Croydon Heritage Festival review: a talk on Croydon’s slavery connections

By - Friday 11th July, 2014

From Addington Palace to Broad Green to Selsdon, Croydon has connections with the slave trade. Anne Giles learns more about this disturbing aspect of our town’s history

Image by Cliff James, used under Creative Commons licence

On Monday 30th June I attended a talk entitled ’200 years a slave: Croydon’s slavery connections’ in the Maple Room at Fairfield Halls. The talk was given by Dr Nick Draper from the University College London Department of History. The talk was part of the Croydon Heritage Festival, and it was both interesting and shocking to learn about this aspect of our town’s history.

Before looking in detail at Croydon, it’s helpful to know a little about Britain’s history of slavery. We came in late to the trade and had not started forming our own West African slave colonies until after 1607. At first, white and black people worked alongside each other in the fields, the whites mainly consisting of convicts. They had to work for ten to twelve years, after which they were set free. Chattel slavery (where a whole family was enslaved forever and enslaved people were bought and sold or inherited as property) never existed in Britain.

Profits from the slave trade were then re-invested. The British banking system was shaped by the slave trade, including the predecessor firms of NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The way the trade worked was by sending goods out to West Africa, buying enslaved Africans who were then carried across the Caribbean, and then bringing sugar and other tropical commodities back to Britain.

One of the last slave trade voyages was by a ship called – The Croydon

Britain was the first major slaving power to abolish the trade in 1807. One of the last UK slave trade voyages in 1807 was by a ship called The Croydon, owned by a slave merchant living in Broad Green. It’s revealing to learn that slave owners were not described as such in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – instead they were listed as shipowners and merchants.

The Croydon left London on April 21st 1807 heading to the west coast of Africa where it took on board 377 men, women and children. On 1st December it arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. Thirty-eight people had died on the voyage. The previous year, on a voyage from west African to South Carolina, thirty four out of 377 people had died in transit.

Addington Palace was built by slave owners, and Selsdon Park by bankers who lent money to the slave trade

Beautiful Addington Palace was built by those who had made money in the slave trade.
Photo author’s own.

Another Croydon connection was the Selsdon Park estate, which had been bought in 1805 by George Smith. He built what is now the Selsdon Park Hotel as his country house. Both he and his son were bankers. They lent money to the West Indian trade and were lending against enslaved people.

Addington Palace was built by slave-owners and was the home to generations of families connected with slavery and slave-ownership. The Archbishops of Canterbury bought the Addington estate from the last of these families. There were also connections between the Anglican church and slavery. Another Croydon slave merchant was Thomas Gillespie, from Sydenham Road. He was awarded compensation for 109 enslaved people freed from the Clermont Estate in Trelawney, Jamaica.

The railway transformed Croydon’s development. Part of the capital used to build the railway came from slavery. Former slaves, once released, became self-sufficient farmers where they could. Otherwise, they had to become wage-labourers on the estates on which they had been enslaved. I learned that much but not all of the African and Afro-Caribbean presence in Croydon represents the descendants of slavery and it is slavery which helped produce racism.

When slavery was abolished, slave owners all over the British empire had to be compensated

Slavery itself was not abolished until the Abolition Act of 1833, which eventually freed the enslaved people in 1838. When Britain abolished slavery, £20,000,000 had to be paid to slave owners all over the empire.

William Wells Brown was born into slavery. He escaped in 1834 and gave an anti-slavery speech at the Lecture Hall in Croydon in 1848. He was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright and historian.

Plaque commemorating Croydon composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was a descendant of African-American enslaved people.
Photo author’s own.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Croydon composer, lived and died here. He lived at 30 Dagnell Park, Croydon. There is a Greater London Council commemorative plaque outside his house there, and a Nubian Jak plaque at St. Leonards Road. His father was a Creole from Sierra Leone and was descended from African-American slaves freed by the British after the American Revolutionary War.

I had never realised before that Croydon had so many connections with slavery. This talk was quite an eye-opener!

Anne Giles

Anne Giles

I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the daughter of an Anglo-Argentine mother and English father. I went to an English school and worked for a British company out there before coming to live in the U.K. I spent many years teaching Spanish in adult education in various centres in Croydon Borough and have got to know so many different areas – North and South. We have been living in Selsdon since 1989 and I love it. I feel passionately about Croydon and have spent many years writing blogs – firstly for the Croydon Advertiser, then the Croydon Guardian, and eventually my own blog entitled “The Good Life in Croydon”. I am very much involved in the community, attending regular meetings with the Croydon Community Police Consultative Group and am also a member of the British Transport Police PACT (Police & Community Together) Team.

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  • Sean Creighton

    Thanks for this review Ann. The talk was one of several events in the Festival organised by Croydon Radical History Network which I co-ordinate.

    In introducing Nick I explained that a few years previously I was in Hull University Library dipping into the House of Lords slavery compensation papers. It occurred to me that a full analysis of the information was needed as to who received compensation so it could be worked out what they did with the money. I failed to convince academics to develop a research project. I was delighted therefore that when I was involved working for a North East project on slavery and abolition as part of the commemoration of the British 1807 Act making it illegal for Britons to engage in the slave trade, to come into contact with Nick as a member of the newly formed Legacies of British Slave-ownership project. Nick had already been working on the compensation question for his PhD and he then turned into a superb book on the subject. The Legacies Project has taken the work further and in more depth and been able to answer some of the questions about what happened to the money. I have continued to remain in touch attending the occasional project events, sharing information and seeking information from the team. The project team has been lucky enough to obtain further funding to research slave ownership back to the 1760s. The Network will continue to liaise with Nick and the team to continue to build up our knowledge about Croydon’s slavery connections, and will share it in future.

    • Anne Giles

      Great. I found the whole thing very interesting, but it made me feel incredibly sad that human beings were treated so very badly.

  • David White

    This is indeed an interesting subject, and one which in the past has rather been swept under the carpet.

    Is there something missing between paras 2 and 3 of the article? It jumps from saying there was no chattel slavery in Britain to saying that profits from slavery were then reinvested. It should perhaps go on to say that, though there was no chattel slavery in Britain itself, there was plenty in Britain’s colonies. As Nick pointed out in his talk Britain was more involved in the slave trade than any other country in the world in the 18th century.

    • Anne Giles

      I sent my notes on to Nick prior to writing this article and he sent them back with one or two additions, which I put in.

  • Sean Creighton

    I am pleased to report that Nick will be giving his talk again containing new information as part of this years’ Festival on Monday 22 June in a double act with a talk by me on Croydon’s black presence.