In search of Sarah Harvie

by Barendina Smedley

For those of us who feel compelled to imagine our own familiar places in past times, the release of the 1921 census data was inevitably an exciting day. Yet I doubted the new material would tell me much that I didn’t already know about my home, an old rectory in Blakeney, on the north coast of Norfolk. 

I knew, for example, that the incumbent at the time was the Rev Robert Gordon Roe, a Cambridge-educated, art-loving Anglo-Catholic who was rector from 1915-1923, so assumed that he would be living here with his wife, perhaps a child or two, and some servants. And indeed, so it proved. Two of his servants were members of the Gooch family, a name that looms large in the later history of the house — a pleasingly familiar note. 

Hence a flash of amazement and joyful discovery when I encountered the third of the live-in servants of the Roe family. The census return describes her thus: Sarah Harvie, aged 77 years and 6 months, female, single, born in Antigua in the West Indies — and also, in the language of the census, a ‘negress’. 

In recent years, historical and archaeological research has done much to alert us to the presence of black individuals in England, from at least Roman times to the more recent past. Norfolk is very much part of this story. Famously, a skull recovered from a 10th century burial at North Elmham in Norfolk has been identified as that of a young black woman. 

Blakeney is a coastal village, and until well into the nineteenth century it was still a port of some significance — not out on a limb geographically, as it to some extent is in our own automobile-dependent era, but instead connected by sea with a much wider world. So I have always assumed that there were black people visiting or living in Blakeney from time to time, whether as sailors, artisans, servants, enslaved people or something else entirely. Few records, after all, even where they exist, are as explicit about ethnicity as the is the 1921 census return mentioned above. So while I very much doubt that Sarah Harvie was the first black inhabitant of our village, the fact remains that she is the first about whom I, at least, have any specific information.

What, though, could I discover about Sarah Harvie, an elderly woman who lived in this house a century ago?

* * *

In trying to put together any account of Sarah Harvey’s life, the family with whom she lived is the obvious place to start. This may seem a flawed approach, and in a sense it is, as it inevitably frames her life in the context of the white family for whom she worked for so many years. Yet because there are vanishing few genealogical resources online that cover nineteenth century Antigua, there may not be a better alternative. 

As we have seen, Sarah Harvey worked in the household of Canon Robert Gordon Roe, who between 1915 and 1923 was rector of Blakeney, hence lived in the Rectory here. 

Roe’s origins were perhaps slightly unusual by the standards of the early twentieth century English clergy. His father, Robert Roe, had been born in Suffolk in about 1792. From there he moved to Cambridge, where he set himself up as a painter, picture conservator, frame maker, glass factor, gilder, engraver, publisher and printseller. There is a tradition that Roe also taught etching, and that one of his pupils was William Makepeace Thackeray. Clearly a busy man, he also produced a large family — he was still fathering children well into his 70s. Many of his offspring became artists, working in different genres, enjoying varying degrees of success, quite a few of them remarkably skilled painters, some of them living rather bohemian, not to say louche existences. The charming writer on antique furniture, Frederic Gordon Roe, was one of his grandsons.

But there was also a sturdy strand of clerical respectability woven into the fabric of the the Roe family. Roe’s second wife, Mary Plees, was the daughter of Revd William George Plees, vicar of Ashbocking in Suffolk. It was to her that Robert Gordon Roe, generally known as Gordon, was born in 1860, in Cambridge.

Like so many of his siblings, Gordon Roe initially trained as an artist. He was listed as such in the 1881 census, when he would have been about 20 years old. But in that same year he matriculated at Cambridge University — rather oddly, not as a member of any college — before migrating to St Catharine’s in 1883. He was in training to follow his grandfather into the church. 

In 1886 Gordon Roe was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in the diocese of Chester, living just outside Liverpool. In a long and successful career, he proceeded through a variety of East Anglian livings: Badwell Ash (Suffolk) 1888-91, Buckhurst Hill (Essex) 1891-94, Blo Norton (Norfolk) 1894-99, King’s Lynn (Norfolk) 1899-1909, rural dean of Lynn Marshland 1895-1909, Leiston (Suffolk) 1909-1915, and finally rector of Acle (Norfolk) from 1923-27, where he died and is buried. Roe was remembered for the care with which he looked after the various medieval churches for which he was responsible, and was a noted collector of old stained glass. He and Alice had funded the restoration of the medieval chancel screen at Acle; in their memory, their surviving children funded the new rood and flanking figures set above the screen. 

On 11 June 1885, however, when he was still awaiting ordination, Gordon Roe married. His wife, Isabel Alice Kysh, always called Alice, came from a family of military and colonial connections. She was the daughter of Lt-Col John Anthony Kysh, a retired army pay-master, and his wife Henrietta Lilley, who was herself the daughter of a captain in the Grenadier Guards. 

I have no idea how the couple met. At the time of their marriage, which took place in West Kensington, Gordon and Alice were both 24 years old. From here, at least, it is easy to trace their progress from one clerical living to the next across the various relevant census returns. In 1891 they were living at Badwell Ash, Suffolk, with their burgeoning young family — two daughters and a son, ages five to two years — and three servants. 

One of these servants, listed as ‘nurse, domestic servant’ was a 45-year old widow from Antigua whose name was given as ‘Sarah E Huririe’. The writing is very clear so this is not a transcription error, and we can consider later what it might mean, but in any event, there can be little doubt that this woman was Sarah Harvie. 

* * *

Let us turn, now, to Gordon Roe’s wife, Alice Kysh. While Gordon Roe’s first two decades had been spent in Cambridge, Alice came from a background that reflected the wider sweep of Britain’s imperial ambition. She was born in Kamptee — a British army camp — in Maharashtra, India in 1860.

