The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Camberwell and the History of Enslavement

Our congratulations to Marion Wallace for winning the 2023 Mary Boast Prize for her research into our connections to slavery

In February 1756, an advertisement appeared in the London Evening Post. It offered a reward of five guineas for the capture and return of “a Negroe Slave call’d James Williams, otherwise Lithgow, a likely Fellow, about five Feet six Inches high, twenty-one years of age… If he will return to Camberwell he shall be well received, and forgiven.” We do not know whether Lithgow was caught, or what happened to him (though we might have doubts about the promise of forgiveness); but the mention of Camberwell strongly suggests that both he and his enslaver were or had been living here.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Britain enslaved millions of Africans, forcibly transporting them to the Americas, and compelling them into hard labour on plantations. The legacy of the slave trade and enslavement is now under discussion in many quarters, amid growing realisation of the ways in which the system extended its tentacles into all levels of society in Britain, with Britain’s economy in general, and individuals and families in particular, benefiting massively in the short and long term.

This article explores this question on a local level: in what ways can enslavement be directly traced to the parish of Camberwell (which then encompassed Camberwell, Peckham, Dulwich and Herne Hill) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How can we understand the local impacts of this atrocious system?

The Black presence in Camberwell

It has been comprehensively demonstrated that there were people of African descent living in Britain many centuries before the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. In the eighteenth century there was already a sizeable Black population in London. Many, although not all, were enslaved (a status that endured in Britain, at least until 1772), and had often been brought here by their enslavers.

Although these Black Londoners included some well-known public figures – for example, the campaigner and writer Olaudah Equiano – most lived in the lower levels of England’s class-bound society and little is known about them, although the picture has improved through the painstaking efforts of historians. The problem lies essentially in the nature of the archive. There are few records about Black people at this date, and those that exist were often created from the perspectives and for the purposes of enslavers, who catalogued and categorised enslaved people in dehumanising ways. Nevertheless, the rise of online sources is making it possible both to investigate the Black presence further and to pin down some of the many links with the economy of enslavement.

Camberwell parish was, in fact, officially in Surrey rather than London at this date. The village of Camberwell, with its ancient church of St Giles, was surrounded by fields until well into the nineteenth century, and Dulwich and Peckham were too tiny to have churches of their own. As late as 1787, the population of the parish was only 3,762. Nevertheless, it appears to have had a small Black population. Analysis of the baptismal registers of St Giles’ show that five Black people were baptised there between 1794 and 1806. There were two nine-year olds, William Henry, described as ‘a Native of St Kitts’ and William Cavitt, a ‘West Indian’[WM1] , baptised in 1794 and 1798 respectively. The rest were adults: Mary Phillis Jackson, ‘a Native of Barbadoes’[WM2] , in 1795; Eleanor Easson, ‘a Native of Island of Jamaica’[WM3] , in 1804; and Thomas Jones, ‘an African Supposed to be 17 years old’[WM4] , baptised by J. Grindlay in 1806. Much earlier, in 1605, John Primero, ‘a Negro’[WM5] , had been baptised at St Giles’, where he was also buried in 1615. It should be noted that these results are incomplete: other records remain to be consulted, and not all records give an indication of race.

How far the members of Camberwell’s small – and underestimated – Black population were tied in to the wider economy of enslavement is hard to say, although such connections are certainly suggested by the island origins noted above. The fact that enslaved people often (and, sadly, wrongly) thought that baptism conferred freedom may also be at play here.

More detail about individuals is given in advertisements for those freedom seekers who tried to escape. James Williams, or Lithgow, with whom this article opened, had joined the British army, becoming a drummer in the dragoons, “but was discharg'd on Account of his being a Slave”, whereupon he ran away from his ship, apparently with the intention of enlisting in Ireland. He is described as having had smallpox and speaking “fast, but good English”. The name of his enslaver is not given.

