Tag Archives: slavery

The Thomson Brothers – Slave Traders & Owners of Lee

One of the underlying threads in the growth of Lee and the underpinning source of its wealth from the 17th century onwards was slavery – Running Past has covered this before in relation to the Manor House with the links of both Thomas Lucas and the Barings to it as well as to the last resident of Lee PlaceBenjamin Aislabie, who kept his ties to the awful trade in misery beyond the time it was outlawed in the Empire.

While what these Lee residents trading links were despicable, two of their predecessors on what is now the borders of SE12 and SE13 were considerably worse and helped paved the way for what was to come later – George and, more particularly, Maurice Thomson (they are sometimes referred to by the alternate spelling Thompson).  Maurice Thomson lived at Lee Farm, sometimes referred to as Lee House (1), his brother George was one of the early inhabitants of Lee Place (covered in Running Past in 2014) it may even have been built for him (2).

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Maurice Thompson was described “England’s greatest colonial merchant of his day.”  He was born into a wealthy family in Watton-at-Stone in Hertfordshire  around 1600 and moved to Virginia around 1617, initially being involved in the supply of indentured servants (who were obligated to work only for a set period of time) and became involved in tobacco production directly himself – exporting 25% of Virginian output by the mid 1630s.

His involvement in slavery began in 1626 – supplying 60 slaves for the Leeward Island of St Kitts.  Over the next couple of decades along with a  few other families, like the Noells, the Thomsons turned the English colonies in the West Indies into sugar producing islands totally dependent on slavery – there were around 12,800 slaves in Barbados by 1650. The number doubled again within a decade.

The trade was effectively a three cornered one – taking slaves from Guinea and elsewhere on the coast of West Africa to the West Indies, bringing sugar back to Europe and then returning with provisions to West Africa.  Thomson was also involved in a wide variety of other trade – including privateering in the Caribbean – essentially a legalised form of piracy, which has been covered in Running Past before, in relation to the name of the Antigallican Hotel in Charlton.

Maurice Thomson’s first definite on-line links to Lee came when he took a 21 lease out on Lee Farm in 1662 from Francis Sherman, who had bought the farm in 1633.  It wasn’t his primary residence for much of the rest of his life, this was in Haversham which is now part of Milton Keynes where he bought the Manor House in 1664.

As discussed previously in a post , Slavery and the Manor House, there isn’t complete certainty where Lee Farm (sometimes known as Lee House) actually was in this period.  It may have been where the Manor House is currently sited or could have been close to the junction of Old Road and Aislibie Road.

It seems likely that Maurice Thomson  was living in Lee before 1662 – there was a Maurice Thomson in Lee in 1641, who had a son, also Maurice, christened at St Margaret’s Lee in May – it is known that Maurice Thomson’s first son who died in infancy was also called Maurice. He was also on hearth tax records from 1641 (3).

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Maurice Thomson used Lee Farm it as his close to London base until his death in 1676.  In his will he left most of his land interests, including the slaves, to his son John

I give bequeath and devise unto my said dearely beloved sonn Sir John Thomson Baronett All my ffreehold mannors Lands Tenements and hereditaments in England Ireland Barbadoes, Cureco St Christophers (now known as St Kitts), Virginia , the Caribie Islands and elsewhere …

John Thomson stayed in Lee until 1680 when the remainder of the lease was transferred to Elias Aston.

John Thomson, married Frances Annesley, while she has the same family name as Brian who had been Lord of the Manor of Lee and an early 17th century  court case seems to have at least partially inspired King Lear (covered in Running Past in 2014),  she would have been no more than a distant relative – it has not been possible to find any direct link through The Peerage.  Her part of family came from Anglesey.

As merchants the Thomsons were very much in the Parliamentary camp during the English Civil War, which Christopher Hill notes was

… a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords, and on the other side stood the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside . . . the yeomen and progressive gentry…’

Of the Thomson brothers, George was much less involved in the slave trade, although his name crops up; it is with much less frequently than Maurice his brother.  He settled in Virginia in 1623 before returning to London as a merchant trading with Virginia and the Caribbean – trade with these areas always indirectly involved slavery in this period.  He is much better known for his political and military activity.  George Thomson became actively involved in the Parliamentary cause as a soldier, losing a leg in battle. After the end of the Civil War he was elected to Parliament for Southwark, although fell out with Cromwell for a while.  After the Restoration in 1660, George Thomson (picture below – source) seems to have laid low in Lee, but he was mentioned in hearth tax records in 1664 – he had the most chimneys in the parish, 21, six more than his brother at Lee Farm.