Her father, John Anthony Kysh, came from Dominica, in the West Indies, in 1820. His mother, Julia Harney, had been born in Antigua while his father, Frederick William Kysh (1792-1828) had come from the Dominican Republic. His parents married in Antigua in 1814. Intriguingly, John Anthony Kysh’s grandfather, George Anthony Kysh (1735-1823) who also served in the British Army, was apparently born in Germany and spent quite a few years in Nova Scotia, while his mother Charity Smith had started life in New York. 

In any event, John Anthony Kysh, having lost his father at a young age, joined the army where as a pay master he eventually attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1854 he married Henrietta Lilley, who had been born in Ireland to English parents in 1836. The birthplaces of their eleven children — including Corfu and several different locations in India — bear witness to John Anthony Kysh’s far-flung postings, although Alice and her family also lived for several years in Woodford in Essex, and in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

But Alice’s links to the West Indies are worth examining further. Her grandmother, Julia Harney Kysh, lived most of her life in Antigua. We know this, because in the course of the very gradual process of emancipating all the enslaved people in the British territories, the government at various points required slave owners to list the slaves they owned — not least, in order to calculate the compensation the slave owners would receive. (The enslaved people, needless to say, received nothing.) So we also know that in 1821, when she was about 26 years old, Julia Kysh and her sister Margaret Harvey owned about 20 enslaved people — listed by name, sex, race and age. By 1832, this number had dwindled, through sales and though death, to six enslaved people. In 1836, by which time the women ‘owned’ only three people each, they were each awarded £39 15s 2d for the loss of their ‘property’. 

So the Harney and Kysh families had both been slave owners in Antigua. In her later years, Julia eventually moved from Antigua to England and died at Woodford in Essex in 1866, when she was about 71 years old. But we also know that Alice Kysh’s younger brother, Charles Sweny Kysh, was born in Woodford in 1865. It’s likely that Julia had come to England to live with her son and his family. 

Had Julia Kysh brought Sarah with her from Antigua as a servant? Is this how Sarah Harvey came to meet Alice Kysh, Julia’s little Indian-born granddaughter, who would have been about five years old at the time?

By the time Alice was ten years old, however, she, along with three of her siblings, was living at a tiny teaching establishment in Alderminster, near Stratford-upon-Avon; on the day of the 1871 census, Margaret Kysh, who I think must have been her aunt, was visiting there, too. For what it’s worth, her school mistress, Louisa Reddie, and Mrs Reddie’s two daughters, both governesses, had all been born in Antigua. 

In 1881, at the age of twenty, Alice was living with her parents and five siblings in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Also present in their household a servant, Sarah Harvey, aged 36 years — a domestic servant, from the West Indies. This, then, is the first appearance of Sarah Harvie that I’ve been able to find in any extant records. If she was present in England in 1871, as I think she may have been, I have yet to find her in the relevant census returns. 

* * *

Census returns, however, while very helpful in many ways, are not entirely definitive. For example, Sarah was listed in different ways in the five census returns on which she appears. 

  • In 1881, when she was living with the Kysh family in Berwick-upon-Tweed, she was Sarah Harvey, aged 36 years, unmarried, from the West Indies, and working as a general domestic servant. Her implied date of birth was 1845. 
  • In 1891, when the Roes lived in Badwell Ash, she was Sarah E Huririe, aged 45, single, and working as a nurse. Her implied birth date was 1846. 
  • In 1901, when the Roes lived in King’s Lynn, she was Sarah E Harvey, aged 58, single, and working as a nurse (domestic). Here her implied birth date was 1843. 
  • In 1911, when the Roes lives in Leiston, she was Sarah Harvie, aged 70, single, from the West Indies, and working as a maid. Here her implied birth date was 1841. 
  • And as we have seen, in 1921, when the Roes lived in Blakeney, she was Sarah Harvie, aged 77 years and 7 months, single, from Antigua in the West Indies, and a ‘negress’. And here her implied birth date was 1844. 

What can we gather from this?

First, there is the question of Sarah’s surname. ‘Harvey’ is a very common surname in Antigua, for the bleak historical reason that John Harvey (1721-1771), Robert Harvey (d. 1791) and their relatives had been major slave owners, some of whom also appear to have fathered mixed-race children.

The Harvey family themselves spelled the name both ways — ‘Harvey’ and the more Scottish ‘Harvie’ — in the eighteenth century, so that difference is perhaps not important. But then it’s also striking that the Roe family was related to the Harney family, also Antiguan slave owners, whose name looks very similar. 

And then there is the question of that one ‘Huriri’ reference. The writing is entirely clear — it simply doesn’t read ‘Harvey’, although this is the much more common (to British ears) name. So it’s a strange mistake, because while it’s quite normal to write down unfamiliar names as more familiar ones, it is odd to reverse the process. ‘Harari’ is, of course, a perfectly normal Arabic name, denoting someone who sells or works with silk — but perhaps not so familiar in rural Suffolk. So that remains, for the moment, an unfathomable mystery. Census returns were, I think, usually reported to the recording agent by a family member, generally the head of household, but perhaps in this case someone simply made a mess of it.

All of this leads to yet another question — could Sarah herself read and write? As with many of the questions here, we will probably never know the answer. 

Certainly, in the decades following the abolition of slavery in Antigua, primary education was offered by the Moravian and Methodist missions, as well as the Church of England — and parents were understandably anxious to see their children’s options open up beyond a world of back-breaking, badly-remunerated agricultural labour which in any event they associated with all the deeper wounds of enslaved status. There were also various educational opportunities for adults. But at the same time, the need to earn money — and in particular, to help with the sugar harvest — sometimes kept Antiguans of all ages away from education. Intriguingly, it seems that parents often tried to get their children jobs working in as domestic servants in private households to increase their access to at least basic literacy and numeracy. 

