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Ignatius Sancho – A History of Black British Entrepreneurship

“Ignatius Sancho – A History of Black British Entrepreneurship” by Reece Samuels from Westminster Business Library

As we slowly begin to recover from the perils and pitfalls of the pandemic, our appreciation for struggling businesses and new enterprises has grown immensely.

This Black History Month, we are bringing to awareness some of the famed black business owners throughout history, many of which started their trade within Westminster itself. One such entrepreneur was Ignatius Sancho.

From Slavery to Entrepreneurship

Ignatius Sancho had an upbringing that was not unusual to other black persons who resided in the anglosphere. As his mother was on board the slave ship to Granada, she gave birth to Ignatius – baptized with the name of a Spanish clergyman on arrival to Spain. When his mother perished to disease, and his father committed suicide, Ignatius was sent by his ‘owner’ to live amongst the English aristocracy in London. After much struggle, he was a butler at Montagu House in Greenwich and became a valet to a duke in Holborn.

As Ignatius’ gout rendered him unfit to continue in Montagu’s service, he established a grocery shop on 29th of January 1774 at 20 Charles Street, Mayfair, Westminster.

According to Ignatius, he launched the shop’s opening on the 29th of January to a “flattering” success. The term on many of his shop adverts titled ‘Best Trinidado’ referred to a special formula of tobacco that originated in the West Indies plantations. This raised some contradictions given that Ignatius wrote many anti-slavery letters and was a prominent and abolitionist himself. Many of the letters that Ignatius wrote discussed the gossip, chaos and bustling nature of shop activity, including tales of writers Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne spending time arguing about the quality of goods and other related matters. Ignatius’s shop operated as somewhat of a community hub for the latest events in the area. Westminster Hall is now located on the Parliamentary estate next to Westminster Abbey.

20 Charles Street

Ignatius’ Shop and Support for Anti-slavery Campaigns

The shop was an opportunity for Ignatius to formulate many key networks and relationships as part of his anti-slavery campaigns. Some of which brought other Black writers like Phillis Wheatley as part of a small collective seeking to deconstruct views of race and accomplishment.

“Make human nature thy study – wherever thou residest – whatever the religion – or the complexion – study their hearts.”

Politics and social commentary seemed to follow Ignatius. Indeed during the Gordon Riots, anti-Catholic sentiment rose due to toleration legislation being passed for Catholics. Ignatius wrote passages about “the mob’s shouts, the horrid clashing of swords, and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion.” Such a first-hand depiction of popular politics and church-state relations was a rarity during this period. Still, it was indicative of the many wide-ranging observations that Ignatius was able to capture.

The First Black Briton to Have Voted in the Parliamentary Elections

Ignatius had a large degree of success, both economically and socially. Still, there were times of hardship, particularly during the onset of the American Revolution, which hampered the trade and financial activity of the tobacco trade. He worried that “Trade is duller than I ever knew it ‒ and money scarcer.” However, the shop did indeed survive. In addition, his financial independence as a male householder and merchant made him the first Black Briton to have voted in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780.

When Ignatius passed away from gout complications, he was buried on the 17th of December in St Margaret’s chapel and burying-ground, Westminster. His was shop was looked after by his son, William Sancho, who transformed the property into a printing shop and bookstore. Ignatius’ letters were published by Joseph Jekyll, a judge and resident of Westminster too.

An Inspirational Figure for His Successors

Ignatius life was full of adventure, hardship and change, but he reflected that entrepreneurial spirit that endeared him to many of Westminster’s tourists and gentile society despite the racial barriers that he often faced. When he received his trade card, he said, “I verily think the happiest part of my life is to come. And that he feels he’ll ‘cut a respectable figure’ as a shopkeeper, especially with his ‘printed [trade] cards.’” Hopefully, these words will inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to take up the mantle as they embark on their own enterprises.

A placard commemorating Ignatius on the wall of the property at 20 Charles Street is on display today.

Books on Ignatius Sancho are free to borrow from a range of Westminster Libraries, including Mayfair Library, which is only a short walk from 20 Charles Street!

About the Author

Reece Samuels

Reece Samuels currently manages Westminster Business Library, a brand-new enterprising space offering very affordable coworking spaces & meeting rooms, state of the art book collections, online resources, events and much more. Westminster Business Library was launched with the idea of supporting local startups, SMEs, freelancers and anyone making a change in their professional careers, helping them learn, network and grow within the communities they serve.

Find out more about Westminster Business Library here.

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