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1848: Railway porter and ex slave was 'highly respected' in Haywards Heath

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Many thanks to Mike Anton for researching and providing this fascinating story about the earliest days of the Railways at Haywards Heath.....

A fascinating report was spotted by chance whilst researching the British Newspaper Archive. It concerned the passing of a black porter at Haywards Heath station in 1848.

“We are sorry to notice the death of the black porter at the Hayward’s Heath Station, on Monday last. The poor fellow was taken from a slave ship off the African coast in 1839 by Captain Preston, who commanded the Electra, after which ship he named him. His steady habits as a porter rendered him highly respected, and as a proof of the religious feeling inculcated by the education he received from his gallant patron, he was never known to return home, no matter how late, or how tired he might be, but he invariably turned to his bible. He was followed to the grave by Captain, Mrs and Miss Preston.”

Who was this man and how did he end his days working at Haywards Heath railway station? Cue some detective work by the Cuckfield Connections team which led to more unexpected discoveries.

Firstly, who was Captain Preston? Further investigation on the BNA site found various accounts of a Commander William Preston capturing a Portuguese vessel called the Diligente off the South American coast in December 1838. On board were 202 slaves. Slavery had finally been abolished in the UK in 1833 but contemporary reports show the slave trade was still active across the Atlantic.

Now with more clues available it was a case of tracking these individuals and establishing how they ended up in Haywards Heath.

Borde Hill House was put up for sale in 1840 and at some point Captain Preston brought it, presumably when he finished his commission in the Royal Navy. A report in the Brighton Gazette on 29 December 1842 reports his kindliness.

“We are much pleased at having to record the kind actions of Captain Preston R.N., of Borde Hill, towards his poorer neighbours. With his usual generosity he has distributed among them a large quantity of provision, potatoes and firewood, which, at this seas, were highly acceptable.

Preston’s father was Admiral d’Arcy Preston, a distinguished Royal Naval officer, who eventually retired as the Deputy-Lieutenant and magistrate for the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire ( In 1833 William married Hamilla Mary Mangles, the daughter of Ross Donnelly Mangles, the MP for Guildford and they went on to have three children.

William followed in his father’s footsteps and became a magistrate in Cuckfield before suddenly passing away on 12 December 1851. He is buried in All Saints Church, Lindfield.

So this leaves our still unidentified porter. Inspired deduction eventually identified him as John Electra and he was found in the 1835 – 1857 Merchant Seamen records held in the National Archive.

The Cuckfield parish Burial Register confirms one final sad detail, his age.

It appears he was abducted at a young age and then spent at least 4 years at sea. We have to assume that he arrived in England sometime in early 1846, and got in contact with William Preston who very possibly gave him accommodation and secured him a job with the London & Brighton Railway Company.

Whilst we probably won’t ever know his full story it does appear to be one of suffering and drama, leading to possibly the first person of colour being identified as living and working in the Haywards Heath area.

Mike Anton

We encourage anyone with a story about Cuckfield, Haywards Heath and all nearby Mid Sussex Villages to contact us so that we can share our rich and fascinating local history

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