Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Haberdashers, Hatcham and Slavery

The Haberdashers' Aske's school in New Cross is reported to be considering the implications of the links between Robert Aske (after whom the school is named) and slavery, with press coverage suggesting that a change of name is being considered. A statement issued by the school's sponsor, the Haberdashers Company, states:

'The Haberdashers’ Company and its Schools in Elstree and South London have become aware that Robert Aske was a shareholder in the Royal African Company (RAC).  All are clear that the role of the RAC in the slave trade was deplorable and sits in stark contrast with the values which underpin the activities and philosophy of the Company, its schools and beneficiaries today.  The schools are already engaged in comprehensive reviews of culture, values and their brands and this matter will be included.  The outcome of these fully consultative deliberations, including the future use of the Aske name, will be communicated when conclusions are reached and decisions made.  The Haberdashers’ Company is proud of its ethos of benevolence, fellowship and inclusion, and the diverse nature of its membership'.

I have been looking into slavery and the New Cross area for a while,  now seems a good time to summarise some of what we know - or ought to know.

Haberdashers and slavery

The Haberdashers' schools in South London and elsewhere have their origins in the Haberdashers' Aske's charity, established with funds bequeathed by Robert Aske (1619-1689) and managed by the Haberdashers company, one of the City of London livery companies.

The current Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College (as it is now known) was built on Pepys Road in New Cross in 1875 expanding on to a second site in Jerningham Road in 1889. The Haberdashers Company owned most of the land in the New Cross area at this point. A 19th century statue of Robert Aske stands in the forecourt of the school's Pepys Road site.


It is now well established that Robert Aske was one of the early investors in the Royal African Company, holding £500 of stock. According to historian William Pettigrew, the RAC 'shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade' (Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752, 2013) including more than 150,000 slaves forcibly transported to the British Caribbean.

Aske was neither the first nor last member of the Haberdashers' Company to invest in slaving. For instance William Garrard (1507-1571), sometime Lord Mayor of London, helped develop the slave trade by funding the early slaving voyages of John Hawkins.

A contemporary of Aske's, Jeremy Sambrooke (died 1704) was a director of the Royal African Company as well as a member of the Haberdashers Company. In the same period at least two masters of the Haberdashers Company were also directors of the RAC:  John Lawrence (died 1692) holding £1,600 of stock and Arthur Ingram (1617-1681) holding £1500 of stock.  Both were also directors of the East India Company which was likewise involved in slavery in this period as well as beginning its colonial expansion in India which the Company was eventually to rule (see more at Reclaim EC1 on slavery and the City of London).

The Haberdashers' Company was also involved with the early 17th century Ulster Plantation, whereby land confiscated by the Crown from its Irish owners was given to City Livery Companies. Their mission was to clear Irish catholic tenants and replace them with English and Scottish protestant settlers who it was hoped could be relied upon to be loyal to the Crown - paving the way for centuries of sectarian conflict.

In short an honest assessment of the links between the Haberdashers Company, slavery and colonialism would have to look a lot wider than the technical details of Robert Aske's share holding in the Royal African Company.

The Lucas family

Haberdashers' Aske's is not the only local place with a slavery connection. To give just one further example for now, the St John's area of Lewisham was developed in the 19th century on land largely owned by the Lucas family - hence the name Lucas Street SE8 and Lucas Vale Primary School.

Jonathan Lucas II owned slave plantations and hundreds of slaves in South Carolina, where his father (also Jonathan Lucas) had become wealthy through his rice mill business.  'Lucas and his family were at the centre of Charleston's cosmopolitan society'  but following the suppression of a planned slave uprising there in 1822, 'Jonathan II settled his family at Hatcham Grove House in New Cross, where the family lived from 1824 to 1834' (R. Williams III & A.L. Lofton, Rice to Ruin: The Jonathan Lucas Family in South Carolina, 1783-1929). This was a mansion in its own grounds situated between what is now Erlanger Road and Pepys Road at the bottom of Telegraph Hill.  This Lucas died in 1832 and his wife shortly after, but his son and other descendants continued to own land locally and played a major role in the development of Deptford New Town (now St Johns) from the mid-19th century.

