Dido Elizabeth Belle

Dido Elizabeth Belle: Questions and Answers

Today I welcome back Etienne Daly, with whom I’ve been working for a while now, researching Dido Elizabeth Belle, her life and her family. Today, Etienne is going to provide a quick Q&A session about Dido Elizabeth Belle, to set the record straight about some of the misinformation that still circulates in the public domain. Also, if you want to read more about her, you might like to try using the search option on All Things Georgian which will take you to all the current articles about Dido. I’ll now hand over to Etienne:

Over the past few years, there’s has been growing interest in Dido who is often referred to as Great Britain’s first mixed-race aristocrat. This is partly true as her father, Sir John Lindsay K.B., was an aristocrat and she was raised from five years old in the ‘aristocratic’ environment of both Caenwood (Kenwood) House in Hampstead and Bloomsbury Square in London. Her great uncle and aunt were also part of the elite, with Lord Mansfield being the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Dido received a special upbringing with the Mansfields, that which no person of colour in Western Europe of the time had. Even the Chevalier de St. Georges had to go to school whereas tutors came to the Mansfields to educate their great-nieces. Both cousins were educated equally and amongst their subjects, they were taught French – something that was to aid Dido very well in the future when she met John Louis Daviniere in the early 1790s. He was a Gentleman’s Steward.

Dido became an heiress in Lord Mansfield’s will of 1782 and whilst born in the era of slavery was never born as a slave herself, even though her mother Maria was. Maria was later freed from slavery by Dido’s father, Sir John Lindsay. A lot more interest in Dido would follow but the media has given the impression that there is no more knowledge of her to be found. This is wrong!

Here are some of the answers to most common questions raised about Dido, although I am sure there’s plenty more.

1. Where is the real painting of Dido & Elizabeth?

The real painting of the cousins is at Scone Palace, Perth in Scotland

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.

2. How did Dido die and at what age?

Dido is said to have died of natural causes at the aged of 43, in Pimlico, London

3. Was John Daviniere French or of French descent?

John Louis Daviniere was French, from Ducey in Normandy, France. He came to England in the mid-1780s.

4. What was John Daviniere’s occupation?

Daviniere’s was a Gentleman’s Steward, above head-butler, unlike his occupation in the film, Belle.

Lauren Julien-Box as 'Young Dido' and Matthew Goode as 'Captain Sir John Lindsay' in Amma Asante's BELLE
Lauren Julien-Box as ‘Young Dido’ and Matthew Goode as ‘Captain Sir John Lindsay’ in Amma Asante’s BELLE

5. Was the film ‘Belle’ based on historic accuracy?

The film was based upon the book by Dr Paula Byrne and was very helpful in getting Dido known, but of course, being a film there was some creative licence and more information has emerged over time about her real life

6. Dido bore twins in 1795, one of the twins, John died in infancy – where is he buried?

Although no burial has been found so far, he was most likely buried at St George’s Field

7. What was the exact year and month Dido was born?

Dido was born on 29th June 1761 and in London. Confirmation that she was born in England was provided by Thomas Hutchinson.

The diary and letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson. P276
The diary and letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson. P276
8. Thomas Hutchinson remarked Dido’s hair didn’t match the larger curls now in fashion, did she ever try to relax her?
Most probably, as Hutchinson noted back in 1779 it was lengthened more than short curls. She most probably used pomade by the 1780s onwards to relax her hair finer still.

9. Was Dido really part of the Mansfield family and not a slave?

Dido was very much part of the family, fully educated by them and never raised or treated as a slave. This becomes clear when you read this newspaper article written in 1788 on the death of her father, Sir John Lindsay. It makes it clear how well respected Dido was by both family and visitors to the house.

Derby Mercury - Thursday 12 June 1788
Derby Mercury – Thursday 12 June 1788

10. Did Dido have any siblings?

No, but she did have several half-siblings. Sir John had 4 other children, all by different mothers and all born in Jamaica, one of whom died in infancy. The two who are best known to history were John and Elizabeth.

11. Where was Dido married and in what year?

Dido was married at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square – 5th December 1793, on the same day and at the same church as the 1st Duke of Sussex

The marriage Dido Elizabeth Belle to John Daviniere
The marriage Dido Elizabeth Belle to John Daviniere

12. As she was married by licence who paid for it?

As part of her inheritance, she had her licence paid for by her uncle, 2nd Earl Mansfield. The cost was £200.00. The cost of the licence would have bought you a 3-bedroom property with garden outside the city of London at that time. 

13. It is said her grave was moved along with others to make way for a housing development, is this correct?

The main site was developed, but part of the 1st class plot was not excavated. There’s a blog showing my calculations

14. She is often referred to as black and sometimes mixed race, which one is she?

Dido was mixed race and not black. She had a white father, Sir John Lindsay and a black mother, Maria Bell

A View of Kenwood, the Seat of the Earl of Mansfield, in the county of Middlesex
A View of Kenwood, the Seat of the Earl of Mansfield, in the county of Middlesex. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

15. Was Dido financially secure after she left Caenwood House?

Dido was very secure financially when she left Caenwood House in early April 1793. In fact, she had her own bank account with one of London’s oldest and respected private banks

16. Where did she live after she got married? and for how long?

Dido went to live in Pimlico in a ‘new build’ Georgian house which would of have at least 3 bedrooms, a cook and housemaid. She lived there from 1794 until her death in 1804 

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778.

17. Was Dido well educated like her cousin Elizabeth?

Yes. She was educated in all ladylike pursuits of the era including horse riding and had the same education as her cousin, Elizabeth

18. If Dido was found at St.George’s Fields Burial Ground how could you identify her for sure?

As per question 11, if found she could be identified firstly by DNA, and secondly, in 1791 there remains proof of her having dental work, she had two teeth removed from her lower jaw by a visiting dentist. She could also have been wearing a dress – more of which another time.

19. Was Dido’s father, Sir Lindsay, wealthy?

Yes, definitely. Apart from a naval salary, Sir John made good prize money with his captures in the Caribbean. Also, for example, we know from a newspaper of 1772 that when he returned from India he came back significantly more wealthy than when he left to the tune of around £100,000 (which in today’s money is in the region of 9 million pounds), of course, this may well be a slight exaggeration on the part of the media, but either way it was a significant sum. 

20. What happened to Dido’s mother?

Maria Bell(e) remained in England until around 1774, Sir John purchased land for her in Pensacola where a house was built, No 6 Western Bayfront.

Capture of Minerve off Toulon (wiki)
Capture of Minerve off Toulon (wiki)

21. There was a ship launched in 1784, named HMS Dido, did it have any connection to Dido Elizabeth Belle?

Watch this space as more research into the possibility that it was named after her is in progress, especially as it tied in nicely with it being commissioned  in 1782, around her 21st birthday and her father’s place in high society and his royal connections.