Slave-owners and Abolitionists: some letters from William Wilberforce

by Rachel Lang


“My dear young friend,” wrote William Wilberforce to Abel Smith in January 1822, “For, friend I must term you or do myself great Injustice …” He was writing “for the purpose of asking a favour of you … [T]hat you would kindly undertake the Office of one of the Executors + Trustees under my last Will”. Two reasons are given: due to the age difference, Smith is likely “long to survive me”, and of course because of “the Estimation in which I hold you …”[i]

Smith was a banker and a fellow MP, 30 years Wilberforce’s junior. The Smith and Wilberforce families had been intertwined through multiple marriages for over one hundred years.[ii] “I cannot resist the opportunity that is afforded me,” Wilberforce continues, “of assuring you of my affectionate regard for you, + of the warm interest I take in your Wellbeing.” The affection reaches its peak in the letter’s conclusion: “So I will only add the af[f]irmances of my best wishes for yr Health + Happiness, + above all my dear Abel for yr augmenting usefulness + Comfort, in its best sense, as intimate the light + life of yr Blessed Spirit of peace + love + Joy – I am ever, my dear Abel, Sin[cerel]y + aff[ectionatel]y yours WWilberforce.”

There is a plaintive note as well: “I often regret that from various Circumstances, We have seen so little of each other … It will always give me pleasure to welcome you under our roof …” Wilberforce complains about problems caused by his eyesight, then adds a postscript: “Excuse the Mark I write fast that I may write more in less time – I now can’t read over what I have scrib[b]led – If there are any mistakes forgive them.”[iii]

Wilberforce to Smith, 30/01/1822

This is the first of four letters from Wilberforce to Smith held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Library. The second letter, written nearly two years later, begins, “My dear Abel, For let me use the freedom of friendship, when I can truly declare it is warranted by the reality of it …” Wilberforce’s purpose this time is to request the curacy of Stapleford for his son Samuel. Again the postscript shows vulnerability: “I say noth[in]g ab[ou]t yr coming to us … but I hope we shall sometime welcome you under our roof .”[iv]

The third letter, written in January 1829, is shorter and relates to a loan of £6,000 granted to Wilberforce by Abel Smith’s father. The tone is less effusive, beginning “Mr dear Mr Abel …” The relationship is not as close as Wilberforce would wish but is still personal: “I am sorry we never meet. But when Spring returns, if it please God to preserve me so long, I hope Mrs A. Smith + you will pay us yr long owe’d Visit.”[v] In the fourth letter, (“My dear Mr A –”), he is very agitated about a dispute with the Vicar of Hendon and worried and saddened by the business failures of his son William junior. He is still in debt to the Smiths: “It is the only comfort almost I now have in the affair that you (mean yr House under yr father + yr kind offices) are acting so friendly a part in relation to it.”[vi]

The name William Wilberforce has such resonance today. It was a strange experience to see the well-known signature on a page for the first time and to reconcile this with the somewhat needy voice that comes across in all four of his letters to Smith, written in old age and ill-health, with repeated requests to meet and, in the last two letters, the “sad turmoil” involved in his need for financial assistance.

Also surprising was that Abel Smith’s role in the slave economy posed no bar to Wilberforce’s affection. Abel Smith was a partner in the London bank Smith Payne & Smith, heavily involved in the credit arrangements of West India planters in part through their ties with the West India merchant firm Manning & Anderdon.[vii] Smith, Payne & Smith had taken possession of Farm estate in Jamaica in the 1790s and were mortgagees of enslaved people on Holland, Fish River and Petersville plantations in Jamaica in the 1820s.[viii] Smith was awarded compensation for the ownership of 222 enslaved people on Raymond’s estate in Jamaica as trustee of the marriage settlement of Harriet Smith, daughter of Wilberforce’s first cousin Robert Smith, 1st Baron Carrington.