We know nothing of how Sarah came to work as a nursemaid in the Kysh household, but one would at least hope that by the time she came to be living with a well-educated and cultured clergy family, looking after their young children, she had access to some sort of education herself, and that the variation in the spelling of her name has more to do with how other family members reported it than with her own literacy skills per se

If Sarah could read and write, these skills would have made it easier for her to keep in touch with any friends or family she may have left behind in Antigua. The alternative — that they had vanished from her life altogether, and that she had vanished from theirs — is sad to contemplate, although also entirely possible.

* * *

It’s time for a quick aside regarding the Roe family.

Gordon Roe’s younger brother Charles Edward Roe (1862-1940), who like Gordon had originally been trained as an artist, also ended up as a priest. 

In his intriguing book Outposts of the Faith, Michael Yelton describes at some length Charles Roe’s success in beautifying St Mary’s, Buxted (East Sussex), a medieval-looking church consecrated in 1887, where he was the incumbent 1917-1935. Charles Roe continued, even as a priest, to be an artist of some ability, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, painting works — copies of famous religious works as well as original compositions — for the churches he served, including Buxted. He also enriched the interior of Buxted until it constituted an environment of Anglo-Catholic liturgical splendour sufficiently remarkable to draw visitors from from far and wide. That he did so required not only devotion but also taste, artistic flair and aesthetic self-confidence, which perhaps tells us something else about the Roe family more generally. 

Gordon Roe himself had done a great deal to preserve and beautify the churches under his care. At Leiston in Suffolk, his living immediately before Blakeney, he had designed and commissioned a rood beam, chapel and new choir stalls. Oddly, in 1927, soon before his death, he designed a reredos for St Peter, Kirkley, Lowestoft, modelled on that at Ranworth, although he had no strong connection with either church. I suspect he was drawn to the living at Blakeney not only by the age of the church itself — to which he probably added the current altar and reredos — but also the age its rectory, where moulded oak beams, thick flint walls, large stone fireplaces and big tithe barn have an easy appeal for anyone who likes the romance of vaguely medieval places — as I myself know all too well. 

It is also worth pointing out, though, that Charles Roe was variously confessor, friend and long-time associate of Fr Alfred Hope Patten, who was responsible for reviving the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, only a few miles away from Blakeney here in Norfolk. Various sources suggest that Fr Hope Patten was originally attracted to Walsingham when Gordon Roe, who seems to have been rural dean there during the time he was incumbent at Blakeney, alerted his brother to the vacant living, which was taken up by Hope Patten in 1921. This connection also, however indirectly, links Gordon Roe himself with the circle of Anglo-Catholic clergy and lay people whose tireless efforts made Walsingham, a medieval shrine destroyed at the reformation but re-dedicated in 1931, once again a pilgrimage destination of international importance. 

One of Gordon and Charles Roe’s artist brothers, Fred Roe, made a rather amusing sketch featuring the by-then elderly priest, titled “Dislocation of pedestrian traffic caused by Charlie stopping to tell a long story before getting into his car” (1938) which can be seen here

This tells us, perhaps, something about the family’s sense of humour. 

Fr Charles Roe, who had been married but had no children, died in 1940. There is a memorial brass commemorating him in the Shrine Church at Walsingham, where he is depicted in Mass vestments, with the inscripption ‘Of your charity, pray for the soul of Charles Edward Roe, M.A., Member of S.S.C. and S.K.C.M., Priest Associate of the Holy House, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s, Buxted 1917-1935. Died 4th August, 1940. Jesu mercy. Mary help.’

Several of Gordon Roe’s immediate successors as rector of Blakeney, including Bishop Mowbray O’Rorke (rector 1924-1934), who was a guardian of the shrine at Walsingham and is buried in the shrine church, shared this devotion. My predecessor here, Frida Brackley, by her own account bought the house in 1935 in large part due to its proximity to the Walsingham, and in due course, in 1953, became a guardian of the shrine as well. I should perhaps add that during her time at the Old Rectory, her household was run by one Polly Gooch, a remarkable woman in her own right who must, surely, have been closely related to the two Gooch girls who worked there in Sarah’s time.

As for me, I’m very fond of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. In part, this is due to its extraordinary atmosphere. The whole place clearly does have something very special, indeed positive holy about it. But I also feel drawn to the implicit stubborn optimism of its continued existence, its gentle but insistent affirmation that just because something has been smashed up and destroyed at one point doesn’t mean that that it has been lost forever, or that it won’t come back again. 

* * *

Let us return to Sarah Harvie. Let us consider one brief moment of the life she lived in the rectory in Blakeney, a moment that must have happened at some point in the spring of 1917. 

The Roe family had, as has been described, six children, three sons and three daughters. As might have been expected of a family with such strong military connections, all three sons fought in the Great War — Robert for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Douglas in the Labour Corps of the London Regiment, and Cyril in the Royal Marines. 

I have no idea, incidentally, why Robert served with the CEF, but he was first a private in the 16 Battalion Canadian Scottish — where I think he must have fought on the Western Front— then commissioned into the Royal Engineers, where he rose to the rank of captain working with the Wireless Training Depot. Robert was later to take on holy orders, serving as rector of Goldhanger in Essex, then at St Augustine, Northam, Southampton, immediately prior to the Second World War. He died in 1949, at sea, having been living in Northern Rhodesia at the time.

As for the Roes’ second son, Douglas John Plees Roe, in 1917 a US draft enlistment form shows that he was working as a hospital pharmacist in Chicago, Illinois in the United States. Again, I have no idea why. He must have come back to the UK, though, at some point in 1917, because he later served as a lance corporal in 13 London Regiment Labour Corps. I wonder whether Douglas had some sort of debility that rendered him unfit for actual combat, but still wanted to play a part? In 1919, when his pension card was issued, he was living at Blakeney Rectory, but later in the same year he returned to the United States. In 1934 he married the daughter of the elderly lady with whom he was lodging, and he lived in the United States for the rest of his life. He died in 1955.

