Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Deptford's runaway slaves

The Runaway Slaves project based at the University of Glasgow is gathering information from one key source: adverts placed in 18th century British newspapers offering a reward for the return of black people who had run away. Some runaways were working as household servants, others on ships. All were treated as property to be captured and brought back to their owner.

Searching on the database, I have found 18 adverts which mention Deptford, covering 23 runaways - summarised in the table below.

As an example here's an advertisement placed in the the 'Public Advertiser' on 13th March 1759. Two men, Thomas Douglas and Theodore Legrass, are said to have 'run from on board the Trueman at Deptford'. This was a ship docked at Deptford, with the runways 'belonging to Capt. Nicholas Comyn'. Another advert from the same year mentions another runaway from the same ship, with the information that 'whoever apprehends the said Negro Slave and brings him to Mr. Comyn, at his House in Paradise Street, Rotherhith, shall receive three Guineas'.

Taken together these adverts tell us something about the relationship between Deptford and slavery. Firstly with its docks and shipyards, Deptford was a point on the maritime network linking the key sites of enslavement in Africa, the Caribbean and America. Adverts mention ships at Deptford bound for or from Jamaica, Barbados and Maryland.

Secondly, Deptford was a place to escape and to hide. Escaping from ships at sea is very difficult, when they reach land there is a window of opportunity and quite of a few of these cases relate to people leaving ships while moored at Deptford. Those escaping may have hoped to get on board another ship and leave the country - a couple of adverts mention runaways potentially making their way to Gravesend for this purpose. Or they may have decided to try their luck 'disappearing' in London. One advert mentions that 'it is imagined they are still in the neighbourhood of Deptford', suggesting that this was a place where black people could stay without immediately standing out - there were certainly other black people including former slaves living locally at this time.

Finally, these adverts show how large parts of society in Deptford and elsewhere were implicated in slavery and this case in the hunting down of runaways.  The newspapers printing adverts, the coffee houses and pubs where slaves or information were to be brought (the Angel and Still pub in Deptford is mentioned), the docks and the ships were all involved one way or another. In the case of a ‘little black Indian Boy' in 1772, the advice was simply to  'bring him to the Porter of Deptford-Yard'.




‘a Negro man of middle stature, well set, full face, speaks very broken English’


‘Deserted Sunday the 25th of this instant Sept. from the Ship Maryland Merchant, lying at Deptford Red-house’ [the Red House, later the Victualling Yard, was located where the Pepys Estate now stands]

‘A Negro Boy about 12 Years old, call’d James Pancridge’


‘Went away from his Master Captain Jonas Hanway, Commander of Her Majesty’s Ship the Tilbury at Deptford’ [HMS Tilbury was a Royal Naval ship built at Chatham dockyard and launched in 1699 and broken up in 1726]

‘A Black, by name Harry, about 21 years of Age, his Head half shaved, a cut in his Face by the kick of a Horse, bandy Leg’d


'Run away from on board the S[a]muel, R. Holland Master from Barbadoes then lying at Deptford'

‘a Negro Man named Lime-house, aged 32 Years, born in Guinea, smooth faced, with short thick Fingers, about 5 Foot 6 Inches high’


‘Run away the 9th of September last from on board the Ship Alexander, lying in the lower Wet Dock near Deptford’

‘an Indian Black named Will Ralph, aged about 18 or 20 Years, middle sized, wearing his own Hair which is inclin’d to Curl’


‘Run away the 3d Instant from on Board the Ship Arden lying at Deptford and bound to Maryland…  Whoever brings him, or gives Notice where he is, (so that he be taken) to Captain Richard Read Commander of the said Ship at his House in Rotherhith, or to Mr John Bodicoate next Lloyd’s Coffee-house in Lombard-street, shall have 10 s. Reward’.

‘A Well-set Negro, commonly call’d Sugar, Aged about Twenty Years, Teeth broke before, and several Scars in both his Cheeks and Forehead’


‘absented from his Master, whoever secures him, and gives Notice to Benjamin Maynard at the Angel and Still at Deptford shall have a Guinea Reward’

‘a black Indian Boy…  He has a Scar in his right Cheek, a Piece out of one of his Ears, and a dark Coat with Brass Buttons’.


‘went from his Master, having robb’d him, whoever will give Notice to Mr. Brook’s, Cutler in Mark-lane, London, Mr. Hyate’s at Deptford’

‘a Black Maid, named Flora, alias Lucy, aged about twenty Years, mark’d betwixt the Eyes and on her Chin with small black Strokes, much blacker than any other Part of her Face, likewise on her Arms, after the Manner of the Country from whence she came’


‘absented from Mrs. Cuming, in Union-Street, Deptford, the 26th of May last’

‘a Negro Man, named Yok, speaks French, and very little English, low of Stature, bow legged. Also, another named Peter, of middle Stature, speaks French and English’


‘run away from the Ship Nevis Planter…  Whoever will bring the above Negroes on board the said Ship at Deptford, or give Intelligence where they may be had, shall receive two Guineas per each’

