A roam around my books 8 – staying power

‘There were African’s in Britain before the English came here’ is certainly a great opening line, but for me there’s nothing like a good footnote. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power is packed with them, or I should say endnotes. One hundred and forty pages of signposts to more troves of hidden knowledge. Plus, there’s a whole section on Further Reading. It’s the book that just keeps on giving.

I bought this study of the black presence in Britain a few years after it was published while I was working in Liverpool. At the time I was intending to write a novel set in the eighteenth century port. I am not sure if the book inspired the idea for the story, or if it was acquired as part of my research. I still have a box containing the opening chapters and plan, plus notes and photographs of numerous eighteenth century Liverpudlian doorways in dilapidated buildings. I’m not sure how I knew where to find them, but I did.

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Georgian Liverpool photographed in the 1980s

I remember unexpectedly coming across a stray vessel from the tall ships race as I approached the waterfront one evening. It was twilight, the masts were silhouetted against the sky. Black birds crowded its rigging. It was dark and foreboding but majestic, too. A very powerful image, and I’m sure it would have demanded a paragraph in my never-to-be-finished historical novel.

Within Fryer’s endnotes were references to books that I would only be able to acquire some years later, once the Internet had made it easy to purchase out-of-print books and magazines. This included the work of Nigerian historian Folerin O. Shyllon. His books Black slaves in Britain and Black people in Britain 1555-1833, in which the Sons of Africa [1] are rescued from the “enormous condescension of history”[2] are a pleasure.

Finding the Country Life Annual 1967 was also a coup. G. Bernard Wood recounts local folk lore about the use of black slaves in the country houses and quarries of the Lake District and North Yorkshire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Another acquisition was the 1967 Country Life Annual. The article by G. Bernard Woods was the source for this story in Staying Power.

Other victims were the black children sold as house-boys in Westmorland early in the nineteenth century. The Liverpool merchant John Bolton would pick out young boys from his slave cargoes and transfer them to Greenodd. A local young man would smuggle them up to the Leven Valley to Windermere, where they were taken to Storrs Hall which Bolton owned, and sold to the local gentry. Other victims again were black youths who toiled in the marble quarries at Rigg End, near Dent in the West Riding, by Liverpool slave-merchant, Sill. [3]

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Storrs Hall near Windermere

The article also mentions some oral history tapes which were made in the 1960s by a Mr T Wray Milnes of Lea Yeat in Dentdale. Milnes was recording tales from local inhabitants – some of their grandparents would have been alive when the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished by parliament. Unfortunately I have been unable to track down these tapes.

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Dent, North Yourkshire

Some years later I also made contact with Kim Lyons, a local history expert of Dentdale.  She gave me a fascinating insight into local folklore about the slave trail in the north west. Slaves were brought into Whitehaven and auctioned in Kelleth Square. She had some very interesting stories, some of them chilling, but I think they are for her and her family to tell, not for me. Academic historians have dismissed much of this folk lore, but it is a verifiable fact that Africans were house servants in the grand houses of England, so there must have been the means to traffic them there.

Footnotes

  1. The Sons of Africa were black agitators against slavery in the eighteenth century. Their letters are reproduced in Appendix II of Black People in Britain. They were led by Olaudah Equiano a.k.a. Gustavus Vassa, associate of Thomas Clarkson and also Manchester’s Thomas Walker.

2. Quoting from E. P. Thompson’s  epic Making of the English Working Class

3. Staying Power, Fryer Peter, 1984. p 228 reference to footnotes 2 and 3.

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Peter Fryer’s Staying Power had recently been reissued. It was first published in 1984. My edition is the fourth impression 1989.

 

 

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