Lancaster city marks black history month

Lancaster was once the UK’s fourth largest slaving port but has since made moves to ensure black history is remembered

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 3:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 2:25 pm

Lancaster has more reasons than most cities of its size to be marking Black History Month this October.

Not only was it once the UK’s fourth largest slaving port but since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year the city has made moves to ensure its black history is remembered.

The Facing The Past and Slavery Family Trees Community Research projects have been launched, schools have been teaching more local black history, Lancaster’s Slave Trade Trail was updated, and the Memorial to Zong exhibition has been taking place at the Maritime Museum.

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Lancaster Maritime Museum in the former Customs House on St George's Quay, an area once central to Lancaster's slave trade. Photo courtesy of Lancaster City Council.

The public also voted for the enslaved black servant, Frances Elizabeth Johnson, to be commemorated with a new plaque in the city and the Richard Gillow pub in Lancaster changed its name after learning about the Gillows links to the slave trade.

Members of Lancaster Black History group, formed last year, have been at the forefront of many of these developments.

Among them, the Slavery Family Trees Project involving schools, university students, voluntary organisations, community and faith groups from across the city is highlighting interconnections both locally and globally to other families, business and faith groups with direct or indirect links to the slave trade and plantation slavery.

An online session hosted by Lancaster University’s BAME Student Network provides an insight into some of the findings and takes place on October 19 from 6pm-7.30pm. Entry may be restricted to university members only.

Lancaster's slavery memorial - Captured Africans - which was unveiled on St George's Quay in 2005. Photo courtesy of Lancaster City Council.

Lancaster University Library is also marking Black History Month with a series of events. For more information, visit: https://lancaster.libguides.com/blackhistorymonth/2021.

One of the most grisly of stories linked to Lancaster’s slave past is that of Frances Elizabeth Johnson, a slave servant in the 1780s owned by the Satterthwaite family who lived on Castle Hill.

When she died, her hand was cut off and became a family heirloom until, 200 years later, it was buried in the Memorial Garden at Lancaster Priory.

In a bid to remember and learn from the part her story played in memorialising some of Lancaster’s slave traders, the Priory has joined forces with Lancaster Black History Group, the Judges Lodgings and More Music in a new project called Facing The Past.

The Rawlinson family memorial in Lancaster Priory churchyard which was daubed with paint last year. Picture by Darren Andrews.

The first phase of this project will involve arts and creative learning workshops which began last week, a creative resource pack for schools and public consultation in plans for new public artworks, more community work and a digital programme. But the Priory isn’t the only Lancaster church to have links with the slave trade.

Although the Quakers were among the earliest opponents of slavery, several Lancaster Quakers were involved in the trade and one of them, Dodshon Foster, is buried outside the Friends Meeting House.

And St John’s Church has a memorial to John Lowther, who part-owned the last Lancaster-owned slave ship, The Johns.

Much of Lancaster’s slave trade history is explained in a permanent exhibition at Lancaster Maritime Museum on St George’s Quay which was at the centre of the trade in the 1700s.

This year, it has also hosted the Memorial to Zong exhibition by Turner Prize-winning artist, Lubaina Himid. Her artistic interpretation told the story of the Zong, a Liverpool slave ship from which 132 slaves were thrown overboard when it ran low on drinking water in 1781. The owners made an insurance claim for their loss of ‘human cargo.’

Another example of Himid’s work is housed at the Judges Lodgings. Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, was commissioned in 2007 as part of the bicentenary project, Abolished?

Two years earlier, Lancaster became home to Britain’s first sculpted quayside memorial to victims of the transatlantic slave trade when The Captured Africans was unveiled on St George’s Quay. Once slavery was abolished in Britain and the empire in 1833, Lancaster did host some African American speakers campaigning for a similar move in America.

Among them were James Watkins and James C Thompson who spoke at the Oddfellows Hall in Brock Street and Moses Roper who spoke at the Grand Theatre when it was a temporary venue for temperance meetings between 1837 and 1848.

The Grand Theatre, then known as the Theatre Royal, also welcomed the great African American actor, Ira Aldridge to perform in 1827 and 1832. Aldridge is thought to have been the first black actor to play Othello on the British stage.

To discover more about the many buildings and sites associated with local black history, read and follow the updated Slave Trade, Abolition and Fair Trade Trail, available free from Lancaster Visitor Information Centre. It can also be downloaded from visitlancaster.org.uk.