Separate correspondence concerning the short-lived engagement of Wilberforce’s only daughter Elizabeth to Charles Pinney in 1827 reveals some of the logic behind Wilberforce’s attitude.[ix] Pinney was descended from Nevis slave-owners on both sides of his family and became a slave-owner himself.[x] He appears in the LBS database as the awardee or co-awardee for the ownership of 1,328 enslaved people, primarily as mortgagee.[xi] Wilberforce wrote to Pinney explaining his sympathy for Pinney’s approaches to Elizabeth: “Tho’ a suitor being a West Indian merchant was an objection, it was not an insuperable one … always taking for granted that the gentleman should possess, secure from mercantile or West Indian risk, so much property, as when combined with the Ladies Fortune, might suffice for their comfortable maintainance.”[xii]

Wilberforce soon changed his mind about the suitability of Charles Pinney for his daughter, and may not have considered the match at all if it had been proposed before the 1820s, when ill-health led to his retirement from active politics and the financial troubles of his son William had impacted him greatly. His wife Barbara explained the change of heart to her close friend and Pinney’s sister Mary Ames: “… having expressed, as I felt, my satisfaction that Mr Pinney was not a proprietor possessed of Lands & Negroes but only a West India Merchant, I ought to say that I was then ignorant of what we are now led to consider is the peculiar Situation of a West India Merchant … Mortgages uphold the System of Slavery & in many Respects, all the worst part of the system, even more than any other possessions in the West Indies.” Barbara suggested to Mary that, “however humane and good”, West India merchants may themselves be trapped by the workings of the system despite representing the worst of it: “I am sure your Brother would be amongst the first to rejoice if no such system existed.”[xiii]

Wilberforce’s friendship with Joseph Foster Barham (1759-1832) follows a similar vein. Barham was an MP and owner of four estates in Jamaica, with over six hundred enslaved people, and stressed the responsibility of slave-owners to care for their human property: “To improve the condition of the Slaves, in every safe and practicable way, I have ever deemed the first duty of the master …”[xiv] Barham regretted his role as slave-owner while at the same time profiting from it and deluding himself about the real conditions his enslaved people lived in. Wilberforce described Barham as “a generous fellow, and he seems to be actuated by a warm spirit of patriotism and philanthropy.” Friendships took place across the political divide and the small world of affluent London society meant that slave-owners and abolitionists did not always operate in separate spaces.

[i] William Wilberforce to Abel Smith, 22 Jan 1822, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Library (HALS), DE/AS/4414-7.

[ii] See LBS entry for Abel Smith, for details of Smith-Wilberforce inter-marriage provided by Sue Castle-Henry.

[iii] William Wilberforce to Abel Smith, 22 Jan 1822, HALS DE/AS/4414-7.

[iv] Wilberforce to Smith, 5 Dec 1827, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. Samuel Wilberforce later became Bishop of Oxford, see Arthur Burns, ‘Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), bishop of Oxford and of Winchester’, ODNB, online edition

[v] Wilberforce to Smith, Jan 1829, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. Wilberforce was borrowing money to support his son William junior’s business enterprises which failed the following year, causing Wilberforce “disastrous financial losses” and enforcing a “severe financial retrenchment” – see John Wolffe, ‘William Wilberforce (1759-1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist’, ODNB, online edition

[vi] Wilberforce to Smith, 1 Mar 1827, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. It appears the relationship had become less close and Smith was not named as an executor in Wilberforce’s final will.

[vii] See LBS entry for John Lavicount Anderdon,

[viii] Smith, Payne & Smith in the LBS database,;

[ix] See Anne Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends (2012) chapter 14 for an account of the engagement.

[x] Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Charles Pinney (1793-1867), mayor of Bristol’, ODNB online edition,

[xi] Charles Pinney in the LBS database,

[xii] Pinney Papers, S/4/21, William Wilberforce to Charles Pinney, 26 Apr 1827 quoted in Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: the Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (2001) p. 203.

