Places in the City of London Connected to the Slave Trade

Explore the places that played a key part in history

Jamaica Wine House (coffee house), St Michael’s Alley, 17th centuryCity of London Corporation

Jamaica Wine House in the 17th century

In the 17th century the Jamaica Wine House, located in St Michael's Alley in the City of London, was called the Jamaica Coffee House. In this scene we see why there was such demand for two of slavery’s principal products - sugar and coffee. 


Dr Johnson’s House, 18th centuryCity of London Corporation

Dr Johnson’s House in the 18th century

Home of the 18th century writer Dr Samuel Johnson. Around 1750, the father of one of Johnson’s friends, a Jamaican plantation-owner, travelled to England, bringing with him Francis Barber, a 15 year-old enslaved African. 

Francis was sent to work as a valet in Johnson’s household and two years later in 1752, was manumitted - freed from slavery - on the death of his owner.  Barber and Johnson enjoyed a close relationship and it is said that Johnson treated Barber as the son he never had.

Dr Johnson’s House Today

Johnson was known for his anti-slavery views and is remembered for remarking about American colonists: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" 

Johnson paid £300 to have Barber educated at a grammar school and later on when Johnson died, Barber was granted a £70 annuity, his estate and a gold watch. Barber was close to Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell. He married and eventually moved to Burntwood, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. He became a teacher but towards the end of his life ended up in financial difficulty. His descendants still live near Lichfield. 

St John Zachary Garden (burial place of James Drax)City of London Corporation

Burial place of James Drax off Foster Lane

William Courteen, who was a City merchant, financed the initial settlement of Barbados. 80 of his employees settled the island in 1627 with a view to growing cash crops, principally tobacco. They brought with them 10 enslaved Africans and used indigenous labour to cultivate and harvest the crops. Later, in the 1640s, an employee of Courteen’s, James Drax, is said to have been the first in the English Caribbean to develop the sugar plantation system, knowledge of which he obtained from the Dutch in Brazil who, in turn obtained it from the Portuguese.

St Anne and St Agnes ChurchCity of London Corporation

The bust of James Drax inside St Anne and St Agnes

Sugar plantations required high capital investment, specific machinery and know-how. They also needed a continuous source of labour to conduct the backbreaking work involved. Dutch and Portuguese colonists had already been exploiting enslaved Africans to this end, as did James Drax. This led to the legal sanctioning of slavery in English and later British colonies by something known as ‘slave codes’, which stripped enslaved people of their basic rights and any protection that would have been afforded to them by English common law, whilst in the colonies at least. 

The system developed by Drax in Barbados would eventually be disseminated and refined throughout the English Caribbean. James Drax returned to England and had one of his residences in the ward of St John Zachary, to which he was a benefactor. He was buried in St John Zachary Church, which no longer stands, but a bust of him is located in St Anne and St Agnes Church, which stands opposite its former site.

Poultry Comptor (in Grocers’ Hall Court)City of London Corporation

The prison of Jonathan Strong

In 1765, Jonathan Strong, an enslaved African brought to London by his master, David Lisle, was severely beaten and left for dead. He was helped by the brothers William and Granville Sharp who arranged medical treatment at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and found him employment in the City. Later, Strong was spotted by his former owner who had him kidnapped and imprisoned by slave hunters and sold him to a Jamaican plantation owner, James Kerr. 

The prison of Jonathan Strong

Strong appealed for assistance from his friend Granville Sharp, who brought the matter to the attention of the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Kite. Kite decided that as he had done nothing wrong Strong was free to go. Lisle attempted to sue Granville Sharp for ‘stealing’ his property but this ultimately failed. Sharp went on to defend a number of enslaved Africans who found themselves in similar situations to Strong and devoted himself to the cause of abolishing the slave trade. 

Guildhall interior/Beckford MonumentCity of London Corporation

Infamous court case held inside Guildhall

A court case concerning the legitimacy of an insurance claim filed by the Liverpool-based Gregson slave trading syndicate.  A claim had been filed for the ‘loss’ of 133 enslaved Africans who had been thrown off the Zong slave ship into the ocean on  the orders of Captain Luke Collingwood. This was on the basis that there was allegedly not enough water to support the lives of the crew and remaining  slaves on board, and under the principle of ‘jettison’ this was supported by maritime law of the time. 

Guildhall interior/Beckford MonumentCity of London Corporation

The ship had been filled with more enslaved Africans than it could safely carry - a total of 442. The voyage from Cape Coast Castle (in modern day Ghana) to Jamaica took much longer than expected due to navigational errors. The first trial, which was heard in Guildhall by Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield, found in favour of the shipowner with insurers being ordered to pay. This was appealed and a second court case was held before the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall on 21-22 May 1783. 

Beckford monument (or modern photo?)City of London Corporation

Further evidence had by now come forward from the Zong’s First Mate, James Kelsall, that there was adequate water on board the ship at the time of the drownings. The court this time found in favour of the insurers due to errors made by the ship’s crew and captain. Following the proceedings, was a formerly enslaved African man, Olaudah Equiano who sensed the injustice of the matter in that the case was heard not as one of mass murder but of business and insurance.

He took the news to his friend Granville Sharp, a prominent abolitionist who attempted to bring a case against the ship’s personnel for mass murder, but this ultimately failed. The sense of injustice over the trial is said to have provoked public outrage and furthered the abolitionist cause. 