Cyril, the Roes’ third son and youngest child, was commissioned into the the 1st Royal Marine Battalion.

It’s not known whether Cyril Roe ever visited his parents at the Rectory in Blakeney, but it’s certainly possible. He had gone to France on 30 August 1914, so if he visited Blakeney, he would have done so on leave. 

It is strange to think of him returning here. Did those visits feel, for his parents and Sarah Harvie, marginally reminiscent of school holidays? Did the family serve him lots home-cooked food, crowd around and want to hear his stories? Was it strange for him sleeping in a comfortable bed, with the beech trees whispering outside the windows, after all he’d been through? Did Cyril find it all a bit unreal after what he must have experienced, out there in the trenches of the Western Front? 

In any event, on 28 April 1917, at Oppy Wood, during a push to take Gavrelle Windmill and some high ground nearby, Cyril’s company was effectively destroyed. On that day he was listed missing, presumed dead. At the time of his death he was 21 years old. His body was never recovered.

Whether or not Cyril had ever visited Blakeney, it was at Blakeney that his parents presumably learned the news of the death of their youngest child, and it was in Blakeney that his family chose to commemorate him. Cyril Roe’s name appears both on a brass plaque memorial within the parish church, and on the village war memorial next to the New Road, designed by the Blakeney-based architect John Page who also worked both on the Rectory and its 1924 replacement. Cyril is also commemorated at the Arras memorial.

In a sense there is nothing extraordinary about any of this. Blakeney, not a large village then or now, lost 39 young men in the Great War, 31 of whom are commemorated on its war memorial. Some families lost more than one son. The Rectory was certainly not the only house in the village where the inhabitants must have been numbed, at least for a time, with shock and grief and incomprehension.

I wonder, though, what Sarah Harvie thought about it all. She had, after all, known Cyril Roe since the time of his birth. As family nursemaid she had presumably cuddled and soothed him as a baby, watched his progress from toddler to little boy to young man, wondered what he would make of his life. There must have been a moment when someone told her the news, when everything stood still — and then just a loss, where before there had been a human life. Where was she when she heard? And what did she do then? 

I try to recapture that moment, but I cannot. And yet this place must somehow still resonate with it. 

* * *

Sarah Harvie had been born somewhere in Antigua, in the early to mid 1840s. 

Antigua, in the north east corner of the Caribbean, is only fourteen miles long and eleven miles wide. At the start of the nineteenth century, it included only one important town, St John’s, two smaller settlements, and a number of estates — quite a large number of which had historically been owned by Scottish families, including the Harveys. The predominant industry was the production of sugar. But the proprietorial and managerial population had long been tiny compared with the amount of enslaved labour upon which the sugar industry depended. In 1790, the ratio of white people to black people in Antigua was about 1:18 — far more extreme than in Jamaica or Barbados. 

The abolition of slavery in Antigua on 1 August 1832, while it was welcomed warmly by those it liberated, produced a society in which the lives of black residents were still profoundly curtailed in legal, economic and political terms. Natasha Lightfoot has written about this powerfully in Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the aftermath of British Emancipation (2015). Effectively trapped on a tiny island run by a white elite, most black and mixed-race Antiguans were faced with poor or non-existent educational prospects, limited career options — mostly heavy agricultural labour for very low wages — and basic living conditions. For a young black woman, the chance to work as a domestic servant and to travel away from the island may well have appeared as a significant broadening of opportunities. 

If the census returns are to be believed, Sarah Harvey was born between 1841 and 1846 — nine years to fourteen years after slavery was abolished. More likely than not, her parents had been enslaved people. 

On the other hand, yet another thing we do not know about Sarah Harvey is whether she was, in the language of the registers of slave owners, black, or alternatively coloured or ‘mulatto’, i.e. of mixed race. 

In 1821, when Julia Kysh had listed her ‘property’, this included coloured as well as black people. It was by no means unusual for white men to sexually exploit and abuse black and mixed-race women — but sometimes the mixed-race children of these interactions were manumitted, or even born into freedom, leading to the creation of a small percentage of the population categorised as ‘free coloured’. This was a group that numbered about 3,800 by 1821, occupying an awkward middle ground between the white population and the enslaved black population. It is apparently the case that for all sorts of reasons, mixed-race people were particularly likely to find work as domestic servants in white households. 

This is all a long way of saying that it’s perfectly possible that Sarah might have been related by blood to the Harney or Kysh families — that she might have been not just a servant to Alice Roe, but an actual relation. But this is another question about Sarah that we will probably never be able to answer. Where Antiguans were very particular about distinctions of racial background, noting degrees of non-whiteness, a Norfolk census enumerator simply saw dark skin and wrote ‘negress’. Also by 1921, in a different country with evolving (not always in a positive way) attitudes towards race, it might have seemed best to everyone simply to forget about a reality that may well have seemed ever more shameful and unsettling as the years went by. 

* * *

The 1921 census return produced one other surprise. 

As I have mentioned, the Rev Gordon Roe was rector of Blakeney from 1915 through to 1923. His predecessor was the Rev David Lee Elliott, who was rector from 1906-1915, then again from 1923-24. 

Lee Elliott is an enigmatic figure. Like the Roe brothers, he was passionately interested in his surroundings — their age, history, and scope for preservation or sympathetic improvement. At St Nicholas Blakeney, he was probably responsible for the restoration of the rood screen, incorporating two genuinely old panels, the reconstruction of the rood loft, the restoration of the stalls and misericords, and the commissioning of the rood Crucifix — which is to say, quite a lot of the most visible extant furnishings of the present-day Grade I-listed church.

