Biographies

Fanny Coker


Biography
Fanny Coker was a freed slave and domestic servant. She was born on 26 August 1767 on Mountravers plantation, Nevis, in the West Indies, the first of five children of Black Polly. Her mother was probably enslaved in Nigeria, aged about twelve, and was the only girl in the first group of nine child slaves purchased by the merchant and planter John Pinney in January 1765 on St Kitts. He earmarked Black Polly as a seamstress and for house service. Fanny was described as a 'mulatto', and her father is believed to have been Pinney's married plantation manager, William Coker. Between 1775 and 1780 Fanny was first trained as a seamstress by Mary Frances, then schooled by Mary Keep with two of Pinney's children. Mary Keep was probably a mason's wife who may have also instructed Fanny in domestic duties and those of a maidservant.

Fanny Coker was manumitted by John Pinney on 15 September 1778, one of the very few slaves whom he freed for reasons other than old age or illness. She remained in service as the maid of Pinney's wife, Jane, and sailed to England in July 1783 with the family and their slave manservant Pero. Fanny left behind her mother, her ten-year-old half-brother Billey Jones (claimed by Black Polly to have been Pinney's son), and her half-sister Hetty, aged two. After staying a few months in London and at William Coker's family home, Woodcuts in Dorset, the Pinneys moved to Bristol and from 1791 lived at 7 Great George Street. Fanny was one of several servants in the household and when Jane Pinney became pregnant she also undertook duties as a nursemaid. Baptized as a three-year-old on Nevis in the Anglican church, Fanny became a member of the Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol. On 10 March 1789 'Frances Coker the descd.t of African ancestors, gave a most intelligent and pleasing acc.t of the work of God upon her soul, and was accepted as a candidate for Baptism'. She was probably re-baptized on 4 August 1789.

In the same year Fanny initially refused to accompany Jane Pinney on a short trip to Nevis but, threatened with dismissal, she sailed with her mistress from Bristol in November. Although John Pinney railed against Fanny's 'ungrateful conduct', 'unaccountable behaviour and cruelty' (letter to Elizabeth Pinney, letterbook 8, 27 Oct 1789), four months later she and Pero were the only servants retained when Pinney, with Pero, also left for Nevis. On her visit Fanny saw for the first time her five-year-old half-brother Cubbenna, and her two-year-old half-sister Molly. In the 1790s they, and Hetty, became field slaves but Hetty later progressed to house slave. Billey was apprenticed to a cooper. Throughout her life Fanny retained her contacts with Nevis. She wrote letters, and sent presents and trading goods to her mother, and cooper's equipment to Billey. Presumably she had friends among the many black Nevisians brought to England as servants, and enjoyed the company of the freed slaves Kate Coker and Polly Weekes on their visits to Bristol in 1785 and 1810-11 respectively.

Fanny frequently accompanied Jane Pinney on her visits to London, Weymouth, Sherborne, and Exeter. She received a regular wage (3 pounds per quarter with washing, 2 pounds 10 shillings. without about 1800), and paid a tithe to the Baptist church. As early as 1802 John Pinney invested money on her behalf, and on his death left her an annuity, provided she remained in his widow's service. After a short illness, Fanny Coker died childless and unmarried on 12 April 1820. According to the Baptist records she had 'lived honourably and died comfortably'. She was buried five days later in the Baptist burial-ground, Redcross Street, Bristol. In 1926 its graves were moved to Greenbank cemetery, Bristol, where a memorial marks the reinterment. In her will she left 80 pounds, a metal watch, clothes, and other goods to her immediate family on Nevis. Her best tea chest was bequeathed to her fellow servant Ann Seymour and she provided 5 pounds for the Baptist Missionary Society. Although her brother Billey Jones died before she did, Fanny was survived by her mother, her other siblings, and fourteen nephews and nieces.

Christine Eickelmann

Broadmead Baptist Church
Broadmead Baptist Church
Podcasts
Fanny Coker
Podcast from the ODNB
Further Reading
Pero: the life of a slave in eighteenth-century Bristol
by Christine Eickelmann and David Small


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