Themes and Characters

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Sewell wrote Black Beauty to expose the widespread mistreatment of horses. She depicts horses that receive good care as well as those who are abused. The contrasts in the horses' personalities are sometimes startling. Three forms of cruelty come to light: deliberate cruelty, cruelty in the name of fashion, and cruelty committed in ignorance. On several occasions, innocent bystanders intercede on behalf of an abused horse, illustrating the idea that preventing cruelty to animals is everyone's responsibility. Sewell is particularly appalled at the common practice of using a device called a bearing rein (or checkrein) to prevent the horse from lowering his head.

Black Beauty's main equine companions are Ginger and Merrylegs. Ginger is a high-tempered horse whose training and temperament contrast sharply with Black Beauty's. She is badtempered largely because of the mistreatment she suffered when young, while Black Beauty is good-tempered largely because he enjoyed good treatment when young. And even Ginger, with all her problems, eventually quiets down during her time at Birtwick Hall, because of the calming effect of the humane treatment that she receives there. Merrylegs is a pony who, like Black Beauty, embodies the good results of humane treatment. Other major horse characters include Sir Oliver, whose tail was cut off when he was a colt, and Captain, a former cavalry horse.

The main human characters are Black Beauty's first owner, whose name is never revealed; his second owner, Squire Gordon, of Birtwick Hall; John Manly and little Joe Green, the grooms at Birtwick Hall; and the cabby Jerry Barker and his family. These kind and knowledgeable people strive to treat their horses well, and their horses show the good results of their kind treatment.

The cruel humans are all minor characters, including the various carters who are chastised for deliberately abusing their horses. Two of the more important animal abusers are Samson Ryder, a horse trainer, and Nicholas Skinner, a cab owner. Ryder first trained Ginger, causing her bad temper. Skinner eventually obtains Black Beauty, whom he hires out along with many tired, old horses at rates so high that cabbies must overwork the horses in order to earn a living. He never gives his horses a day off, proclaiming, "My plan is to work 'em as long as they'll go, and then to sell 'em for what they'll fetch, at the knacker's or elsewhere."

Another of Black Beauty's themes is the difficulty of a cab driver's life in general, and the particular difficulty of dealing with the hypocrisy of churchgoers who use a cab to get to church. At the time that Black Beauty was written, keeping the Sabbath—that is, not working on Sunday—was something that many people thought was important. People who hired cabs to go to church on Sunday were, while keeping the Sabbath themselves, having the cabbies who drove them to church break their own Sabbath. In what may have been either a journal entry or an unfinished letter, Sewell wrote of a conversation she had with a cab driver, and her resulting intention to portray the problem of hypocrisy in Sabbath keeping. In this piece of writing, she relates the cab driver's story of a friend whose churchgoing passengers were actually so blatantly hypocritical as to hand the cab driver a tract on keeping the Sabbath as they got out of his cab on their way to Sunday services.


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Lady Anne

Black Beauty is Lady Anne’s riding horse for a while at Earlshall Park, but she calls him Black Auster.

Dolly Barker

Dolly is the eight-year-old daughter of Jerry, the cab driver who owned Beauty. Dolly would bring food to her father at the cab stand.

Harry Barker

Harry is Jerry the cab driver’s twelve-year-old son. Harry capably helped with the care of the horses.

Jeremiah Barker

Jeremiah, called Jerry, was Beauty’s owner for three years. Jerry is a kindly and decent London cab driver. Jerry takes excellent care of his horses and does not believe that either he or they should work seven days a week. He is Sewell’s example of honesty and integrity in the working class and is the character she uses to express a number of moral lessons. Jerry finds reward in a job well done and is always willing to perform acts of charity. He loves his wife and children dearly and does not linger in taverns as the other drivers do, since he has been a teetotaler for ten years. When Jerry becomes so ill that he can no longer work as a cab driver, he sells Beauty to a friend he thinks will treat Beauty well.

Polly Barker

Polly is the wife of Jerry Barker. Polly is a merry, kindly woman who provides loving care to all around her. Her former employer thinks so highly of Polly that she keeps in touch through the years and offers Jerry a job and the family a home when Jerry has to give up his cab business.

