It’s not just in Bristol that there are memorials to slave-owners. Even in a Sanderstead churchyard, there can be found links to the slave trade, and to the modern royal family, as STEPHANIE OFFER discovered
The hauling down and dunking in the River Avon of the statue of 17th-Century slave owner Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol prompted me to wonder about the way Croydon will have been enriched by the slave trade.
A brief piece of online research quickly showed that there were at least nine slave owners in Croydon at the time that Britain moved to stop the slave trade.
I looked at Croydon on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project’s website. The project is based on the claims that were made by slave owners for compensation in 1833, when owning slaves was abolished in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. That reform came a full 26 years after the slave trade itself was abolished in 1807.
In all, the British government granted £20million of taxpayers’ money to compensate the slave owners, equivalent to 40 per cent the national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire.
By some estimates, that is the equivalent of £17billion in today’s money.
The original amount was lumped on to the national debt. According to HM Treasury, “The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
In the process of making these payments, the government of the time created a detailed ledger of all those who owned slaves. Meanwhile, the slaves themselves were forced into serving six-year unpaid “apprenticeships” after their supposed emancipation.
The legacies of slave ownership show nine individuals in Croydon who claimed compensation for the loss of slaves. Between them, they owned around 1,399 human beings and they were paid £40,547 6s 5d in compensation. This equates to nearly £17million in today’s money.
The numbers owned varied from a single slave to 474. The wealth generated by slavery helped to pay to build two of Croydon’s biggest stately homes.
It was by no means only the super-rich who owned slaves, as the Croydon records show. Eliza Grant Shaw, of 42 South End, Croydon, was a governess who was born in Jamaica and claimed for one slave in Kingston, Jamaica, for which she was paid £19 10s 10d.
As Charlotte and Anne Bronte showed in their novels Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, becoming a governess was a poorly-paid profession which tended to be the only occupation open to middle-class women with no money. It is possible that Shaw’s slave was an inheritance or an investment she made with her savings. But her claim shows how widespread and commonplace slave ownership was throughout society.
Other claims from Croydon slave owners were similarly modest, such as that for 13 slaves in Dominica by businessman Thomas Coles, of Thornton Heath, and that for 11 slaves in Jamaica made by retired customs collector Lyndon Howard Evelyn of 6 Enmore Road, South Norwood, for which he received £259 4s 9d.
Meanwhile Evelyn’s wife Alice received £469 12s 10d in compensation for 37 slaves she owned in Jamaica.
Although these are comparatively few slaves, the sums of compensation are relatively huge given that the annual income for an agricultural labourer at that time was a mere £30.
Even greater were the sums paid to the families of the builders of Addington Palace and Selsdon Park. The owners of both estates owed much of their fortunes to slavery.
Barlow Trecothick was a notable merchant and trans-Atlantic politician of the revolutionary 18th century who had lived in Boston and in Jamaica, where he owned an estate, as well as owning a plantation in Grenada. Around 1750, he moved to the London to work as a commission merchant on trade with North America, becoming a City Alderman from 1764. He was MP for the City from 1768 and was Lord Mayor of London in 1770.
It was Trecothick who in 1768 paid £38,500 for the Addington estate, where he began building the grand Addington Palace that we know today.
And it was his nephew and heir, James Trecothick, who in 1833 received £10,247 5s 1d for the 474 slaves he owned in Jamaica and Grenada. Although the Addington Palace website has a page about Barlow Trecothick, there is no mention of how he had made much of his wealth from slavery.
Croydon’s biggest owner of slaves in 1833 was George Smith.
Smith was the son of a wealthy banker, a director of the East India Company (another connection with a history which is impossible to reconcile today) and an MP for 24 years. It was Smith who in the early 19th century bought the Selsdon estate and built Selsdon House, much of which remains and is what we know today as the Selsdon Park hotel.
And it was Smith who was the great-great-grandfather of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who was to become Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Smith’s family ran one of the 18th century’s biggest banks, Smith Payne Smith, which would eventually be taken over by what has become NatWest.
George Smith (1765-1836) and his wife, Frances Mary, had 15 children, including a son named Oswald. In 1853, Oswald’s daughter Frances Dora Smith married the 13th Earl Of Strathmore, Claude Bowes-Lyon. Their son, Claude George Bowes-Lyon, was the father of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. In 1923 Elizabeth married Prince Albert, the Duke of York; together they would be crowned King and Queen in 1937, attended by their young princess daughters, Margaret and the future Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1833, George Smith’s son, George Robert Smith, put in a claim for 461 slaves in Jamaica, worth £17,945 10s 3d, the biggest compensation awarded in Croydon.
George Smith senior has a memorial in All Saint’s Church, Sanderstead, which describes him as having, “uncompromising principles of justice and honor, the purity of his character both in public and private life was universally acknowledged and respected and his benevolence was felt by all around him”. A statement incompatible with slave-owning to modern eyes.
The vault of the Smith family is located on the north side of the church and is the final resting place of the grandmother, great grandparents and great-great-grandfather of the Queen’s mother.
The clock tower of the Grade I-listed church at Sanderstead also provides food for thought.
The inscription on the tower’s clock-face reads “Pereunt et Imputantur” which translates as being “The hours are spent and laid to our account”.
The clock was given to the church in 1844 by the younger George Smith of Selsdon House. Might some of the money that paid for it have even come out of his £17,000 “compensation” money he had received 11 years earlier?
The connections between the slave-owning Smith family of Selsdon House and the royal family continued right until the end of the 20th century when, not long before her death in 2002, the Queen Mother contributed to the restoration of the clock. There is a plaque inside the church to mark the royal contribution.
The way in which slave-generated wealth built cities like Bristol and Liverpool is often talked about.
But the slave compensation records show how that wealth impacted the whole country. Like it or not, slave ownership shaped Croydon and brought considerable wealth to the area, leaving a physical legacy to this day.
- Stephanie Offer is a local historian from Croydon
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