Slavery & the City

It’s a remarkable story, a story that exemplifies the worst and the best of humanity…

Excerpt:  “Ordinary men and women would club together to buy slaves. Oxford and Cambridge universities invested in and profited from the slave trade.”

“Slavery is still a live issue…”

“We can look away. Or we can be vigilant and ask questions.”

It’s Isobel’s Slavery & the City walk

This is her podcast about the walk.


I’m returning to the streets to lead my first guided tour since the start of lockdown five months ago. 

Slavery and the City, like many tours has changed and evolved over the years as more research and evidence has come to light. Essentially it is about how a loose group of men came together to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and how in 1807 that aim was achieved. 

It’s a remarkable story, a story that exemplifies the worst and the best of human behaviour, that recognises the horrors of the slave trade, the extreme inhumanity, and yet contains seeds of hope. 

In 1787 when the society was formed almost everyone in this country accepted slavery as normal. The profits from the trade added considerably to the economy, financially benefitting people at all levels of society. 

Some 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, loaded onto slave ships as part of a huge commercial operation in which they were human pawns. In fact they were seen as less than human; chattels, property, to be bought and sold, exploited and worked until they could work no more.

Members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade set in motion the process that brought about abolition, first of the trade in slaves, then slavery itself. They were motivated by empathy, sympathy and compassion for their fellow human beings.

They overcame the vested interests of Crown, government, and powerful individuals, mobilising opinion, changing hearts and minds. They were the prototype of the modern pressure group, using methods we recognise to this day. The society’s founders included Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe and James Phillips. Later William Wilberforce MP joined them.

It wasn’t only the powerful who stood to lose if the trade ended. Members of the pro-slavery lobby were baffled by why people were campaigning to end something that would leave them financially worse off. Across the country slavery brought employment to thousands, from shipbuilders and fitters, to blacksmiths and rope makers, supplying goods to slave traders. These workers would never visit a plantation, never see slaves working in the fields, or cooking meals in houses, as Britain’s slaves were not in Britain, yet the anti-slavery movement gathered strength and support among Britain’s workers.

Which is not say that investment in the trade was not widespread. In novels of the period there are references to the slavery and to wealth, think of the Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice, or the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. Ordinary men and women would club together to buy slaves as an investment, not unlike people who bought shares in BT when it was privatised. Institutions including Oxford and Cambridge universities,  and the Church England owned slaves, others such as Barclays Bank were founded on the proceeds while Lloyds of London insured slave ships.

When slavery, as distinct from the slave trade was abolished, it was the slave owners who received financial compensation for their loss of income, while the newly liberated slaves received nothing. In recent years scholars have been studying records of those who were compensated and how much money they received. 

On University College London’s website you can find a database of their names, and there are links to two maps, one of Fitzrovia, the other of Bloomsbury,  On each a spreading rash of markers shows the addresses of people in these neighbourhoods who received compensation.

That compensation was often invested in railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution, in country estates and houses, and ironically in philanthropic pursuits. Descendants of those who made their money through slavery continue to inherit wealth and privilege. Descendants who include David Cameron, old Etonian and ex-Prime Minister.

Despite the slave trade being abolished in 1807, and slavery in the British Empire abolished in 1833, slavery is still a live issue. As we condemn the actions of those in the past who profited from this evil trade it’s worth looking at how slavery still exists in the modern world. 

Who made your trainers, your shirt, your coat, your mobile ‘phone? Might it have been a child labourer, a forced labourer in a Chinese prison, a woman working in an unsafe sweatshop for very little pay?  

Who is working in our high streets’ nail bars? How about trafficked sex workers, and domestic servants made to work sixteen-hour days and sleep under kitchen tables for no pay at all? We can look away, or we can be vigilant and ask questions.

Anti-Slavery International is the C21 equivalent of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, working to expose and end slavery in our time. Its London offices are in Stockwell,  in the appropriately named Thomas Clarkson House.

For pod bean

In 1787, in the City of London, twelve men formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade,  motivated by empathy, sympathy and compassion for their fellow human beings.

This is a taster for a tour about members of the society, the struggles they faced and the methods they used to reach their goal. It is also about the horrors of this evil trade, and the legacies it has left.

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