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The Incredible Lives of Lizzie Sancho and Dido Belle - with Children's Author J.T. Williams

Just in case we hadn't mentioned it already (I'm pretty sure we have), here at Imagining History we love reading historical fiction. I mean, what better way to learn about history, right? You get to explore an era of history whilst enjoying reading a thrilling yarn... what's not to love?

Author J.T. Williams.

Recently, we've been hugely enjoying reading the children's books Drama and Danger, and Portraits and Poison. Both stories are part of 'The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries' series of books. Each thrilling tale offers a fascinating look at Georgian London through the eyes of two charismatic 12-year-olds, Lizzie Sancho and Dido Belle. Each story also offers the mystery, danger, and daring-do that make for a great read for children (and grown-ups too!).

In fact, we enjoyed our adventures with Lizzie and Belle so much that we just had to invite author J.T. Williams onto the blog for an exclusive interview. We wanted to learn all about the real-life Lizzie and Belle, the lives of Black people in Georgian London, and the telling of untold stories. We had a fascinating chat! Check it out, just below these words. The interview begins a centimetre, an inch, or a metre below - depending on how massive your screen is!

Imagining History: Could you tell our readers a little more about your wonderful series, ‘The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries’?

J.T. Williams: The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries, Drama and Danger, and Portraits and Poison are historical mystery adventures set on the streets of Georgian London. The books bring together two bold and brilliant Black British heroines, Lizzie Sancho and Dido Belle, both based on real historical figures from the eighteenth century. In the shadow of mysterious misdeeds, they form a friendship and become ‘Agents of history, partners in mystery, sisters in solving crime’!

Who were the real Lizzie Sancho and Dido Belle?

Elizabeth Sancho was one of the daughters of the African British writer, composer, and abolitionist, Ignatius Sancho and his Caribbean wife Ann. The Sanchos were a harmonious, loving, literate, and musical family who lived and worked together at their Westminster tea shop. Elizabeth was educated at home by her parents and often visited the theatre with her father.

Dido Belle was the daughter of Maria Bell, a young African woman who had been enslaved in the Caribbean, and John Lindsay, a British captain in the Royal Navy. Dido was raised as an aristocratic gentlewoman at Kenwood House, Hampstead, by her Great Uncle and Aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield. Lord Mansfield was the Lord Chief Justice of England and ruled on key cases concerning the status of enslaved people in Britain. We know that Dido Belle loved reading and performing poetry, she learned to read and play music, to ride horses, and she often helped her Uncle by writing letters on his behalf.

Could you tell us about Lizzie’s father, Ignatius? What an incredible life he led!

Ignatius Sancho was an extraordinary man. We believe that he was born on a ship carrying enslaved people from their homes in West Africa to the Caribbean. His parents died when he was a small child and he was sold in London to a family of three sisters.

Ignatius Sancho, painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768

Determined to escape their cruel treatment, he ran away to work as butler to the Duke of Montague. He earned enough money to buy a grocery shop in Westminster, married an African Caribbean woman and together they raised a family.

A lover of literature and the arts, Ignatius was a classical composer, an accomplished writer, and an abolitionist. He had his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough and his witty and effervescent letters were published in a book after his death. He may have been the first person of African descent to vote in a British Parliamentary election!

His story is one of resistance and resilience, of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

How did you first discover or hear about Dido Belle and Lizzie Sancho? What was it about the pair that drew your attention?

I first encountered Lizzie when I was reading Sancho’s letters. He writes so lovingly of his wife Ann and their children; I was intrigued by these scintillating glimpses into his family life. We hear of the girls going about town with Sancho, being ‘followed’ and ‘gazed at’ on account of their colour. But the family endures - and they find ways to share joy in spite of the hardships they face.

The painting of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray

Many years ago, on a visit to Kenwood House, I saw the beguiling portrait of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth. She is smiling mysteriously and pointing to her cheek. As a Black British woman coming face to face with someone who looked like me in a historical painting from c1776, I was intrigued - I had to know more!

I grew up reading classic literature by Jane Austen, by the Bronte sisters, and I have always loved watching television adaptations and films set in these periods. But I never saw people who looked like me there.

Discovering the stories of these young, educated Black girls, writing, performing poetry, and playing musical instruments, I felt inspired - compelled, even - to bring these people to life on the page.

What made the duo the ideal leads for a mystery series?

During my own historical research, I had noticed that the voices of Black women and girls were practically absent from the history books.

So when I was writing these books, it was very important to me to place two Black British girls at the centre of the narrative and have them tell the stories from their own perspective.

The growing partnership between Lizzie and Belle is at the heart of the stories. As I began to imagine what life might have been like for these two very different girls, elements of their possible personalities took form in my mind. Each girl had to have her own unique sleuthing skills.

Living in a busy shop in central London, I felt Lizzie would have been street-wise, curious, and courageous, prepared to leap into any situation. Belle lived a more secluded life at Kenwood, but she was surrounded by books in the family’s personal Library. I loved the idea of her as a dedicated bookworm, consulting her books to research the cases they investigate.

Readers of The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries will enjoy a thrilling adventure story, but what do you hope readers will have learned or understand about history when they have finished the books?

The history of Black presence in Britain is long-standing. People of African descent have lived here in considerable numbers for centuries now. And in Georgian London, there were around 15 000 Black people living, and working, in what was at the time a very diverse city, populated with people from all over the globe.

The first book, Drama and Danger, takes place at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where Lizzie’s father is to play Othello. I wanted to think about the roles that Black people took on the stage and how that affected how they were viewed in real life. The second book, Portraits and Poison, explores the world of paintings, and the powerful families behind the slave trade.

So there is this complex and difficult history of Transatlantic Slavery in the books - I wanted to be honest about that in telling these stories. I wanted to show that there were Black abolitionists fighting for the freedom of people of African descent. That there were communities of Black people looking out for and looking after each other in these extremely challenging circumstances. And there were also Black people just going about their daily lives, working hard, raising families - people who had been largely overlooked in the history books, but who were here, participating in British life, making their contribution to society.

More and more historical research is being conducted into the lives of Black people in Britain in the 17th and 18th Centuries, what are some of the latest discoveries?

Recent research has revealed thousands of parish records relating to people of colour in Britain. For example, the Switching the Lens project at the London Metropolitan Archives makes these records visible online, and there is currently an exhibition on at LMA called Unforgotten Lives, which sheds new light on the stories of Black lives in London between 1650 and 1850. Sailors, soldiers, seamstresses, writers, musicians, abolitionists, and activists all appear in the archives.

I’ve been researching the hundreds of runaway advertisements in newspapers for people of African descent who were being held enslaved and sought out their freedom by running away. These fragments give names, dates, and physical descriptions. And though the adverts have been placed with the intention of capturing people against their will, they also reveal how people have rebelled and resisted by running away. They remind us that people will go to great risks to ensure their own freedom.

Our understanding of history is changing all the time, as our knowledge grows and people and stories once hidden are revealed. How can we all play our part in ensuring these stories are heard?

More and more books are being published about Britain’s Black history, which is, after all, a shared history. It is up to all of us to educate ourselves, to be curious. Like Lizzie and Belle, sometimes we need to dig a bit deeper to find a fuller truth about the past. Ask questions, compare sources, and share your discoveries with others. A deeper understanding of our history benefits us all.

And finally, will there be more adventures of Lizzie and Belle for us to look forward to?

There are so many exciting aspects of Georgian London and its Black communities that I am still discovering, so many stories yet to explore. Watch this space!

We cannot wait!

To pick yourself up a copy of 'Portraits and Poison' and 'Drama and Danger' head over to the Harpercollins website by clicking here.


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