[xiii] Pinney Papers, S/4/21, Barbara Wilberforce to Mary Ames, 18 Apr 1827 quoted in Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends p. 237.

[xiv] Joseph Foster Barham, ‘Considerations on the abolition of Negro slavery, and the means of practically effecting it’ (1823) p. vi.





Historical Association Fellowship

by Nick Draper

For several years, one of our priorities in the project has been to increase the use of the LBS database as a teaching resource in secondary schools. The teaching of the slave-trade is no longer mandatory in schools, after a brief period following 2007 when it joined the teaching of the Holocaust as an obligatory part of the curriculum, but many schools continue to teach the topic, and we have been eager to contribute to teachers’ classroom practice.

The pioneering Local Roots/Global Routes project in Hackney in 2014-2015 (, undertaken by Kristy Warren and Kate Donington from LBS in conjunction with Hackney Museum and Archives and two local schools, demonstrated the power of the LBS research in underpinning the connections between the local and the global, both historically and in the present. The Hackney project also emphasized the labour-intensive nature of such work, and led us to seek ways to streamline the processes of adapting our work for use in the classroom, so that we could reach more schools in less time. The addition of mapping on the website was an important step in the process, allowing immediate visualization of local connections to slave-ownership.


The Mill Yard, Antigua (British Library); Sugar Mills in Antigua (Pat Hawks, Wikimedia)

Now, in conjunction with Justice to History ( and the Historical Association, we have established a Historical Association Teacher Fellowship on Transatlantic Slavery ( for secondary school teachers, to run in 2019. There will be 15 places available on a three-day residential course, which will be followed by an eight-week online course. Participants will explore a range of sources and interpretations that can be used to develop meaningful and engaging approaches to teaching about the circumstances, experiences and consequences of African enslavement in the Atlantic world. Among the aims of the programme is the development of a set of principles for the teaching of transatlantic slavery that we hope will come to be adopted more widely among schools and teachers. The programme is open to all secondary school history teachers with a minimum of four years’ teaching experience. The deadline for applications is Friday 1 February 2019.

We have been fortunate in the establishment of the Fellowship to have had the support and collaboration of the Historical Association itself, which has in the past few years successfully mounted half-dozen such fellowships, and of Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud of Justice to History, as well as the continued commitment of Kate Donington, now at London South Bank. In addition, UCL’s Research Impact team has contributed to funding the Fellowship, and we are grateful to Helen Stark for her championing of the proposal within UCL. We hope that the programme will attract a group of teachers from across the country, and that this cadre will become points of reference for their colleagues in the future.

Making an exhibition on the slave trade and slavery

by Catherine Hall

At the beginning of August I spent a week in the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington talking with a group of international curators and historians. We were planning a travelling exhibition on the slave trade and slavery – one that could move between Dakar, Brussels, Liverpool, Rio, Washington and Cape Town and tell a global story – no small challenge! The Museum itself is an inspiring place to be, the product of many years struggle and many years work, the last of the Smithsonian museums which aim to represent US life and culture. It has been an incredible success, bringing in literally millions of visitors, both African American and others, and telling a very different history to the conventional US account, a history rooted in slavery and the long struggle for freedom, the centrality of ‘race’ to US culture and the making of both black and white Americans. Blazoned on the wall as you step down into the history galleries are James Baldwin’s marvellous words, a motif for the place, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”


Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The idea of an international travelling exhibition is the brainchild of a partnership between the Centre for Slavery and Justice at Brown University and the African American Museum. They initiated a project which has brought in museums, universities and public historians from West Africa and the Cape, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, the UK and the US. The objective is to develop a global story about colonial and racial slavery and its foundational role in the making of the modern world. The aim is to show how this history links Africa, Europe and the Americas in ways that link peoples and places; that there is a global story of power and exploitation that long precedes contemporary globalisation yet has important connections to the present. The work will involve objects and archives, artists and designers as well as curators and historians. Particular attention will be paid to the legacies and afterlives of slavery. At the meeting in Washington we began to map out some possible themes and storylines for the exhibition – focusing on the many dimensions of the slavery business, the making of gender and racial difference, bodies and knowledges, the importance of place, and the building of freedom. The plan is that over time a workshop will be held in each place that plans to host the exhibition, exploring specific links between the locality and the global story. An exhibit specific to the locality will then be developed to sit alongside the travelling exhibition, highlighting local stories and the ways in which they connect with contemporary issues of inequality. The hope is that this can make a contribution to the work of recognition and reparation, the work of challenging the destructive effects of colonialism and empires.

This is an ambitious agenda for the years ahead – but there is both excitement about such a collaborative project, and a determination amongst the participants to do this work. So watch this space!

Dreams of a new plantation society: Legacies of British Slavery in Queensland, Australia

by Emma Christopher, University of New South Wales

The doyen of Queensland sugar planters, John Ewen Davidson, was a man with one single conviction: ‘he believed in sugar, the sugar of the West Indies.’[1] Sugar, and the vast enslaved workforces that produced it, had made his great-grandfather, and his paternal and maternal grandfathers exceedingly wealthy. And for all the plantocracy claimed that the end of slavery had ruined them, the Davidsons—John’s father Henry and his uncles Duncan, John and William—gained vast payouts at the time of emancipation. In fact John’s father had purchased more plantations in the 1810s and ‘20s with the expectation of a large compensation payout, and had an enslaved workforce of more than 4,000 men, women and children by 1834.[2]

John Ewen Davidson

John Ewen Davidson, n.d.

It seems plausible that at least some of the £301,500 John Ewen Davidson invested in his Queensland sugar estates came indirectly from the £166,612 his father had received as compensation for the loss of his enslaved workforce some 30 years before, especially since John was an only son.[3] John had visited his father’s Highbury plantation in Berbice after graduating from Oxford University and clearly aspired to recreating this in Queensland, all the while keeping quiet about his family’s slave owning past.[4]

Davidson was not the only scion seemingly trying to relive family glories of the West Indies in Queensland. Among the colony’s ‘aristocracy’[5] was the founder of the sugar industry Louis Hope, the grandson of John Wedderburn of Ballindean of Knight vs. Wedderburn infamy. Louis’ elder brother had claimed compensation for the enslaved of Blackness estate in Jamaica.


Left: Louis Hope, 1870s. Right: Hope’s Ormiston Mill c.1871

Francis T. Tyssen Amherst (or Amhurst) was from the aristocratic family who had once founded plantations in Antigua. He owned Foulden plantation and then purchased Farleigh and owned ships that recruited in the South Sea Island labour trade.



3-South Sea Islander in Foulden plantation

South Sea Islanders on Tyssen Amhert’s Foulden Plantation, c. 1880

Three great-grandsons of Beeston Long, Chairman of the West India Merchants, were also Queensland sugar planters. George Long would drown ‘recruiting’ labour in the South Pacific, while William returned to England, leaving behind only Edward M. Long, namesake of his father’s cousin, the Edward Long who authored The History of Jamaica. Edward founded Habana plantation, named for the Cuban capital, just outside Mackay.

2-Habana Creek outside Mackay ca. 18802-Habana Sugar Mill outside Mackay ca. 1884

Left: Habana Creek c. 1880. Right: Habana Mill c. 1884

Down the coast at Bundaberg were Horace, Ernest and Arthur Young, grandsons of Emily Baring. One of their uncles was a partner in Barings Bank while another, Sir George Young, was involved with a slave emancipation payout in Grenada. The Young brothers were prominent planters and Pacific labour recruiters, while their sister Florence established a mission among the islanders.


