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  Anna Sewell (1820–1878), by unknown photographer Anna Sewell (1820–1878), by unknown photographer
Sewell, Anna (1820–1878), author, was born on 30 March 1820 at 26 Church Plain, Yarmouth, Norfolk, the elder of the two children of Isaac Sewell (1793–1878), draper, and his wife, , writer, daughter of John Wright and his wife, Ann. Her parents were both from old Norfolk Quaker families and she was raised in the Quaker faith. Sewell's life began and ended in Norfolk but in between was slightly peripatetic. A move to London soon after her birth culminated in her father's business failure in 1822, the year Anna's brother, Philip, was born. Her father's succeeding positions, including travelling in Nottingham lace and many years in banking, contributed to further moves the family made. London homes in Dalston (1822–32) and Stoke Newington (1832–6) were followed by a period in Brighton (1837–45) and a series of homes in Sussex: in Lancing (1845–9), Haywards Heath (1849–53), and Graylingwell, near Chichester (1853–8). The Sewells moved to Abson, near Wick in Gloucestershire, in 1858 and to Bath in 1864. Sewell's last years (1867–78) were spent in the White House, Old Catton, near Norwich.

Sewell was educated at home by her mother until she was about twelve, when she began attending a day school in Stoke Newington. She had an early interest in natural history and a talent for drawing, and her mother schooled her in independence, obedience, and self-denial. Her school education ended and what her mother called her ‘life of constant frustration’ (Mrs Bayly, 71) began when, aged about fourteen, she slipped and fell while running home from school in the rain, injuring both her ankles. Possibly mismanaged in its treatment, the injury to her ankles led to a lameness which, although varying in its severity, was permanent and meant that at times she could not walk outside or stand for very long. She also suffered from a debilitating invalidism which varied in its intensity but remained with her for life characterized at times by pains in her chest, loss of strength in her back, and a ‘weakness’ in her head leading to periods of ‘enforced idleness’ (Mrs Bayly, 245). Cures were sought, including hydropathic treatment, in England and abroad.

Sewell never married or had children and, apart from periods at spas or visiting relatives on a family farm in Norfolk, she always lived with her parents. It was in Norfolk that she learned to ride and drive the horses upon which her lameness made her reliant. She and her mother were extremely close. Both were heavily involved in practical charity to help the poor and became involved with the temperance movement. Anna taught Sunday school as her health permitted and founded a working men's evening institute in Wick at which she and her mother taught. In her sixties, Mary Sewell achieved some literary fame on publication of a series of didactic ballads and prose works for workers and children. Anna read and edited her mother's work before publication and was regarded as ‘a very severe critic’ (Mrs Bayly, 248). Her niece described Anna as ‘no mean artist’. ‘Practical, critical, and far-seeing’, with ‘a very high moral standard’, she was ‘mercilessly honest’ and ‘quite fearless’, skilled at driving horses and indignantly vocal when she saw cruelty to animals (M. Sewell, 2–5).

Sewell was above all deeply religious. Retaining many Quaker-influenced beliefs throughout her life, she left the Quakers at the age of eighteen. After 1836, when physically able to, she joined her mother in attending, without joining, various protestant denominations. She suffered periods of religious doubt and at times struggled with her faith but those who knew her regarded her as a remarkably patient and uncomplaining sufferer whose physical pain was concealed under a face radiant with faith: ‘in her presence one had a feeling of being on holy ground’ (Mrs Bayly, 255–6).

Sewell's only publication was Black Beauty, written intermittently from 1871 to 1877 at a time when her health further declined, and she was confined to the house and her sofa. In the early period of writing the novel she dictated to her mother from the sofa on which she lay; in 1876 she was able to write in pencil on slips of paper which her mother transcribed. The novel was sold to her mother's publishers, Jarrold & Sons, for an outright payment of £40 and published as Black Beauty: his grooms and companions; the autobiography of a horse, ‘Translated from the Original Equine, by Anna Sewell’, on 24 November 1877 when Anna was fifty-seven. Now a children's classic, the novel was originally written for those who worked with horses, ‘its special aim’, Sewell wrote, ‘being to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’ (Mrs Bayly, 272). It has been seen as instrumental in leading to the abolition of the bearing-rein.

Anna Sewell has been neglected by history. In ironic contrast, her only book has achieved phenomenal success. Pirated in America in 1890, its sales broke publishing records. It is said to be ‘the sixth best seller in the English language’ (Chitty in Wells and Grimshaw, x). Sewell lived just long enough to know of her novel's early success. She died at the White House of hepatitis or phthisis on 25 April 1878 just five months after its publication. She was buried on 30 April 1878 in the Quaker burial-ground in Lammas near Norwich.

Adrienne E. Gavin


A. Gavin, A dark horse: the life of Anna Sewell (2004) · S. Chitty, The woman who wrote ‘Black Beauty’ (1971) · Mrs Bayly, The life and letters of Mrs Sewell (1889) [biography of mother] · M. Sewell, ‘Recollections of Anna Sewell by her niece’, in A. Sewell, Black Beauty (1935), 1–6 · A. A. Dent, ‘Miss Sewell of Norfolk’, East Anglian Magazine, 15 (1955–6), 542–7 · M. J. Baker, Anna Sewell and ‘Black Beauty’ (1956) · E. B. Wells and A. Grimshaw, The annotated ‘Black Beauty’ (1989) · A. Sewell, Black Beauty, ed. P. Hollindale, new edn (1992) · R. Engen, ‘Afterword’, in A. Sewell, Black Beauty (1986), 214–29 · W. T. F. Jarrold, ‘Appreciation and life of author’, in A. Sewell, Black Beauty (1912), 1–12 · V. Starrett, ‘Black Beauty and its author’, Buried Caesars: essays in literary appreciation (1923), 205–23 · E. B. Bayly, ‘Memoir’, in M. Sewell, Poems and ballads (1886), vii–xxvi · d. cert.


Norfolk RO, corresp.


J. Beer, oils, 1894?, repro. in Dent, ‘Miss Sewell of Norfolk’ · oils, repro. in A. Sewell, Black Beauty, new edn. (1935) · photograph, repro. in Bayly, Life and letters, facing p. 244 [see illus.] · photograph (with her mother), repro. in Chitty, The woman who wrote ‘Black Beauty’ · photograph, repro. in Dent, ‘Miss Sewell of Norfolk’, following p. 542 · photographs and oils, repro. in Gavin, A dark horse

Wealth at death  

under £2000: probate, 9 Aug 1878, CGPLA Eng. & Wales