The Slave-Owners of Hackney: Re-thinking Local Histories of Abolition and Slavery

By: Kate Donington

This week Kristy Warren and I met with staff at the Hackney Museum to discuss the connections between the area and the history of slavery and abolition.  As a former Hackney resident I was extremely interested to find out more. Hackney has enjoyed a reputation for radicalism and dissent – it is rightly proud to be associated with people like Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Letitia Barbauld. In 2007 several walking tours and information leaflets highlighted Hackney’s relationship with abolition. Hackney Museum developed a teaching pack including a series of flashcards entitled ‘Objects of Resistance’ which showcased some of the items within the collection which told stories about Hackney residents’ role in the campaign to end the slave trade and slavery. Some of the great figures of the abolition movement called Hackney home including James Stephens, Samuel Hoare Jr. and William Allen. But was there another side to the story?

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Hackney was a popular place for the banking and mercantile classes to set up home. Its imposingly large houses and proximity to the City made it an ideal retreat for men of commerce seeking to escape the moral and physical dangers of life in the heart of the capital. Whilst these middle class men and women in some cases turned to the abolitionist cause, others were actively engaged in the slavery business. Using the LBS database an initial address search uncovered three individuals who gave a Hackney address on their compensation claim forms; John Amos of Chatham Place, Sarah Gray of Hackney and George Rutherford of Dalston Terrace. All three received in the thousands of pounds and all three made claims solely for enslaved people in Jamaica.

Both Amos and Rutherford were merchants and both made claims as (among other things) mortgagees. The system of credit and debt which characterised the West Indies meant that many recipients of slave compensation were actually merchants who had never lived in the Caribbean but who had lent credit to their planter correspondents, some of whom were unable to pay back the debt. Enslaved people could be used to secure debt, hence many of the claimants in the compensation process were merchants in Britain. It is therefore not surprising to find merchant slave-owners living in Hackney.

Sarah was the widow of Patrick Gray ‘of Friendship estate in Hanover, Jamaica.’ She received £5,235 6S 1D. Sarah’s case highlights an area which LBS PhD student Hannah Young is exploring in her thesis – the role of women as slave-owners. There are 15,006 individuals identified as females in the database, with women making up approximately 45% of all claimants.

More connections to Hackney could be found when I entered ‘Hackney’ into the Notes Search field. This brought up an additional 43 claimants with links to the area. These included people who were born, baptised, educated, married or buried in the area. Several slave-owners had connections to St. John’s-at-Hackney.

Philip Monoux Lucas' grave at St. John-at-Hackney

Emily Jost is one of the Schools and Families Learning Officers at Hackney Museum; however, she used to be the Heritage Officer for St. John’s-at-Hackney. She informed the group about the slave-trader Philip Monoux Lucas who was buried at St. John-at-Hackney. Monoux Lucas,who appears in the LBS database, was active in St. Vincent between 1802 and 1810. After abolition in 1807 he could no longer trade in enslaved people and instead referred to himself as a West India merchant.

On his return to London he became a partner in the firm Chauncy Lang & Lucas which operated from the address 39 Wilson Street, Finsbury Square. Some of his letters, including correspondence relating to his slave trading activities can be viewed at Cambridge University Library.[1] Although Monoux Lucas died in 1830 (before the compensation had been secured) his wife Sarah also appeared in the LBS database as a trustee, perhaps as a result of the young age of their children who were still all in their teens at the moment of abolition in 1833.

Samuel Boddington, By William Drummond, printed by Day & Haghe, published by Thomas McLean, lithograph, c. 1835, NPG D31925. Image © National Portrait Gallery.

Several individuals were educated at the dissenting academy in Hackney including the West India merchant Charles Bosanquet. The presence of West India mercantile families such as the Vaughans and the Boddingtons among the dissenting congregation of Richard Price in Newington Green has been highlighted by Anthony Page. Page has argued that given the commercial background of many of those residing in the area, Price had to navigate between his own antislavery sentiment and the occupations of some of his church members. Page noted that in 1791 ‘Price wrote a letter of introduction for the ‘amiable and worthy’ Samuel Boddington’ whom he described as the ‘son of one of our first West India Merchants.’[2] As can be seen at Newington Green proslavery supporters and abolitionists inhabited the same spaces, lived in the same communities and sometimes worshipped in the same congregations.

Hackney’s relationship to abolition and slavery is a more complex one than perhaps appears at first glance. It is a story of local and global interconnections as complicated and diverse as the lives of its former inhabitants.

[2] Anthony Page, ‘“A Species of Slavery”: Richard Price’s Rational Dissent and Antislavery’, Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, Vol.32, No.1, pp. 53-73.