Thomson

While this is the first definitive on-line reference to him, like his brother, there are clear indications that he had been living in the area for a while – there are christening records from the 1645 with the correct names of children and wife.  So it may be that he had been the first resident of Lee Place.

He died in 1668, and the estate of Lee Place seems to have been sold to the Christopher Boone, who took up residence in 1670. Boone’s will makes reference to it having been bought from Thomson.

Notes

  1. Edwyn and Josephine Birchenough (1968) Two Old Lee Houses – Dacre House and Lee House p68
  2. Picture from information board opposite St Margaret’s Church
  3. Birchenough op cit p70

 

Slavery and the Manor House

The Manor House in Lee is an impressive building, rightly listed, but amidst the grandeur and beauty it has financial foundations that lie very firmly in slavery – it is a prime example of what has been referred to as ‘dark heritage’

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The House was built for Thomas Lucas around 1770, he had lived in Lee for a while, renting Lee Place (on the opposite side of Old Road) from the Boones – it is a ‘country house’ that Running Past ‘visited’ a while ago.

But to understand the history of the Manor House, we need to go back a generation.  It certainly wasn’t the first building on the site – John Roques map of 1746 (1) a quarter of a century before the Manor House was built shows a lot of properties around where it is now located.  It was probably the location of Lee Farm, although there is some uncertainty about this.  Lee Farm seems to have moved around 1745 to become Burnt Ash Farm and the vacated buildings were bought by William Coleman, Thomas Lucas’ uncle, who sought to re-create the old Manor of Lee for his nephew (2)  which had been broken up after the death of Brian Annesley – covered earlier in Running Past.

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Coleman was the agent for a number of Leeward Islands plantation owners, notably the Pinneys of Bristol who were who were at that time probably the wealthiest plantation owners in St. Kitts and Nevis. He also jointly owned a plantation in Antigua with his nephew – Roundhill which had 150 slaves.

Thomas Lucas was born around 1720, possibly in the West Country.  He was Treasurer (1764-74) and later President (1774-84) of Guys Hospital and has been described as ‘a wealthy merchant’, much of his wealth came from  joint ‘business interests’ with his uncle in St Kitts in the Leeward Islands, along with the Roundhill plantation with 150 slaves in Antigua.  In his own right, Lucas probably owned land at Barbados Bay in Tobago – which almost inevitably would have had direct or indirect links to slavery.

A Thomas Lucas of this era part owned a number of ships directly involved in taking slaves to the West Indies – while there  is nothing definitive linking him to Lee, there cannot have been many of that name, with sufficient wealth to own a share in a large ship, who had  links to the West Country and who were involved in the slave trade at that time.  One of these ships was the ‘Africa’, jointly owned by a Thomas Lucas and seven others.  It left Bristol in 1774 and its captain purchased slaves at New Calabar (in what is now Nigeria) and then proceeded to St Vincent for instructions on their sale in 1775.  The net proceeds were a staggering £5442, millions at today’s prices.

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Manor House was designed by Richard Jupp, a well-known 18th century architect and surveyor, employed for much of his career by the East India Company.  The Manor House is one of a trio of relatively well known south London properties that he designed – the others being the Sevendroog Castle and the entrance and wings to Guys Hospital (1774-77), presumably as a direct result of his work for Lucas  at the Manor House.

Lucas died in 1784 and what happened next in terms of ownership and occupancy is a little confused with some contradictory evidence, although some elements of this ‘confusion’  may relate to the author’s poor understanding of 18th and early 19th century legal jargon.  It seems that the former Lady Lucas let the house to the Call family, Sir John in 1792 on a 61 year lease.  However, he seems to have moved out before his death in Westminster in 1801 – there is an impressive pyramidical family tomb in the old St Margaret’s churchyard.

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Lucas wife, who later married John Julius Angerstein (someone else who had made money from slavery) and appears to have sold the estate in the 1790s; there is a report of a sale in August 1796 at Garraway’s Coffee-House.  However, to confuse matters there is also the granting of a lease to Sir Francis Baring by the executors of Thomas Lucas in 1797. There are also frequent reports of a sale by a Sir Joseph Paice of the Manor House to Sir Francis Baring for £20,000 in 1796.  This may be the same sale as that by former Elizabeth Lucas, in that the House might have been due to pass to him after her death – there is a mention of him as the reversionary legatee which might point to this. Whatever the chain of events was, the net result was that around the end of the 18th or early in 19th centuries the Manor House became the London home of the Barings – this was certainly by 1801 as John Baring, the 3rd son of Sir Thomas was born there.

