I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but recent events have reinforced the need to. (My usual caveats apply even more – I am not an expert, I am still learning, doing this is part of my process of learning. Comments and criticisms are welcome.)
There are decades where nothing happens;
and there are weeks where decades happen
The headlines are in this superb two minute plea to the Council by Toyin Agbetu from Pan African, human-rights centred organisation Ligali:
Don’t read anything below until you have watched that.
I support this campaign and appreciate the conversations about the legacy of slavery in the borough that it will deepen.
The day after this video was uploaded, Hackney Council announced its review into landmarks and public spaces. The Council followed this up with a further announcement of a listening exercise on future of the Sir Robert Geffrye statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home. As noted on the museum’s website, Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. (The museum changed its name last year from the Geffrye Museum of the Home.)
Also this week, a sign bearing former Hackney resident John Cass’ name was removed from student accomodation Sir John Cass Hall on Well Street E9.
Elsewhere in London this week:
- The statue of John Cass was removed from University of East London and it was announced that its Cass School of Education and Communities would be renamed.
- Sir John Cass’s Foundation announced that it would soon be removing the statue of Cass from the facade of its offices on Jewry Street in the City.
- A statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was also removed from Docklands by Tower Hamlets council.
Finding out more about Hackney’s connections with slavery
The abolitionists buried in Abney Park Cemetery and other Hackney residents who campaigned against slavery are well documented (although not by me, yet!). But as singer Dennis Brown put it: `”what about the half that’s never been told?”
As we will see, Hackney significant numbers of residents who profited from slavery alongside those who actively campaigned against it.
Some excellent work has been done on this already by Hackney Museum and Hackney Archives (on whose coat-tails I trail – and not for the first time). Local Roots / Global Routes is a great portal with a number of articles and teaching resources.
Martha Rose McAlpine’s 15 minute film is an excellent primer on English colonialism, African slavery, its legacy and how this applies to Hackney:
Kate Donnington’s article The Slave-Owners of Hackney: Re-thinking Local Histories of Abolition and Slavery is recommended. She has expanded on this in a chapter of the book Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a ‘National Sin’ (Liverpool University Press 2016) – some of this can be read via Google Books. Otherwise it’s £85, so order it from a library when that is possible again. (Update – Katie has been in touch to say that the draft chapter can be read for free here.)
Madge Dresser’s – Set in Stone? Statues and Slavery in London (History Workshop Journal, Volume 64, Issue 1, Autumn 2007) is very topical but not Hackney specific. It includes useful summary of London’s slavery-related statues.
Radical History + Ropes = Splash
Sometimes this site can seem a bit esoteric or nostalgic. I think the real value in radical history is in inspiring people to act and to show the links between the past and the present. Until last weekend the suggestion that we should get rid of memorials to slave traders was an impossible fringe idea held by a few long term dedicated law abiding campaigners.
But then the people of Bristol took matters into their own hands and dumped a statue of Edward Colston in the river. And now it all seems like common sense. Suddenly loads of people are thinking about the legacy of colonialism and slavery – and what history is. It’s notable that Bristol has a very active radical history group which has campaigned about Colston’s presence for many years as well as documenting WW1 conscientious objectors and building a memorial for inmates of Eastville Workhouse.
Of course, some of my more cynical comrades will argue that the removal of statues and other memorials is window dressing, a token effort that does nothing to really address the enduring legacies of colonialism, slavery and the racist ideology that underpinned them. I would argue back that starting with the simple stuff, the low hanging fruit, is a necessary step to get to the other issues. Or at least it will have to do in the absence of a more militant revolutionary alternative. The conversations we have about this are just as important as the physical removal of the items from the public realm.
Hackney Council’s “review of statues, buildings and public spaces named after slave & plantation owners” is a great initiative. But as events at Bristol have shown us, people will not wait forever…
Three Slave-Owners still memorialised in Hackney
This is starting point that summarises what I’ve been able to find out so far (something that has only been possible because of work done by many others). Its focus is on people connected to Hackney who profited significantly from the slave trade and who still have tributes in public spaces here as of June 2020. There may be more.
Sir John Cass (1661-1718)
John Cass was also a City Alderman, but in the Tory interest. Though never Lord Mayor, Cass served as Sheriff then as Member of Parliament for the City of London and became a Knight of the Realm. He too was involved in the slave-trade, being a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants from 1705 to 1708. The Company records show him (then ‘Colonel John Cass of Hackney’) to have been on their ‘committee of correspondence’ which directly dealt with slave-agents in the African forts and in the Caribbean. We know too that Cass retained shares in the Royal African Company until his death. Cass […] also seems to have been linked by family and friends to colonial plantation interests, in his case to Virginia.Madge Dresser
Cass lived in Grove Road, South Hackney – which looks to now be the north end of Lauriston Road E9. His legacy in the borough includes:
- Cassland Road (runs between Well Street and Wick Road)
- Cassland Crescent E9
- Cassland Road Gardens (a park in E9)
- Sir John Cass Hall (student accomodaton E9 – sign removed June 2020)
The Tyssen family and William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney (1835 – 1909)
According to Wikipedia “Tyssen-Amherst is chiefly remembered as a collector of books, manuscripts, antique furniture and other works of art. He became famous for his Egyptian collection.” Which sounds lovely, but the shine wears off when you find out where the family wealth came from. (Also rich Europeans “collecting” things from Egypt is a whole other colonial story…)
The family seems to have a weird fetish for naming all their male children the same names, which makes things slightly confusing. (Perhaps this was a commonplace posh person thing then?) Of particular interest are:
Francis Tyssen the elder (1624 – 1699). “Came to England from Flushing in Holland in the 1640s and settled in London. He owned plantations in Antigua in the West Indies, from leasing which he accumulated sufficient capital to purchase the Shacklewell estate at Hackney in 1685.” (source)
Francis Tyssen the younger (1653 – 1710). Wealthy London merchant, owned property in Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney, Whitechapel, Essex and Huntingdonshire. Also owner of Bridges plantation in Angitua, inherited from his father Francis the elder. From his will, it does not appear that the Antiguan property was his principal asset.
