“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 of the world” Professor Ramsay Muir, A History of Liverpool, 1907
Liverpool, is a city built on slavery. This fact has been stated by a number of notable individuals over the years. In 1797, the poet William Bagshaw Stevens, wrote of Liverpool that “Throughout this large built Town every Brick is cemented to its fellow Brick by the blood and sweat of Negroes.”
Although over the last two hundred years a number of writers have attempted to play down the importance of slavery to the development of Liverpool, to this day the evidence remains set in stone throughout the city’s public realm. Although much of Georgian Liverpool was destroyed in the golden age of the city during the nineteenth century much still remains and indeed, even Victorian Liverpool owes a great debt to the labour of slaves in the United States of America and Brazil.
The evidence of the role slavery played in the development of the port can be seen in Liverpool’s philanthropic and cultural institutions, its most prestigious schools, fine civic buildings, public parks, higher educational institutions and in the names of the city’s most prominent and not so prominent streets. In this article I will provide a number of examples of buildings and streets from around the city that have connections with the port’s involvement with slavery and the slave trade.
Liverpool Town Hall
The single greatest architectural monument to Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade is the Grade I Listed, Liverpool Town Hall, built circa 1749-1754. According to Henry Fox Bourne in his magisterial two-volume work, ‘English Merchants’, the Hall was built by the most prominent slave traders in the town during the mid-eighteenth century, including the Earle, Cunliffe, Heywood and Blundell families. They employed the great architect, John Wood of Bath, to design the building. The construction firm tasked with building the hall was owned by Joseph Brooks, another of the town’s slave-trading elite and whose nephew, Jonathan was the owner of the infamous slave ship, ‘The Brooks’.
Joseph Brooks 1706-1788 slaver and builder of the Town Hall
The frieze on the eastern side of the exterior of the building is adorned with the busts of African and Native American women, emblematic of the two continents that were responsible for Liverpool’s great rise to prominence during the eighteenth century.
Town Hall Frieze depicting an African woman
The Town Hall was also known as the Liverpool Exchange as much business would be transacted in its precincts, and it was in the taverns, inns and offices of businessmen in the area where the majority of slave sales that took place in the town were held. On the 27th November 1767, a notice appeared in the Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser announcing for sale “One Negro Man and Two Boys” at Richard Robinson’s office in High Street, opposite the Town Hall.
Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 27 November 1767
The slave trading Brooks family who built the Town Hall also have a street named after them, Brooks Alley. No less than six individual members of the clan invested in slaving voyages. Joseph Brooks(pictured above), owned the land the street was laid through and was a prominent figure in Liverpool’s civic life during the eighteenth century, holding many important offices including Treasurer of the Parish, responsible for caring for the poor of Liverpool. Based on current evidence, it was he who began the family’s involvement with slaving in 1748 and was later joined by his brothers John and Jonathan on subsequent voyages, but it was Joseph’s nephew and namesake, Joseph Brooks junior, who was the owner of one of the most infamous trading vessels in history, ‘The Brooks’. The ship was immortalised by the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade who created a poster showing a diagram of the ship laid out with its human cargo. This image was then made widely available by the printer and bookseller, James Phillips, allowing it to be used by abolitionists in their campaign to demonstrate an aspect of the true horror of the conditions in which enslaved people were stowed and transported. The large-scale distribution of the poster throughout the nation created one of the most enduring and powerful political images of the eighteenth century.
Diagram of ‘The Brooks’
On four voyages between 1782 and 1787, The Brookes never carried less than 600 enslaved Africans on the middle passage from West Africa to the Caribbean; many died as a result of the terrible conditions on board. On one voyage in 1785 from the Gold Coast to Jamaica, the hold was packed with 740 people only 635 of whom survived the voyage. When parliament debated the slave trade in 1788 one of those called to give evidence before the Privy Council was the ex-surgeon of The Brookes, Thomas Trotter. Evidence given by Trotter and others at these debates led to an Act of Parliament being passed in 1789 which limited the number of slaves that could be carried on a ship according to its tonnage. In the Brookes’ case the maximum number allowed was 454, the number of people depicted in the poster. The print viscerally illustrates that although the Brooks never travelled with less than 600 onboard, even with 454 people berthed the conditions would have been indescribable.
