Letters from Lancaster 25

The Lune through Lancaster (3): Between the Bridges

By one bridge is a green space, with a skateboard park. By the other bridge is a new residential and industrial estate. Between them, the heart of Lancaster, and the story and complex legacy of the town and slavery. 

Brockbank shipyard: The Trafalgar,
being built, was a slave ship.

In the eighteenth-century the green space was the site of Brockbank’s shipbuilders, who for a hundred years built ships custom-made for the Lancaster slave trade, smaller than Liverpool ships as they picked up Africans on the difficult Guinea coast. On the estate, several of the new streets are named after Brockbank slave ships. There is also a Brockbank Avenue. Not deliberately offensive, but the result of the lack of openness about the detail of Lancaster’s economy, and, as I noted in Letter 15, the cognitive dissonance this allows.

Lancaster was the fourth largest UK slaving port. There were 200 sailings to Africa, and 30,000 Africans were transported across the Atlantic. There were also many direct sailings between Lancaster and the Caribbean, with furniture and luxury goods for the plantation holders, clothes, ironwork, dried fish and machinery for the plantations, bringing back sugar, rum, spices and mahogany. Shipbuilding and furniture-making were the two main trades in the town. Lancaster men also owned plantations directly, and their sons became factors and supervisors in Africa and the Caribbean.  Their families became wealthy, built substantial warehouses and fine houses, furnished them with mahogany furniture, and dominated the local economy, society, the Council and the Port Commission for generations. (The Port Commission was set up in 1759 by the local slave traders to improve port facilities.)  “The wealth derived from slavery and slave ownership in Lancaster shaped the establishment of a new class of powerful elites in England.” Prof. Imogen Tyler.

The Quay, Lancaster. Many warehouses survive, converted into flats. 

But these generalities have been known for thirty years (see Letter 15), and acknowledged in the city museums’s displays. And yet have allowed the ignorance that resulted in the street names. Perhaps some details will say more.

Miles Barber of Skerton (where I live) developed on the Guinea coast ‘Factory Island’, and eleven barracoons where Africans in thousands were imprisoned in horrific conditions before being herded onto slave ships. It was the biggest such operation on the coast. He was a Port Commissioner in 1860s.

He employed the Hodgson brothers of Caton, who took over the running of Factory Island, and used their profits to set up the first cotton mill in this area. The mill used children from Liverpool orphanages and workhouses as cheap indentured labour – a report in 1797 said that “the small and nimble fingers of children” were essential for the efficient use of early cotton machinery. The children were locked in dormitories between their 12-hour shifts.

John Bond owned Lancaster plantation in Guiana (Guyana), described in 1785 as “distinguished” by “its inhuman treatment of slaves”. He lived in Dalton Square, where ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations were held. In 1837 his son received £29,000 – almost £3 million today – from the Slave Compensation Act, for the loss of his ‘property’. The slaves received nothing.

The Satterthwaite family had a black servant, Frances Elizabeth Johnson. Her grave bears one date, that of her baptism (baptism the only certain way to cease to be a slave). Her hand was cut off and preserved in the family, as a memento of her service, as the paw of a favourite dog was often preserved in that period. It was finally buried in 1997. 

The Customs House, 
now the Maritime Museum

Gillows was a well-known Lancaster maker of high-quality furniture for 200 years. It was founded by Richard Gillow, who sailed as ship’s carpenter in a Satterthwaite slave ship, and returned with the first mahogany in 1720. As well as importing slave-produced mahogany, and selling furniture to the plantation owners and local slave traders, three-quarters of his ships and 40% of profits were from the slave trade: this was long concealed in the company accounts. His son, Robert designed one of Lancaster’s finest buildings, the Customs House, on the Quay, and continued the business.

After slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833, The Slavery Compensation Act 1837 paid £20 million – £2.4 billion at today’s prices, the largest ever government payout – to 40,000 owners of 800,000 slaves. Over a dozen local families benefited. The money fuelled the Railway Mania of 1840s as the beneficiaries sought replacement income.

But there are signs of change.

Research at the universities of Central Lancashire and Lancaster, led by Alan Rice and Imogen Tyler, is revealing more and more local detail.

“Captured Africans” 
by Kevin Dalton Johnson

In 2005, the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project secured the commissioning of “Captured Africans” by Kevin Dalton Johnson, still the only quayside-located monument in UK to transported Africans, and a focus for ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations.

Rawlinson Tomb

The Rawlinson grave, the most elaborate in the Priory  churchyard, was recently tagged ‘Slave Trader’. The vicar said that while he couldn’t approve the action, he acknowledged its truth, and the need for the church to be more open. (Clergy received an equivalent of £46m from the compensation payout.)

A “Slave Trade and Fair Trade Map of Lancaster” has been  produced, and recently updated, giving a route from the past of slave trading to the future of fair trading.

The City Council, the Priory Church, and the local museums have promised to revisit their public spaces and displays to take better account of Lancaster and the slave trade.

Professor Tyler has connected the Lancaster Assizes sending branded and chained convicts to forced labour in the Caribbean and North America, with the slave and plantation system, the investments from slaving profits in child-exploiting cotton mills, and their use of slave-produced cotton.

And perhaps I have to continue the connections, to arrive at my personal responsibility: to the post-war mass-import of sub-continent workers to East Lancashire mills, then their abandonment when the industry was off-shored, resulting in racial tensions. And further, to exploitative third-world conditions producing clothes I buy without thought. Or to sweat-shops in Leicester, and the ‘fast-fashion’ of synthetic fabric clothes, effectively one-use plastics. And maybe I need to follow all such connections, to what I consume and how I live.

Note: Essential viewing is Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, David Olusoga’s brilliant account of the slave trade and the Compensation Act. Available on BBC iplayer.