In 1718, in another case of attempted escape, “a Negro Boy about 16 Years of Age, slight Limb’d, goes by the name of Scipio”, and very probably enslaved, “went away from his master Mr James Lytton at Camberwell”. Again, whether Scipio was recaptured is unclear.

The Enslavers

One reason for the presence of Black people in Camberwell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may have been that many enslavers and their families made their homes here. Using the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) database, I have identified thirty-four family groups or individuals with financial interests in the economy of enslavement who were resident for at least part of their lives in the Camberwell parish at this period.

The LBS is a massive resource resulting from a major scholarly enterprise, allowing very detailed research on residents of Britain who enslaved others for profit. It draws in particular on the records of government compensation (which totalled £20 million, nearly £2 billion accounting for inflation) received by enslavers on emancipation in the 1830s. By this time, the efforts of abolitionists – in Britain and the Caribbean, where armed uprisings had put the whole system in jeopardy – had borne fruit. Britain’s transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, and the entire system finally ended in British colonies in 1838, when the enslaved were finally released from a period of ‘apprenticeship’ – in reality forced labour – that followed emancipation in 1834.

The LBS has opened up the debate on the impact of enslavement in Britain. It has made it possible to look at Camberwell in a new way, and understand how the chains binding the enslaved to the plantations reached from the Caribbean as far as our local area. The database has little to say, however, about the enslaved, and for this reason I have also consulted a sample of slave registers in the UK National Archives. Despite the colonial nature of these records, which are essentially audits of possessions and usually give the English names of the enslaved people (their African names having been taken from them), they do allow a tiny glimpse of the humanity of the victims and survivors of the system.

Many of the enslavers on the Camberwell list benefited from the compensation pay-outs made at emancipation: Isaac Westmorland (1787–1856), for example, received (together with his business partner) £20,107 in respect of 984 enslaved people as a result of ten claims, mainly relating to Jamaica. Westmorland and his family were living at Camberwell Green in 1841, and later in East Dulwich.

Camberwell enslavers and the Caribbean

The interests of Camberwell enslavers can be mapped to nine Caribbean colonies (and in two cases to the Cape of Good Hope). By far the largest number of enslavers were connected to Jamaica, but they also had interests in Antigua, Dominica, Nevis, St Kitts, St Vincent, Tobago, Tortola (in the British Virgin Islands) and Trinidad.

Among other awards, in 1836 Westmorland and Stewart received compensation for 160 enslaved people on the Caldwell or Caldwall estate in Jamaica. There is a complete list of the first names of the enslaved at Caldwell in 1817, beginning, for ‘males’[WM6] , with George, aged 37 and Davie, son of Christmas, aged 20, and for ‘females’ [WM7] with Monemia and Catolina, both aged 42. This register also indicates birthplace and perceived ‘race’ for each person. But its heaviest weight perhaps lies simply in the long list of names – Rosey, Christmas, Lucy, Queen, Big Mary, Peggy, Big Molly, Dicky, Toby, Dick, Andrew, Nuto, and on, and on – giving a painful visual reminder of the extent of enslavement, on this one plantation alone. Later registers list those who were born and died, usually giving surnames.

