Anti-slavery in London’s Fitzrovia

GIGS KEBAB SHOP has been in Tottenham Street near to London’s Goodge Street station for over fifty years. Frequently, during the twelve years that I studied at University College London, I used to purchase a pita filled with lamb shish kebab from Gigs and then sit on a bench in the open space next to the nearby American church opposite Heal’s furniture shop on Tottenham Court Road. While I enjoyed the snack, hopeful pigeons used to wander around my feet, hoping for crumbs from the student’s pita. In those far-off days, I had no idea that Tottenham Street had once been the home of an important figure in the movement to abolish the slave trade. It was only this month, March 2021, that we noticed his house at 37 Tottenham Street, which is close to the northern end of Goodge Place, and used to bear the number ‘13’.

Olaudah Equiano, also known as ‘Gustavus Vassa’ (c1745-1797) was born in what is now Nigeria (see https://equiano.uk/the-equiano-project/ for a useful timeline of his life). In 1756, he was kidnapped by slavers and sent to the Caribbean, where he was sold to a British naval officer, MH Pascal. Between 1756 and 1762, he served with Pascal in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War with France and was baptised in 1759 in London. From 1763 to 1766, he was ‘owned’ by Robert King of Montserrat. During this time, he made money ‘on the side’ and was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. The following year, we find him in London, from where he set sail to Italy and Turkey. In 1773, this intrepid man set sail on an expedition to the Arctic. Its aim was to find a new passage to India. After more adventures in the Caribbean and Central America, Equiano informed the abolitionist Granville Sharp (1735-1813) about the Zong massacre of 1781, during which more than 130 enslaved Africans were murdered on the Zong, a British slave ship.

After a trip to New York and Philadelphia in 1784-85, Equiano returned to London, where he became involved in the relief of the plight of ‘black’ people in London. After another sea voyage to Sierra Leone, we find him back in London in 1788. In his book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself” (published in 1789), he recorded:

“March the 21st, 1788, I had the honour of presenting the Queen with a petition on behalf of my African brethren, which was received most graciously by her Majesty”.

The Queen was Charlotte, wife of King George III. Part of his petition was as follows:

“I presume, therefore, gracious Queen, to implore your interposition with your royal consort, in favour of the wretched Africans; that, by your Majesty’s benevolent influence, a period may now be put to their misery; and that they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen, and admitted to partake of the blessings of your Majesty’s happy government; so shall your Majesty enjoy the heartfelt pleasure of procuring happiness to millions, and be rewarded in the grateful prayers of themselves, and of their posterity.”

Although Equiano might have begun writing his “The Interesting Narrative…” in London’s Baldwin’s Gardens (number 53) near Grays Inn Road, from where he sent the petition to the Queen, he had moved to the house in Tottenham Street by the 25th of June 1788, according to an interesting article by Gene Adams, published in “Camden History Review Vol.29” (2005).  Tottenham Street is near Warren Street, where The Committee for the Relief of the London Black Poor was founded in 1786. It is also close to the former Tottenham Court Chapel founded in 1756 by George Whitefield (1714-1770), an American founder of Methodism, who had inspired Equiano. The chapel stood where the American church stands today. By 1774-5, Equiano was already a ‘Calvinist-Methodist’ Christian.

The house on Tottenham Street, which bears a plaque recording his stay there is undistinguished architecturally. Around the corner from it on the east side of the north end of Goodge Place, there is a fading mural, painted by Brian Barnes in 2000, which depicts Equiano with other local celebrities, all in 18th century attire. This is next to another mural depicting the nearby Post Office Tower and four women, two of whom are wearing Indian saris.

Equiano married an English woman, Susan Cullen, in 1792 from Soham in Cambridgeshire. They had two daughters, Anna Maria (1793–1797) and Joanna (1795–1857), who were both baptised in Soham i (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaudah_Equiano#Marriage_and_family). The family lived in Chandos Street in London, where his youngest daughter died.  Susan died in 1796, aged 34, and Equiano the following year.

For many years after his death, it was not known where Equiano was buried. Eventually, it was discovered that he had been buried in the churchyard of Whitefield’s chapel, on the site of the present American church. Unlike many of the other corpses that had been buried there and then later shifted to a cemetery in Chingford in 1898, Equiano’s was amongst those which were not shifted and therefore must lie within the churchyard of the former Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Chapel (https://equiano.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/EQUIANO-Campaigner-MP1.pdf), probably near where I used to sit on a bench eating my kebab from Gigs. Looking at an old map, I found that the graveyard was a little to the north of where I used to munch my lunch.

The abolitionist’s country home: Wilberforce in north London

THE RIDGEWAY IN MILL HILL, with spectacular views over north London and the nearby countryside from each side of it, is a pleasant place to wander. St Pauls Church is a simple Gothic revival edifice. It stands across the road from the famous Mill Hill School (established in 1807) and one of a line of three war memorials separated from each other by a few yards. The church has a plaque attached to it that informs the viewer that it was built by the anti-slave trade activist and politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), consecrated in 1833, and became a parish church in 1926.

While we were looking at the plaque, a man (a cleric) arrived by car, unlocked the church, and invited us inside. We asked him about Wilberforce and his connections with Mill Hill. He told us that the great abolitionist had lived in Mill Hill and was for a short while the neighbour of his friend Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), who is best known for his ‘founding’ of Singapore. Our new acquaintance explained that Raffles’ widow, his second wife, was buried in the churchyard of St Pauls (Mill Hill), but not the great man himself. Raffles, who was an abolitionist, was disliked by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of the parish of Hendon in which Mill Hill lay, who was sympathetic to slavery because his family had profited from slavery in Jamaica. Williams insisted that Raffles be buried outside the parish church rather than within it. Until 1914, the whereabouts of Raffle’s remains were unknown until they were stumbled upon by accident in a vault whilst the ground was being dug up to build an extension to the church. In contrast, his one-time neighbour, Wilberforce was interred in Westminster Abbey.

