Anna Sewell was born in Great Yarmouth the daughter of Isaac and Mary (nee Wright) Sewell.
Mary Sewell was born at Sutton in Suffolk, the daughter of a Quaker farmer and was educated first in a dame school, then by a governess and finally at a Quaker boarding school in Tottenham, London. During her childhood, her father sold his farm and moved his family to Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth where he worked at shipbuilding. However, her father returned to farming in Buxton, near Aylsham in Norfolk, after losing his money in a packet-steamship project, which had failed. The family were active in the Great Yarmouth Quaker community, which included the parents of Isaac Sewell as Elders. Mary Wright had married Isaac, in 1819, at Lammas Quaker Meeting House near Aylsham.
Mary and Isaac Sewell set up home in Church Plain in Great Yarmouth, where Anna was born in 1820, but they left the town for London soon after her birth, as Isaac was in financial difficulties. There, the shop he set up was also unsuccessful and Mary hated living in the city. After the birth of their son, Philip, in 1822, her health was such that she was advised to move out of the city, into the country. They went first to Hackney, then to Dalston, where they remained for ten years, with Isaac earning a modest living as a commercial traveller for a lace company. Because of a lack of money for schooling, the children were largely educated at home by their mother. Mary Sewell wrote her first book to buy educational works to help her in this task; she received three pounds for it. The family had moved to Stoke Newington where the children started school. This gave Mary time to be involved in anti-slavery campaigns and visiting the poor. However, Anna’s fall on a wet pavement at the age of 14 years damaged both her ankles and led to permanent lameness. This meant that Mary became Anna’s nurse. She sought possible cures for her daughter, but to no avail. For greater mobility, Anna Sewell frequently used horse-drawn carriages, which contributed to her love of horses and concern for the humane treatment of animals.
In 1836, Isaac became a bank manager and they moved to Brighton. Over the next 20 years, they moved around Sussex and then to Gloucester, where Mary was baptised into the Church of England, but wherever they lived, she was always involved in helping the poor (although they were not a wealthy family), in mothers’ meetings, working men’s institutes, prison visiting and the temperance movement.
Mary Sewell’s strong belief in moral education for children led to her career as a successful author. She admired the great poets, but made no such claim for herself, although her works were mainly written in verse. In 1858, the publishers of Jane Eyre issued her first major book, Homely Ballads for the Working Man’s Fireside, which was very popular. So, she followed it with The Children of Summerbrook, which Jarrold of Norwich published in 1859. Jarrold published all her subsequent books, written in verse or as ballads, but her prose work, Patience Hart’s First Experience in Service, was the greatest success. This book was about a country- bred girl going to London, which reflected the situation of many young girls at the time.
Anna Sewell’s brother, Philip, had worked as an engineer in Spain for a number of years, but returned to England to live in Norwich with his wife and family. In 1866, his wife died, leaving him to care for his seven children, so Mary Sewell decided she, Isaac and Anna should move back to Norfolk in order to help him. In 1867, they moved to the White House in Catton, Norwich. Mary Sewell wrote no further books, but cared for her immediate family, visited her siblings at Buxton and continued her charitable interests.
By now, Anna Sewell was confined to bed or a sofa, but had started to write Black Beauty, either dictating to her mother or writing outline notes, which her mother transcribed. The novel was published by Jarrold, who paid £40 for it, in 1877. Anna Sewell was in extreme pain and completely bedridden for several months, and she died on 25th April 1878 from hepatitis or tuberculosis, only five months after the publication of Black Beauty. She was buried on 30th April 1878 at the Quaker burial-ground in Lamas.
Although Black Beauty is now considered a children's classic (one of the top ten best-selling novels for children ever written), Anna Sewell originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said a special aim was to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding of the treatment of horses. In many respects the book can be read as a guide to horse husbandry, stable management and humane training practices for colts. It is considered to have had an effect on reducing cruelty to horses; for example, the use of bearing-
reins, which are particularly painful for a horse, was one of the practices highlighted in the novel, and in the years after the book's release the reins became less popular and fell out of favour.
In 1984, the graveyard at Lamas was bulldozed and the gravestones of Anna Sewell, her parents and maternal grandparents were subsequently placed in a flint-and-brick wall outside the old Lammas Quaker meeting house. There is an Anna Sewell memorial fountain and horse trough outside the public library in Ansonia, Connecticut in the United States of America (1892) and a memorial fountain to Anna Sewell is located at the junction of Constitution Hill and St. Clement's Hill in Norwich (1917).