Hatcham Grove House, sometime home of the Charleston slave plantation owner Jonathan Lucas. In the 1850s it became a school for the children of Warehousemen and Clerks 

Anti-slavery 

It is sometimes argued that it is anachronistic to criticise those involved in slavery in the past, on the grounds that we are applying modern moral standards to different times. The implication is that nobody knew that slavery was wrong at the time.

In fact there were opponents of slavery from very early on - not least the slaves themselves of course! Deptford's John Evelyn, also connected to the slave trade, mentions a planned slave revolt in Barbados in his diary for 1692. He also discusses the ethical question of whether slaves should be baptised, something opposed by many slave masters as they feared even this recognition of their captives' humanity.

The long opposition to slavery is documented in a book largely written in New Cross more than 200 years ago. The History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808) was written by the slavery abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), much of it while staying as a guest of the Hardcastle family at  Hatcham House in New Cross (grounds bordered by what is now Hatcham Park Road). Clarkson was one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, and among other things had travelled to Paris after the French Revolution in an effort to persuade France to abolish slavery. Clarkson is unsparing in documenting the cruelties of slavery and denouncing 'the oppressors of the African race'. He also traces the history of opposition to slavery right back to the start of the slave trade in the 16th century. Among the arguments he quotes is an 18th century text by Humphry Primatt: 'It has pleased God to cover some men with white skins and others with black; but as there is neither merit nor demerit in complexion, the white man, notwithstanding the barbarity of custom and prejudice, can have no right by virtue of his colour to enslave and tyrannize over the black man'. Anti-racism was not invented in the 20th century!

There is a plaque on the Haberdashers' school site in Jerningham Road to the poet Robert Browning, whose family home was on the grounds of what later became the school. Browning's father, who lived there, had once been sent to St Kitts to manage a family owned plantation with slaves, though apparently he returned home unhappy with the cruelty of the plantation system (see Browning and Slavery).

The 'Black Lives Matter' movement has highlighted some of these historic connections and its supporters have been accused of wanting to rewrite history. But much of the history of slavery and its role in British society has never been written in the first place. 

Still at least in New Cross the statue of Olaudah Equiano - once forced back into slavery in Deptford - stares across Telegraph Hill Park on the other side of which stands the statue of Robert Aske. As to which of these two should be honoured by children in a 21st century multi-cultural South London school I leave that to you to judge.

Of course there's a whole lot more to be said about slavery and South London, here's a few previous pieces: 

Paul Hendrich on the statues on Deptford Town Hall in New Cross

Deptford's Runaway Slaves

'South London and Negro Emancipation' - 1863 anti-Slavery meeting at the Elephant & Castle





2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, a much more in-depth piece than mine from a couple of days ago - and people actually read your blog!
When it comes to linking to Paul Hendrich's piece, there were numerous faults in that and I briefly covered some of them here.
https://braininabucket.wordpress.com/blog/

Anonymous said...

I ventured into this a little a couple of days ago on a blog post, and why I contacted ASke's Federation supporting a name change. but in much less detail
I would argue with a couple of points. Although there had been a couple of Quaker voices arguing against slavery, there were virtually no anti-slavery arguments being made during Aske's lifetime. Those came much later.
The point, I think, is NOT to engage in the morally ambiguous task of using an ethical Tardis to judge the past by present standards, but one CAN say that continuing to commemorate those who took part in clearly reprehensible actions is addressing contemporary issues. We do not need to condemn or put on trial historical figures - certainly not from nearly 350 years ago - but simply to decide what is appropriate now.
AS to the link to Paul Hendrich's old piece, I'm not a fan of that, it was full or errors and speculation, and I mention some of the reasons why here.
https://braininabucket.wordpress.com/blog/