As an aside, but one which is important for me who has an interest in double-headed eagles, the Raffles coat-of-arms includes one of these imaginary creatures.

Returning to Wilberforce and Raffles, our informant told us that they were neighbours at Highwood Park (on Highwood Hill), 1100 yards northwest of St Pauls. William Hague, politician, and author of a biography of William Wilberforce (first published in 2008), wrote that the abolitionist moved into his new home in Mill Hill on the 16th of June 1826. Wilberforce wrote:

“I shall be a little zemindar, one hundred and forty acres of land, cottages of my own, etc.”

By ‘zemindar’, he was referring to ‘zamindar’, the Hindustani word meaning ‘landowner’. Wilberforce’s neighbour, Raffles, was already installed at Highwood Park when the abolitionist moved next door. Raffles wrote of his home there (quoted in “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne [publ. 1876]):

“A happy retirement … a house small but compact … Wilberforce takes possession tomorrow of the next-door house so that we be next-door neighbours and divided the hill between us.”

Sadly, Raffles died on the 5th of July 1826, shortly after his friend Wilberforce moved on to Highwood Hill.

Before moving to Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived for some time in Kensington Gore, which runs along the south side of Kensington Gardens. His home from 1808 to 1821 was Gore House, built in the 1750s and set in three acres of grounds. It had interiors designed by Robert Adam, but sadly it was demolished and eventually replaced by the Royal Albert Hall, which occupies the site of the house and its grounds. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford quoted Wilberforce as having written of Gore House:

“We are just one mile from the turnpike at Hyde Park Corner, having about three acres of pleasure-ground around our house, or rather behind it, and several old trees, walnut and mulberry, of thick foliage. I can sit and read under their shade with as much admiration of the beauties of nature as if I were down in Yorkshire, or anywhere else 200 miles from the great city.”

Highwood Hill on the edge of London would have provided the ageing Wilberforce with what he had enjoyed at Gore House but without being so close to the heart of London.

Prior to moving into Mill Hill, Wilberforce had lived in Marden Hall in Surrey and at ‘The Chestnuts’ on Honeycroft Hill in Uxbridge. Unfortunate circumstances led to Wilberforce having to leave Mill Hill prematurely. These included financial difficulties arising from falling income from his land in Yorkshire and losses incurred by his son William. By the end of 1830, Wilberforce and his wife decided that they had to move out of their home on Highfield Hill. They moved to Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, and then later to East Farleigh in Kent.

Wilberforce felt that there was one disadvantage of Mill Hill when he moved there in 1826. The problem was that the nearest church, the parish church at Hendon, was three miles away. William Hague explains what happened next. Here is a summary of what he wrote. In Spring 1828, Wilberforce spent two months in London during which he approached the Church Commissioners regarding establishing a new church near his home in Mill Hill. At first, his plans for the church were welcomed by Theodor Williams, the Vicar of Hendon, who was, as already noted, unfriendly to the anti-slavery movement. However, once the construction of the chapel, the present St Pauls on the Ridgeway, began, Williams reacted vigorously against the idea.  Hague is not certain what caused this change of heart on Williams’ part. One reason might have been that there was an Act of Parliament that allowed the founder of a new church to select and appoint its vicar. Another was that Williams was known not to like the Evangelicals, which included Wilberforce and other promoters of the abolition of slavery.

Despite the difficulties raised by the Vicar of Hendon, the chapel was built, but remained a chapel rather than a parish church until 1926. We liked the simple architecture of the spacious church, but this view was not shared by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and his co-author Bridget Cherry, who wrote:

“A typical cheap church of its date in the Commissioners’ style…”

The church contains some attractive stained-glass windows. That above the high altar at the eastern edge of the church is a copy, in painted glass, of “Dead Christ and Three Marys” by Annibale Carracci (1557-1602). It was created by Charles Muss (1779-1824) and WG Hodgson and dated 1809. Muss was an enamel painter to King George IV. Three other remarkable windows were created more recently (www.stpaulschurchmillhill.co.uk/jubilee-window.php). One of them, illustrated above, depicts chains and alludes to Wilberforce and slavery; another commemorates the Middlesex Regiment, which used to have some barracks in Mill Hill; and the third celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

We drove to Highwood Hill to see what, if anything, is left of the houses occupied by Raffles and his neighbour Wilberforce. Highwood House, built soon after 1817 and much altered since, was hidden from view behind dense vegetation and by a building close to the road. Just east of this across the narrow Nan Clarks Lane, there is a decaying wooden signboard to which a metal commemorative plaque is affixed, which faces the main road, Highwood Hill (the A5109). The plaque bears the words:

“Site of Hendon Park residence of William Wilberforce from 1826 to 1831.”

Behind the sign, there is a newish wooden fence, the boundary of a small estate of large residential houses. Hendon park was:

“… a substantial brick building in 1756 … was rebuilt and stuccoed in the early 19th century … it had fallen into neglect by 1951 and had been replaced by three houses and Crown Close by 1961 …” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp21-23).

We left Mill Hill, having learnt much about two men, whose connection with the place we were previously unaware. There is far more to Mill Hill than this and I hope to write about other aspects of this lovely part of London in the future.