Wolverhampton, Slavery and Abolition: A Source List
Little research has been done in the past on Wolverhampton's involvement in the slave trade and its abolition. However, for anyone interested in finding out more, a range of resources are available locally which highlight aspects of this untold story.
Newspapers/other local publications
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the only sources of news would have been local newspapers such as the Wolverhampton Chronicle and the Staffordshire Advertiser. Reference to Wolverhampton and the Black Country’s involvement in the slave trade features quite significantly within these records; as well as notices detailing ships recently arrived in Liverpool and Bristol from Africa and the Caribbean – ships which would undoubtedly have been carrying goods produced locally, or which were financed by local merchants – there would also be advertisements, either looking for workers to move overseas, or for businesses which relied on goods imported from the Caribbean.
Equally, once the movement towards abolition had got underway in the 1760s, these publications also carried regular reports of the discussions held in Parliament relating to abolition; and also those meeting held locally to discuss the issue and formulate a petition to the Government. The newspapers reflect that the abolition movement was a national one; one which, by implication, shows just how important the slave trade was to the life of Britain as a whole. Fund-raising events were also held; in April 1792, the Wolverhampton Chronicle carried an advert for The African’s Appeal, a play written to highlight the issue of slavery and increase calls for its abolition.
Black slaves and servants were not restricted to the islands of the Caribbean- rather, many of Wolverhampton’s wealthy families of the mid-18th century had black servants. The best known example is George Scipio Africanus, servant to the Molineux family. His existence was known first through his baptism record, from St. Peter’s. Africanus would have been one of a number of other black servants living in Wolverhampton at this time, and the surviving parish records will almost certainly contain reference to others.
George Africanus was apprenticed to a brassfounder, and later moved to Nottingham, possibly because the city was home to another branch of the Molineux family. There he became a successful businessman, successful enough to be included on the list of voters in 1818.
Wolverhampton’s primary link to the slave trade would have been through its industry. One of the main goods exchanged for slaves was iron, which was mined and smelted locally. Equally, metal goods produced in the town would either have been traded in exchange for slaves, or used in some way to restrain them.
Because the manufacturing industries in Wolverhampton at this time were on a relatively small scale, few records have survived. However, there are a couple of telling exceptions – firstly, there is a trades directory listing those craftsmen living in Wolverhampton includes reference to a Henry Waldron, of Brickkiln Street.
Also of interest are the records of John Shaw and Company, hardware merchants. John Shaw was born in Penn in 1782, and had begun trading in metal goods by 1800. His surviving collection of records shows that the company had strong links with Liverpool, which Shaw visited often for his business – indeed, in 1813 he married into a well-known Lancashire family. This link to one of the major ports of the slave trade is reinforced by entries in one of the company’s stock books, dating from 1805. Amongst the many items sold, it includes entries for ‘African chains’ and both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ ‘bright negro collars’. Tellingly, these are listed alongside other items such as dog and horse collars, and handcuffs.
Alongside those business supplying the trade, many retailers would sell goods that were products of the plantations, including sugar, coffee and rum. Bills and receipts do survive in some numbers, and give some idea of the ease with which these luxuries could be bought.
Whilst business records do not survive in any great numbers, records relating to those families who owned these companies are more numerous. The Molineux family are one of Wolverhampton’s most famous, and their black servant George Africanus has already been mentioned. Within the records of the Molineux family, a couple of entries in a memorandum book kept by George Molineux refer also to Africanus. They read…
The Molineux family are well known in Wolverhampton Less famous, but equally involved in the slave trade, are the Pearson and Gibbons families. Linked by marriage, both families had strong links to industry and the manufacturing of iron, as well as connections with the two ports who made the most significant gains from the slave trade, Bristol and Liverpool.
A surviving deed refers to a Henry Pearson (1745-1806), who at that time lived in Antigua but was born in Wolverhampton. His will leaves a house on Lichfield Street to his nieces, whilst to his wife Margaret he leaves ‘all my other estates… in this or any other part of the West India islands.’ Another branch of the Pearson family made their fortune as ironmongers, trading in raw iron and the goods made from it. Thomas Pearson (1732-1796) was responsible for building Tettenhall Towers, which still stands. His son Edward, moved up to Liverpool where he became a successful merchant, marrying into the local aristocracy. Another son, Thomas, became a vicar; whilst he did not pursue a commercial career, his marriage to Sarah Gibbons links him to another local family with strong ties to the slave trade.
The Gibbons family originated initially from Sedgley, where their iron foundry was based, close to the family home of Corbyns Hall. John Gibbons (1712-1778) had three sons to whom he passed on the business; by the time of his death, John was clearly a very wealthy man. His will refers to substantial lands close to Wolverhampton, as well as some in Bath, along with a banking business based in Wolverhampton, and a merchants warehouse in Bristol.
John’s eldest son Thomas (1730-1813) remained in Wolverhampton to manage the banking business, along with his younger brother Benjamin (1739-1832). However, the third brother William (1732-1807) moved down to Bristol at some point prior to their father’s death, where he managed that particular arm of the business, and became increasingly successful. William became Mayor of the city in 1800, and was also involved in the campaign by local merchants to stop the abolition of the slave trade proceeding through Parliament.
Other printed sources
Further evidence of Wolverhampton's involvement in the slave trade and abolition can be found in printed material. The Autobiography of OIaudah Equiano (1745-1797), an ex-slave and prominent abolition campaigner, mentions several men from Wolverhampton as subscribers, including Reverend James Wraith and Joseph Pearson. Wraith was minister at Temple Street chapel during the period 1782-1791, whilst Pearson was an active member of the Unitarian church in Wolverhampton.
The slave trade also inspired a range of fictional works; records held at Wolverhampton Archives include poems and a short play written on the subject. These were performed locally, and surviving theatre playbills show how performances on the subject of slavery, even after it was finally abolished in 1838, were still popular.
The slave trade also continued to be an important political issue after 1807. With the continuation of slave-owning in the Caribbean, politicians and other would-be candidates firmly argued for one side or another, either arguing for immediate total abolition, or for something more gradual.