Legacies of Slave Ownership in Cheltenham

As part of our partnership with the City Voices programme of the Gloucester History Festival, undergraduate students in History at the University of Gloucestershire are undertaking a number of local history projects for 2022. The third project examines the legacies of slave ownership in Cheltenham, extending the work conducted by students in 2021. The project group is made up by students Steve Hannis, Ben Haidon, Sam Burgess, Tom Gullick and Harvey Pearce.

In 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in parliament, starting the slow process of the emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. As a result of abolition, the government agreed to pay compensation to slave owners for the ‘loss of their property.’ Any slave owner who wanted to claim compensation had to apply. This process created detailed records of slave ownership in Britain. These records are the starting point of our project, which aims to examine some of the issues relating to the abolition of slavery and compensation paid to people residing in Cheltenham.

We began our project in January and began using the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database. We started by looking at various individuals living in Cheltenham who claimed substantial amounts of money under the Compensation Act. Many of these individuals left little trace of how they spent the money, bringing us to the conclusion that most of them simply lived off it. We researched various people, but many were dead ends. Then we discovered William Hinds Prescod, who moved to Cheltenham after Emancipation. The records showed that prior to abolition, Prescod was the largest slave owner in Barbados after inheriting a number of plantations from his uncle in 1815. He claimed £37,000 in compensation following the abolition of slavery, over £4,000,000 in today’s currency.

Our research so far has demonstrated the complex nature of this subject, with Prescod being a particularly complicated figure. A Cambridge educated Lawyer, Prescod freed over twenty slaves during his time in Barbados and fathered 4 children with a freed slave. One of these children was Samuel Jackman Prescod (fig 1), who became the first black politician in Barbados. Prescod also fiercely contested other claims made against his uncle’s will, claiming that his relatives intended to put their hands into his pocket. After this online research we visited Gloucestershire Archives where we managed to find proof that Prescod bought his Cheltenham estate, Alstone Lawn, for £1,200 just after he received his compensation. We found the original record for this transaction, on the document was Prescod’s signature still intact. Some further research online found that his estate eventually fell into disrepair and was burnt down by suffragettes in 1913.

Samuel Jackman Prescod on a
Barbadian bank note.

Prescod’s wealth was demonstrated by the fact that he also amassed a substantial art collection that was auctioned off by his family in 1861, 13 years after his death in 1848. A record of the auction of Prescod’s collection is held at the National Gallery. After looking through these records we found that a significant proportion of his collection was acquired on a series of trips to Italy, which means he took part in the ‘Grand Tour’ custom of his era. His collection was made up of sculptures, vases sketches and paintings, with the most notable artists being Rembrandt, Vandyke and Guido (fig 2). Our research has also revealed evidence that Prescod invested in shares in the Assembly Rooms in Cheltenham. The Assembly Rooms was a hub for the elite in Cheltenham due to its versatile nature. It was the site of art trading, theatrical productions, and political activities (which had also included debates on the abolition of slavery). The site of the Assembly Rooms is now the Everyman Theatre, giving us a potential link between Prescod’s wealth and the present day.

“The Philosopher” By Rembrandt, a
painting similar to one of the pieces owned by
Prescod.

What we have found so far is interesting, but there is a lot more to learn about Prescod. We are going to conduct further research into his investments in the local area, as well as his activity in Barbados before abolition, with the hope that we find out more about the legacies of slavery and how these may have impacted the town. We have recently found Prescod’s will, which may provide some further information. All the information we have found so far has given as a lot of leads, we are hopeful that once we have followed all of these up, we will have a clearer picture of Prescod’s story.

Abolitionism in Gloucestershire: Samuel Bowly

As part of our partnership with the City Voices programme of the Gloucester History Festival, undergraduate students in History at the University of Gloucestershire are undertaking a number of local history projects for 2022. In this second of four projects, students examine the local abolitionist movement, extending the work conducted by students in 2021. The project group is made up by students Jordan Rosewarne, Lydia Horwell and Callum Hughes.