Having lived at the rectory with his wife and four children, he left Blakeney in 1915 — apparently because of ‘indifferent health’ according to a newspaper article at the time — with the stated hope of organising retreats for clergymen and laymen. He then spent 1918-20 as vicar of Maxstoke, at Coleshill in Warwickshire, where he rented Maxstoke Castle, a wildly romantic and wholly delightful 400-year old moated house, as his temporary home. But during the Great War, the castle was in part turned over to Red Cross convalescent hospital for injured service personnel, at which, indeed, his wife Winifred had a VAD commission with responsibility for organising the provisioning. Did he serve as a chaplain there? In any event, Lee Elliott only gave up his tenancy of Maxstoke in 1923, when the actual owner, Beaumont Fetherston-Dilke, returned to take up residence. 

For all these reasons, then, I hadn’t expected to find Lee-Elliott living in Blakeney in 1921. But there he was, settled at ‘Priory House’ in Blakeney, along with his wife, 20-year old daughter, an Irish girl who may have been his daughter’s friend, a theology student named James Parker from Guernsey, a cook, parlour maid and a house maid. What was ‘Priory House’? I have only seen the name mentioned before in a handlist made by local architect John Page of the houses in Blakeney which he had either built or modified. Is it the same as ‘Priory Cottage’ where John Page himself was living in 1939?

Lee Elliott was to have quite a profound influence on the former rectory where I live. He may well have been responsible, for instance, for commissioning the funny little half-timbered first floor room that spans the entrance to the kitchen courtyard, probably from this same John Page. He is also a prime candidate for details like some of the bedroom fire surrounds, executed in a very Arts & Crafts manner. 

What is certain, though, is that in 1923, when he became rector of Blakeney once again, he arranged for the diocese to sell off the existing rectory — which he then purchased in 1924 as a private home — and also commissioned and paid for the erection of the so-called New Rectory, a pretty late Arts & Crafts house built in 1924, for which John Page was also the architect. 

Inexplicably, Lee Elliott gave up the living in 1924, only a year after he had taken it on. But then in 1934, he sold what had become the Old Rectory to Frida Brackley, elder daughter of the industrialist, philanthropist and Egyptologist Sir Robert Mond. Even then, though, Lee-Elliott kept a cottage in Blakeney — ‘Santa Claus Cottage’ in Back Lane. He was living there, widowed but with a secretary-companion named James Engledow, the 30-year old son of a local gamekeeper, in 1939. 

In 1943, Lee Elliott relinquished holy orders. He died, aged 86, on 14 March 1956 at La Tour de Peilz in Switzerland where he had lived for many years, and where he is now buried. His son, Theyre Lee Elliott, was a graphic designer of real ability who died a recluse.

As for the New Rectory, undoubtedly Blakeney’s best inter-war building, it was sold off by the diocese in 2016, then demolished, despite objections from conservation bodies including Save Britain’s Heritage and the 20th Century Society, but with the blessing of Historic England, exactly three years ago tomorrow, on 21 January 2019. 

It doesn’t matter. We all still remember it. 

* * *

Let us return to Sarah Harvie, trying to catch a glimpse of her, here in the house where she lived for at least six years, perhaps slightly more.

On the evening of the 1921 census, the rector of Blakeney, Canon Gordon Roe, aged 60, was at home with his wife Alice, also aged 60, their unmarried 32-year old daughter Maude, and also a visitor — their 35-year old daughter-in-law Norah who was married to their son Robert, the one who had fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914-15 and who would go on to become a priest. 

Norah, who had married Robert in September 1918, had brought with her their little son John, who was one year and eight months old. and their tiny daughter Margaret, who was only seven months old. Lazily, I haven’t checked, but I suspect that Robert was at work in Ramsgate at the time, and had sent his wife and children to visit his parents as a sort of summer holiday for them. 

It is perhaps a bit sentimental to imagine his old nurse Sarah Harvie, by then in her late 70s, cuddling these two little ones, fussing over them, maybe settling them down with a lullaby in one of the upstairs rooms. Which bedroom was it — the yellow bedroom, which still has its wallpaper from that date? And what song did Sarah sing?

Perhaps the Roe family took their dinner in what we now call the school room, then sat together for a while that evening in the drawing room, with its huge fireplace, the old bressumer beam and flanking seats, the leaded windows looking out towards that same beech wood to the east, the lawn to the south. Did Maude feel sad because she didn’t have children of her own? Did they all pause to think of Cyril, who would now never meet his little nephew and niece, but did they then avoid putting that thought into words, so as not to darken the happy mood that evening? 

And then there were the other two servants, Mary Gooch and Emma Gooch, 26 and 24 years old, both unmarried local girls and, I think, sisters. As I write this, sitting in the kitchen of the Old Rectory, I imagine them discussing the usual village news, complete with yet more familiar names, as they prepare dinner, wash up, make the visitors comfortable, before retiring to their own tiny rooms upstairs, the ones overlooking the kitchen courtyard. 

Which rooms were theirs, and which was Sarah’s room? For some reason, I hope that Sarah had the corner room with its narrow cupboard and its pretty little iron fire grate. I hope that the cold Norfolk air didn’t make her bones ache. I think of her making her slow, deliberate way down the steep back stairs to the kitchen, gripping the smooth oak handrail as she went. I think of her sitting by the fire in the back parlour, with its same stone fire surround, same old pamment floor, same view out the big window towards the meadow beyond — towards the west, the sun slipping away over Blakeney Down, setting late because it was June when the census was taken, so it would still have been light when the little ones went to bed.

There is a lot that we don’t know about Sarah Harvie. It frustrates me, for instance, that I have not yet been able to discover the date of her death or where she is buried — it would have been pleasing to visit her grave — perhaps to bring her some flowers from this place, as I sometimes do with the grave of Frida Brackley and her husband Air Commodore Brackley, DSO DSC. 

Also, given that Sarah was alive in 1921, it’s entirely possible that a photograph of her exists somewhere. Yet I haven’t been able to find a photo of Lt Cyril Roe either, which reminds us that these gaps in what we know about the past are not always entirely created by relative privilege, lack of effort or interest. 

