Slave Owners and Hackney

On the 7th June, those protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in Bristol pulled down and dumped the statue Edward Colston, a prolific slave trader, into their harbor . A moment which sparked a conversation on the legacy of British colonialism and how slavery is remembered, both in our education system and via the statues that many of us uncritically pass on a daily basis. This is a debate which has many standpoints, such as those who see the removal of statues as doing nothing to address the racism that underpins them, to some who see no issue in their standing, and those who view the removal of statues as necessary to highlight and combat the racism that still exists in British society. For me these conversations are just as important as the physical removal of the statues that prompted them. We cannot allow the legacy of British slavery to go unnoticed in the mainstream any longer.

Personally it is has been significant to learn how Hackney, a borough I was born in, educated in and lived in, has interacted with its legacy of slavery. Growing up I was always taught the strong links Hackney has with social and political activism, for example the suffragist Mary Wollstonecraft . As well as the many notable people who have been laid to rest in Abney Park Cemetery (N16), significantly the abolitionist  Rev. Thomas Burchell, who established schools and churches to aid slaves in the Caribbean, and Josiah Conder who helped found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the world’s first Anti-Slavery Convention, held in London in 1840. In fact the cemetery has a route you can follow, visiting the final resting places of 14 abolitionists who lived and died in Hackney .

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840
by Benjamin Robert Haydon
oil on canvas, 1841
NPG 599

However I do not recall any discussion about the slave owners who lived in Hackney. How their existence still penetrates our society, and is memorialized via street and estate names . As well as how, when the 1833, Slavery Abolition Act was passed, freeing thousands of enslaved Africans, 43 Hackney residents claimed ‘compensation for their lost property.’ The total sum of this compensation for all British slave owners was £20 million (around £300 billion today). A debt that the British tax payer continued to pay until 2015. Those in Hackney included John Amos , who lived on Chatham Place, as well as the widow Sarah Grey  who was given compensation for the enslaved people on Friendship estate in Hanover, Jamaica.

On June 10th, Hackney Council tweeted that they have “launched a review of statues, buildings and public spaces named after slave & plantation owners.”  An important step in ensuring the legacy of slavery is remembered in the correct way and its perpetrators are no longer able to exist in our society without us understanding the role they played in the horrific enslavement of thousands of Africans. For example the Geffrye Museum (recently renamed, The Museum of Home ) gets its name from Robert Geffrye, a merchant involved with the slave trade, as well as having a statue of the man in its grounds; although the museum has recently released a statement on the existence of the statue. This was a place I frequently visited growing up, with no knowledge of its named connection with the slave trade. A factor, which now I have that knowledge, only furthers my belief that we can no longer push these legacies away just because they make us uncomfortable.

The Museum of Home, statue of Robert Geffrye visible in an alcove above the door

When looking at the multifaceted history of slavery and abolition in Hackney it is significant to understand how this complex relationship of opposing views coincided within the same  communities. For example, the Newington Green Unitarian Church, had a congregation of abolitionists and slave owners, which required Rev. Richard Price to circumnavigate between the occupations of some of his church members and his own absolutist views, such as the West India mercantile of the Vaughan’s and the Boddington’s.  The divisive communities of areas such as Newington Green can perhaps be accredited to the attraction the large houses and close proximity to the city had to the merchant and banking classes. So that, as Katie Donington outlines,

proslavery supporters and abolitionists inhabited the same spaces, lived in the same communities and sometimes worshipped in the same congregations.

Moving forward I hope that the next generation of Hackney are provided with a diverse education and sufficient knowledge to properly appreciate the complexities of our borough; as well continuing to celebrate the legacy of activism that still exists in Hackney today.

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