Voices from our Archives: Malvina Wells, c.1805 – 1887
NRS Registration casework officer Rachael Lloyd looked more deeply into intriguing entries in our registers and uncovered a surprising tale of slavery, service and freedom in nineteenth century Scotland…
Malvina Wells was born around 1805, on the Island of Carriacou in Grenada. She was born into slavery, and although she will have been far from the only slave who ended their life in Scotland, hers is the only known grave in Edinburgh of someone born enslaved.
Sometime before 1851, Malvina arrived in Edinburgh with a family by the name of Macrae. The Macraes were an extremely well-connected family, of whom we will hear more later.
According to the 1851 census, Malvina, aged 48, lived at 33 Great King’s Street, Edinburgh in the household of John Anthony Macrae, his wife Joanna Isabella, aged 36 and four of their children including Jessidora aged two and Horatio aged four. Malvina’s birthplace is given as Grenada, as is Joanna Macrae’s.
She was a lady’s maid, one of seven servants. A lady’s maid was a high ranking servant who took precedence at the servant’s table, and whose duties included attending to her mistress’s toilette and appearance.
NRS, 1851 Census, 1851/685-01/168, page 8
John Macrae was a Writer to the Signet. (The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet is an association of Scottish solicitors) Macrae’s father was Colin Macrae, a merchant and planter in Demerara. He married Joanna Isabella Maclean, daughter of John Maclean, in the Island of Carriacou, West Indies.
By the 1861 census, Malvina was responsible for her own household, and living not far away at 42 Thistle Street. She is described as an annuitant (someone who was receiving a yearly allowance of some kind) and has taken in a boarder: a 40-year-old dressmaker named Mary Johnston.
NRS, 1861 Census, 1861/685-02/10, page 4
Ten years later in the 1871 census, Malvina was enumerated at 2 Randolph Street as a domestic servant to the Gordon family. The household included Edward Strathearn Gordon, his wife Agnes Joanna Gordon and their children, as well as four other servants. Edward’s occupation is so descriptive it barely fits in the prescribed box: ‘Member of parliament, (advocate), Dean of Faculty, QC, LL.B, Landowner’. He was also Baron Gordon of Drumearn, and a rather unflattering Vanity Fair cartoon of him hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Agnes’s birthplace is Grenada, West Indies.
NRS, 1871 Census, 1871/685-01/61, page 1
We can only speculate as to why Malvina moved from running her own household to becoming a servant again. Was her yearly allowance not enough to keep her independent, or was it the ties to the Macraes (whether by bond of friendship or servitude) that sent her to the Gordon household? What links, if any, did the Macraes have to the Gordons?
The clue is in the birthplaces of Joanna Macrae and Agnes Joanna Gordon. They, like Malvina, were born in Grenada and shared a name: Joanna. A bit of family history detective work on our ScotlandsPeople website uncovered the link. The key to finding it was in the wonderfully detailed Scottish statutory death registers, available to view online worldwide.
- Joanna Isbaella Macrae (nee MacLean) died in 1890 at 14 Gloucester Place, Edinburgh aged 74. The entry in statutory register of deaths for the district of …. gives her father as John MacLean, a ‘West Indian proprietor’ and her mother was – before her two marriages – Jessie Urquhart.
- Agnes Joanna Gordon (nee MacInnes) died in 1895 at Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh. The entry in the statutory register of deaths for the district of … gives her parents were John MacInnes, a ‘Landed Proprietor’, and Isabella Urquhart.
Their fathers’ occupations are suggestive of a deeper connection to the slave trade, but their more immediate connection is blood.
Their mothers, Jessie and Isabella Urquhart, were sisters. Their death records show that their parents were Thomas Urquhart, an established church minister in the parish of Rosskeen, and Joanna Clunes (or Clunas).
[NRS 685-01/1865/642 and NRS 443/1876/38]
This makes Joanna Macrae and Agnes Gordon cousins, which explains how Malvina came to be serving in the Gordon household in 1871 – tangled in a web of maternal family ties. These three women, whose origins stemmed from far off Carriacou, were now in Edinburgh and inextricably linked, whether willingly or not.