Before moving onto the Barings, it is worth touching on Sir Joseph Paice.  He would certainly have known Thomas Lucas as Paice was also trustee at Guys.  While there were no direct links to slavery, the Paice family had ‘trading links’ with Jamaica for produce and crops inevitably produced by slave labour.  Paice was also a childhood friend of Francis Baring – growing up in the same part of Devon, and was to help with the setting up of Barings Bank.

Despite their purchase of Stratton Park in Hampshire in 1801, it seems that the Barings remained at the Manor House, using it as their London base.  Sir Francis died there in 1810 and Sir Thomas lived there for a few years after that, although the family was to own the House for almost another century.

The links of the Barings early wealth to slavery is relatively well known and well documented;  the whole family of that era and before seem to be imbued in the trade.    The graphics below come from the University College, London Legacies of Slave Ownership database – the maroon plaque from the Manor House.
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While Sir Francis is said to have made his fortune before the age of 16 based on slavery. While his son Thomas Baring is known to have eventually opposed slavery, unlike his near neighbour Benjamin Aislabie – whose murky past Running Past covered a while ago – his home and lifestyle at the Manor House and Stratton Park were under-pinned by past links to slavery.

Given this past it seems odd that it is a family deemed worthy of a Lewisham maroon plaque without mention of what the ‘merchant’ refers to.   Next week’s post will look at the latter years of the House in private ownership, when the Barings retained ownership but rented the House out.

If you are a current Lee, Hither Green or Lewisham resident, next time you use the park, the library or just walk or travel past and admire Richard Jupp’s fantastic architecture, please at least pause to remember the ‘dark heritage’, to remember the lives of those transported 5,000 miles from New Calabar to injustice and misery in the Leeward Islands, and to remember that it was the enforced and unpaid toil of slaves that largely paid for what you are looking at.  If you live somewhere else, something similar may well apply to your local ‘country house’ too.

Notes

  1. From information board at Lee Green
  2. Josephine Birchenough &  John King (1981)Some Farms and Fields in Lee p3

Benjamin Aislabie – Lee Resident, Slave Owner & Possibly the Worst Ever First Class Cricketer

The blog has touched on Benjamin Aislabie a couple of times before, notably him being the last tenant of Lee Place – the first of the country houses of Lee, that was situated in the area bounded by the current Old Road, Lee High Road and Bankwell Road, although its estate extended much further.

The long-term owners of the house, the Boone family, had ceased living in the house around 1770, letting it initially to Thomas Lucas who was to build the Manor House.  Aislabie became its final occupant in 1809, taking on a 14 year lease.

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(Picture from information board opposite St Margaret’s Lee)

Benjamin Aislabie, son of Rawson and Frances Aislabie, was born in 1774 at Newington Green.  By the time he moved to Lee he was a wealthy man, he would have needed to be to afford to rent Lee Place; he had made much of his wealth from the wine trade and was widely reported as having Nelson as one of his customers.

Like a number of the former wealthy inhabitants of Lee, he had links to slavery in the West Indies and the southern states of the current USA, this is something that the blog will undoubtedly return to in the future in posts on Lee Farm, the Manor House and Dacre House.  Aislabie was more unusual in that his links with the slave trade continued after it had been abolished in the British Empire in 1807.  However, it still existed elsewhere and there was nothing to prevent British citizens having interests in it outside the Empire.

It is known that Aislabie had a mortgage interest from 1812 in an estate in Antigua, and in his will he was owner of two estates in Dominica, one of which had 111 slaves, leaving them to his son Rev. William John Aislabie along with an income to his wife from them of £100 a year.

Unsurprisingly, he was one of those in Lee who did not sign the Lee Petition in 1814 – calling on the government to insert a clause into a treaty with the defeated French to end slavery in their empire.