Left: an advert for Florence Young’s South Sea Mission, n.d. Right: Report of ill-treatment aboard Young’s Schooner ‘Helena’, Maryborough Chronicle, 2 Jan. 1885

Charles Armstrong, better known as Kangaroo Charlie and the one-time husband of Dame Nellie Melba, was the grandson of George Alexander Fullerton who inherited his great-uncle’s estates in Jamaica and received the compensation for the enslaved people who worked there.


Charles Armstrong with Nellie Melba c. 1902

Others had smaller payouts, such as Dorothy Reddish, whose granddaughter, Maria, married Maurice Hume Black, and John Buhôt’s parents. Buhôt, who today has a plaque to his sugar-growing efforts in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane and who worked for Louis Hope, was from Barbados. Both of Buhôt’s parents had received slave compensation; his mother, Elizabeth Walcott, likely received £708 15s 5d for 34 enslaved people in Barbados.



7-Buhot Plaque6-johnbuhot

None of these sums of money, Davidson’s excepted, may be enough to draw direct links between slave-made wealth and/or compensation and the early Queensland sugar industry. It does, however, cast another view on these planters’ insistence that ‘coloured’ labour was necessary in Queensland, a belief that resulted in the Pacific Labour Trade. These men were, after all, only a handful of those who arrived in Queensland from the Caribbean and Mauritius carrying with them ideas of labour and labour management from across the seas.



[1] ‘A Sugar Pioneer’ Cairns Post, 14.12.1923, p9

[2] Admin, ‘The History of Highbury’, Guyana International Times, 14 Jun. 2013.

[3] Aeneas F. Munro, The Sugar Fields of Mackay, (Mackay: Hodges and Chataway, 1895); David Ryden, ‘The Society of West India Planters and Merchants in the Age of Emancipation, c. 1816-1835’ [pdf], Unpublished paper, Economic History Society Annual Conference, March 2015.

[4] ‘Arrivals’, The Creole, Guyana, 24 December 1862, p2.

[5] Sir Ralph Cilento and Clem Lack Snr., Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch of Queensland (Brisbane: Smith & Paterson Pty Ltd, 1959) 94n.



John Ewen Davidson, Louis Hope, Ormiston Mill, South Sea Islanders at Foulden, Habana Creek, Habana Mill, Piri and Polly, all courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

Charlie Armstrong and Nellie Melba, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

John Buhôt, courtesy of State Archives of Queensland.

All above out of copyright.

Buhôt plaque, author’s own, 2017.


Bute House, official residence of the First Minister of Scotland

by Rachel Lang

In 1766, the Edinburgh town council announced a competition to design a new town to the north of Scotland’s capital city with the aim of providing grand, spacious houses for the city’s elite. The competition was won by 26-year-old James Craig with a plan for two garden squares connected by three wide, terraced streets. Built in stages between the 1760s and the 1820s, the New Town provided an alternative to the polluted, overcrowded wynds of old Edinburgh and symbolised Scotland’s confident steps towards a new Enlightenment.

On the north side of the grandest square, the houses blend together in a pleasingly unified palace façade, designed by Robert Adam in 1791 as the crowning glory of the whole development. The house in the centre of the façade, number 6 Charlotte Square, the most commanding house in the best position, is just that bit bigger and grander than the rest. Into this house, in the late 1790s, moved its first resident, John Innes Crawford[1].

6 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh

Crawford had a country residence too, Cleghorn House near Lanark. He was a member of the Highland Society, a Captain in the 10thRegiment of North British Militia and had scientific and literary interests. His mother lived with him until his marriage in 1799 and shortly after, he moved to nearby George Street[2].

Crawford’s wealth derived from Bellfield, the sugar plantation in St James, Jamaica, which he inherited at the age of five or six on the death of his father James Crawford[3]. James junior was born in Jamaica in 1776 but within two years of his father’s death, his mother had returned to Scotland where she remarried. He does not appear to have visited his plantation as an adult or met the several hundred enslaved people, also his personal property, who lived and worked there. But his fortunes were bound up with their subjugation and liable also for the debts of his planter father, reportedly over £15,000 in the mid-1790s, when the net proceeds of the estate were £3,000 a year[4].

