October is Black History Month, which is the ideal time to write about research I’ve been doing on an early figure in Derbyshire’s Black History, Mrs Munday.
I first came across Mrs Munday around ten years ago, when I was working for Sandwell Community History & Archives Service and doing some Black History research there on a completely different person. A parish register at St Martin’s Tipton (now in Sandwell but historically in Staffordshire) reads:
John an Ethyopian boy page to ye Lady Pye was baptized ye 29th day of July 1705.
This is a very early mention of a person of colour in Sandwell, but the Pyes weren’t a local Tipton family. The only way to find out more about John was to trace ‘ye Lady Pye’ and it turned out there were two Lady Pyes at the time. One was the wife of Sir Charles Pye baronet (1651-1711) of Hone [Hoon], Derbyshire and MP for Derby in 1701 and the other Lady Pye was his mother in London. I couldn’t find out anything about the older Lady Pye, but the younger seemed more likely anyway, partly because the Pyes lived in Derby (slightly closer to Tipton than London, although it was hardly round the corner) and partly because as a younger woman she might be more fashion-conscious. At the time, a black page boy was a fashionable status symbol.
As slavery was legal in England at the time, Lady Pye’s page, John, may well have been enslaved. This 1708 painting of slave trader Elihu Yale (seated in the middle), with the Duke of Devonshire (on the left, wearing red) shows an enslaved page boy like John, standing on the right.
Letters from the younger Lady Pye to her cousins, Abigail and Robert Harley, survive in the archive of the Duke of Portland, and what’s known as a ‘calendar’ of the archive was published in several volumes as a report by the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) – a calendar is a list that includes a detailed summary of the contents of each document. I took a look at the HMC report in case Lady Pye mentioned in a letter that she had been to Tipton and baptised her page. She didn’t of course, but there was a letter written at Derby on 4 May 1706 which ended with this sentence:
We have now Mrs Munday in our neighbourhood that is thought as pretty a black woman as most is.
What a find! Not only might John, the African page, be living in Derby with the Pyes in the early 1700s, but there was a high-status woman of colour, presumably married to one of Lady Pye’s neighbours in or near Derby.
When I moved from Sandwell to Derbyshire, it seemed the perfect opportunity to find out more about Mrs Munday. The Mundy family of Markeaton Hall and Allestree Hall in Derby, seemed highly likely to be the family that Mrs Munday belonged to – spelling wasn’t consistent at the time, and Mundy was sometimes spelled Munday. The Record Office holds archives of the Mundy family, so there was hope of tracing Mrs Munday. Unfortunately, the archives aren’t fully catalogued and there was only a rather confused paper interim list for the collection. I just didn’t have time to try and make sense of the archive… until lockdown. Whilst the Record Office was closed due to the pandemic, a number of us worked on getting those paper lists into our online catalogue. The work isn’t yet complete (I’m slowly going through one set of boxes to check the contents) but the bulk of the collection is now on our online catalogue. So, what did this mean for Mrs Munday?
I initially had high hopes of Edward Mundy as her husband. I’ve already blogged about his beautifully written account book dating from 1682 to 1697 – in it he mentions expenses for transporting goods to and from Barbados so perhaps he had visited himself and married a Barbadian? Sadly, he died in 1702 and his will (proved at Lichfield in 1705) mentions no wife or children.
Even more promising was another Edward Mundy who lived out in Barbados. He was born in 1603, so he seemed a bit too old to be Mrs Munday’s husband, although of course she could have been a much younger widow or a daughter (the term ‘Mrs’ didn’t necessarily mean a woman was married). Although I couldn’t find his death or marriage, there are some very useful Barbados records on Ancestry.com, with which I found his wife Elizabeth’s will. However, she died in 1687, by which time he had already predeceased her, and although her will mentions their three daughters, it is clear that they were all married at the time of her death.
There is an excellent family tree of the Mundy family which was deposited in 2006 (reference number D6611/1) but this gives no clue as to who might have been the husband of Mrs Munday. I began to wonder if the letter mentioning her had been transcribed correctly in the HMC report – maybe I was on a wild goose chase. The Duke of Portland’s papers are now at the British Library, so I asked my sister (who lives in London) to go to the British Library and have a look at the original letter. The HMC report gives a good summary of the contents of each letter but isn’t a complete transcription, so could my sister check the original and see if there was more information in the letter? Here was another problem, however. The letters haven’t been fully catalogued by the British Library, and when she checked the bundle that should have had the 1706 letter from Lady Pye it wasn’t there.
So is there any proof that Mrs Munday ever existed? One day I may well go to the British Library and work my way through some of the other bundles of letters in the Portland papers, in case the letter got mixed in with them. But what if I can’t find it? Without the original letter, we only have the HMC report to go on, although this is a pretty reliable source. We know the Mundy family had links with slave plantations in Barbados, so it’s possible that one of them married a Barbadian woman. It’s also possible that Mrs Munday was an illegitimate daughter of a Mundy and an enslaved woman in Barbados, who was brought back to Britain, as was the case of Dido Elizabeth Belle in the 1760s. She may have been the wife of a London cousin of the Mundy family who was just visiting Derby – or the Munday name might have nothing to do with the Markeaton and Allestree Mundy family.
I would love to be able to identify her, but like anyone who is trying to research people in the early 1700s, I’m hampered by the lack of available records. In the meantime, she’ll just have to live in my imagination, elegantly dressed and walking around the bustling streets of Derby, socialising with those fashionable women like Lady Pye, who may themselves have had African servants, probably enslaved, in their own households.