By Nick Draper and Rachel Lang

Alongside Bloomsbury’s associations with literary and cultural gentility runs a less comfortable story of exploitation and oppression as many British colonial slave-owners settled in the area’s streets and squares in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to an exhibition, The Slave-owners of Bloomsbury which will run at Holborn Library from 1st October to 12th November. 

The area between Oxford Street/Bloomsbury Way and what is now the Marylebone Road, from Portman Square in the west to Gray’s Inn road in the east, was the centre of ‘West Indian’ life in London and indeed in Britain. The area attracted absentee slave-owners and others connected with Britain’s slave-colonies from the 1770s to the 1830s. As well as slave-owners, Bloomsbury was home to many of the merchants and bankers who traded the products of the slave plantations and supplied slave-owners with British goods on credit.

These owners, merchants and financiers drew income from the forced labour of enslaved people in the Caribbean working on estates under the control of attorneys and managers. The slave-owners of Bloomsbury occupied positions of power and influence even as the mood in Britain as a whole increasingly turned against slavery.

The development of these streets, with Portland Place being laid out in the 1770s, Bedford Square in 1775-1780 and Russell Square in 1800, coincided with the deepening of ties between London’s mercantile and professional classes and the slave colonies. The parish church of St. George’s Bloomsbury was one of the major ceremonial centres for this community of Britons living off the proceeds of slavery.

The exhibition highlights several case studies of slave-owners to illustrate the ways in which slave-ownership permeated elite society in Bloomsbury. It includes politicians such as the MP Richard Godson who lived at 22 Woburn Place, businessmen such as Benjamin Greene who founded the brewing and pub company Greene King and lived at 45 Russell Square, and gentry such as Sir Wastel Brisco, whose townhouse was at 11 Beaumont Street.

It also includes the Antiguan slave-owner John Adams Wood, the man at the heart of Mary Prince’s struggle for freedom. Mary Prince was an enslaved woman brought by John Adams Wood to London as a servant, who left the Wood family’s house in Leigh Street but could not return to Antigua without being re-enslaved. Her story was recorded in the famous and powerful ‘History of Mary Prince’, one of the few surviving narratives by enslaved people. Mary Prince, who lived for a period at Keppel Street, now the site of the Senate House of the University of London (where a plaque commemorates her struggle) reminds us that enslaved people as well as slave-owners shaped modern Bloomsbury.

But slavery was only part of the connections between Africans and the area, and the exhibition also celebrates these other African presences. Both before and after the period of colonial slavery (c. 1630-1838), men and women of African and African-Caribbean origin were born, lived, worked and died in Bloomsbury. The exhibition seeks also to reflect this heritage, highlighting examples of people who achieved distinction such as the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born close to Holborn Library and who died one hundred years ago this year, as well as the less well-known figures of ‘ordinary’ men and women exemplified by Billy Waters.

The exhibition is organised by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project at UCL which has spent the last three years researching Britain’s debt to slavery. The project aims to publish shortly an online Encyclopaedia of British Slave-owners, as a public resource accessible to all to assist in the research of slave-owners, of estates in the Caribbean, of the enslaved people in captivity upon the estates, and of Britain’s debt to slavery.

In conjunction with Holborn Library, the LBS project is also running two workshops in the 2nd floor archives centre, Holborn Library, from 2pm to 4pm on Saturday 6th October and Saturday 3rd November. Places are limited so people will have to book in advance (email to reserve a place). The workshops will explore links between Bloomsbury and slavery, and introduce sources for further study, including a prototype of the Encyclopaedia of British Slave-owners.

“The Slave-owners of Bloomsbury” will run at Holborn Library (2nd floor, archives centre) 32-38 Theobalds Road London WC1X 8PA from 1st October to 12th November 2012.