First page of the slave register entry for Bellfield estate, 1820.TNA T71/205 p. 285

Subsequent residents of Bute House were also connected with the slave economy. Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835) bought the property in 1806, moving three doors down from his previous address at number 9. A more illustrious character than Crawford, he held a seat in the House of Commons from 1780 to 1811 but is best known today as the compiler of the Statistical Account of Scotland, a landmark survey of the country’s geography, economy and inhabitants[5]. Sinclair was a trustee of the marriage settlement of Hon. Archibald Macdonald and Jane Campbell, who had married in 1802; the settlement included three plantations in St Vincent. Sinclair died in 1835 before the slave compensation was paid out, but the remaining trustee received a half share in £15,766 7s 6d for the ownership of 610 enslaved people[6].

Sinclair sold 6 Charlotte Square in 1816 to Charles Oman, who ran the property as a hotel. Oman quickly expanded his property portfolio in the 1810s and 1820s, becoming the premier hotelier in the city[7]. His eldest son, also called Charles, does not appear to have joined his father’s business; he died on Trinity estate in St Mary, Jamaica, in 1819[8].

The house is now the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland and the venue of regular meetings of the Scottish Cabinet. Until recently, its connections to the slave economy have been overlooked, in common with many properties financed or inhabited by slave-owners. LBS seeks to reinscribe slave-ownership into the history of modern Britain.

[1]The ownership of Bute House from 1795 to 1911 can be traced through the Edinburgh Post Office Directories available at

[2]See for example Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1816) vol. IV p. 628; Crawford as a subscriber to Scotland’s Skaith… together with some additional poems(Edinburgh, 1815); as a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society, Caledonian Mercury 23/04/1818; his role in the North British Militia is given in the announcement of his marriage, Aberdeen Press and Journal 14/10/1799; his mother appears in the Post Office Directories as Mrs Alex. Simpson.

[3]Ownership of Bellfield traced in the LBS database,

[4]Francis Vesey, Reports of Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery, from the year 1789 to 1817 (London, 1827), Vol. VI, 2nd ed., pp. 460-465

[5]Rosalind Mitchison, ‘Sir John Sinlair, first baronet (1754-1835), agricultural improver, politician and codifier of “useful knowledge”’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition, 2015).

[6]The estates were Argyle,, Calder, and Calder Ridge,

[7]For more on the Oman family see ‘The History of Bute House – Home to the First Minister of Scotland’,

[8]Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 4 p. 637 (February 1819).

An Afternoon Lecture at Latymer Grammar School, Edmonton, North London

By James Dawkins

The lack of attention paid to the contribution of British West Indian slavery in the formation of modern Britain has been an on-going issue of concern amongst parents of African-Caribbean heritage and some school teachers. Slavery, its effects, and abolition in 1833 is currently taught as a non-statutory topic at Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9) in English state maintained schools.[1] This is, however, the only period of compulsory schooling when pupils are exposed to the history of our country’s slave-based West Indian plantation economy. The brutal and inhumane nature of this system along with its lasting legacies, including a sustained sense of white guilt and the continued emotional pain along with feelings of injustice felt by the country’s African-Caribbean citizens, has made it a difficult subject to discuss in Britain. Interestingly, our nation’s active distancing, sanitisation, and downplaying of slavery and its role in the economic development of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain has garnered increasing curiosity from a number of quarters, particularly secondary schools and I was happy to receive an invitation from Doctor Brenda Quinn at Latymer Grammar School in north London who asked if I could come in to talk about slavery and industrialisation with the institution’s year-13 pupils.


