We look at the life of Henry Redhead Yorke, the son of a plantation owner and a freed slave who left his mark on the city against the backdrop of the French Revolution…
While the Windrush period saw huge numbers of people from the Caribbean start new lives in the UK between 1948 and 1971, material collected by the Derby Local Studies Library shows that there were Black people living in Derbyshire as far back as the 1790s – including activist HR Yorke.
Until recently, most discourse around HR Yorke has only related to the evolution of his political views, with his Black heritage being largely overlooked. It wasn’t until 2017, when local genealogist Anne M Powers joined up the dots of his family history, that the full context of his fascinating life story was revealed.
HR Yorke – at this point just called Henry Redhead – was born in August 1772 on the Caribbean island of Barbuda to wealthy plantation owner Samuel Redhead and a formerly enslaved woman named Sarah Bullock, who herself was also the offspring of a white man and a slave. Samuel purchased Sarah’s freedom a year before Henry’s birth, and they moved to England in around 1778 to begin his schooling.
While this may conjure up romantic notions of Samuel falling in love and changing his ways for the good of his wife and child, make no mistake about his character – he owned 264 slaves before his death in 1785, and was said to have had many other children with different enslaved women. Two years after Samuel’s death, Sarah remarried to a linen seller named Edward Henstock, and she and Henry moved to Little Eaton in Derbyshire.
“In November 1793, he made the bold claim that the King would be beheaded by Christmas”
Inspired by the ongoing French Revolution, Henry Redhead would go on to become an active figure in the reform movement in his early twenties, campaigning for changes to the proportionally unrepresentative parliamentary system and against the monarchy. He travelled to Paris in 1792 on behalf of the Derby Society for Political Information and witnessed the trial of King Louis XVI of France, but had to escape back to England at short notice when he was accused of being a spy. Although he had to leave behind nearly every physical possession he took with him, he returned with something intangible: a new, more radical outlook than that of his Derby Society peers.
Before going to Paris, he had written in defence of slave ownership – which had likely been normalised to him during his early years in Barbuda – but switched to an abolitionist view in 1793 in a letter addressed to the people of Derby. It was also around this time that he began using the additional surname Yorke, and while this may sound like a way to distance himself from his father, Powers notes that he kept the Redhead name and maintained a rose-tinted view of him in later writing.
Most surviving copies of HR Yorke’s letter to Derby have had the publishing firm’s name cut out of them, which, as Mark Young from the Local Studies Library suggests, was likely due to a government crackdown on any meetings or writing perceived as inciting rebellion. Not long after its publication, he became chief spokesman of the Sheffield Constitutional Society and gave speeches at reform meetings in London, Manchester and Edinburgh to rally troops to supposedly help the French revolutionaries overthrow the British monarchy. In November of that year, he even made the bold claim that the King would be beheaded by Christmas.
HR Yorke’s controversial statements eventually led to an arrest warrant being issued against him for treason, and he was detained in 1794 at the age of 22 after a failed attempt to flee to Switzerland. His charge was later reduced to ‘misdemeanour, conspiracy and seditious words’, and he was sentenced to a minimum of two years in Dorchester Castle prison.
At this point, HR Yorke felt as if his allies in the reformist movement had abandoned him, claiming that there wasn’t a single person in Sheffield ‘who would step forward in support of their supposed seditious champion’. He subsequently went through another ideological metamorphosis behind bars and emerged a Conservative.
“His enthusiasm for politics introduced new ways of thinking to people in Derby and beyond”
HR Yorke wrote a letter addressed to England’s reformists upon his eventual release in 1798 that denounced his former views and expressed favour for the war against the French, who he used to idolise. However, his fellow Tories were reluctant to align themselves with someone who’d made such a stark U-turn in opinion, and his standing as a political commentator never reached the heights it enjoyed in his reformist days.
In 1799, he married Jane Williams Andrews, daughter to the keeper of the very same jail he was imprisoned in the year before. They went on to have five children together but, tragically, Jane would outlive all of them – including her husband, who passed away after a period of illness in 1813 aged 40.
Nonetheless, sparks of HR Yorke’s legacy lived on through his eldest son, Henry Galgacus Redhead Yorke, who was ten when his father died. HGR Yorke also went down a political career path and joined the Whigs, a now-dissolved liberal party that brought about the parliamentary reform that HR Yorke campaigned for in his youth, by passing the seminal Representation of the People Act in 1831. In 1841, HGR Yorke was elected as a Member of Parliament for York – making him one of the first MPs of Black heritage – and he held the position until his death by suicide seven years later, aged 45.
Although HR Yorke changed his views significantly several times throughout his life, he was an influential figure whose enthusiasm for politics introduced new ways of thinking to people in Derby and beyond. The son of a freed slave who temporarily lost his own freedom in an impassioned fight for democracy, and whose reformist ideals would indirectly live on through his son, his story is one to remember.