Mr. Barry

Mr. Barry is one of Black Beauty’s owners after his knees are ruined. Mr. Barry is a gentleman who must rely on grooms to take care of Beauty, but after two dishonest grooms, he gives up on having his own horse and sells Beauty.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty is the narrator of the novel and is a “well bred and well born” handsome black horse with one white foot and a white star on his forehead. The character is possibly based on Sewell’s brother’s beautiful carriage horse Black Bess, or Bessie. Black Beauty is the son of a wise older mare named Duchess and the grandson of the winner of a famous race. Following his mother’s advice always to be good of heart and a hard worker, Beauty encounters a variety of good and bad owners and grooms, as well as enjoyable and miserable jobs during his life as a horse in Victorian England. Through Beauty and the other horses he meets, the reader learns about the mistreatment that horses often endure and the difficult nature of some of the work imposed on horses. The character of Beauty is Sewell’s device for making the public more aware of the need for more humane treatment of horses and other animals.

Beauty has a good start in life under the skillful care of Farmer Grey, then enjoys a happy time at Birtwick Park where his master is a knowledgeable advocate of humane treatment for horses. But that master must leave England, and Beauty’s life takes a downward spiral, thanks to a drunken groom who ruins Beauty’s knees in an accident. Fashion dictates that a blemished horse cannot pull a carriage, so Beauty begins an odyssey through a series of middle and lower class labors. While he enjoys three years with a wonderful cab driver, the work is hard and debilitating. Fate sends him to even harder work where he collapses and is almost sent to the slaughterhouse, but is fortunate instead to be sold to a farmer who rehabilitates Beauty’s health and finds him a pleasant home for the rest of his life.

The people and horses that Beauty meets in each of his jobs all have stories to tell that illuminate the situation of horses in that time period and reveal the natures of the people who are charged with their care. Beauty’s gentility and goodness, even during hard times, make him an enduring favorite among readers.


Blantyre is a guest at Earlshall Park and is riding Beauty when Lady Anne has an accident. He sends a workman and Beauty for help, and later praises Beauty.

Ellen Blomefield

Ellen is one of Black Beauty’s last owner. She and her sister employ Joe Green.

Miss Lavinia Blomefield

With her sister Ellen, Lavinia is Black Beauty’s last owner and Joe Green’s employer.

Mr. Blomefield

Mr. Blomefield is the vicar at Birkwick. He buys Merrylegs and hires Joe Green when the Gordons leave England.

The Butcher

The purpose of the character of the butcher is to give another example of a business owner who must cater to thoughtless customers and whose horse suffers as a consequence.


Captain is Beauty’s companion as a cab horse at Jerry Barker’s. Captain was in the cavalry during the Crimean War, and tells Beauty of his experiences as a horse in combat. Captain is injured in an accident caused by a drunk drayman and must then be put down.

Prince Charlie

Prince Charlie is a coster-boy whom Jerry nicknamed because of the loving relationship he has with his cart pony that will one day make him a king of drivers.


Duchess is Black Beauty’s mother. She was named Duchess but was often called “Pet” by Farmer Grey because she was so amiable. An old horse, she advised Black Beauty to be gentle and good, to do his work with a good will, and never bite or kick.

Lord George

When Ginger refuses to wear the bearing rein at Earlshall Park, she is given to young Lord George for hunting, but he ruins her with hard riding.


Ginger is a tall, chestnut mare with a “long handsome neck.” Ginger is ill-tempered from having been poorly treated. Beauty first met her at Birtwick Park, and they are sold together to Earlshall Park. There, Ginger rebels against the bearing rein, so she is used as a hunter. Ruined with hard riding, Ginger is put to pasture for a year to attempt a recovery but never completely regains her health and goes through a series of owners until she is reduced to being one of Skinner’s cab horses. Beauty finds Ginger so overworked and abused she wants to die. Soon after, Beauty sees her tortured body being carted away.

Miss Flora Gordon

Flora is one of Squire Gordon’s two daughters at Birtwick Hall.

Miss Jessie Gordon

Jessie is one of Squire Gordon’s two daughters at Birtwick Hall.

Mrs. Gordon

Mrs. Gordon is the wife of Squire Gordon. She named Black Beauty. It was her illness that caused the Gordons to leave England and sell all their horses.

Squire Gordon

Squire Gordon is the owner of Birtwick Park. Squire Gordon is Black Beauty’s first owner when he is old enough to be sold away from Farmer Grey’s. The Squire is a good man who is known for his advocacy of kind treatment for horses.

Governor Grey Grant

Governor Grant is a fellow cab driver and friend of Jerry Barker. He is peacemaker and advisor for all the cab drivers. Grant helps out when Jerry is sick and buys Hotspur when the Barkers leave London.

Joe Green

Joe Green is the stable boy who replaces James Howard at Birtwick Hall. Joe nearly kills Black Beauty by putting him up improperly after a hard ride but later learns good horse care. Joe reports a man for beating two horses, and the man is jailed as a result. Joe and Merrylegs go to live at the Vicar’s when the Gordons leave England. Still working for two of the Blomefield sisters when Beauty happens to be bought by them, Joe recognizes Beauty from Birtwick and rejoices to find him again.

Farmer Grey

Until he is four years old, Black Beauty resides in the meadow of Farmer Grey, who carefully breeds and trains quality horses.


Hotspur is the horse that replaces Captain in Jerry’s stable. He is bought by Governor Grant when Jerry moves to the country.

James Howard

James is the stable boy at Birtwick Hall who saved Beauty and Ginger from a barn fire. James is so good with horses that Squire Gordon and John Manly recommend him to be the head groom at another estate. James is then replaced by Joe Green.


Jakes is the foreman for the baker to whom Jerry sells Beauty. Jake responds to the admonition of a lady who begs him to take the bearing rein off Beauty when pulling a heavy load.


At Birtwick Hall, Beauty sometimes chats with Justice, the strong, good-tempered roan cob used for riding or the luggage cart.

John Manly

John Manly is the coachman for Birtwick Hall. He is an expert at and advocate of good care for horses. He gives wise advice to James Howard before advancing his career, and trains Joe to be a good groom. John Manly is one of the first characters that Sewell uses to voice moral opinions.


Amiable Merrylegs is the fat gray pony who plays with the children at Birtwick Park but will not tolerate bad behavior. This character is possibly based on Sewell’s own favorite gray pony. Merrylegs goes to the Vicar’s with Joe Green when the Gordons move away.

Old Ba-a-ar Hoo

Old Ba-a-ar Hoo is an old gentleman who delivers coal and is proof, Jerry says, that a horse can be happy even in a poor place if properly treated.

Sir Oliver

Sir Oliver is an older, brown horse at Birkwick Hall. He has a shortened tail that was cut to meet a demand of fashion. His story leads to a discussion of the tail and ear clippings on dogs.


Peggy is a pretty, dappled brown mare who works with Beauty at the livery stable. Peggy has an awkward gait because of short legs and mishandling by bad drivers. A gentle horse, Peggy is fortunate to be sold to some ladies for country driving and given a good life.


Beauty is paired with Rory at the livery stable until they are involved in a carriage accident that disables Rory and sends him to work pulling a coal cart.

Seedy Sam

Seedy Sam is a cab driver who works for the disreputable Nicholas Skinner. He describes to Jerry the wretched lives that men and horses have who must work on shares for owners like Skinner and the compromises he feels he must make to earn a living. Sam dies from overwork.

Nicholas Skinner

Nicholas Skinner is the owner of a low set of cabs and horses that he leases to drivers. Skinner so overworks Beauty that Beauty collapses and is almost sent to slaughter.

Reuben Smith

Reuben Smith is placed in charge of the stables at Earlshall Park when York is gone. Smith is competent with horses but has a problem with drink. On one of his binges, he has a riding accident that kills him and leaves Beauty with the blemished knees that prevent him from being a carriage horse anymore.

Farmer Thoroughgood

Farmer Thoroughgood is convinced by his grandson to buy Beauty at auction and to attempt rehabilitating him. Thoroughgood finds Beauty’s final home with the Blomefield sisters.

Willie Thoroughgood

Willie is Farmer Thouroughgood’s grandson. After convincing his grandfather to buy Beauty, Willie meticulously cares for Beauty and enables him to recover well enough to be sold to the Blomefield sisters. Willie’s rescue allows Beauty to have a good life in his last years.

Mr. York

Mr. York is the head of the stables at Earlshall Park. York is good to the horses and soft-hearted enough to hire Reuben Smith despite his alcoholism, but he does not stand up to the mistress when she wants to use the bearing rein on the horses.

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