An Evening Lecture at North London Collegiate School

By: James Dawkins

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project has received continual attention and contributions from a wide range of individuals and organisations who have expressed an interest in the research being undertaken.  This autumn we were contacted by the students’ historical society at North London Collegiate School for girls who expressed a specific interest in, and invited me to deliver a lecture to their senior pupils (16-18yrs) on, the Dawkins family and their connection to Britain’s Caribbean plantation economy.  The society’s student ambassador stated that the topic of abolition and emancipation had only been covered during year 8 (12-13 yrs) over a period of four weeks.  This narrow focus on British slavery, particularly the preoccupation with its tail end, along with the lack of attention paid to the institution in the two preceding centuries,  is part of a wider and more systemic inadequacy of England’s national curriculum which is concerning.

Using the publicly available LBS online encyclopaedia during the composition of my lecture, I discovered an interesting link between North London Collegiate School and slavery.   In July 1836 Reverend David Laing (b.1800-d.1860), an active founder, teacher, and advisor to the school, was awarded a total of £2,881 in compensation for the emancipation of the 152 enslaved Africans attached to the Mount Lebanus estate in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas-in-the-East.  According to the compensation notes, he was the designated trustee of the Mount Lebanus estate and was both the son and son-in-law of Jamaican slave-owners.  Upon his passing, Ms Frances Mary Buss, the founder and subsequent head of the North London Collegiate School, established six Laing Scholarships offering free education in his memory.  During the talk I made it explicitly clear that I was not arguing that the profits generated from British slavery directly financed the establishment of North London Collegiate School. Rather, I incorporated this connection into the lecture with the intent of increasing the relevance of my talk and demonstrating the penetration of slave-ownership into British society.

The lecture was followed by a lively discussion in which the students raised a series of important questions concerning the difference between the ‘slave trade’ and ‘slavery’, the motives for the distribution of compensation to Britain’s 46,000 slave-owners, and the connection between North London Collegiate school and Reverend David Laing.  It was clear that the nexus between school and the slavery business made the lecture much more relevant to them due to the level of discussion that was generated.

This experience demonstrated the effectiveness of drawing direct connections between places, people and historical events.  This alludes to the wider issue of engaging all levels of the British public with the topic of slavery.  Elevating awareness and garnering interest through the use of direct connections over time, space and place has, in this case, proved to be a useful platform upon to engage in a discussion on this sensitive and difficult chapter in Britain’s history.

In terms of slavery’s geographic and civic permeation, North London Collegiate School is just one of many examples which demonstrates the reach of slavery beyond the port cities and coastal towns commonly associated with this form of human commerce.