significant legal case related to slavery in R[ex] v Inhabitants of Thames Ditton of 1785, where Lord Mansfield (previously the judge in Somersett's Case) held that Charlotte Howe, a former slave, was not entitled to pay for her previous work, in the absence of a specific contract.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Historic England. "Picton House, Kingston upon Thames  (Grade II) (1080069)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  2. ^ Walpole, Horace (1891). Cunningham, Peter, ed. 2451. To the Countess of Ossory, Strawberry Hill, 19 Oct. 1788 Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. The Letters of Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford IX (London: Richard Bentley ad Son). p. 107.
  3. ^ "Archaeology in Wales". Archived from the original Archived 4 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine on 15 July 2004. Retrieved 25 March 2007.
  4. ^ Usherwood, Stephen. (1981) "The Black Must Be Discharged – The Abolitionists' Debt to Lord Mansfield" History Today Volume: 31 Issue: 3. 1981.
  5. ^ Malden, H.E. (1911). A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 3. Victoria County History, London, 1911. pp. 501–516. Accessed 30 March 2020
  6. ^ East, Edward Hyde (1817). Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King’s Bench 2 (second ed.). p. 198.
  7. ^ Chater, Kathleen. Cesar Picton’s Conviction for Poaching. History department, Kingston University. 15 April 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  8. ^ "Law Intelligence". The Morning Post. 4 February 1802. p. 3.(subscription required)
  9. ^ Historic England. "Picton House, Thames Ditton  (Grade II) (1190732)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
  10. ^ Benge, Howard. Cesar Picton, A Black Merchant In 18th Century Kingston. Archived from the original on 8 January 2007. Retrieved 3 June 2007.
  11. ^ *Myers, Norma (1996). Reconstructing the Black past: Blacks in Britain, c. 1780–1830, (reprint), Routledge. pp. 5, 77. ISBN 0-7146-4575-3, ISBN 978-0-7146-4575-9
  12. ^ I came, I saw, I blundered page 1 lead story, The Kingston Informer, 23 March 2007.
  13. ^ "Cesar Picton, Slave to Gentleman". Your Local Guardian. 31 March 2012.
  14. ^ Our History | Amari Archived 24 August 2015 at the Wayback Machine Amari Plastics. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  15. ^ Africans in Georgian London: Cesar Picton and his World in Film and Records. Kingston University. Retrieved 10 September 2015
  16. ^ Martin, S.I. (4 October 2007). Jupiter Williams. Hodder. ISBN 978-0340944066.
  17. ^ R v Inhabitants of Thames Ditton (1785) 99 ER 891. p. 300.

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