Finally, it’s also perfectly possible that there are family stories relating to Sarah that are still in circulation. Just by way of example, I’m in my mid 50s now, but I perfectly well remember stories told to me in the early 1970s by my grandmother, who was born in the first decade of the 20th century — and these stories, particularly the ones relating to her adored father, themselves reached back into the 1870s and 80s. Similarly, I’ve more than once been told stories by people in this village whose personal memories reached back well into the 1940s — and in one case, admittedly ten years ago, heard the recollections of someone who remembered this place prior to 1924. So the past isn’t really that far buried, if we stop and listen for it.

The search for Sarah Harvie isn’t over. She isn’t entirely lost, now, though, any more than any other dead person or demolished house or half-forgotten event is ever lost, as long as any of us know enough to keep asking questions — as long as we bother to seek out new insights — as long as we have the energy to persist with the active, positive work of remembering. 

* * *

A very brief aside, this. 

One reason we know that the younger Robert Gordon Roe was living in Ramsgate is an article from the Bognor Regis Observer of 27 July 1921, in which he is recorded as receiving a fine from a Sussex magistrate for — and I am not making this up — wearing armorial bearings, in this case a ring with an armorial crest, without the proper licence. He was ordered to pay one guinea and costs, including the cost of the advocate, for this offence. 

I suppose this tells us something about the Roe family, although what that is exactly, I leave to the reader to decide.

* * *

What did Sarah make of any of this? That is the hardest thing to reconstruct, because of course none of us really knows what anyone else makes of anything except in the most incomplete and flawed sort of way. We can, at least, raise some possibilities. 

Sarah had lived with the Kysh and Roe families for at least forty years, possibly more. She had seen the six Roe children grow to adulthood, and had lost one of them to an early death in the carnage of the Great War. She had also been, as far as we know, absent from the land of her birth for at least forty years. Norfolk is colder, drier and considerably less green than Antigua. The sea here looks different. The food here is different. The days here are much shorter in the winter.

Sarah would, I suppose, have become accustomed to being the only black person, at least most of the time, in the still very white world of north Norfolk. Did she speak in a recognisably West Indian way? None of the Roe family would have had a Norfolk accent, whereas the Gooch sisters surely did, and probably at that date still spoke proper Norfolk dialect — broad, boot-i-ful Norfolk — which Sarah, for her part, would have had to have learned to understand. 

Was Sarah the object of interest, as someone who looked and sounded unusual, or was there hostility too — and how irksome was any of that? Or did her status as the household servant of someone as locally important as the rector protect her, at least to some limited extent? When she went to church with the family or walked down to the High Street, did people stare at her? Or did the village accept her as not really any more of an outsider than the family she served?

Did the fact Sarah never married have something to do with living in England, specifically in rural East Anglia, for so much of her adult life, where racial prejudice and exclusion may have made it difficult for her to find an acceptable partner? 

What did Sarah feel about the Roe family? Did she feel a strong bond with the six Roe children? Did she feel a bond with Alice Roe, who, like her, had some sort of familial tie with Antigua? I suppose, if she had really disliked them all intensely, over forty years she would have been able to make her escape and start a different sort of life — but again, who knows why anyone does what they do?

Living here, Sarah would have seen the windmills at Blakeney and at Cley. Did they remind her, for good or for ill, of the sugar mills in Antigua, which looked rather similar? Was what she felt about sugar, sitting in a bowl on a tea tray or being devoured in various sweets by infants, different from what those around her felt about it? Did she experience something bitter in it that few else around her could possibly recognise? 

But if I could discover one single thing about Sarah, it would be this — to what extent did she still hold on to some of her heritage as an Antiguan of African, presumably enslaved descent? 

Sarah, after all, had spent the better part of thirty years living in the household of a clerk in holy orders — living in vicarages and rectories, observing the high days and holy days of the Church of England, looking after children presumably brought up in a thoroughly Anglican tradition, with their hymns and catechisms and bedtime prayers. One assumes she crossed the road from the Rectory and walked up the little hill to St Nicholas, Blakeney, along with the rest of the household each Sunday morning, before walking back through the beech wood when the service was ended. 

The Roe family give the impression of being art-loving, history-loving, rather warm and likeable people, from the fragments of family jokes and memories that have survived of them. One would like to think that they included Sarah in this warmth, that she was as much a part of their world as she wanted to be.

But at the same time, since ‘discovering’ Sarah, I have been reading about Antigua, its history and its culture. One particularly fascinating aspect of that culture is obeah. With its roots in West African beliefs and practices, obeah is a complex network of healing methods, divination, dispute resolution and much else. To white Antiguans, particularly slave owners, obeah was the subject of enormous concern and moral panic, construed as anything from malignant witchcraft to the basis for slave revolts and the murder of white people, so their accounts of it are, as a consequence, very flawed. For black Antiguans, however, obeah persisted — and persists, apparently — often alongside Christian practices and beliefs, as both a means of understanding the world and of navigating within it. Did obeah play any part, then, in Sarah Harvie’s belief system? Did it mean, for instance, that her experience of life here in Blakeney was in some crucial sense different from that of the Roes, or indeed of the Gooch sisters? Or, conversely, had she rejected this in favour of more explicitly Christian belief systems — or something else entirely?

And what did she think of this house? Looking at it today, living in it, I pause to consider what would and would not have been familiar to her. When Frida Brackley bought what had become the Old Rectory from the Rev Lee Elliott in 1935, she again ‘reordered’ it — modestly so, but in a way that was never really superseded, so it’s largely her version of the house that we still live today.