Commemorative Ceramic Beaker from a voyage of The Brooks
The land just across the road from Brooks Alley was once held by the same family and was used to manufacture rope. Around 1785, the rope works was leased from the corporation by the slave trader, Jonas Bold who laid it out for housing for the well to do of Liverpool, the street was then named in his honour. As well as investing in real estate and slaving, Bold was also a sugar merchant, mayor and a partner in the banking firm Staniforth, Ingram, Bold and Daltera, all four men were involved in the slave trade. Joseph Daltera advertised for sale in the Williamson’s Advertiser on June 17 1757: “To be sold TEN pipes of raisin wine, a parcel of bottled cyder, and a Negro boy….” Many of Liverpool’s merchants during the 18th century were slave traders and/or purveyors of slave-produced goods such as sugar, coffee, tobacco or cotton.
Bold Street was the home of the Lyceum Club, built by the famed architect, Thomas Harrison and opened in 1802. The land the building occupies was purchased by the members from the slaver and Bold’s banking partner, Thomas Staniforth. The Lyceum was built to house the Liverpool Library, which is thought to be the oldest public subscription library in the country, founded in 1757. Many of the founder members of the Lyceum traded in enslaved Africans.
One of the best examples of the enduring legacy of slavery in Liverpool can be seen in the Anglican Cathedral. Although the cathedral is a totally twentieth-century building, inside there is a memorial to the merchant, Richard Watt, who died in 1796.
His descendant, Adelaide Watt, donated £2000 for the building of the cathedral and in acknowledging the role her ancestor had played 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, as a slave broker and he also invested in a small number of slaving voyages. His wealth bought him estates at Broadgreen, Speke and Bishop Burton in Yorkshire. At the time of Watt’s purchase of Speke Hall the house was derelict and the tenant farmers were using the now Grade I listed building to house their livestock. At his death, Richard was one of the richest men in the country with a fortune of over £600,000. The purchase and restoration of the Hall by the Watt family undoubtedly saved one of Britain’s finest Tudor mansions from destruction. In the window of the Oak Parlour, there is an unofficial coat of arms of ‘The Watts of Speke’ depicting three blackamoors, possibly acknowledging the role that black people had played in establishing the family fortune. When slavery was abolished in the British colonies, Richard Watt III, the great nephew of the first Richard Watt received £4485 for the 256 enslaved people he had to free on his Jamaican estate. A memorial tablet to Watt III can be seen in St Michael’s Church, Garston. Speke Hall is now owned by the National Trust, many of the properties in their care have connections to slavery.
Sir Thomas Street is named after Sir Thomas Johnson 1664-1728, one of the most important figures in the city’s history and considered to be ‘The founder of modern Liverpool’. He served as mayor in 1695, was elected MP for the town in 1701 and was knighted by Queen Anne in 1708. Johnson was also one of Liverpool’s slave-trading pioneers, financing one of the earliest legal slave ships to leave the port. In 1700, Johnson funded the voyage of ‘The William’ and (according to authors Peter Fryer and Hugh Thomas) later that year with his friend and fellow MP, Richard Norris of Speke Hall, would also sponsor ‘The Blessing’ on its journey to the Gold Coast and Barbados, where the enslaved Africans were to be exchanged for cotton, ginger and sugar. Johnson was also involved in the ‘Virginia Trade’, which saw Liverpool merchants deal in slave-produced tobacco. Sir Thomas was also behind the erection of two of the town’s most important ecclesiastical buildings, St Peter’s Church, Liverpool’s first purpose-built parish church, and the architecturally stunning, St George’s, which would go on to become the place of worship for the Liverpool Corporation.
In 1708, he would become the champion of what was undoubtedly the port’s most important structure, petitioning parliament for the building of Liverpool’s, and Britain’s first commercial wet dock, that opened in 1715. This feat was greatly responsible for the increase in Liverpool’s transatlantic trade and many slave ships were to dock here throughout the eighteenth century as their large size meant they had to be kept constantly afloat. This innovation in docking facilities would be a major factor in revolutionising Liverpool’s fortunes, allowing it to dominate the slave trade, which in the words of professor Ramsay Muir, was instrumental in transforming the town from ‘a struggling port to be one of the richest and most prosperous trading centres of the world.’ In 1717, Sir Thomas offered to purchase the French section of the Caribbean island of St Kitts for £61000, presumably for the continued production of slave-grown sugar, but the offer was not accepted. As well as having had buildings commissioned for the benefit of the town, Johnson was also behind the construction of Sir Thomas Buildings, a group of structures that stood near the site of the street that now bears his name and that appear under construction on Chadwick’s 1725 map of Liverpool, although by that date Johnson was experiencing financial difficulties. His problems were due to speculation in the tobacco trade and the South Sea Company, whose main interest was the transportation of slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Unfortunately for him, in 1720 the Company went into freefall due to massive over-speculation. Johnson’s money problems led him to resign from parliament in 1723 and although he was appointed a customs officer in Virginia it seems he never took up the position and lived out his final years on a small pension in England, dying in London in 1728 and was buried at St. Martins-in-the Fields. A marble memorial(pictured) dedicated to Johnson acknowledging his contributions to the city hangs in the Municipal Buildings, close to the street named after him.
