Slavery and Britain’s infrastructure

by Nick Draper

On Wednesday 8th May, I gave a presentation on ‘Slavery and Britain’s Infrastructure’ to staff at the National Infrastructure Commission’s secretariat in Holborn. The NIC was established in 2017 as an executive agency of HM Treasury with a charter to provide advice and make independent recommendations to government on national infrastructure priorities, with the objectives of supporting sustainable economic growth across all regions of the UK, improving competitiveness and improving quality of life.

The invitation to speak to the NIC provided an opportunity to begin to consolidate our findings on the role of slavery in the development of Britain’s infrastructure, especially its transportation infrastructure, as part of the wider discussion of the role of slavery in the Industrial Revolution. Although, as the recent Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain argues, ‘[t]ransport improvements – both infrastructural and technological – were central to Britain’s early industrialisation’[i], little attention (other than to the early London dock companies[ii]) has been paid to the specific debt to slavery of this transport revolution, which spanned turnpikes, canals, ports and docks and railways, and which drove down both the time and cost of moving goods and people within an increasingly integrated national market. The findings from LBS’ work suggest that slave-owners played a prominent role as initiators, financiers and managers in a sufficient number of specific projects to indicate that slave-owners in aggregate constituted a meaningful source of capital and entrepreneurial endeavour in the development of Britain’s transport infrastructure.

Walton Bridge

Walton Bridge, across the Thames near Shepperton (originally built 1748-50)

Typically, early infrastructure projects were privately-funded under state sponsorship through Acts of Parliament which addressed property rights and toll-regimes. Capital was mobilized initially through local and regional networks of wealthy elites, the financing process only institutionalized in banks and joint-stock companies with open subscriptions in the 19th century. Slave-owners figured among these local elites, and therefore might have been expected at a minimum to figure also pro rata among the funders of such projects. In itself this would establish slavery as the source of some 5-10% of investing activity. The question to which we are yet to establish a comprehensive answer is whether they were disproportionately inclined to redeploy slavery-derived wealth into infrastructure and indeed industrial investment more generally, and that we can attribute a higher proportion of capital formation to slave-ownership.


Left: Conwy Suspension Bridge, Conwy, North Wales.
Right: Bakers Quay, Gloucester, now a residential development © Chris Gunns

What we can already say is that dozens of individual projects were in whole or part the legacies of slave-owners, ranging from Walton Bridge built by the Jamaican slave-owner Samuel Dicker and rebuilt by his heir Michael Dicker Sanders to the pioneering Conwy Suspension Bridge, funded in part by John Gladstone, and from Bakers Quay at Gloucester, which carries the name of its developer, the West India merchant and slave-owner Samuel Baker, to railway companies such as the Edinburgh & Northern, in which we know more than 40% of the initial subscriptions were from slave-owners and their families.

Direct financing by slave-owners constitutes perhaps the most immediate type of legacy in infrastructure. But many other more elaborate connections, whose nature and significance require elucidation case-by-case, permeate LBS’ research findings. Sir Joseph William Bazalgette, the great engineer of London’s sewage systems, was the grandson of Louis Bazalgette and nephew of Evelyn Bazalgette: the family wealth included investments in the slave-economy through mortgage loans to slave-owners. Sir James MacNaghten McGarel Hogg, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) who commissioned the Blackwall Tunnel as the MBW was wound down for corruption in 1889, carried the name of his brother-in-law and benefactor, the slave-owner Charles McGarel. In both cases, the linkage to slavery is demonstrable but the unresolved issue is the extent to which slave-wealth underpinned their professional and social formation.

Left: Sir James McGarel Hogg (1823-1890) Right: Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891) © NPG x647

[i] Dan Bogart, ‘The transport revolution in industrialising Britain’, in R. Floud, J. Humphries ad P. Johnson (eds.), Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain Vol. I 1700-1870 (Cambridge, 2016) p. 369.

[ii] Nicholas Draper, The City of London and slavery: evidence from the early dock companies 1795-1800’, Economic History Review, 61 (2) (May 2008) pp. 432-66.