Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A Dark Horse, Indeed

dark horse [noun, usually singular ] a person who keeps their interests and ideas secret, especially someone who has a surprising ability or skill.
Last week on World Book Day, somebody on FB was advertising a Literary Map of Britain. It was not one I had seen before [and now I cannot find it again!] but what fascinated me was the dark horse galloping across Norfolk.That can't be right, I thought to myself. Norfolk?? Anna Sewell who wrote Black Beauty lived in Brighton didn't she? I remember a family holiday there when somebody told me that her family had moved there, to live in North Street after Anna became ill following an accident when her ankle was severely injured. 
So of course, I just had to check this out - if AS had Norfolk connections, how come I'd missed that? Dad read the book with me when I was in Primary School [before we moved to East Anglia] I fetched my copy down from the shelf. It is 82 years old, and one of my treasures. It was a prize Dad received from church
YWL stands for 'Young Worshipper's League' - this was a sort of Sunday School which met early, before church - and Dad was presented with this as a prize when he was 11.
Black Beauty was originally printed by Jarrolds [of Norwich] in 1877, and Anna wrote it for adults, as a protest about the appalling treatment of horses in Victorian times - not as a pleasant little children's story book!
I knew about Anna's protest - Dad had told me that much, as we pored over the story of this lovely horse and his friend Ginger, and looked at the lovely colour prints dotted between the thick, creamy, slightly foxed pages. These illustrations are the ones commissioned by Jarrold's in 1916 from the celebrated animal artist Cecil Aldin
But somehow I have got through the past 50 years with this book and never really known much about the author.
Anna was born in Norfolk, near Yarmouth in March 1820. Her parents were Quakers. Unfortunately her father was swindled by a business colleague, and financial difficulties beset the family for many years-  they moved to Dalston in London, for about 10 years. Whilst there, Mary, Anna's mother, began writing children's stories as a way of supplementing the family income. Isaac had a couple more major financial disasters, but worse was to come - Anna tripped and fell as she ran home from school. This was to leave her disabled for the remainder of her life - mainly because the doctors who treated her made the condition worse not better.
Isaac obtained a post as Manager of a bank in Brighton,  believing the sea air would help Anna to feel better, and they stayed in Sussex for many years. Her brother Phillip grew up and returned to Norfolk, where his grandparents lived. He was a civil engineer, but then gave that up and went into Gurney's Bank [another Quaker enterprise, run by Elizabeth Fry's family] Anna and her parents visited frequently. Philip and his wife Sarah had 7 children, and were guardians of a family of 7 orphans! 
When Sarah died, at 46, whilst her children were still young, Anna and her parents moved back to Norwich, renting a house from Phillip. Anna's leg injury meant she could barely walk, and so went everywhere in horse drawn carriages. She was greatly concerned to see how badly treated horses were, especially the ones owned by the Hansom Cab drivers. Also, she was disturbed by the popularity of the 'bearing rein' . This strap forced the horses head down, creating an arch - it was thought to appear elegant , but caused great discomfort and respiratory problems for the animals. Furthermore, working horses were working every day. Anna believed that as part of God's creation, they deserved their Sabbath Rest as much as their owners.
At the age of 51, confined to her sofa in Norwich, she began writing what she called her 'little book', entitled "Black Beauty - the autobiography of a horse". The tale was told from the point of view of the horse [it is believed that her brother's beautiful mare 'Black Bess' was part of her inspiration] 
It was published [by Jarrolds of Norwich] in 1877 and took Britain by storm. 
People realised how thoughtless and cruel their attitude had been - bearing reins disappeared almost overnight. The RSPCA [founded 50 years before] was quick to recommend this book to a nation which was becoming more aware of the need to care for animals properly.
In the first 125 years since its publication, more than 50 million copies were sold [that's the same number of sales as the WHOLE of the Dickens oeuvre!]
This unassuming, almost housebound, spinster, truly was a dark horse - her writings had a phenomenal impact.
Sadly she died within a year of publication, and did not see the effects of her work. She was buried with her Quaker forebears in Lammas, just outside Norwich.
Her old home[now Grade 2 listed, and called "Anna Sewell House" ] is in Spixworth, near Norwich. 
Phillip is buried alongside his grandparents at Buxton. He bequeathed part of his estate to become 'Sewell Park' for the benefit of the citizens of Norwich. In 1917 one of his daughters put a drinking trough outside,in memory of her aunt and her sister  "This fountain was placed here by Ada Sewell, in memory of her aunt Anna Sewell authoress of Black Beauty and of her sister Edith Sewell, two lovers of animals"
The trough is now planted with flowers [there aren't so many working horses needing a drink there anymore] It's amazing that seeing a picture a horse in Norfolk set me galloping across the internet to find out more. "I suppose" said Bob, "that this means we will have to go on a Sewell Trail next time we're on holiday in Norfolk"  
Yes, dear, I suspect we will...


  1. How interesting! I love all your meandering research trails - I feel quite inspired to reread the novel which I haven't touched for decades... and perhaps to visit Norfolk too. Thanks for sharing your discoveries. Regards, Vicki

    1. Nobody should need an excuse to visit Norfolk- it is a fantastic county with so much to discover and enjoy. Perhaps I could get the Norfolk Tourist Board to sponsor my blog...

  2. Interesting. There is also another Anna Sewell House in Gt Yarmouth, a terraced, timbered cottage near the St Nicholas church, north of the Market Place. I think it's a tea shop.

    1. That sounds worth visiting- especially if it is a tea shop now! Thanks for the information!!

  3. I enjoyed reading Black Beauty when I was younger. My grandmother had a beautiful old copy that lived on her beurau and if I was very careful I was allowed to sit and read it.
    X x

    1. I suspect that years ago BB was one of the 'classics' that all little girls were given as presents. And because children had fewer books, they took good care of them and kept them safely.

  4. I've just discovered, there is a biography of Anna Sewell [by Adrienne Gavin] actually called "Dark Horse" - and there was me thinking I|'d got an original title. Never mind.

  5. I too, have a precious copy of Black Beauty! The message handwritten to my Great, great Grandmother Jessie is dated 1897 I think. It is amazing what an impact that book had on life in England. Good on her I say. How God uses the surprisingly humble people to do such things.x

  6. Surprisingly in the eyes of the world!


Always glad to hear from you - thanks for stopping by!
I am blocking anonymous comments now, due to excessive spam!