By the 1881 census, the women were to be found together at 14 Gloucester Place, headed by Joanna Macrae, now 66 and an annuitant. Living alongside were her unmarried sister Dorothea and her daughter Jessidora, now aged 32. All were of independent means. Downstairs, five female servants kept the seventeen-roomed house in order: two lady’s maids, a cook, a house maid and a table maid.
At 75, Malvina’s duties as lady’s maid must have been light, and perhaps she was mostly a companion to Joanna. At this point, they had been together for at least thirty years.
NRS, 1881 Census, 1881/685-02/62, page 28
Malvina died on 22 April 1887, aged 82 years old at 14 Gloucester Place, the Macrae family home. She died of heart disease – present at her death was Horatio Macrae, who acted as informant. No mother is listed on her death entry but her father is named as John Wells, a deceased ‘West Indian planter’.
Further clues to her origins come from her Testament, which she wrote on 9 April 1873, from 46 Cumberland Street, Edinburgh, an address which was owned and occupied by Colin George Macrae at this time, of Macrae & Flett, 32 Young Street.
[NRS, VR100/98, page 241]
She bequeaths ‘to Matilda Goulton daughter of my sister Frances Goulton the sum of five pounds. To John Wells Goulton son of my sister the said Frances Goulton five pounds. To the young man in the Island of Grenada who sends me the newspapers periodically five pounds’. The remainder of her estate she leaves to ‘Colin George Macrae, Horatio Ross Macrae and Jessidora Macrae, children of Mrs Joanna Isabella Maclean or Macrae’.
Given that her estate, according to the inventory, amounted to £622 14 shillings(s) 9 pence(d) – which is worth roughly £68,000 in today’s money – this is not an inconsiderable bequest. Horatio Ross Macrae is named her executor, representing her from the family firm Macrae & Flett.’Law Agents and Conveyancers in Edinburgh’.
Her inventory lists a number of shrewd investments she made in her lifetime, including overseas. Clearly having a valued position in the moneyed Macrae family, with their high profile links to law, land and society was beneficial to Malvina’s finances, but it’s interesting to note that the bulk of it ended up back with them. Perhaps it’s a testament to the debt of gratitude she owed them, or to her strength of feeling to Joanna and her offspring.
[NRS, SC70/4/225, page 878]
[NRS, SC70/1/259, page 567]
Of Malvina’s biological family, we know very little. Frustratingly, no trace could be found of Frances Goulton, her sister, or Matilda and John Wells Goulton, her niece and nephew, so they remain shadowy figures in our story. But we know at least that they were in Malvina’s thoughts, and that she maintained links to her homeland through the Grenada paper boy.
To understand more about Malvina’s beginnings, and her connection to the Macraes, we need to go back a little further in time to find her on the slave register which is held by The National Archives in London.
Malvina can be found in the slave register for 1817 on Grand Bay estate, Carriacou, aged 13, in lawful possession of George McLean. She is described as ‘mulatto’. This usually indicated a white father and black mother (who was presumably also a slave.)
[The National Archives of the UK (TNA): T 71/267 pp. 227-230.]
George MacLean was none other than the brother of John McLean, Joanna Macrae’s father. The brothers were notable slave-owners on Carriacou.
So it is clear that Malvina’s life began in slavery and ended in servitude to the same family. She knew no other life, she perhaps did not even know her own mother. Her life was inextricably entwined to this extended knot of Scottish landowners, and particularly to Joanna. At some point, certainly by abolition in 1833, she was freed.
Malvina is buried in the Peace Garden at St John’s Church not far from the places in the New Town where she lived and worked. Her monument is at the foot of a larger one for the Macrae family. Both are well maintained.
The inscription is faint but still readable:
Carriacou West Indies
Died at Edinburgh
22 April 1887
Aged 82 years
For upwards of 70 years
Servant and Friend
In the Family of
(Painting is believed to be a close up from a portrait to depict Malvina Wells)
National Records of Scotland
 History of the Clan Macrae, with Genealogies, 1899, MacRae, Alexander. NRS library, F 438.000 pages 116 and 120.
 UCL, George McLean, The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, viewed 29 November 2019