London History Bulletin – January 2

On this day in 1807 Prime Minister Lord Greville tabled the Slave Trading Abolition Act in the House of Lords. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

London days of the year. They’re like Christmas trees. Fitting them up with their history, it’s like decorating Christmas trees. Except that not all of the decorations are pretty. Some of them – a lot of them, in fact – are downright ugly. Well, it’s history isn’t it? What else would you expect?

The one for today, though, January 2nd, is splendid. It’s January 2nd, 1807 and Lord Grenville, the prime minister is introducing the Slave Trade Abolition Act to the House of Lords. Lord Grenville will introduce the bill and then lead the fight in the Lords to get it passed. Come February it’s the House of Commons’s turn. The Commons passes the bill on February 23rd. It gets the Royal Assent on March 25th and comes into force on May 1st. It gives the Royal Navy the right to interdict slave ships. And impose a fine of £100 per slave on ships carrying that human cargo. Needless to say, slavers took evasive action in more senses than one, including throwing slaves overboard when a Royal Navy vessel had them in its sights. That said, it was, I suppose, a start. Over the next 60 years the Royal Navy intercepted 1,600 illegal slave ships and freed 150,000 slaves from Africa. And “start” is the mot juste. Because the 1807 Act took aim only at slave trading. It did not abolish slavery in the British Empire. That would have to wait until 1833.

None of this is easy to reckon with. Not least because of the early chapters of the book of modern slavery. What’s in those early chapters is that no country profited more from the slave trade than Britain. And foul as that is, there’s something worse. Namely this: slavery is not history. There are reckoned to be more people living in slavery today than in any time in history.

And getting out of the glare of that harsh light for a minute, a couple of takeaways for me as a guide.

  1. Lord Grenville wasn’t on my mental map at all. For me – and I suspect for pretty much everybody else – The name that’s always been synonymous with the anti-slavery movement is of course Wilberforce. So Lord Grenville, well, happy to make his acquaintance.
  2. Nor did I know that Lord Grenville’s father was also a Prime Minister. Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger – I of course knew about those two pieces of father-son prime minister timber. Hadn’t a clue that there was another father-son pairing of prime ministers.
  3. And finally, I was very interested to learn that Lord Grenville’s London house was in Cleveland Row, the exclusive little street that’s right there, just over the way from St James’ Palace. That’s factoid’s going to be fun to drop into my Old Palace Quarter Walk. “The royals in St James’s Palace had some pretty distinguished neighbours, including Lord Grenville, who introduced the famous Slave Trade Abolition Act to the House of Lords.” 

Cue that agreeable split second when you see that look of “oh, that’s interesting to know” pass across their faces.

To paraphrase, ever so slightly, Shakespeare’s famous line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “And as knowledge bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the guide’s patter / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

A local habitation and a name – seeing where they lived, seeing what they saw when they looked out their window – in this case St. James’s Palace – it turns names on history’s page into real people, flesh and blood men and women. That in itself is sufficient reason for going on walking tours. 

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 2nd. 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. See ya tomorrow.

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