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13 November 2014

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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > Abolition > An 'avowedly repugnant' trade!

An 'avowedly repugnant' trade!

Landlocked West Yorkshire may seem a million miles away from slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade but 200 years ago things were very different. We've been finding out more...


Addingham calls for the end of the Slave Trade!

Carmen Taylor, Community Education Officer for Kirklees Museums and Archives, has been looking at Black history for the last six years. She is personally convinced that West Yorkshire's connections to slavery are very strong: "Every historic house in Yorkshire would have had some connection with slavery. Just because we don't have the information at hand doesn't say we didn't profit from slavery in some way."

Signatures from the Addingham petition

From the Addingham Petition...

West Yorkshire's connection with slavery seems to have extended far beyond the people who lived in the big houses. On a tour of the Yorkshire textile districts in 1849 Angus Bethune Reach observed: "In Batley I went over two shoddy [cloth made from woollen waste] establishments - the Bridge Mill and the Albion Mill. In both of these rags were not only ground, but the shoddy was worked up into coarse bad cloth, a great proportion of which is sent to America for slave clothing."

We were surprised to find we only had to go a stone's throw from our Bradford office to find striking evidence of West Yorkshire's connections with slavery. Although the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in March, 1807, slavery was still legal in the British colonies until 1833. The West Yorkshire Archives Service office at Bradford Library holds the will of Mary Skelton "late of Little Horton". In 1823 she leaves her "three fourth part share" of the Yorkshire Hall plantation in Demerara to her three sons including "all the negroes and slaves which may, at the time of my decease, be resident or belong to the said plantation." Much of the 1833 Act, which can be inspected alongside Mary's will, is concerned with arrangements for the compensation to be paid to those who had owned slaves so we can only assume that Mary's three sons would not have ended up out of pocket! Yorkshire Hall still exists as a place in what is now Guyana.

This is not the only record of slave owning to be found in the Bradford Archives. A list of the debts of Captains Henry and George Beale, dating from 1697, clearly illustrates the price put on human life - 'a Negro girl' is listed along with a still as part of a debt worth around £28 while 'four negroes' at Montserrat are valued in total at around £30.

The Skelmanthorpe Flag

The Skelmanthorpe Flag!

However, a very different document also exists in the Bradford Archives. This is a large framed petition to Parliament from "the undersigned inhabitants of Addingham and its vicinity" complaining that "no provision was made for the abolition of the African slave trade" in the most recent treaty of peace with France. A quick count shows there are over 600 signatures on the petition, the first name being that of John Coates, Rector of Addingham.  The petitioners describe the Slave Trade as being "avowedly repugnant to every moral and religious principle." They fear that the delay will make abolition more difficult."

It is likely that few of these Addingham petitioners would even have had the right to vote yet the abolition movement also attracted the support of men who can only be described as key players in West Yorkshire's industrial life. The Leeds Mercury, one of Huddersfield's local newspapers at the time, includes a letter on subscribing to the London Abolition Society from Law Atkinson which was also signed by Gustavus Vassa, "the African." Vassa was the name sometimes used by a former slave Olaudah Equiano whose autobiography caused a sensation when it was published in 1789. Equiano spent the last six years of his life touring the country, selling his book wherever he went. It is very likely that he came to Huddersfield where he may well have met Law Atkinson. As a footnote, the Atkinsons owned a mill at Colne Bridge on the outskirts of Huddersfield and it was here 1818 that 17 girls between the ages of 9 and 18 died in a fire. It was night and the mill doors were locked.

Now a Buddhist centre, Dobroyd Castle built in 1866 for the Fieldens of Todmorden, contains a stone staircase depicting the cotton manufacturing process which includes an illustration of a slave master with his whip. Joshua Fielden had been a farmer and woollen weaver but he realised the potential of cotton spinning and the family's cotton manufacturing business was to become one of Britain's biggest textile companies. Joshua's son John, brought up as a Quaker, spent much of his political life working to improve the hours worked by children in factories. As MP for Oldham he also campaigned against the payment of compensation to slave owners.

Richard Oastler statue in Bradford

Richard Oastler still looks over Bradford!

Certainly religion played a very important part in the abolition movement. Professor David Richardson, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) says: "Because of Wilberforce and similar people we tend to think of the campaign as being led by evangelical Anglicans but we also know that Quakers had earlier moved against the slave trade and by the 1770s and 1780s Methodists were involved in exactly the same sort of campaigning and no doubt West Riding weavers were regularly hearing speeches against slavery and the slave trade from Methodist quarters."

A banner now in Huddersfield's Tolson Museum shows that West Yorkshire's weavers did indeed learn some lessons from the Abolition movement. Found in an abandoned mill in 1884 the Skelmanthorpe Flag may well have been a reaction to Manchester's Peterloo Massacre in 1819 when cavalry charged into a public meeting killing 11 people, and injuring 400 including many women and children. The banner proclaims: "Skelmanthorp(e) will not rest satisfied with the Suffrage being anything but Universal - Truth and Justice Pouring Balm into the Wounds of the Manchester sufferers - May never a Cock in England Crow Nor never a Pipe in Scotland Blow. Nor never a Harp in Ireland Play, Till Liberty regains her Sway." However, the fourth panel of the banner shows what had become the logo of the Abolition movement - a kneeling African in chains with his hands raised in prayer accompanied by the words, "Am I not a Man and Brother".

poster advertising Pablo Fanque's circus

Fanque's circus: 'For the benefit of Mr Kite...'

Today Richard Oastler is remembered in West Yorkshire as a man who fought for the rights of factory children. A statue just outside Bradford's Oastler Centre shows him pointing in the direction of two young children dressed in factory clothes. An abolitionist, Oastler was working as steward for Thomas Thornhill, the absentee landlord of the Fixby estate in Huddersfield, when he met Bradford worsted manufacturer John Wood and decided to join the struggle for factory reform. Signing himself 'A Briton' residing at 'Fixby Hall near Huddersfield', Oastler wrote to the Leeds Mercury: "Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. The fact is true. Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town...are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system 'colonial slavery'...The very streets which receive the droppings of an 'Anti-Slavery Society' are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker, to hasten, half-dressed, but not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford!!!'

Richard Oastler is just one of the 'local heroes' to feature in a school resources pack relating to the Abolition of the Slave Trade being prepared by Diane Hadwin from Education Bradford. Also to be included in the pack, although not a native of West Yorkshire, is Pablo Fanque. Born in Norwich in 1796 as plain William Darby, and immortalised much later in a Beatles song, Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite, Fanque would seem an unlikely 'local hero' but he was very well known across West Yorkshire. A circus star in his own right, Pablo Fanque was the first Black circus owner in Britain. Wakefield seems to have been the first place in the country Pablo Fanque visited after setting up his own company in 1841.  He seems to have been a regular visitor to the Huddersfield Fair and even had a show running at the same time in Leeds and Dewsbury on more than one occasion. At the time of the 1861 Census he was living in a hotel in Bradford with a 'wife' Sarah (he was estranged from his lawful wife at the time) and child.

In March 1848 Fanque's wife Susannah Darby was killed when a gallery collapsed at the circus in Lands Lane, Leeds. An audience of 6,000 had turned out that night suggesting that people came out in large numbers to see Pablo Fanque's circus. When Pablo died in Stockport in 1871 he was taken to Leeds to be buried in Woodhouse Cemetery next to Susannah.

It is very difficult to estimate how many people of African-Caribbean descent lived in West Yorkshire in the 19th Century. Ethnicity was not something that was usually noted down in official records. The Parish Registers for Kirkheaton near Huddersfield include the following record: "Baptised 2nd November 1782 Daniel Whitley an Ethiopian by birth from the coast of Guinea, living with Richard Henry Beaumont at Whitley Hall." The Parish Registers also show that in just over five years time this same Daniel Whitley would be dead. It would seem Daniel became a Christian and was given the name of the house where he lived, but how did he come to end his life in West Yorkshire?

Whitley Beaumont Hall near Huddersfield

Whitley Beaumont Hall, now demolished

Dr Nicholas Evans who works alongside Professor Richardson at WISE believes the presence of Daniel Whitley in Huddersfield may not have been exceptional: "I think most of us think the large African-Caribbean community in the West Riding has been a post-second-world war phenomenon but certainly people of African-Caribbean origin find their way through the same networks which enable the Slave Trade to be carried out and end up in the West Riding for economic opportunities after the end of slavery in 1834. Economic freedom draws them here as much as it lured British people to take up activity out in the West Indies."

In a search of the 1881 Census for this website, Dr Evans has identified quite a few people across West Yorkshire who had links with places associated with West Indian slavery. He says such references "often highlight merchants or planters (and their families) who returned to Britain; missionaries and church officials who had formerly lived in the West Indies" as well as "those born out of slave parentage who 'migrated' to Britain upon the ending of slavery in 1834." Milo Owen Claxton, a draper's assistant living with his employer in Kirkgate in Wakefield, is recorded as having been born aboard a ship - the Nile - near Trinidad. Sarah Street of Pontefract, aged 13 and living with her 22-year-old laundress/shopkeeper sister was born in Jamaica as was Charles Ellerbeck, a 52-year-old bookbinder living in Little Horton, Bradford and George Simpson Mason, a woollen manufacturer who lived at Riber Villa in Gledholt Lane, Huddersfield. The Listers of Shibden Hall were certainly amongst the most important West Yorkshire families and the Census states Louisa Ann Lister, the lady of the house, who lived there with her son Charles and daughter Anne, was also born in Jamaica. [This may well be an error - it seems much more likely that Louisa was born on the island of St Vincent].

Ten years later, the Census records the presence of a circus at the back of the Four Horseshoes Inn in Milnsbridge. Lionel Pablo, Pablo Fanque's son, had come to town!

These are just a few things we have discovered about West Yorkshire's connections with slavery in the Caribbean, with the slave trade and with the abolition movement. If you've been taking a look at the history of your family or your area, and you've come across any relevant information then we'd very much like to hear from you!

Email us at

Thanks to Dr John Rumsby, Carmen Taylor (Kirklees Museums and Galleries), Tish Lawson (West Yorkshire Archives Service), Marie Bray (Huddersfield Local Studies Library), Diane Hadwin (Education Bradford), Halifax historian David Glover, Professor David Richardson and Dr Nicholas Evans at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation.

Acknowledgements: West Yorkshire Archives service for permission to use images of the Addingham Petition and Kirklees Museums and Archives for images of the Skelmanthorpe Flag and Whitley Beaumont Hall. The information on Pablo Fanque is mostly from John. M. Turner, 'Pablo Fanque, Black Circus Proprietor' in G. H. Gerzina (ed) Black Victorians - Black Victoriana, 2003.

last updated: 13/08/2009 at 10:02
created: 01/03/2007

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