Black Beauty, the classic novel by Norfolk author Anna Sewell, was written at the very end of Sewell’s life and published on this day in 1877. The Norfolk Record Office (NRO) has many letters from her to her brother and parents which reveal a deep spiritual faith and an understanding of suffering.
Anna Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth in March 1820, but her father’s business soon took the family to live in London, then Brighton, and other homes in Sussex, Lancing, Hayward’s Heath, Chichester, Gloucester and Bath, before finally returning to live at The White House in Old Catton near Norwich.
Both her parents were from old Quaker families, but her father was not a wealthy man and ill-health trailed both Anna Sewell and her mother all their lives. In April 1840, for example, she writes to her brother Philip, “I have no news to tell thee, but I simply write on mother’s account. Her letter tells me of her cough and cold which continues. Our dearest mother is so distressed” (MC 144/30). She was very close to her brother and begged him often to visit her: “I write to thee and to wish thee a great many blessings for this 25th year that thou art entering upon,” she writes in April 1846 (MC 144/34). “But canst thou not find the time to visit us in Brighton?” (Click for online catalogue link to these letters)
It was probably during her time in London that Anna saw horses being terribly ill-treated. There was a fashion in the nineteenth century for horses to wear a bearing-rein which kept their heads high at all times. It made it impossible for the horse to lower its head for uphill pulls, to correct a stumble or to rest when standing. This caused great pain and physical damage, and shortened the life of the horse. A horse could be flogged, whipped, underfed, exhausted by overwork, or have its tail docked. Cab-horses usually lasted no more than two years.
Anna fell and badly damaged both ankles when she was 14 and for the rest of her life was unable to stand without a crutch or to walk for any length of time. She tried many remedies to improve her health, including being bled by leeches, but it was riding a horse that gave her a sense of freedom and independence.
Adrienne E. Gavin, who wrote Dark Horse, a Life of Anna Sewell (Sutton Publishing, 2004, available at many libraries in Norfolk) says that the book Black Beauty was in some way an expression of gratitude to horses for their “cures” of companionship and freedom.
Anna died in April 1878, just five months after Black Beauty was published by the Norwich firm, Jarrold’s. The book went on to become one of the world’s best-selling novels and helped to change attitudes in the treatment of horses.
These letters are all available to look at for free, just pop in to the Norfolk Record Office during our opening hours.