Printing Shop at 2 George Yard (off Lombard Street, the premises of James Phillips bookseller, printer, publisher), 1787City of London Corporation

Premises of James Phillips

Where, in a small printing shop, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. 

In 1787 a group of 12 men, 9 Quakers and 3 Evangelical Anglicans met in a small printing shop at 2, George Yard and formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Among their ranks was William Wilberforce, who would become the parliamentary representative for the movement. 

Anon oil, Guildhall Art Gallery - Lombard Street branching out from centre of imageCity of London Corporation

From 1789 onwards he would introduce regular motions into parliament for the abolition of the British slave trade. Thomas Clarkson, whose main contribution as one of the co-founders of the London Committee for the Abolition of Slavery, came in the form of the extensive research he carried out for the campaign. He also argued that an alternative trade with Africa could be had, other than that in human beings. From 1765 Granville Sharp devoted himself to defending the rights of Africans in Britain who were faced with the threat of deportation to the colonies.

Lombard street

The campaign to abolish the slave trade ended in 1807 with the passing in Parliament of the Slave Trade Act. It was a campaign fought on many fronts, adopting many pioneering methods - such as widespread petitioning, and by many individuals including many women such as Elizabeth Heyrick and Hannah More and formerly enslaved people such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano who were among a group of 13 that formed the Sons of Africa - campaigning for abolition and sharing their first hand testimonies. 

Coachmakers Hall, Noble Street, 1792City of London Corporation

Coachmakers Hall, Noble Street in 1792

A debate was held here which called for the abolition of West Indian sugar, in favour of East Indian sugar which was associated with free labour. This debate was led by women and the motion passed with a unanimous vote of 600. This was a powerful moment in the abolition campaign, as women were by and large the principle buyers of household groceries, so they could bring real pressure to bear on the West Indian slave owners. 

St Mary Woolnoth Church 1780-1807City of London Corporation

St Mary Woolnoth Church 1780-1807

In 1780, the slave trader turned clergyman John Newton becomes the rector of this church. Newton entered the slave trade in his early 20s as a crew member on the Pegasus, a slave ship. However, he was unpopular with his crew and was abandoned, ending up as the servant of the wife of a slave trader - Princess Peye of the Sherbro people (modern day Sierra Leone). During this time, he was brutally treated but was eventually rescued by a friend of his father and went on to become the Captain of his own Slave Ship.

St Mary Woolnoth Church 1780-1807City of London Corporation

St Mary Woolnoth Church

On the return voyage to England, in 1748, Newton survived a life-threatening storm at sea and subsequently converted to evangelical Christianity, although this didn’t stop him from continuing his involvement in the slave trade. In 1755 he left the trade due to a stroke and became a Tide Surveyor employed by the Customs Office in Liverpool although he still continued to invest in slavery. 

Becoming increasingly devout, he was ordained as a priest 1764 and in 1780 he accepted the position of Rector at the church of St Mary Woolnoth, where his services were well attended and are said to have been attended by the likes of William Wilberforce, who later became a key abolitionist of slavery.

St Mary Woolnoth Church 1780-1807City of London Corporation

St Mary Woolnoth Church 1780-1807

However, later in life, Newton expressed deep regret about his involvement in the slave trade and became an active supporter of the abolition campaign, producing his own tract - Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade - in 1787 to bring to light the horror of the trade.
He produced a series of hymns whilst a clergyman including, in 1779, ‘Amazing Grace’ which was about his salvation at sea and also, it is said, his repentance over slavery.

Kings Head Tavern, Poultry meeting in 1823City of London Corporation

Kings Head Tavern, Poultry, meeting in 1823

The first meeting of a successor movement to the campaign to end the slave trade, known as the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery, was held at the King’s Head Tavern on Poultry. Thomas Clarkson continued gathering evidence and garnering support from the public. The group were cautious in their approach and hence favoured gradualism over an immediate end to slavery. 

William Wilberforce was known for his adherence to the gradualist approach. Women’s abolition groups across the country became more pressing in their demands and became associated with calls to end slavery immediately in the British empire, rallying, petitioning and organising effective boycotts on West Indian-grown sugar.  Elizabeth Heyrick was key in this area. With a major slave revolt taking place in Jamaica in 1831 - ‘The Baptist War’ - and fears of further uprisings, slavery’s days were numbered. Electoral reform in 1832 reduced corruption, improved representation in Parliament and swung the balance of MPs in favour of abolition. 

In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, abolishing the institution of slavery in most British colonies. However, concessions were made in order to achieve this, one of them being that the ‘liberated’ enslaved would have to enter into a period of 5 more years of enforced labour known as ‘apprenticeship’. The c. 44,000 slave owners would be compensated to the tune of £20 million, whilst the c.800,000 enslaved would receive nothing.

Gilt of Cain sculptureCity of London Corporation

Gilt of Cain

Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveiled this poignant sculpture commemorating the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade on 4 September 2008. The granite sculpture consists of a number of columns surrounding a podium, which symbolises either a church pulpit or a slave auctioneer’s platform. The columns conjure the image of stems of sugar cane and the way they have been positioned simulates a crowd that has perhaps congregated to listen to a priest or engage in the buying of enslaved Africans at an auction.

Close up of Gilt of Cain sculptureCity of London Corporation

Calls have been made by a group called Memorial 2007 for a national memorial dedicated to the millions of African victims of slavery to be erected in Hyde Park, which were renewed in light of the murder of George Floyd and resultant Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

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