The Latymer School, Haselbury Road, Edmonton

Drawing upon several key texts – Capitalism and Slavery; Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England; and ‘Slavery Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ – I spoke about the broad range of industries and professions which emerged and developed from their connection to the slave trade and the plantation economy.[2] Eric Williams was one of the first historians to trace the investment of slave-based wealth into the establishment of sugar refineries and metal works. He also pointed to the slave-trade’s stimulation of Britain’s timber and maritime industries, along with the erection of cotton factories – all of which processed the raw goods arriving from the West Indies and America, or manufactured guns, textiles, and domestic utensils that were shipped to the west coast of Africa and exchanged for Africans. I moved on to discuss the development of Britain’s social and transportational infrastructure highlighting the rise of its banking system, railways and canals, and steam-powered mechanisation, upon which the foundations of our modern-day economy were constructed. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership online database is an excellent resource for exploring the commercial footprint of the slave-based economy and I provided the pupils with a demonstration that elaborated upon the spread of West Indian colonial wealth into and across the country.

My discussion shifted from the national to the local significance of slavery as I used the online database to present an example of the geographic closeness of slavery and slave-ownership to Latymer School. John Snell was a particularly interesting individual who, in 1836, received over £3,300 in exchange for the liberation of the 123 enslaved people he possessed on the Clare Valley estate in St. Vincent.[3] Snell was a wealthy absentee who lived on Fore Street, opposite Pymmes Park, which is under one mile’s walk from Latymer School. Moreover, before he died, in 1847, he gifted one acre of land to St. James’ Church, situated just over one mile away from Latymer School, upon which St. John and St. James’ Primary School was built and opened in 1851. This was, therefore, an intriguing example of how a former slave-owner contributed to the establishment of an English school which is a stone’s throw away from Latymer School. Indeed, some of St. John and St. James’ pupils may have attended Latymer Grammar given its close proximity.

My evening at the school concluded with a lively discussion on the topic of slavery, its legacies, and reparations. The Latymer pupils advanced a series of important questions and were genuinely interested in the aftermath of British West Indian slavery and how its current legacies might be addressed. One pupil asked the excellent question: “how was Britain able to sustain itself as a global economic superpower after the decline of its plantation economy?” whilst another student asked “do you think that the country is ready to discuss the issue of slavery and reparations?”. These were just two of the many good questions that were posed. I responded to the former by highlighting the shift in Britain’s commercial interest from the West to the East Indies along with its colonisation and subsequent extraction of mineral resources from Africa in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latter question took a little more consideration and discussion with the pupils, after which I clarified my personal position and stated that stated Britain isn’t ready for an informed discussion on the subject of slavery and reparations yet. I explained that a discussion of such significance can best be addressed after a period of national education on the issue where the historical context, facts, and arguments are set out. Exposure to the numerous dimensions of this long-standing and complicated subject will allow for a more knowledgeable debate to take place. Indeed, I was informed that this lecture provoked a lively discussion in the classroom the following day as the pupils talked about slavery, industrialisation, and its legacies, which is exactly what the Legacies of British Slave-ownership’s outreach activities are intended to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon at Latymer Grammar School and appreciate Dr Quinn and her pupils’ kind invitation to come and talk about this overlooked period of British and African-Caribbean history.

[1] Statutory Guidance – National Curriculum in England: History Programmes of Study [].

[2] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944); Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); David Richardson, ‘Slavery and Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 2005), pp. 35-54.

[3] Legacies of British Slave-ownership, “John Snell, 1774-1847” [, accessed on 30 October, 2017].

A Black Presence in the Isle of Wight

by Nick Draper

On 11th October, I gave a lecture on ‘Slave-Owners of the Isle of Wight’ at a meeting of the Isle of Wight branch of the Historical Association in Newport. The branch, I was told, was among the most active of the Historical Association’s affiliated local history organizations, borne out by an engaged audience of upwards of 90 people. The talk was part of a continuing series of local events in which we use the research embedded in the LBS database to illuminate connections to slavery, aspects of local history that are often overlooked.

The Isle of Wight, like almost every other community we have explored in this way, had connections at multiple levels with the slave-system. The name of modern-day Isle of Wight county in Virginia reflects the presence of local aristocrats among the early projectors and settlers there; Cowes became an important port in the rice trade with the American colonies; I learned from the audience that the family from whom Queen Victoria had purchased the original Osborne House descended from a slave-trader, Robert Blachford; a slave-ship named the Isle of Wight sailed from Portsmouth in the 1720s; and perhaps most remarkably, in the Slave Registers for St Ann, Jamaica can be found enslaved males named Isle of Wight, one of them self-liberated in the 1800s and marked as missing in the Registers, and another a young boy born in the 1820s.

Isle of Wight in the slave register

Isle of Wight in the 1817 slave register for St Ann, Jamaica: “Negro”, age 41, Creole, “about 5 ft 7 in high Runaway Feby 7th 1808”. Source: TNA T71/43 p. 58

Spring Hill House

Spring Hill House, East Cowes, home to generations of the Shedden family

The island also has a number of slave-owners contained in the database. Some were transient, often moving there towards the end of their lives, perhaps as an alternative to more expensive south coast resort towns. Others left more marked physical and social legacies. Several generations of the Shedden family lived on the island and William George Shedden rebuilt the Spring Hill mansion at East Cowes in 1863; Robert Holford, an elusive figure for LBS to date, gave the land on which stands the Niton lighthouse, built by Trinity House in 1838.

Caroline Shedden

Caroline Hamond, wife of George William Shedden, around the time of her marriage in 1861. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Beyond these connections to slave-owners, however, we had also earlier this year come across in the will of Maria Burns formerly Inglis (proved 18/04/1800, PROB 11/1340/175) a reference by her to Thomas Siras ‘my old black servant now living in the Isle of Wight’ to whom she left ‘£100 to be paid within 6 months of my decease.’ Maria Burns was the wife of a doctor in Southampton; she had previously been married to John Dickons Inglis, who left her the Charlton estate in St Thomas-in-the-Vale in Jamaica, together with the enslaved people attached to it. She was apparently the financially stronger partner in her second marriage, leaving her husband an annuity of £100 p.a. secured on her estates and enslaved people, which and whom she left to a female relative, probably the sister, of her first husband.

Prompted by the imminent lecture, I tried to trace Thomas Siras further, unsuccessfully until I recognised that Siras was almost certainly a phonetic variation of something else. That realisation took me quickly enough to the baptism 22/10/1797 of a Thomas Cyrus, born 08/10/1797 to Thomas Cyrus and Ann, at St Mary’s, Cowes; to the 01/07/1804 burial of a Thomas Cyrus at Hamble le Rice Hampshire; to the 07/09/1822 marriage of Thomas Cyrus ‘a black’ to Martha Lee in Manchester; and to the 1851 census entry for Ann Brennan pauper aged 86 born Hamble and daughter Elizabeth Cyrus dressmaker born Cowes 49 living at Hamble le Rice. These fragments suggest an African man, probably brought from Jamaica either enslaved or free but becoming a ‘servant’ in the UK, in a relationship with Ann or Anne Brennan and having at least two children with her, Elizabeth and a second Cyrus (the man marrying in Manchester in 1822), and dying in 1804. The rest of the story is missing, at least to us.

Thomas Cyrus marriage

Record of the marriage of Thomas Cyrus, “a Black” and Martha Lee in Manchester in 1822. Source: Anglican Parish Registers, Manchester Cathedral

LBS’s work is organized around slave-ownership: the sources we use irreducibly privilege their stories over those of the enslaved people. But on occasions these same sources give an oblique glimpse of different lives: and when that happens we hope that in recording the fragments we find, we can provide a start-point for further exploration by others, as well as mark the presence and passing in Britain of the individual himself or herself.