‘Negro Slave, named Theodore, speaks the French Tongue, born at Martinico, about 5 Feet 6 Inches high, had on when he run away a blue Jacket, and a green one under, wearing a Hat and Wig’


‘run away on Sunday Night the 11th inst. from on board the Truman, now in Mess. Well’s Dock, Deptford… Whoever apprehends the said Negro Slave and brings him to Mr. Comyn, at his House in Paradise Street, Rotherhith, shall receive three Guineas Reward with reasonable Charges…It is imagined he may attempt escaping on board some of the Foreign Ships now in the River; the Clearing Officers at Gravesend are requested to examine the said Ships’

‘a Negro Man, named Thomas Douglas, belonging to Capt. Nicholas Comyn: he is about 25 Years old, 5 Feet 6 Inches high, well-set and well-limbed… And at the same Time for Theodore Legrass, who run away from the said Ship’


‘Run from on board the Trueman at Deptford… Whoever apprehends the said Negro Man, and brings him on board the said Ship, will be paid Ten Guineas…It is imagined they are still in the Neighbourhood of Deptford’

‘the following Negro Men, viz. Boatswain, Johnny Mass, Jack Black, and Harry Green; they are all stout able young Men, about 5 Feet 8 Inches high, and had on when they went away blue Jackets’


‘absented themselves yesterday from on board the Ship Hampden, Richard Mackenzie, Commander, while she lay repairing in Stanton’s Dock, near Deptford… it is imagined they are gone down to Gravesend, and will endeavour to get away in some outward-bound Ships’.

‘a Negro Man, named Peter, about 5 feet 10 Inches high, pitted with the Small-pox, speaks good French, (but no English) had on a blue Jacket and blue Cloth Cap, checked Shirt and Woollen Drawers, has Several Scars on his Back, and a large Scald on his left Foot’


‘Run away on Friday last from the Snow Montresor, Alexander Claxton, Master, lying at Deptford’

‘a Mulatto Frenchman, about 35 Years Old, of a dark Complexion, five Feet nine Inches high, named John Peter; he had on a Pair of new Duck Trowsers, Canvas Frock, blue Jacket, and wears a brown Grogoe; he says he is a Dutchman, but can't speak the Language; talks a little English’


‘ran away on Friday the 11th instant, from on Board a Hulk at Deptford’

‘A  Negro Man, well known by the Name of SAM BLACK, aged about Twenty-four Years, five Feet, one or two Inches high, much pitted with the Small-pox, of the smaller Kind, a remarkable flat Nose, jolly, and is well limbed; he had on when he went away, a brown Fustian Coat, with a red Collar, and broad metal Button, a red Cloth Waistcoat, Plush Breeches, Stone Buckles in the Knees, Silver Shoe Buckles, and old laced Hat, and a black Bob Wig’


‘Deserted from his Majesty’s Ship Leostroffe, Capt. Stirling, at Deptford’

'a Negro Man, named QUAO; speaks bad English, a stout Fellow, with large Feet, and four or five Scars on his Forehead, wearing a blue, white or red Jacket'.


‘run away, the 18th Instant, from on board the Ship Lyon, Laurence Irvine, Commander, now lying at Deptford, bound to Jamaica’

‘a Black Boy, the Property of Mr. Andrew Lucy… He is about four Feet nine Inches high, has long Hair, is well made, and speaks English well; has on a light coloured Great-coat, brown Waistcoat with mixed Lace, blue Breeches, and a black Velvet Cap’.


‘run away this Morning, and is supposed to be near the Parish of St. James’s, Westminster, or some Part of London, Highgate, or Deptford’.

‘little black Indian Boy, about 11 or 12 Years old, with black Hair cut short. He had on when he went away a blue Jacket, with red Cuffs and Collar, blue Cloth Breeches, with red Button-Holes’


‘If any Person can give Account of him so as he may be found again, or bring him to the Porter of Deptford-Yard, they shall be rewarded for their Trouble. And if any Person harbours him after this Advertisement they will be prosecuted as the Law directs’

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Hither Green 1988: a strike against the far right

I guess everyone knows about the 1977 anti-fascist Battle of Lewisham, less remembered is the 1988 fight by a group of  workers against the employment of a far right activist in a local unemployment benefits office. Malcolm Skeggs had been a long term leading activist in the racist National Front (including standing for them as an election candidate) and then in the British National Party. After apparently being sacked from a job in Lewisham Council, he got a job at the Hither Green office of the Department of Health and Social Security. When workers there got wind of this they raised objections about somebody with his views working there and having access to claimants' personal records. They were threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to work alongside him.

In April 1988, members of the Civil and Public Servants Association (CPSA) at Hither Green walked out on indefinite strike. There were daily pickets of the office, and a 1,000 strong demonstration in support of the strike in May. A regional day of action called by the union saw 20,000 CPSA members go on strike at DHSS offices and job centres across the London area on 26 May 1988. The strike came to an end in June after DHSS management moved Skeggs from Hither Green to a staff training centre at Hinchley Wood in Surrey.

Here's a few contemporary reports found via Sparrows Nest archive and Marxists Internet Archive: