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The Innocents, Episode 36 - 06/02/06


Poor London children hoping for scraps (Mary Evans Picture Library)

Children of the London poor hoping for scraps from the fishmonger
(Mary Evans Picture Library)
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Most accounts of British slaving date from the 16th century with the shipping Africans to the Spanish Main. But less discussed is what happened to English and Scots eight, nine and ten year-olds in places like Aberdeen, London and Bristol. Many from those places were sold for forced labour in the colonies.

London gangs would capture youngsters, put them in the hold of a ship moored in the Thames and when the hold was full, set sail for America. Many authorities encouraged the trade. In the early 17th century authorities wanted rid of the waifs, strays, young thieves and vandals in their towns and cities. The British were starting to settle in Virginia. So that's where the children went.

This was a time when it was common enough in Britain to have small children as cheap, or unpaid labour. In 1618 one hundred children were officially were transported to Virginia. So pleased were the planters with the young labour that the then Lord Mayor, Sir William Cockayne, received an immediate order from the colony to send another ship load.

The Privy Council endorsed the idea: "…We are informed that the City of London by Act of Common Council have appointed one hundred children out of the multitudes that swarm in that place to be sent to Virginia there to be bound apprentice with very beneficial conditions for them afterwards… and have yielded to a levy of £500 for the apparelling of these children and the charge of their transportation. Whereas the City deserves thanks and commendation for redeeming so many poor souls from misery and ruin and putting them in a condition of use and service to the State… Among their number there are divers unwilling to be carried thither and the City want authority to deliver and the Virginia Company to receive and carry out these persons against their will… We authorise and require the City to take charge of that service to transport to Virginia all and every the aforesaid children. And if any child disobey or are obstinate we authorise the imprisonment, punishment and disposal of them; and so to ship them out to Virginia with as much expedition as may stand convenience…"

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Historical Figure

Peter Williamson (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Peter Williamson
(Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Peter Williamson 1733-1799

Peter Williamson was captured in Aberdeen at the age of 10 and sold to a Perth migrant living in Philadelphia. He did not get back to the British Isles until 1756. The elders of Aberdeen imprisoned him for publicising his plight. He fought the city in the courts and eventually got £100 in damages and opened a coffee house in Edinburgh. He walked its streets and it was Williamson who published the first Edinburgh Street Directory. He was buried in the headdress of a Delaware Indian.

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Did You Know...

The Parliamentarians during the Civil War tried to stop the trade and Elizabeth Hamlyn was sent to Newgate Gaol for kidnapping children. But more went than were saved.

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Contemporary Sources

A description of a young boy's kidnap

From the Flying Post, 1 September 1698

"A person gave him a letter to carry to a certain house by the waterside, for which he paid him part in hand and promised to pay him the rest when he returned. But he was no sooner entered the house when he was obliged to swear that he had no parents alive and was sent aboard the said ship where there were about two hundred of different ages, some eight, some nine, and others eleven, but the oldest not above twelve."

Peter Williamson describes his arrival in America

Excerpt from French and Indian Cruelty: Exemplified in the Life, and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson

"They conducted me between the decks to some others they had kidnapped. I had no sense of the fate that was destined for me, and spent the time in childish amusements with my fellow sufferers in the steerage, being never suffered to go up on deck while the vessels was in harbour, which was until such a time as they got in their loading with a complement of unhappy youth for carrying on their wretched commerce. We struck a sandbank near the Cape of Delaware but bailed out and the crew left us to perish. We were taken on shore to a sort of camp and then taken on a vessel bound to Philadelphia. That Captain soon had people enough who came to buy us, and sold us at about sixteen pounds a head. What became of my unhappy companions I never knew. The planters will buy some ten or twenty to labour in their plantations and cultivate their ground. Thus we were driven through the country like cattle to a market, and exposed to sale in public fairs as so many brute beasts. If the devil had come in the shape of man to purchase us, his money would have been as readily accepted as of the honestest and most humane man in the world. The children are sometimes sold to barbarous and cruel masters from whom they often make an elopement to avoid the harsh usage they often meet with, but as there is scarce a possibility of making a total escape they are generally taken and brought back. Some of the poor deluded slaves, in order to put an end to their bondage, put a period to their lives."

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