African American Abolitionists in Gloucester

This year, our students are working on a number of important local history projects covering the hidden lives of prominent women, exploring the experiences of lockdown, and uncovering links with slavery. All the projects will be exhibited in September as part of the ‘City Voices’ programme of the Gloucester History Festival. This post is one of five projects, and explores the visits of former American slaves to Britain in the 19th century. Group members include Bethan Burley, Abbie Coleman, Alivia Middleton, Rebecca Taylor.

Our project focuses on African American abolitionists that visited Gloucestershire in the 19th century. We are examining their impact on the abolitionist movement as a whole, along with the methods they used in order to bring about the abolition of slavery. Going into this project, we knew a little bit about abolitionists in America. However, we knew nothing about the work of African American abolitionists in England, the impact that they had whilst here, or even the reasons why they came to England in the first place.

The connections between slavery and Gloucestershire are evident over hundreds of years. One of the earliest relevant documents dates from 1603. In England, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1834, and because of the amount of money generated in Gloucestershire through the operations of the slave trade, there was a good deal of local resistance to the abolitionist movement. British and American abolitionists joined forces in the call to end slavery, delivering lectures hosted across the county.

Our project focuses on four African American abolitionists that were identified in the work of Hannah Rose Murray, and the Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland project: Moses Roper, William Wells Brown and William and Ellen Craft, all of whom delivered talks in Gloucestershire in favour of the abolition of slavery.

Moses Roper was one of the first escaped slaves to travel to Britain, and his very first lecture was delivered in Gloucestershire. With the aid of British abolitionists, Roper gained a university education and told gruesome stories of his experiences on the slave farms in North Carolina and Florida.

William Wells Brown was a prominent African American abolitionist lecturer, novelist and historian in the United States. His time in Britain had a lasting impact. His personal objectives indicated his desire to educate others on the wrongs that were still being committed towards slaves and the free coloured people in both America and Britain. He often addressed the issues of slavery as a lecturer and a fugitive tourist. His success is reflected in a growing audience that sparked conversations and debates, benefiting his work as an anti-slave activist.

William and Ellen Craft made their escape from slavery to north America in December 1848 travelling by train. Their escape was made easier by Ellen’s ability to cross dress and pass William off as her servant. When they were threatened by the fugitive slave act, they emigrated to England. They continued their work as abolitionists by giving lectures across the country. They later returned to the United States where they set up education facilities for freed slaves’ children.

One of the main resources we’ve used in this project is the British Newspaper Archives. British newspapers included articles on all of the abolitionists we’re looking at and although there was not much on them in Gloucestershire the information provided for their travels throughout the country has allowed us to form an impression of what they may have done during their time in Gloucester and Cheltenham.

Overall, we aim to highlight how much of an impact these African American abolitionists had in Gloucestershire by reviewing what they did, what they said, how they interacted with other abolitionists and their contribution to the fight for racial equality.

The Legacies of Slave Ownership in Pittville and Cheltenham

This year, our students are working on a number of important local history projects covering the hidden lives of prominent women, exploring the experiences of lockdown, and uncovering links with slavery. All the projects will be exhibited in September as part of the ‘City Voices’ programme of the Gloucester History Festival. This post is one of five projects, and explores the legacies of slave ownership in and around Gloucester, and includes Alfie Lansdown, Jack Vincent, Sam Hodges, and Will Clark.

Our research project focuses on the legacies of slavery in Cheltenham, and we chose this topic partly in response to the recent protests around the portrayal of slaveholders in Britain and the corresponding Black Lives Matter movement. We aim to discover the ways in which legacies of the transatlantic slave trade are still visible around the area in which we live and study. Our research has considered the effects and legacies of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. We aim to uncover the historical opinions of local people by researching the time period around when the act was debated in order to see if the abolition movement was supported locally. We’ve also been looking directly at the legacies of slavery evident in Pittville today, one of Cheltenham’s most distinctively Regency-era areas . We have focused on two key individuals who benefitted from slavery and were compensated directly by the 1833 Act.