So I have to unthink a few rooms. Frida’s big first floor bedroom, facing south over the lawn, wasn’t there. The brick-and-flint portico below hadn’t been glazed but was a sort of open summer house. Frida, in modernising the house, added four bathrooms – two with vitreous tiles, very Art Deco, one a children’s bathroom with a small low tub, and the last a staff bathroom, down at the north end. Frida also, I think, added the tiles in the kitchen, a few built-in cupboards and bookcases. But that is all. Otherwise, bar the odd decorative finish, our house is the house in which Sarah lived.

The house, even then, would have looked old — this must have been part of its appeal to the Roe family, just as it was later to appeal to Frida Brackley. The big fireplaces in the main rooms, the heavy oak beams in the hall, the thickness of the flint walls all constructed from actual flint — these would have seemed archaic in the 1920s, as would the rather warren-like, not very rational flow of the rooms, which had accrued over the years in the way barnacles attach themselves to the hull of a ship.

Did Sarah mind the fact that it was old, or would she have preferred somewhere more up-to-date, possibly easier to run and maintain? Because that, of course, would be the excuse for needing to build the new rectory in a corner of the Old Rectory’s garden in just a few years’ time — that a trim little parsonage with a compact layout, more manageable service rooms and a very modish built-in garage, absolutely peak 1924, complete with a tiny little staff-room for the chauffeur, would be more in keeping with the demands of modern life. Perhaps Sarah might have preferred that. It also had lovely views from its first floor windows out towards the ridge of Wiveton Down.

On the other hand, the folklore of the Windward Islands is full of tales of duppies, jumbies, call them what you will — ghosts, spirits, the unquiet shadows of the dead — who could be variously malignant, playful or, if approached correctly, actually quite helpful to the living. Obeah or other strands of her heritage might have alerted Sarah to qualities of this old house — possibly even to inhabitants — of whom others were unbelieving or oblivious. Unsurprisingly, I should like to have known more — a lot more — about all that.

* * *

This may sound like rather a lot of fuss over one brief census entry. Why does Sarah Harvie matter so much? Why, indeed, does she matter at all?

The rational, objective answer is simple enough: Sarah Harvie is the first black person living in my village of whom I, at least, have any definite record, and so knowing about her tells me something about the history of race, migration, race and social class within this village of Blakeney. 

But there’s another set of answers, at once more subjective and more selfish, that explains rather more accurately why the search for Sarah seems crucial to me.

The first involves the nature of my relationship with this house.

People who require new houses doubtless do so for many reasons, which we will ignore here, except by implication. People who prefer old houses, on the other hand, do so, at least in part, because they yearn for the vague, indefinable companionship of everyone else who has ever lived or visited or even passed through their houses in earlier times — the shifting half-seen shadows of all those various births, couplings and deaths, the shimmer of earlier world-historical events glimpsed through the lens of our own — the sense that one’s most powerful surge of grief or love or amusement is nothing more than a modest restatement of some theme played a thousand times before, often with more skill or more feeling, within these very same walls. It’s about not wanting to be alone. 

Living in a former rectory in a particular part of Norfolk, there are some strands of continuity — the interlocking rhythms of the liturgical and agricultural calendars, for instance, or the prevalence of Oxbridge educations — that are very obvious. We expect a lot of rectors, and we get them. But that makes the surprises all the more striking. And there are moments where those surprises create a weird poetry of association that is, at best, enchanting.

Long-time readers of my rectory-related writings may remember that prominent among the incumbents here was James Poynter, rector of Blakeney from 1584 to 1621 — a hugely problematic figure who was, nevertheless, both an ex-roommate (briefly) of Christopher Marlowe, and also chaplain to the 9th Earl of Northumberland — the so-called ‘Wizard Earl’. Because his world is relatively well-documented, we can imagine in some depth what Poynter would have known and believed about the West Indies. After all, it is conceivable in that context that he would have met Raleigh, Harriot and possibly even Shakespeare — perhaps even, as far as that goes, have seen an early performance of The Tempest.

For Poynter, I suspect, as for many of his most cosmopolitan English contemporaries, the West Indies was a realm at once unimaginably exotic, yet at the same time a sort of endless open invitation to boundless, often sexualised fantasies of conquest, exploitation and enjoyment. We know from an extant probate inventory that Poynter had in his hall — my hall, now — something called ‘the great mappe’. Local historians tend to assume that it was a map of the harbour here in Blakeney. Personally, though, I wonder whether we shouldn’t set our sights a little higher. Could it in fact have been that cutting-edge thing, a map of the world, as a tiny elite of the extremely learned and well-connected knew it then?

The circle of hangers-on who associated themselves with the 9th Earl of Northumberland — who, by the way, had an African servant — were fascinated by the implications of the ‘brave new world’ for navigation, botany, ethnography, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, literature, geopolitics, religion and lack of religion, and heaven knows what else. Their writings positively sparkle with the possibilities of the expanding realms, literal and metaphorical, that were opening up all around them. But at the same time, they and their contemporaries were putting in place the legal, economic and cultural conventions which would first build then perpetuate a colonial system in the West Indies based on the forced expropriation of labour, and often the murder, of enslaved peoples imported from Africa. Their acts of creation were grounded in coercion and destruction.

Isn’t it remarkable then, that a mere three centuries after his death, Poynter’s home would be occupied by an elderly woman of African heritage for whom the West Indies were another sort of reality altogether — the stuff of actual personal memory, practical as well as mythic and poetic, probably including a second-hand recollection both of slavery and eventual emancipation? Isn’t it wonderful that Sarah herself must have known things about which Poynter, for all his learning and his connections, only could have dreamed? Isn’t it joyful to stop and reflect that her experience of this house was every bit as real, every bit as valid as Poynter’s own?

And today I can sit in that very hall, which both James Poynter and Sarah Harvie would probably even now recognise, and day-dream about these two predecessors of mine — how different they must have been, and yet how neatly and with what seeming inevitability their lives have come to intertwine with mine. This, then, is the sort of context that only an old house can provide.

