Ignatius Sancho wrote many of his witty, genial letters to ‘the ringing of the shop-door bell’ at 19 Charles Street in Westminster. He and his wife Anne kept a grocery store selling tobacco, snuff, sugar, rum, soap and other daily supplies, from 1774 until Sancho’s death in 1780. They bought the property with the help of George (Brudenell) Montagu, who had employed Sancho as his personal valet.
In a letter dated 1 November 1773, Sancho looks forward to the opening of his new shop: ‘I verily think the happiest part of my life is to come’. He feels he’ll ‘cut a respectable figure’ as a shopkeeper, especially with his ‘printed cards’ (Letter XV).
Sancho’s trade card
Sancho’s printed card advertises his ‘best Trinidado’, a special blend of tobacco originating in the West Indies. On one side, there is a Native American boy relaxing with a pipe and tankard, while an African boy – probably a slave – collects sugar cane or tobacco. On the other side, a Native American in a feathered headdress strikes a deal with a European trader at a shipping port. Both men stand on a shield decorated with the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of the French Crown.
According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship sailing from Africa to the West Indies. He was brought to England when he was two, and given to three sisters in Greenwich; later on, he was taken in by the Montagu family who made him their butler and valet, before he left them to open the shop. Sancho wrote a number of letters vigorously opposing the slave trade, but this card raises troubling questions about his sale of products which relied on slave labour.
Sancho’s letters are filled with the bustle, gossip and chaos of life in a shop, surrounded by his large family. At times, however, he worries that ‘Trade is duller than I ever knew it ‒ and money scarcer’ (Letter XXXVII).
After his death, the shop passed to Sancho’s son William, who later converted it into a printing and publishing house. In 1803, William published the fifth edition of his father’s Letters.
 See Letter XLI (dated 9 February 1777) in Letters of the Late Ignatio Sancho, an African, ed. by Vincent Carretta (Peterborough, Ontario, 2015).