The Search for Dido

Sarah Minney, a genealogist-researcher, solves the mystery of the later life of a famous black beauty of the late 18th century.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (or Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, as she is sometimes known) was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic English naval captain, later admiral, Sir John Lindsay (1737-88). He was a man with a somewhat checkered career in the Royal Navy in the generation before Admiral Nelson. Exactly when and where she was born is unknown, but the story goes that Lindsay captured a Spanish ship and on board found a beautiful black slave. With her he had at least one child (Dido) in around 1763.

What became of Dido’s mother is unknown; perhaps she was left to live her life out elsewhere while Dido was brought up in England, or perhaps she died during Dido’s early childhood.

With Lindsay at sea with the Navy, the child was sent to live with her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife at Kenwood House, Hampstead. The Mansfields were also raising another great-niece, Dido’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Lindsay, whom they had adopted after her mother had died.

It has been speculated that Dido was taken to Kenwood to play the role of playmate or attendant to her cousin. Whatever the reason, she lived a comfortable and privileged life at Kenwood, though she was not treated as a full member of the family, being still formally a slave.

Dido lived between the family and the servants, not really fitting in with either group. She does not appear to have taken meals with the family, at least when they were entertaining; a visitor to Kenwood subsequently wrote that Dido would not usually dine with the family and their guests in the evening, but would join the ladies for after-dinner coffee.

And as she got older, Dido also ran the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood. The household account books show she had an annual allowance of £30 10s. Her cousin Elizabeth, though, received around £100 per year. 

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