In this project we are taking a closer look at the life and work of Gloucestershire abolitionist Samuel Bowly (1802-1884). In October 2017 a blue plaque was placed at Bowly’s last residence in 65 Park Road, Gloucester. However, it seems fairly safe to assume that very fee people are aware of the vibrant presence of the abolitionist movement in Gloucestershire, let alone the work of Bowly. Two projects conducted for the Cotswold Centre for History & Heritage in 2021, and exhibited at the Gloucester History Festival demonstrated an active abolitionist presence in both Cheltenham and Gloucester. Our aim is to add to knowledge on this topic by examining the work and local legacies of one of the most significant local abolitionists.

Bowly present in the famous painting by Benjamin Haydon (1840-1) of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, 1840.

Like many other abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries, Bowly was also a Quaker. He was born in Cirencester in 1802 and led a life strictly defined by his faith, and was devoted to aiding enslaved people across the world. He took part in major events throughout his lifetime which will be incorporated into our project, such as the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London held in 1840. This was attended by major abolitionists from both England and the United States. Alongside this, he was also the President of the National Temperance League, and worked towards drawing attention to the damaging effects of alcohol on the human body.

So far, we have been able to find some important documents from Bowly, such as a hand-written letter at Gloucestershire Archives that demonstrate his horror at the conditions on a slave ship. This document will be at the core of our project as it shows the how Bowly learned about the reality of the slave trade. We are now searching for more materials held locally that can help to shed light on the life and legacy of this man. We will also be examining the interweaving nature of his work within both the Temperance movement and the abolitionist cause, to try and add to public knowledge on his accomplishments.

New publications from CC4HH research

We’re very proud to announce that we have our first academic publications on our community research projects. Two of these relate to the Cheltenham Lower High Street project, and the latest concerns Cheltenham: Diaspora.

Christian O’Connell’s paper entitled ‘”Poor, Proud and Pretty:” Community History and the Challenge of Heritage in “Darkest” Cheltenham’ was published in International Journal of Regional and Local History. The article discusses a collaborative local history project in Cheltenham Spa’s Lower High Street, an area that has suffered from “symbolic annihilation” through a long history of stigmatisation at the expense the town’s Regency-era heritage. Residents’ testimonies give voice to marginalised experiences that help to establish the area’s distinctive “sense of place,” which is rooted in shared experiences of exclusion, hardship and community cohesion. Through nostalgic recollections, they also reveal a significant grassroots willingness to challenge the exclusionary practices of Cheltenham’s dominant and exclusionary Regency narrative. However, present concerns about ethnic diversity and urban decay also exposed contemporary anxieties that are indicative of the broader context of Britain in the EU referendum era. While offering a “history from below,” the paper also considers how universities operating as “anchor” institutions can help to address contemporary issues of social alienation and spatial inequality by fostering a greater appreciation of the past.

Visitors react to the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present and Future exhibition at Chapel Arts in Cheltenham, June 2017.

Matthew Kidd who also contributed to the Lower High Street project, published his paper ‘”Us and Them:” exploring social difference in an English Spa town’ in the autumn edition of Oral History. This article draws on interviews with former residents of Cheltenham’s Lower High Street area to explore how ordinary Cheltonians understood their place in the town’s social hierarchy in the post-war period. While the initial findings of the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present, Future project suggested that residents articulated a working-class identity, this article contends that such an interpretation does not do justice to the ambiguity that characterised their views on social difference. Most struggled to express their feelings about the issue; when they did so, they tended to articulate a populist rather than class-based model of society. By exploring social difference in an atypical English town, this article seeks to contribute to ongoing debates about class in post-war Britain.

Finally, David Howell’s paper ‘Expanding Heritage Horizons through the Cheltenham: A Diaspora Project‘ has just been published in the journal Present Pasts, and can be read free online. This article considers the Cheltenham: Diaspora project, an exploration and promotion of migration heritage narratives in Cheltenham (UK). Cheltenham has a diverse history, but heritage provision in the locality has been consistently concentrated on 18th and 19th century Regency architecture. This has led to a marginalisation of non-elite heritage narratives, with no permanent platform for culturally diverse heritage themes in the region. In addition, informal, online history themed social media groups have, rather than expand heritage narratives, ultimately further narrowed heritage discussions. The Diaspora project looked to challenge the lack of diversity in the authorised heritage discourse, and informal online discourses of Cheltenham’s heritage, while enhancing the democratic nature of research projects coming out of the University of Gloucestershire. This paper considers the difficulties encountered in attempting to democratise heritage research, in a cultural climate that is rigid in its perception of what counts as ‘heritage’ and what is deemed as relevant by more ‘vocal’ local stakeholder groups. Ultimately the project reveals that while social media provides a useful avenue through which diverse heritage narratives can be pursued and promoted, ingrained attitudes regarding authorised forms of heritage are robust and resistant to the introduction of the unfamiliar.

Exhibits now on display at the Community Resource Centre

The Community Resource Centre based on Grove Street in Cheltenham now has two of our main exhibitions on display. Visitors will now be able to see the ‘Cheltenham’s Lower High Street: Past, Present and Future’ exhibition, which was first displayed at Chapel Arts in June 2017. This project, which has been available on this website since early 2018, focuses on the memories of former residents of the Lower High Street area, and it’s often hidden role in development of Cheltenham. Visitors will also be able to see the ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ exhibition, which explores various and often unexpected narratives of migration to the town from the late 19th century onwards from different parts of the world.

Many thanks to Bernice Thomson, Manager of the Cheltenham West End Partnership and her team who have supported both of these projects. Contact details below:

Community Resource Centre, Grove Street, Cheltenham GL50 3LZ

01242 692112 or office.cwep@gmail.com

Mondays to Fridays: 9am – 4pm
Saturdays & Sundays: Closed

Cheltenham: Diaspora project is underway

In June, 2018, the History team at the University of Gloucestershire proudly announced the award of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, to support the ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project. Since that time, we have been busily preparing the project, putting together our research team, and getting started with our local history research.

The ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project aims to explore migration themes in Cheltenham. Much of our work is focused on the Lower High Street area, though this is not the sole focus of our attention. We are interested in recording narratives of how communities came to settle in Cheltenham, though we are specifically looking at how cultural traditions and practices change and move with people as they enter and establish new communities.

Much of what we have been doing over the past few months has involved reaching out to community leaders across Cheltenham, creating links and partnerships, through which we hope to meet people who are happy to share their personal stories and experiences. While we anticipate that most of our oral history recordings will take place in 2019, we have started conducting some interviews. The project has already begun to explore the challenging stories of forced Polish migration from central Europe in the 1940s, and the cultural legacy of Chinese migration, where both cuisine and martial arts have an important role to play in the contemporary cultural landscape of Cheltenham.

In the last week, we were pleased to welcome four student interns to the project, who will be helping develop the research side of things. The partnership is ideal, as it allows the project to help develop research skills for students of history, while allowing both undergraduate and postgraduate students to play an active role in a significant local history project. Their contributions will be meaningful and valued as we move forward.

Over the coming weeks, ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ will be continuing to reach out to cultural and religious organisations in Cheltenham, to help introduce the project to as many people as possible. Meanwhile, our student interns will be spending time in the local archives, looking to identify and explore some of the earlier migration narratives that helped shape the historical expansion of the town.

While we are in the process of reaching out to groups and individuals, we would also welcome people reaching out to us. If you have a migration story that you would like to share, please get in touch. Equally, if you know someone who has a story that might contribute to the project, please draw their attention to the project. You can reach us, and find out more about the project through any of the following methods:

Email, project co-ordinator: dhowell1@glos.ac.uk

Project hub: The Cotswold Centre for History and Heritage.

Cheltenham: Diaspora on Twitter

Cheltenham: Diaspora on Facebook