Map of Pittville in 1855

Our research began by identifying the connections to slavery amongst people who lived in the Pittville area. First, we used the UCL database of Legacies of British Slave Ownership, and work done by Pittville History Works to identify the most significant local slaveholders. One of the key individuals is Solomon Mendes Da Silva, who lived at 5 Blenheim Parade in Pittville. He received over £6000 in compensation (equivalent to £767,000 today) for his plantations and the slaves who lived on them. His largest plantation, in St Ann’s, Jamaica, covered 300 acres and had 96 enslaved workers. Da Silva is significant to our study because he directly benefitted from the act. He generously spent this money in the local Jewish community and put funds into a local Synagogue. He spent his final years living in the gated community around Pittville Park, which has many of its large homes still standing

A similar home in Pittville costs £1,950,000 today

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We have made extensive use of the British Newspaper Archive to investigate the opinions of local people at the time of abolition. Through a collection of local newspapers we discovered that there was general support for abolition in Cheltenham. The Assembly Rooms hosted many large gatherings that debated the morals and validity of slavery. We also identified Cheltenham’s first Member of Parliament, elected in 1832. Craven Fitzhardige Berkeley petitioned parliament on behalf of the Cheltenham abolitionists. Furthermore, he was an advocate for progressive rights movements. The local community continued to advocate for abolition after the British Abolition Act was passed. Lectures continued at the Assembly Rooms pressing for the total abolition of slavery across the Atlantic, and many prominent abolitionists were invited to speak, including Britain’s leading abolitionist George Thompson.

So far, our research has given us a crucial understanding of the direct effects of slavery on Pittville and Cheltenham. Our study has shown that the problems linked to slavery directly affected the whole town and that slavery had an extensive reach.

Legacies of slave ownership in Gloucestershire

This year, our students are working on a number of important local history projects covering the hidden lives of prominent women, exploring the experiences of lockdown, and uncovering links with slavery. All the projects will be exhibited in September as part of the ‘City Voices’ programme of the Gloucester History Festival. This post is one of five projects, and explores the legacies of slave ownership in and around Gloucester, and includes Joe Richardson, Harry Scott, Stephen Walmsley.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 awoke a desire in many to learn more about our past and to question what we see around us. Many people wanted to gain further knowledge of the slave trade, a topic often brushed over in school, and many, ourselves included, wanted to know in what ways wealth generated by slavery is still visible. This project provides us with the opportunity to explore these questions in a case study of Gloucestershire. We aim to explore some of the legacies of the slave trade that are still visible in Gloucester and Gloucestershire.

Initially, we investigated how the abolition of slavery came about in Britain and its empire. There were two key pieces of legislation. First, the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act allowed for the confiscation of all ships involved in the slave trade. The 1807 Act also imposed fines on slave ship masters of £100 per slave if they tried to transport thereafter. Second, the 1834 Abolition Act had two sections: one emancipated the slaves, and the other compensated the slave owners. This act saw over £20,000,000 (over £2.4bn in today’s money) given in compensation to over 3,000 slave owning families. This was around 5% of GDP and 40% of the national budget. The money borrowed to pay this compensation was only paid off in 2015.

Next, we used the University College London (UCL) website Legacies of British slave-ownership to identify the names of known slave owners of Gloucester who received compensation after 1834. We then used a range of archives and digital archives, including the British Newspaper Archive, to explore further the individuals found on the UCL website. We found eleven people in Gloucester, or the villages just outside of the city, who received compensation. Of these eleven, we were able to find some more detailed information in archives and from records kept by local history societies, although this is still an ongoing process.

