Bedfordshire’s slave ownership history

On board a slave ship c1830.
On board a slave ship c1830.

Black Lives Matter has focused on wealthy men across the world who made many millions from slavery. There were slave owners in Bedfordshire too and their legacy is still around us today.

They weren’t all wealthy men, some were local religious figures and some were women, but they all made money from the brutal labour of the slaves they owned on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

John Foster

Take John Foster. He was a successful local farmer just north of Bedford.

His house stood on Brickhill Drive. He was a religious man, a Movarian minister and a magistrate.

He was also a slave owner and inherited sugar plantations in Jamaica.

Brickhill Farm
Brickhill Farm

Thanks to a remarkable record, complied by the Slavery Compensation Commission, we can find out more about him and 46,000 other slave owners dotted across Britain and the Caribbean.

Foster owned 572 slaves and when slavery was abolished in 1833, his family was rewarded with £5,600 – worth £644,000 today. His slaves got nothing.

His farm stretched down the hill to Bedford Park and we can still see his influence in Bedford today.

Foster Hill Road is named after him, as is Foster Hill Road Cemetery, built on part of his farmland.

Wilhelmina Petgrave

Wilhelmina Petgrave lived a more modest life on Mill St in Bedford. She was a widow and inherited nine slaves in Jamaica from her husband Ezekiel.

She was paid £167 4s 9d – worth £21,300 today.

Some may have been among the eight slaves Ezekiel owned who were recorded in the 1826 Slave Register.

Chloe, 47, her two daughters: Charlotte, 24 & Sophy, 20. Amos, 3 & Jack 1 are Charlotte’s sons. Lucy, 1 is Sophy’s daughter. There was also Jack, 50, and Bob, 30.

There was so much money to be made from slavery that many people tried to their luck when it was abolished – even the most pious.

Reverend Thomas Shuttleworth Grimshawe and George Sharpe

The Reverend Thomas Shuttleworth Grimshawe was Biddenham’s vicar from 1808 to 1850.

His memorial plaque inside Biddenham Church tells us “He walked in faith, adorning his high and holy calling by a blameless life and a liberal mind.”

It does not mention that he also fancied his chances of getting a slice of slavery cash.

Adelaide Square, Bedford

Grimshawe and three others had been trustees of the marriage of George Sharpe, who was a Bedford slave owner.

So the four of them applied to the slavery commission for a payout. They were turned down.

But Mr Sharpe of Adelaide Square, Bedford, was more successful, He owned 134 slaves on a plantation on St Vincent. He was paid £3559 16s 1d. £409,000 today.

Robert Hibbert

Robert Hibbert was part of one of the biggest slave owning families in England. He was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1815 and lived on the outskirts of Luton.

Hibbert Street in Luton is named after him. His charity still operates almhouses which care for the elderly on Hibbert Street. There is also a pub named after him, the Hibbert Arms.

His life was intimately bound up with slavery. He left England for Jamaica aged 21, and spent over a decade there before returning to join others in the family’s merchant business in London’s West India Docks.

Their business covered the shipping, insurance and distribution of sugar. They had their own ships and financed plantations. It was highly profitable.

He paid for a missionary, the Reverend Thomas Cooper, to go to his Jamaican sugar plantation to Christianise his slaves.

The clergyman was shocked by what he saw: white men fathering children with slaves and regular flogging for the most trivial offence.

But Hibbert, who owned six sugar plantations, was paid £21,000 (£2.5m today) in compensation for more than 1,100 slaves.

British descendants of slaves helped pay owner’s compensation

This is a snapshot of slave ownership at the end of slavery.

In the two hundred years of British involvement in the slave trade it’s highly likely other people living in Bedfordshire would have been slave owners too.

The huge sum paid out to slave owners – the equivalent of £17bn today – was the largest state-sponsored pay-out in British history before the banking crisis of 2008.

Without it, it’s arguable whether slavery in Britain would have ended when it did. It also absolved slave owners of guilt.

Compensation acknowledged that slavery had been sanctioned by the state, and was legal.

So taxpayers should bear the cost – which they did – only finally paying off the debt in 2015.

Which means that through their taxes, the British descendants of slaves were paying for the cash paid to slave owners.

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  • This article was amended on 21 June 2020 at 16:26 to remove the exact location of John Foster’s farm location on Brickhill Drive.