Samuel Tyssen the elder (1698 – 1749). Younger son of Francis Tyssen the younger and his second wife Mary nee Western. Inherited Bridges plantation in Antigua and property in Huntingdonshire under the will of his father.
The wealth that the family accumulated from slavery was put to good use. William George Daniel-Tyssen (d. 1838) was the parish of Hackney’s largest landowner in 1831.
The Tyssen famly lived at The Old Manor House, Shacklewell, which was Hackney’s largest dwelling in 1672. Not satisfied with this, they purchased the New Mermaid Tavern on Church Street (now Mare Street) and demolished it so that their new house coud be built there in 1845. Whilst this is hardly the worst of their crimes, I would argue that buying up a pefectly decent pub and turning it into your family home is the mark of a scoundrel. The plaque above currently nestles between Shoe Zone and Admiral Casino on the Narrow Way, so the building has at least returned to more proletarian purposes, whatever we might think of them.
Many of the family are buried at the nearby Church of St John at Hackney.
It looks like William’s eldest son (also called William, what is it with these people?) became William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney in 1892. (I’m not 100% on this because the genealogy of noblemen is not my forte especially when they all have the same forenames).
According to the extremely comprehensive entry on the Tyssens at the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland blog “The family remain the lords of the manor of the three Hackney manors, although most of their estate there has now been sold off.”
The Tyssen family is memorialised in Hackney to this day by the following:
- Tyssen Street E8
- Tyssen Road N16
- Tyssen Community Primary School, Oldhill Street N16
Perhaps Amhurst Road, Amhurst Park and Amhurst Terrace could also be named after The Baron?
Sir Robert Geffrye (1613–1703)
As noted above Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. He did not live in Hackney, instead spending much of his life at Lime Street in the City.
His relationship with Hackney began when he died in 1703:
The residue of his estate was to be devoted to the erection of almshouses in or near London. The company accordingly purchased a piece of ground in Kingsland Road, on which they built fourteen almshouses and a chapel, and appointed rules for their government on 17 Nov. 1715 (Nicholl, pp. 569–73). There are now forty-two pensioners, each of whom receives 12/. per annum. In the foreground of the building is a statue of Geffrey, executed for the Ironmongers’ Company in 1723 by John Nost, and […] in 1878, Geffrey’s remains and those of his wife were re-interred in the burial-ground attached to the almshouses (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xi. 57).Charles Welch – Geffrey, Robert in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21
His statue in the grounds of the Museum of the Home is under review. But nearby you also have:
- The Geffrye Almshouses (in which the museum is hosted)
- Geffrye Street N1
- The Geffrye Estate (owned by Hackney Housing)
- Geffrye Court (a block on the estate)
- Geffrye Court (also a street name)
And the rest
The Boddington family – Boddington & Co
The Boddingtons were a powerful merchant and planter family whose involvement in the slavery business spanned three generations. Benjamin Boddington (1730-1791) and his brother Thomas Boddington (c.1735-1821) were West India merchants. Both men were involved with the South Sea Company and Benjamin was a Director. The Company won the right to something called the Asiento following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This gave the company the sole right to sell enslaved Africans to the Spanish.
Samuel and Thomas the younger were eventually awarded £39,712 in compensation for 2100 enslaved people in Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Vincent and Jamaica. Some of their plantations were owned by the family because they had lent money to their business contacts in the Caribbean and when those people couldn’t pay them back they took their property as a forfeit for the loan. In this sense their ‘property’ could include both enslaved people as well as the plantation.
In 1766 the senior Boddingtons were residing in Hackney; Benjamin was living in Clapton and Thomas in Upper Homerton.Hackney, Sugar and Slavery: Teachers Resource – Local Roots / Global Routes
The Boddingtons were also a Dissenting family which suggests that religious radicalism did not always go hand in hand with abolitionist beliefs.
When slavery was abolished in parts of the Briitsh Empire in 1833, it was the slave owners who were compensated by the government for the loss of their “property”. The total sum given to them was £20 million, which was 40% of the national budget, equivalent to some £300 billion today. The British tax payer helped to pay back the loan required for this – a debt that was only settled in 2015.
These payments have left a paper trail, which has been used to create the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database at University College London.
Entering keywords Clapton, Dalston, Hackney, Hoxton, Shacklewell, Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington into the database gives results for a total of 43 recipients of compensation (including those listed above). So there is more work to do on this…