LAURENCE WESTGAPH
Built on slavery
English Heritage is revising its listings to highlight the role that slavery and the slave trade
played in creating many of Britain’s most important buildings, not least in Liverpool.
The Royal Institution,
Liverpool
‘Beyond a doubt it was the slave trade that raised
Liverpool from a struggling port to be one of the richest
and most prosperous trading centres in the world,’
wrote the Liverpool historian, Ramsay Muir . Many
of the merchants involved in this trade used their new-
found wealth to adorn the town with fine new buildings.
These merchants usually had various business interests
as very few focused on just one avenue of wealth
accumulation. The lack of detailed accounts and the
fact that money acquired in one trade was used to
invest in others make it impossible to disentangle the
proceeds of slavery from wealth accrued from other
sources. In the brief examples below I have focused on
those individuals who were known to have significant
interests in slaving.
A number of Liverpool’s finest buildings were erected
to house cultural institutions. Some were founded or
supported by merchants who had made fortunes in
the slave trade, and still survive. Thomas Harrison’s
Grade II listed Lyceum Club (1802), which housed the
Liverpool Library, was financed in part by men who had
profited from the exploitation of enslaved Africans. The
Grade II listed Royal Institution building (1799), still
standing on Colquitt Street, was built as the home of
Thomas Parr, a Liverpool slaver. The Royal Institution,
established for ‘the promotion of Literature, Science,
and the Arts’, is considered the forerunner of Liverpool
University. Many of the men who had helped establish
the institution had links to slavery, either as former
Liverpool Town Hall
slave traders or owners of West Indian plantations that
used slave labour.
The Blue Coat Hospital for the Indigent Poor, a
school for destitute children, was founded in 1708
by Bryan Blundell and the Reverend Robert Stythe.
Blundell provided finance for the school from his
income as a merchant and sea captain, while Stythe
looked after the day-to-day running of the institution.
Blundell was involved in carrying Virginian tobacco
to England and also transported ‘refuse slaves’ from
captivity on Caribbean sugar plantations to less labour-
intensive work on the tobacco plantations of the
Chesapeake. Blundell left the sea on the death of
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Stythe in 1713 in order to take over management of the
school. In the subsequent years he invested in a number
of slave ships, some of the wealth from these ventures
probably contributed to the expansion of the work of
the Blue Coat, as Blundell pledged 10 per cent of his
annual income to the institution.
The school had originally been housed in a small
timber building, but within a short time the benefactors
were inundated with so many applications that a larger
building was required. The old school was dismantled
and a new one was built in the Queen Anne style,
between 1717 and 1725. In 1763 the building was
further extended by Bryan’s son, Jonathan, who was
more deeply involved in the slave trade than his father.
Throughout the 18th century many of the main
benefactors of the school were slave traders. The Blue
Coat, the oldest edifice still standing in Liverpool
city centre, has Grade I status. Hughes refers to it as
‘Liverpool’s ancient gem’.
Fox Bourne noted that Bryan Blundell ‘found in
his philanthropy no argument in joining in the slave
trade’. He was not alone. Many of Liverpool’s most
successful slave traders were also the town’s most
noted philanthropists. The Earles, Heywoods, Cunliffes
and Blundells all contributed to the foundation of
the Liverpool Infirmary that stood on the site now
occupied by the magnificent St George’s Hall. Another
and more significant building that all these merchants
contributed to was the Liverpool Exchange, known
today as Liverpool Town Hall. The Grade I listed
building was designed by John Wood of Bath. Building
commenced in 1749, although a plaque on the exterior
of the hall states that the work was begun a year
earlier. The construction firm tasked with building the
Exchange was owned by Joseph Brooks, a member of
Liverpool’s slave trading elite. The exterior is decorated
with an entablature that contains the bust of an African
woman, an elephant, and other exotic flora and fauna,
acknowledging the sources of trade that contributed so
much to increasing the town’s wealth.
In Brunswick Street stands the Grade II listed
Heywood’s Bank, Liverpool’s oldest surviving purpose-
built bank, erected in 1800. This was the place of
business of Arthur and Richard Heywood, prominent
Liverpool merchants who were the sons of Arthur
Heywood, a successful Liverpool slave trader who had
founded the bank in 1773 with his brother Benjamin.
Ten out of the 14 important Liverpool banks founded
after 1750 were owned by slave traders. Quentin
Hughes refers to Heywood’s Bank’s classical façade as
being ‘very elegant and well proportioned’.
John Gladstone, father of the famous prime minister,
used some of the wealth he acquired through sugar
production on his slave plantations in Demerara and
Jamaica to build churches in Liverpool and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, only the Grade II listed St Andrew’s
Church (1823) on Rodney Street, near to the house
where William Gladstone was born, has survived. It
is currently derelict, after suffering a major fire in the
1980s. Built in 1794, the Grade II listed Holy Trinity
Church, Wavertree, was financed by the slave trading
Backhouse family. Sir John Betjemen referred to Holy
Trinity as ‘Liverpool’s best Georgian church’.
The Grade II listed St Mary’s, Edge Hill, was built
by Edward Mason, a Liverpool slave trader, who used
his finances to build and endow the church in 1812.
