One of the most intriguing denizens of Kenwood House was Dido Elizabeth Belle. She is thought to have been the natural daughter of John Lindsay, nephew to Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. Dido was brought up at Kenwood in the 18th century and was certainly regarded as a close member of the family’s inner circle whatever her true origins.
By rights, at this stage, I should declare that the ghost of Kenwood is none other than Dido Elizabeth Belle. Not that I have any idea who or what caused the door to slam fast. Nevertheless, convention dictates that a stately home should not only have a ghost, but that the ghost should be identified with a specific former resident. Sutton House's“blue lady,” for example, is said to be the shade of the eighteenth century Huguenot Mary Tooke. Southside House in Wimbledon does not lay claim to any ghost, although modern guides said the family designated one room as being a former royal bedroom, as they believed their house would be given short shrift by visitors if they could not produce evidence of some regal connection. Claims have been made that Anne Boleyn’s headless ghost, has been seen at her place of execution,the Tower of London. I would be fascinated to know how such witnesses could ascertain that it was Anne’s ghost and not that of her cousin, Catherine Howard or her sister- in-law Jane Rochford, the latter following Catherine to the block for her involvement in Catherine’s adulterous liaison with Thomas Culpepper. It might even be the ghost of yet another Tudor Queen, Lady Jane Grey. If the shade of Dido Elizabeth Belle were to be seen at Kenwood House, it is unlikely she would be mistaken for anyone else, as Dido, named after the legendary North African Queen, had inherited the dark skin of her mother Maria Belle, a black Jamaican woman.
The exact circumstances as to how Dido’s father and mother met are unclear. What is known is that the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield decided to raise both Dido and her similarly motherless cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, together at Kenwood. What is so extraordinary about Dido’s personal history is that at the very time she was being brought up as a young gentlewoman at Kenwood House, her great uncle, in his capacity of Lord Chief Justice was ruling on cases affecting the legitimacy of the whole slave trade. Thus, when Dido was 11 years old, he ruled that slave owners could not remove their slaves from England by force. This did not of course mean that slavery in the colonies was abolished but it did give a strong boost to the abolitionist cause. There are some, even today, who hold the pernicious fiction that slavery was never legal in this country. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield would have begged to disagree. At a special exhibition on slavery held at Kenwood House in 2007, Lord Mansfield’s original will was on display, in which, as well as leaving her a bequest, Lord Mansfield wrote “I assert to Dido her freedom.” If Dido Belle, from such a privileged background was not free from the threat of enslavement, how much more so was the average hapless African in this country?
Dido’s unusual status was reflected by how she was treated when important visitors came to the house. When Thomas Hutchinson, the former Governor of Massachusetts dined with Lord Mansfield in 1779, he was shocked to the core when Dido “a black” as he dismissively described her, joined them all after dinner and later went off in to the garden, arm-in-arm with one of the young ladies present How did Dido feel to be shunted away whilst the others dined and was she allowed to sup with the family in private or did she always take her meals alone in her room? Regrettably, any personal diaries or papers she might have written containing her thoughts on her remarkable life have not survived.
Having nursed Lord Mansfield in his final illness, it used to be claimed that Dido then married a “sprig of the Scottish nobility.” The exhibition revealed that Dido actually took for her husband a certain John Daviniere, a Frenchman, who was employed as a gentleman’s steward. Dido went on to have three sons of her own. Her married life would not have been as affluent as the one she had known at Kenwood, but as an illegitimate child, let alone the daughter of a black mother, she would never have expected to make a grand match on the scale of Lady Elizabeth Murray, the cousin she grew up with and with whom she is depicted in a double portrait, painted on the terrace at Kenwood and now on display at Scone Palace in Scotland.
There is a final ironic twist to Dido’s tale. Her last known descendant died in South Africa in 1975. Under the rigid apartheid system of the time, he was classified as being white and therefore enjoyed all the privileges denied to the likes of his ancestress and Dido’s own black African mother.
(Since writing this post I have done some further research into the life of Dido Belle and reached some rather different conclusions from my original analysis).