The links are largely through the industry and manufacturing companies that developed in the area in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Originally, these industries began on a small scale; because of this, written evidence of their activities and links to the slave trade are scattered. However, a systematic trawl through the city's archives has uncovered some significant references.
Negro Collar and Handcuff Maker
A trade directory, listing all of Wolverhampton's trades people for the year 1770 lists one Henry Waldram, described as a 'Negro Collar and Handcuff Maker'. 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 collection of business 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.
Two local families are of particular significance for the links they had to the trade, and to its major British ports of Liverpool and Bristol. The Pearson family made their fortune trading in iron and the goods made from it, so much so that Thomas Pearson (1732-1796) was able to build Tettenhall Towers, a building which stills stands today, but in a somewhat enlarged form of Pearson's Georgian original.
From Wolverhampton to the Caribbean
Deeds in Wolverhampton's archives also link the Pearsons to the Caribbean; one refers to a Henry Pearson, now deceased but born in Wolverhampton and later of Antigua. His will leaves his lands in Antigua and elsewhere in the Caribbean to his wife; evidently, Pearson was a wealthy man at the time of his death.
The Pearson family is also linked, by marriage, to the Gibbons family. Originally from Sedgley, where the family iron foundry was based, John Gibbons (1712-1778) had three sons to whom he passed on the business. By the time of his death, he 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.
A small but significant part to play
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 during the 1770s, where he managed that particular arm of the business. 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.
The links that Wolverhampton and the surrounding Black Country have with the slave trade are perhaps not as obvious as those of ports such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. However, despite being hidden, they are no less significant, and they reveal another aspect of this region's history.
All images are copyright Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies, and are used with permission.