Interests in the economy of enslavement took many forms, reflecting among other things the network of credit and debt around estates. Westmorland and Stewart were mortgagees (i.e. creditors) on some estates, including Caldwell – this meant that they were treated as the effective owners, receiving priority for compensation – and outright owners of others. The same applied to the Lathams, another prominent local enslaving family. Thomas Latham (1744–1818) was ‘a merchant of Camberwell’ whose estate passed to his wife Ann (1766–1845), who was buried at St Giles’ Camberwell, and their children. The Latham estates included Chatham, on Trinidad, for which they received £4,725 in compensation for 106 enslaved people in 1836. Their son George, as owner, made the 1825 return himself, giving a complete list of enslaved people, mostly by family. It shows, for example, four generations of the Charity family, the oldest members of which, given as husband and wife Charity Charity and Dolly Charity, were born in Africa and were evidently survivors of the slave trade. Charity was Igbo (‘Eboe’[WM8] ) and Dolly was Akan (‘Coromante’[WM9] ). Dolly’s daughters and sons, Charlotte, Sally, Clifton, Hamlet, Betsey and Charity Charity, were born on St Vincent; among them were a nurse, a cook and four labourers. The remaining names on the list are all Dolly’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Other Camberwell enslavers had been born or lived in the Caribbean. Some came from the wealthy planter class, while others, like Richard Edward Cardin (1805–1871), an estate manager on St Kitts, were further down the social scale. From 1860 until his death Cardin and his family lived at three Camberwell addresses, including Warner Road and Addington Square. Cardin’s father and brother were managers of the Romneys estate (St Kitts), for which the records afford a rare glimpse into the life of the enslaved. In the early 1820s Betto Douglas made a complaint against Cardin’s father, to whom she said had promised manumission: “I tell him [R.E. Cardin] to speak to his father, and tell him how hard the times were – and he promised to do so.”

These official, skeletal records tell us very little about the violence and trauma experienced by the enslaved, nor the many ways in which they resisted. But they do remind us that behind every loan, profit or compensation payment lay human lives – individuals whose forced labour created and sustained this vast system of profit-making.

Enslavers and Camberwell parish

From about the 1770s, Camberwell developed into a suburb of London. Large houses were built, communication with central London improved, and the area was considered healthy. All this made it attractive to the relatively well off, including those who worked in the City, and enslavers were among those who moved here. Their patterns of settlement also appear to reflect the emerging class divisions of the parish. This is evident despite the fact that the majority of the LBS entries provide only a general address (Camberwell, Dulwich and so on), with street names only given in some cases, and house numbers (which may have changed) very rarely.

In general, most of the richest enslavers seem to have settled south of Camberwell centre, mainly in Herne Hill and Dulwich. Judah Cohen (1768–1838), who (I estimate) received £21,587 for 45 separate claims to compensation for the emancipation of 1,127 people in Jamaica, was living in Herne Hill at the time of his death. The wealthy solicitor Richard Shawe (1755–1816) was a partner in a West India merchant firm and had interests in the Whim estate, Jamaica, where 299 people were emancipated in 1836. Shawe commissioned John Nash to design his home in Herne Hill, Casino House (now demolished).

The well-known scientist, physician and philanthropist John Coakley Lettsom (1744–1815) lived at the top of Camberwell Grove. In 1767 Lettsom inherited an estate on Tortola and freed all the enslaved people – an extremely rare act. “Money from slavery, however, was sticky”, and shortly before his death he inherited several plantations on Tortola from his daughter-in-law, Ruth Lettsom née Hodge.

But, of the Camberwell list, it was William Tetlow Hibbert (1792–1881) who came from the richest and most influential family of enslavers. The Hibberts traded in and ‘owned’ large numbers of enslaved people. W.T. Hibbert, who lived at Dulwich Hill House between 1834 and 1850, worked for the family merchant house, and was one of five Hibberts to receive compensation at emancipation of £37,567, for 2,034 people. At his death he left the enormous sum of £165,000.

W.T. Hibbert also followed family precedent by involving himself in politics, lobbying for the interests of enslavers through the Society of West Indian Merchants and Planters. Thomas Plummer (1749–1818), “West India merchant of Camberwell”, also sought political power and was MP for Ilchester in 1802–3. Both his sons also became MPs for short periods.

The largest group of entries in the Camberwell list (eighteen in number) indicate residence in Camberwell itself. Many of these enslavers were prosperous and several, like the Dulwich residents, had commercial interests, usually in plantations in the Caribbean. One unusual case is that of James Mill (1738–1806) ‘of Camberwell’[WM10] , a slave trader who (part-)financed at least eight transatlantic slaving voyages. Enslavement was clearly a family business: one brother, David, was governor of Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana), the headquarters of the British slave trade in Africa, another governed a different slave fort and a third captained a slave ship.

