August 1, 1834 – the Abolition of Slavery

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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s August 1st. Good day to walk by the Connaught Rooms at Great Queen Street just east of Covent Garden. And then put in at the nearby Freemason’s Arms pub in Long Acre. The Connaught Arms for the location. And the Freemason’s Arms for the name.  Well, near enough to the name. In 1834 – indeed on this day, August 1st – in 1834 if you’d made your way to where the Connaught Rooms stand today you would have pitched up at the Freemason’s Tavern. And August 1st, 1834 – well, draw a big red circle round that date in the history of the Freemason’s Tavern.

Indeed, draw a big red circle round that date in human history generally. Because it was on August 1st, 1834 that slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.

And why is the Freemason’s Tavern a focal point? Because the friends of the abolition of slavery – some 130 of them – have gathered at the tavern to celebrate the event. They wine, dine, and make speeches. In the chair is the Earl of Mulgrave, the late Governor of Jamaica. The Secretary of the Colonies is there, as are several members of parliament. The festivities got underway with the drinking of the health of the King. That toast is drunk three times three. The next health was that of  “the Queen”, which was drunk with similar honours. And then the Royal Family, also three times three.

The wheels of the proceedings well lubricated Mr Buxton then rose amid loud acclamation to propose the toast – and now I’m quoting from the August 2nd, 1834 Morning Chronicle – Mr Buxton arose to propose the toast of “the Emancipated Negroes.” But before he did so, Mr Buxton put the following question to the Noble Chairman, “were the freed slaves prepared to receive freedom, and to use it discreetly, or whether emancipation was really the perilous experiment which it had been described to be?”

And these people were the progressives of the day. It’s so patronizing, but useful I think to be mainlined right into the mentality of progressive Englishmen eight generations ago.

Anyway, the Chairman rose and said it was incumbent upon him to explain why he was in London at all, rather than in the West Indies gazing with joy and triumph at those glad countenances which on this day gleamed for the first time with the life and happiness of liberty. Mr Mulgrave said his health, impaired by the climate, rendered a return to England indispensable to the saving of his life. That matter settled, the Chairman got stuck in to the matter at hand. He said he was well satisfied that had not this great measure of emancipation been conceded a fatal convulsion of society in the West Indies would speedily have taken place. He said, on arrival in Jamaica he’d toured the island – at one point he’d addressed an aggregate of 50,000 slaves, and that he was quite convinced from his knowledge of them that they were capable of making the best use of their freedom. And at raising themselves, by the aid of education, to an equal height in the scale of civilisation with their white brethren. He said the revenues of Jamaica would be never developed till slavery was abolished. And that now that it was abolished, this country would begin to derive the real advantages she was entitled to expect from these colonies. The former Governor went on to detail the condition of the slaves, singling out in particular sufferings he had witnessed but had been unable to remedy as a consequence of the law, which gave to the owner the right of inflicting 39 lashes on his slave.

Mr Buxton took the floor to say he wanted words to express his delight at being one of a meeting assembled on so glorious an occasion. Today those men were free who yesterday were slaves who might be carried like cattle to market for sale or hire. He said it was a glorious day for us Britons who were at one time ourselves described by Cicero as ‘slaves not fit for the service of the accomplished Atticus’ to have thus effected the emancipation of the negro population. We had thus done away with a system which engendered a frightful degree of crime; and a mortality which, if it prevailed over the other parts of the world, would in 50 years have depopulated the whole world. The Honourable Gentleman then said that though rejoicing at the abolition of slavery in the West Indies he still had to regret its prevalence to an awful extent elsewhere, and particularly in America, and he trusted our best exertions would be used to doing away with slavery all over the world. That remark hit a nerve. Another gentleman at the dinner would later chime in that it was mere hypocrisy for the Americans to boast of liberty and the rights of men while they kept their fellow men as slaves.

And finally, to wrap things up, Mr Buxton suggested that an act of interest and importance such as this should be commemorated annually but as the 1st of August was a period at which many person who might wish to be present were out of town it would perhaps be better to name Lord Mulgrave’s birthday – the 15th of May – which also happens to be the day on which the measure was brought into Parliament – as the anniversary day.

Well, not quite finally. We learn from the Times that dissenters of various denominations, determined that August 1st be set apart for prayer and thanksgiving, held services in their separate chapels and in many of them collections were made, in order to raise funds with the view of – and of course here again I’m quoting – with the view of furnishing every negro with a copy of the Holy Scriptures.” Well, those well-intentioned people – like people everywhere throughout the ages – were a product of their times.

The abolition of slavery was the big story that day. But it wasn’t the only story. There was a lot of parliamentary news. A bill to do away with the restrictions placed on dissenters who wanted an Oxbridge education was running into stiff opposition in the House of Lords.

And there was a heated debate in the House of Commons about the sale of beer bill. Let’s close out this podcast by hearing Member of Parliament Mr Attwood’s remarks on the subject.

Pay particular attention to Mr Attwood’s peroration.

Mr Attwood said it would be impossible to carry the bill into execution and that they ought to take care that in endeavouring to check the crime of drunkenness they did not unjustifiably curtail the enjoyments of the working classes [hear, hear!]; He did not think they had a right to dictate to Englishmen where they should and where they should not drink their beer [hear, hear!] and the passing of laws like this would either make the people defy and despise the law, or reduce them to the veriest poltroons ever trampled under the foot of tyranny. The people did not go to the beer houses so much for the sake of the beer as for the sake of society and that interchange of ideas they could not meet with at home. As to the working classes being encouraged to take the beer home to drink, he discouraged it; for if they had English hearts in their bosoms, they would share it with their wives and children, for whom tea and milk were strong enough. There were none of these restraints upon the drinking of beer on the meeting of the working classes in the olden time; but if they got intoxicated there was the wholesome, beneficent, but efficient punishment of the stocks.”

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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