Staying in Edge Hill, we also have the Grade II listed
Edge Hill train station, the oldest surviving passenger
railway station in the world. Stephenson built the
station in 1836 as the new passenger terminus to the
Liverpool to Manchester Railway. The company that
founded the railway was owned in part by Caribbean
plantation owners the Gladstone, Moss and Earle
families. Although lauded as the first passenger railway,
its main use was to transport slave-produced cotton to
the mills of Lancashire.
Two Liverpool salt merchants who also had slave
trading interests, John Ashton and John Blackburne,
were the major shareholders in the building of the
Blackburn House
St Mary’s Edge Hill, built
by Edward Mason
Edge Hill Station
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CONTEXT 108 : MARCH 2009
Speke Hall
Sankey Canal, the first modern canal built in England
during the industrial revolution. Blackburne’s son,
John Junior, was also an investor in slave ships, he
built the Grade II listed Blackburne House as his
country residence in 1790. The building went on to
become Liverpool’s first high school for girls in 1844.
Ashton’s son, Nicholas, used his inherited wealth to
purchase Woolton Hall, commissioning Robert Adam
to redesign the interior, which is thought to be his only
completed work in Lancashire.
Falkner Square, built around 1830, is Liverpool’s
only completely intact Georgian square. With its well-
maintained park it provides a much-needed green
space in a densely populated area. The square was
built by the former slave trader Edward Falkner, who
diversified his interests, as many slavers did, to include
land and property development.
Liverpool has a wealth of green spaces, many of
which have connections to slavery. A number of the
city’s public parks were originally the grounds of
wealthy merchants’ estates. The beautiful Reynold’s
Park, Woolton, was built as the home of John Weston,
a slave trader who invested in more than 20 voyages.
Harvey Lonsdale Elmes was commissioned to build
Allerton Tower for Hardman Earle, whose family
had been involved in the slave trade for a number
of generations. Hardman Earle was also the owner
of a Caribbean plantation. Springwood was built
by William Shand, a West Indian plantation owner
who named his home in Liverpool after his estate in
Antigua.
Roby Hall and estate, later to become Bowring Park,
were built by John Williamson, another of Liverpool’s
affluent 18th century slavers. Otterspool Park was the
property of John Moss, a Caribbean plantation owner
who, along with three other West Indian slave owners,
Josias Booker, John Tinne and Charles Parker, paid for
the erection of the Grade II listed St Anne’s Church,
Aigburth, in 1837. On the outskirts of Newsham Park
stands Newsham House, now used as Liverpool’s
Judges Lodgings. The Grade II listed mansion was
erected by Thomas Molyneux during the final years of
the 18th century. Molyneux was a prolific slave trader.
In 1846, 11 years after his death, the whole estate was
sold to Liverpool Corporation for £80,000 and was
laid out as a public park.
Liverpool’s slave trading wealth is also displayed on
the Cheshire side of the Mersey. Sir John Tobin was a
slave ship captain who also invested in his voyages. His
knowledge of Africa and her trading routes led him into
the very lucrative palm oil business after the slave trade
was abolished by the British in 1807. In 1835 Tobin
built the Grade II listed St John’s Church, Liscard,
as well as Liscard Hall, which burnt to the ground in
2008. The grounds of Liscard Hall became Wallasey’s
Central Park when the local corporation bought the
estate in the final years of the 19th century.
One of the best examples of the lasting legacy
of slavery in Liverpool can be seen in the Anglican
Cathedral. Although the cathedral is a 20th century
building, inside there is a memorial to the merchant,
Richard Watt, who died in 1796. His descendant,
Adelaide Watt, donated £2,000 for the building of the
cathedral, and in acknowledging the role her ancestor
had made in creating the wealth her family enjoyed she
had a memorial inscribed in his name.
Richard Watt had made his fortune in Jamaican
sugar plantations. His wealth bought him estates at
Speke Hall and Bishop Burton in Yorkshire. At the
time of Watt’s purchase of Speke Hall, the tenant
farmers were using the now Grade I listed building
to house their livestock. The purchase and restoration
of the hall by the Watt family undoubtedly saved one
of Britain’s finest Tudor mansions (now owned by the
National Trust) from destruction.
English Heritage is revising its listings to highlight
the role that slavery and the slave trade played in
creating many of Britain’s most important buildings.
This acknowledgement of the importance of the trade
to the development of British architecture will help
to spotlight a corner of British history that has been
neglected for far too long.
Footnotes
1 Muir, R A History of
Liverpool (Liverpool
1907)
2 Westgaph, L
unpublished MA
dissertation (University
of Liverpool 2008)
3 Hughes, Q Liverpool:
city of architecture
(Liverpool 1999)
4 Fox Bourne, H English
Merchants (London
1886)
5 Hughes, Q Liverpool,
City of Architecture,
(Liverpool, 1999) p16
Bibliography
Fox Bourne, H English
Merchants (London 1886)
Hughes, Q Liverpool: city
of architecture (Liverpool
1999)
Muir, R A History of
Liverpool (Liverpool
1907)
Westgaph, L unpublished
MA dissertation
(University of Liverpool
2008)
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