But there are also other ways in Sarah makes her presence felt, now that I know she exists. For instance, I can think of Sarah when I mop the quarry tile floor in the back corridor, or put away clean folded bed sheets, or stare vacantly out the kitchen window when I’ve finished, after what seems an eternity of thankless and recurring tedium, the last of the evening’s washing up. Did she do these things too? And if so, what did she think about as she did them?

For this is another set of associations and connections brought forward by the search for Sarah. Quite a lot, after all, has changed in this last century. I don’t imagine that Alice Roe, during her time here, did any of these dreary everyday things, any more than Frida Brackley would have done — but the Gooch girls certainly did, and Sarah certainly did — and now, in these servant-free days, they mostly fall to me. For the rhythm of domestic labour is another continuity that runs through the history of any old house, and while the details of that labour invariably evolve and sometimes even improve — I am pleased, for instance, to have a washing machine and a hoover — the monotony, if not the full weight of physical demands, surely endures. The lives spent cooking or cleaning or looking after babies and toddlers are as real, and as central to the story of this place, as the lives of those these people served, if often infinitely harder to research or differentiate. Sarah reminds me of this.

Attempting bring Sarah into focus starts to conjure up hundreds, maybe thousands of other lives that we will never glimpse clearly, but are nevertheless central to the narrative of this house. Who were the servants of the Rev Henry Calthorpe (rector here 1743-1781), for instance? We know the name of one, Elizabeth Fulcher (d. 1759) because she left a will — not that I’ve read it yet — but the diary of Calthorpe’s famous Norfolk clerical contemporary, James Woodforde, reminds us how vastly important domestic workers were to the running of a mid-Georgian rural parsonage. Who were the servants of James Poynter? We know only that his complex record of sexual abuse included ‘defiling’ a young unmarried woman on multiple occasions in both the Blakeney and Wiveton parsonages — was she herself a servant? And whether she was or not, what did his servants make of his terrible reputation? Did they see a different side of him than either the courtly patron who liked him, or indeed the local Puritan gentleman who was hell-bent on destroying him?

And what of John Cleyton, rector here from before 1520 until his death in 1541 — lawyer, pluralist, hanger-on first of Sir James Hobart, Henry VII’s attorney general, then latterly of Robert Radcliffe, first earl of Sussex? I think Cleyton is the person responsible for my hall ceiling, the oak screen, the evocative space in which I and my family still celebrate Christmas and other days of high festivity. Heaven know, there are few things I enjoy more than imagining John Cleyton entertaining the local gentry here, sitting up late into the evening, sharing indiscreet gossip about, say, the plot to bring back Richard, Duke of York, to challenge the pretences of the late Henry VII, rather in the familiar way that people of my generation might reminisce about the ‘real’ story behind the ending of the Miners’ Strike or the fall of Margaret Thatcher. But once Cleyton and his guests had all gone on their way, who cleared up the cups, tidied the cushions, swept and aired out the room? And what did that person know, from his or her own family stories, about all these same events? What did that person think about the destruction of the shrine at Walsingham, which happened during Cleyton’s incumbency?

The sad reality, of course, is that we cannot answer these questions — and in asking them, we can only frame them with reference to the names of relatively powerful men. The sad reality is that most lives end up forgotten. We know very little about Cleyton’s household, and almost nothing about Poynter’s, and not very much at all about that of Henry Calthorpe. We can feel certain that these people existed, but where there ought to be fact, details, memory, there is — nothing. We are lucky, frankly, even to know that Cleyton existed at all, because there are plenty of gaps in the lists of Blakeney incumbents. Before the sixteenth century, we have virtually nothing other than a scattering of names. And yes, there is something essentially tragic about that.

So while I don’t know as much as I would like to do about Sarah Harvey, I am at the same time all too conscious that I am vastly fortunate — that we all are vastly fortunate — to be able to know anything about her at all. Because of her far-flung place of origin, because of her race, her long life, her good luck (from a historian’s perspective anyway) in having been born into an age that recorded census data, Sarah Harvie, for all the unanswered questions surrounding her, stands out as far more distinct figure than most, more than all but a very few indeed, in the history of this place.

Again, though, some may ask — why does it matter? Why does any of this matter?

To plenty of people, as we have seen, it won’t matter at all. The dead don’t matter, any more than old buildings or numinous places do. The past doesn’t matter. Which is all very well in its way — the cult of superficiality has always had its adherents, lost in their own fond superstitions and ritual proprieties. But they are not the likely consumers of 10,000-word-long essays regarding long-deceased nursemaids. They need not concern us, here or indeed elsewhere.

I used to think the pursuit of history both required and merited rational explanation. For some historians, of course, that is no doubt the case. Some people look to the past as a sort of scrying glass for the future. Some look to it to provide rhetorical endorsement of what they believe regarding the present. Some look to it because it seems to offer a sort of settled core when compared to the endless flux of literally everything else.

Yet as the years go past, though, I’ve become increasingly convinced that for some of us, the impulse behind historical research has far more to do with remembering as a form of commemoration, perhaps even of propitiation — memory being the one thing we can offer the dead, these fellow creatures of ours who have gone where we must go and for whom we can now do nothing else except the simple kindness of acknowledging that they were, possibly that they still are, as real as we ourselves have ever been.

And that, more than anything else, was why the discovery of Sarah Harvie on the 1921 census return made me so happy. Without a name, without a few facts or dates, what can one do? But as soon as those basic things are present, it feels as if one were reaching down into something, down into the dark, offering one’s grasp to lift another person out of the oblivion into which they might otherwise have vanished forever.

To me, at least, that seems a worthwhile project. So what if there is still so much we don’t know about Sarah Harvie, so many questions, so much still to discover? She is here, now, and safe. I hope she will never be lost again.