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Picture source – via creative commons

In addition to his interests in wine and slavery, Aislabie was actively involved with the affairs of the parish of St Margaret, both helping oversee the construction of the short-lived second incarnation of the church (which had to be replaced three decades later due to subsidence) and helping dispense the largesse of the parish in the bad winter of 1814.  The late 19th century Lee historian FW Hart notes that Aislabie

took a lively interest in distributing the charities that severe winter to the poor; he also placed to the use of the parish the buildings in the front yard of his mansion, for the storage of coals and potatoes, which were given to the poor during the thirteen weeks’ frost; bread was very dear at this time, and Lee had no poor-house.

Aislabie’s erstwhile landlord, Charles Boone, had died in 1819 and when the lease ended in 1823, it was not renewed, and Lee Place was sold.  While FW Hart suggests he may have moved to Sevenoaks, it certainly wasn’t his permanent residence; in his latter years this was Park Place, next to Regent’s Park and close to the new home of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), Lords.  He was buried in Marylebone church in 1842.

Aislabie had a passion for cricket and was heavily involved in the administration of the game through the MCC, becoming its President in 1823 and secretary from the year before until his death.  In cricketing terms he is remembered though as having one of the worst first-class cricket records of all time.  In part this was because he continued playing well into his later years – his final match was played against Cambridge University at Lord’s on 1 and 2 Jul 1841 when he was aged 67 years 169 days – the oldest ever English participant in a first class game.

His record suggests that he managed 100 first class innings, with a highest score of 15 and a batting average of a paltry 3.15; he didn’t bowl.  The cricket records website, Cricinfo, suggests that

His lack of skill was further hampered by his girth, and towards the end of his career he was so fat that he had a permanent runner who also used to field for him

His record as an administrator seems little better, the same source notes

Under his tenure the club lurched from crisis to crisis, and while not dishonest, he was certainly a dreadful financial controller. He was also, among other posts, Custodian of the MCC Snuffbox.

The MCC at the time though was a little kinder to his memory – it was noted in the Sporting Magazine that

Aislabie obit

Given his links to slavery it seems strange that a man of Aislabie’s ‘pedigree’ has been remembered with a street name (albeit incorrectly spelled) from the 1890s, although perhaps the late Victorians in Lee and Lewisham were only aware of his past via the rose tinted glasses of FW Hart.

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Ignatius Sancho – Britain’s First Black Voter

Tucked away in the wall in the far south-western corner of Greenwich Park are a pair of memorial stones, it is easy to miss them.  The first is to mark the location of Princess Caroline’s bath at Montague House, the second is a memorial to Ignatius Sancho. 

  

The story told of Ignatius Sancho’s early life is generally that from a biography by Joseph Jekyll in 1782 who describes him being born on  a slave ship bound for Cartagena in the Spanish colony of New Granada (now in Columbia) soon after it left Africa, his mother died in labour and his father committed suicide rather than spend the rest of his in slavery.  He was brought to London effectively as a slave where he was owned by three sisters in Greenwich, who called him ‘Sancho’ as they thought he resembled Don Quixote’s squire.

  

However, more recent research suggests that he was more likely to have been born in Africa rather than on a slave ship and casts doubt on the route to London too.  However, with the strong links of south east London to the slave trade, via the Deptford dockyards, it is perhaps not surprising that he ended up working as a servant/slave in Greenwich.

Sancho’s’ later life is a little clearer, he eventually ended up at Montague House after being befriended by John, later to become, 2nd Duke of Montagu who encouraged him to read and lent him books from the library at the House.  He became a butler to Lady Montagu, and and on her death in 1751 he received an annuity of £30 and a year’s salary which he seems to have frittered away in George Best style.  During the 1760s Sancho married Ann Osborne and began to have influence amongst the Georgian intelligentsia on the issue of slavery.  This included Laurence Sterne who wrote about the subject in ‘Tristram Shandy’ .  Sancho returned to the employment of the Montagus before they set him up  with a shop in Mayfair.

Whilst Ignatio was in the employ of the Montagus his portrait was painted by Gainsborough in 1768 – the Duke and Duchess had portraits painted at the same time.

  

Source – Wikimedia Commons

As a male property owner in Westminster he was entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections, and in 1774 became almost certainly the  first person of Black African origin to cast a vote in Britain – he voted for the prominent Whig politician and anti-slavery campaigner Charles James Fox who stood in Westminster in that election. ‘Sancho’ was also the first Black African to have an obituary written about him in Britain. 

He is perhaps most remembered for his letters which were published posthumously  on slavery and British political and social life in the late 18th century.