We found Rev. George Wilson Bridges. Bridges served as a vicar in two parishes in Jamaica and then served as rector as St. Giles Church in Maisemore, a village just outside Gloucester, from 1844-1846. He returned to Gloucestershire as vicar at Beachley from 1858-1863. He received just over £87 in compensation for three slaves, but this was not the main way that Bridges profited from slavery. Bridges earnt an annual income of between £500 and £2000 from baptising slaves whilst he was serving in Jamaica. With this money, he was able to fund a decade of travel around the world developing photography, something for which he is remembered. This example shows two aspects of slavery: first, the way people could indirectly profit from slavery; and second, one of the ways people spent the money they made from it, including pursuing a hobby.

People also invested their wealth. For example, George Henry Ames received over £45,000 in compensation for sixteen slave estates and made significant investments in the Great Western Cotton Company. Henry Sealy received £393 in compensation, and he invested a total of £2,500 in the York and Carlisle railway. Sealy was not the only Gloucestershire slave owner to invest in railways. These examples demonstrate that profit from the slave trade remains ingrained in many aspects of modern life in ways that are extremely easy to miss, such as the development of a railway network.

Badminton House as mentioned above (https://www.badmintonestate.com)

Another visible aspect of wealth from the slave trade is in the country estates around Gloucestershire. These were the ideal purchase for wealthy slave traders and merchants from Bristol. There were at least ten country estates in Gloucestershire that saw money from slavery invested in them, including one of the most famous in the country: Badminton House. Badminton benefitted from a £20,000 refurbishment in late 17th century by its owner, Henry Somerset, who had extraordinarily strong links to the slave trade.

Even though the project is ongoing, the examples listed in this post demonstrate that money from the slave trade can be seen in many aspects of modern life even in areas that one might not expect.

The Life and Legacies of George Whitefield

This post comes from Rebecca Chivers, Josh Oliver and Frankie Stanley.

The recent controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States, and even colonial figures such as Admiral Lord Nelson in Britain, has focused attention on the ways in which national ‘heroes’ and more problematic historical figures are and should be remembered. Our project provides one example by focusing on Gloucester-born George Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist credited with promoting a Protestant revival in Britain and its American colonies.

Whitefield’s childhood and early life are a pivotal part of our project, as they played an important role in his development as a charismatic and inspirational. His interest in acting and theatre whilst growing up was crucial in how he became such an influential and famous figure throughout Great Britain and the American colonies. His experiences acting on stage made him an incredibly captivating preacher. 

Whitefield is popularly known as a prominent evangelist preacher that sparked surges of religious interest in the American colonies during the 18th century, part of what was known as the ‘Great Awakening.’ However, his endorsement of slavery in Georgia and religious justifications for the enslavement of Africans have rarely been acknowledged. Even Gloucestershire tourist websites have taken advantage of his Gloucestershire connection but have not shed light on this controversial past. Although his charity work funding the Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia (that founded his advocacy of slavery), his interest in the religious education and conversion of African American slaves and protest of the physical abuse of slaves complicates the picture of his ethical blind spots.

As well as Whitefield’s approach to slavery and his early life and childhood, our group will be researching his involvement in the foundation of the Methodist movement of Christianity, and his relationship with the Wesley brothers, Charles and John. This approach will also naturally detail his upbringing and education, especially the time he spent at Pembroke College in Oxford. This will also lead into Whitefield’s journey to the American colonies and the missionary work , which eventually led to his rise to fame. It was the Wesley brothers who convinced Whitefield to travel to America, so the relationship between the three of them will be an important aspect of our project, especially when looking at the tensions and difficulties which later occurred during their lives.    

Whitfield Tabernacle built in 1741, Historic England

Our group project is to investigate the controversial legacy of Whitefield, how Gloucestershire should remember him and how Whitefield shows the complicated relationship between religion and slavery. In recent years, historians have explored Whitefield’s religious theodicy and conflicted views on slavery, which meant that it would be difficult for our group to uncover new information. Therefore, we concluded that our group would present a broad display of Whitefield’s life, his American preaching, his humanitarianism and his murky connection to slavery so that the audience can arrive at their own conclusions on how they, and Gloucestershire, should remember him.