Goree runs alongside the George’s Dock Building (Queensway Tunnel Ventilation Shaft) and must be one of the most uniquely named streets in the country. Of all the thoroughfares in the city with connections to slavery this one most clearly memorialises Liverpool’s involvement in the trade. It commemorates an island off the coast of modern-day Senegal where ships would go to purchase enslaved Africans.
Throughout most of the 18th century the island was controlled and used as a trading post by the French, but during the Seven Years War 1756-63, it was captured by the British and it was probably this event that led to the name being used as a Liverpool thoroughfare. In 1763, at the end of hostilities the Treaty of Paris ceded control of the island back to the French but the Liverpool street name evidently was kept, as can be seen on the John Eyes map of Liverpool, published in 1765.
Goree depicted on Eyes Map of Liverpool 1765
During the American War of Independence 1775-1783, the British once again took control of the Island but it was again returned to the French when the war ended. In 1793, with Liverpool’s transatlantic trade booming, the Goree Warehouses were built on the site. The original buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1802 but were rebuilt in 1811 and remained in situ until finally being demolished in the 1950s. It is said that slave sales took place at the warehouses but there is no evidence that has currently come to light to confirm this, although sales of enslaved people did take place in various locations around the Liverpool waterfront.
William Brown Street, Library and Museum
William Brown 1780-1864
Liverpool’s stunning Central Library and World Museum have their origins in wealth accrued through slavery. William Brown, the benefactor of both institutions, became one of the premier importers of slave-produced cotton into Liverpool during the first half of the nineteenth century and was the owner of many enslaved people on the family’s plantations in the Deep South. Born in Ballymena, Ireland, his family travelled to the U.S. where they established the firm of Alexander Brown & Sons. After arriving in Liverpool from Baltimore he established a branch of his family firm here, in 1810. By 1826, after taking on a partner, Joseph Shipley, the firm was to become responsible for acquiring more cotton from the U.S. than any other mercantile house in Britain. In 1838, the company was responsible for the sale of 178,000 bales, equivalent to a massive 15.8 percent of all imports into the country for that year. The Liverpool house also took consignments of tobacco and other goods but cotton was the main focus and by 1844 Brown held one-sixth of the trade between Great Britain and the United States. According to Richard Cobden, “There is hardly a wind that blows, or a tide that flows in the Mersey, that does not bring a ship freighted with cotton or some other costly commodity for Mr Brown’s house.” The company became so affluent that they began to focus primarily on financing shipping firms bringing goods to Britain, selling their plantations (and all the enslaved people on them) in the South by 1860, just a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War. The business evolved into a merchant bank that survives to this day as Brown Shipley & Co Ltd (trading as Brown Shipley BCSo), with headquarters in London. In gratitude to Brown for donating £40000 for the building of the library and museum, Shaw’s Brow, the thoroughfare on which they were erected was renamed William Brown Street. Both institutions opened to the public on 8 October 1860. William Brown served as M.P. for South Lancashire from 1846-1859 and was made a baronet in 1863. He died 3 March 1864, and was buried in St James Cemetery.
These are but a few examples of how wealth accrued through slavery has helped develop the modern city of Liverpool. The links go wide and deep, but ultimately they demonstrate quite clearly that Liverpool, more than any other city, is a gigantic, yet hidden, memorial to British involvement in slavery. How to best commemorate this grand legacy of involvement in one of the greatest crimes against humanity is open to debate, but the necessity of commemorating this legacy is an issue that is long past overdue for addressing. In light of current events and the progress of the BLM Movement hopefully the city council will finally put some concrete steps in place to address this glaring omission from the city’s public realm.
In order to ensure that this issue is no longer forgotten a memorial fund has been established to erect a monument in honour and commemoration of the slaves who lived, died and were buried in Liverpool. If you would like to make a donation please visit the Liverpool and Slavery Facebook Page or Instagram for further details.