The Camberwell list also contains a small number of women who received annual payments from slave estates. One such was Penelope Crabb (d. 1830), a ‘widow of Camberwell’[WM11] , who benefited from a modest annuity of £50 per year from the Spring estate, Jamaica. Such annuitants often (although not always) formed part of a less wealthy group of beneficiaries of enslavement, including many women. The class divisions of Camberwell are again in evidence here, with poorer enslavers (judging by their wealth at death, their occupation or the failure of compensation claims) often living in the north of the parish, in north Camberwell and Peckham. This area, through which the Grand Surrey Canal was built between 1801 and 1811, was becoming a more industrial district. James Laing Bremner (1806–1864), for example, a merchant of Dominica, lived in Peckham and then Southampton Street (now Southampton Way); he left less than £20 on this death.

Unsuccessful claimants include Sarah and Thomas Parker (dates unknown) of Camberwell, who claimed for the enslaved people on the Burlington estate in Jamaica, owned until his death by Sarah’s cousin, James Clayton White (d. 1833). White and his family had lived in Shard’s Place, Peckham, as well as Jamaica. The compensation went to White’s executors, presumably to the benefit of Rosannah Richards (dates unknown), ‘of free condition’[WM12] , and hers and White’s six ‘natural and reputed children of colour’[WM13] , as acknowledged in White’s will. This is one of two instances in the Camberwell list where people of colour benefited from enslavement – which occurs, although rarely, in the LBS records as a whole. The other case was that of sisters Ann Maitland (1788–1833) and Rebecca Roberts (d. 1834) and their families.

I conclude with a case relating to St Giles’ church, Camberwell, and an old Camberwell family. Thomas Storie ‘of Camberwell’ (d. 1794) possessed two estates, on Tobago and Dominica, which his son, Rev. George Henry Storie (d. 1833), inherited. G.H. Storie was rector of a church in Essex but lived at Springfield Lodge, Camberwell Grove; he is known to have sold the Tobago estate around 1807. His foster-son, the Rev. John George Storie (d. 1858), who was vicar of St Giles’ Camberwell 1823–1846 and priest of St Mary Magdalen, Peckham 1850–1858, donated a fine west window to the new St Giles’ church (rebuilt after the fire of 1841). Further research would be required to establish whether J.G. Storie inherited wealth derived from the slave economy in the form of (the proceeds of) his father’s plantations, but this does seem likely.

Conclusion

Camberwell may have been a rural parish on the outskirts of London, but this article has shown its multiple links with the economy of enslavement in the City of London and across Britain’s empire. Many enslavers lived here, and so too did some of the enslaved.

Does this still matter? Many argue, and I agree with them, that getting to grips with these issues is more urgent than ever. As Kris Manjapra writes, ‘the legacy of such large-scale, prolonged slavery touches everything that is familiar in Britain today’[WM14] . To research these legacies, and how they are embedded in British soil, is a first step towards facing this question, and thinking about what happens next.


A word about language

Older language used for the system of slavery, now often called enslavement, has been subject to challenge by scholars and activists. They have sought to emphasise the humanity of those enslaved by the system, and to question the power relations implicit in many terms used in the past. Following their lead, I have talked about ‘enslaved people’ rather than ‘slaves’ – emphasising that ‘slave’ is not who they were, but rather something done to them. And can anyone be born enslaved? In this spirit, using ‘enslavers’ in preference to ‘slave-owners’ stresses that this extreme form of exploitation was only maintained through continuing acts of violence and oppression, far beyond the original moment of enslavement.

There is no last word on the subject, though: language is tricky, complicated and changing, and the site of valid disagreements by stakeholders and experts. The terms I have used here represent, like all history-telling, an approximation of historical experience, as well as an attempt to show respect to those most affected by the trauma of centuries of enslavement


[WM1]Q

Follow us on Facebook

and Instagram Instagram

The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival