Norwich History. How the wisdom and story of Black Beauty led to sweeping reforms in the Victorian era. The story of Anna Sewell.

No, Harry, I am very serious. I am ashamed to see how men go on that ought to know better. An election is a very serious thing; at least it ought to be, and every man ought to vote according to his conscience, and let his neighbour do the same.

Quite a pertinent quote, I thought as I read Black Beauty with my daughter. She has been asked to read a book from the Victorian era for her homework.

I have never read it before, even though I live opposite Sewell Park in Norwich and round the corner from where it was written. So it’s about time.

C36D58AF-7D48-44F1-A7FE-064C6F66BD1BThe story is now in the top ten of best selling childrens books of ALL TIME, and yet Anna Sewell didn’t write it for children, she wrote it for adults.

She said that her purpose of writing the novel was “to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses”.

Her story, which includes many sad tales of cruelty and hardship for horses, led to a huge outpouring of concern for animal welfare at the time.  It was instrumental in the abolition of many cruel practices mentioned in the book and almost each chapter has a moral point to make about kindness and how to treat others.

That’s why, in my blog , Anna Sewell definitely deserves a mention as one of Norwich’s fine people.


Anna Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth to a Quaker family. When her father’s business failed, they moved around the country. Anna and her brother Philip were regularly sent to stay with their grandparents as life was very hard.

At 14 years old, Anna slipped and severely injured both ankles. For the rest of her life she couldn’t stand without a crutch or walk for any length of time. She became dependent on horses for transport.

In 1866, her sister in law died leaving Anna’s brother Philip with 6 young children. The family moved to Old Catton near Norwich to help him. It was there that Anna wrote the manuscript for Black Beauty. During this time her health deteriorated, she was often confined to her bed while her mother transcribed the book.  Anna sold the novel to Norwich publisher Jarrold’s in 1877 for a single payment of £40. She died 5 months later.

Black Beauty Synopsis

B9BD80E5-12FE-49C2-8014-D607B7B91430Anna broke literary ground by being one of the first authors to narrate a story in the first person, but from an animal’s point of view.  She called it ‘an autobiography of a horse’.

Black Beauty started life happily in an orchard belonging to a wealthy family. Through his life he was sold for various reasons until he ended up as a London cab horse. After a bad fall, his knees were damaged and he was sold onwards to various cruel owners.  Along the way he meets other horses, including Captain who was a war horse, Ginger who dies through sheer hard work and starvation and Rob Roy who was shot after he fell and broke his leg during a hunting incident.

This is not a happy-go-lucky children’s book and I found myself explaining about war, religion, humanity, cruelty and kindness to my 8 year old daughter.  There are good reasons why some books are called Classics.


Anna’s book led to global awareness of animal cruelty and public interest in anti-cruelty legislation grew.  Her writing helped to abolish the use of a checkrein, or bearing rein;  a strap used to keep horses heads high. It was fashionable in Victorian England but painful and damaging to a horses neck.

The book describes conditions among London horse taxi cab drivers including the financial hardship caused by high licence fees and low, legally fixed fares. After the book was published, the taxicab licence fee was reduced.

Animal rights activists would habitually distribute copies of the novel to horse drivers and people working in stables.

Anna Sewell – A Fine Person

After this we continued our journey, and as they got out of the cab, our friend was saying, “My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.

Anna was brought up as a Quaker and almost each chapter of Black Beauty has a moral tale to tell. I was particularly amazed at how she could take the issues of her era and capture them in just 2-3 pages of succinct story-telling with such impact.  In my personal view, every adult should read this book – and it should be on the school curriculum. We may live in a different era, but the lessons are just as valid today.

There is a memorial fountain outside the gates to Sewell Park along with a plaque and a horse trough which now has flowers growing in it. Maddie and I thought it looked sadly neglected and that we should have more dedicated to this fine author – whose words moved people to action across the country.




Published by EJHumphries

Writer, journalist, blogger and communications specialist. Mum of three beauties.

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