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.

Story of a tower

“IT’S THE TOWN’S SYMBOL, you see”, we were told by a friendly young man whom we met by chance in a churchyard in the town of Bruton in the county of Somerset.

“Never been up there myself, even though I’ve been living in Bruton all my life,” he told us, pointing at a tall tower on the summit of a hill overlooking the town.

“Where have you come from?” he asked us. When we replied ‘London’, he commented:

“Never been there myself. Have a good evening.”

Bruton is about 120 miles southwest of central London. The tower about which we had asked the young man is square in plan, is built of neatly cut limestone blocks, has three layers of windows, and looks (from below) as if it is missing its roof. The top parts of each of the four walls are triangular, looking as if they were once the side walls of gabled roofs.

The tower that stands in Bruton’s Jubilee Park is known as ‘The Dovecote’. The hill on which it stands rises steeply from the almost level fields of the public park. Birds, mainly pigeons, could be seen perching on the edges of the four gables at the top of the tower. It stands on a square plot 65 square feet in area and is situated on land over 300 feet above sea level, to the south of the centre of Bruton. Although it is tall, I have not been able to discover its height by searching the internet. That it has lost its roof, is recorded.

The tower stands in what was a deer park of about 30 acres established in about 1545-6 by the canons of the long-since demolished nearby Bruton Abbey (whose remains can be seen in the town). The park was later enlarged and surrounded by a wall. In the 18th century, the deer were removed. However, much earlier, in the 16th or, 17th century (actual date is uncertain although some of the timber used in the construction has been dated as being felled between 1554 and 1586), the present tower was built by the Berkly family. They acquired the land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. The tower was built to be used as a ‘prospect’ or ‘look out’ tower.

In about 1780, or maybe much earlier, the tower was converted to be used as a dovecote. Inside the tower, which we could not enter, there are roosting spaces (nesting boxes) for at least 200 doves. Long ago, pigeons and doves were an important food source. They were reared for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In 1915, the National Trust (‘NT’) acquired the freehold of the tower from Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare (1865-1947). Not only did Sir Henry give his tower to the NT, but also, more importantly, he also donated his family estate with its fabulous landscaped grounds at nearby Stourhead to the same organization in 1946. The Hoare family, about whom I hope to write soon, is also associated with another tower not far from Bruton, the Alfred Tower, which we have visited … but more on this anon.

Although we could not enter The Dovecote tower, we did one better than the young local with whom we spoke earlier; we walked up to its base.

Flying rats

pigeons

 

My late mother was awfully concerned about avoiding germs. For example, every can of food had to be washed before opening it just in case rats or mice had scampered across it in a warehouse.  Also, when we visited toilets in public places in the 1960s, we were told to put toilet paper on the seats so that we would not pick up germs that other users had left behind. Interestingly, in many public toilets nowadays, notably on aeroplanes, disposable toilet seat covers are provided. Mum would have approved of this development.

Recently while rummaging through some old photographs, I came across one of me, aged about 10, in Siena, Italy. I was kneeling on the floor feeding pigeons that had flown on to my hand. As a child, I loved doing this. My parents would buy me a paper cone filled with corn seeds. I would fill my palm with some of these, and then pigeons used to perch on my finger tips and pick up bits of corn with their beaks. I remember that the pigeon’s ‘feet’ felt quite soft. Feeding these creatures was a real treat.

Well, I was not unusual. Many people enjoy feeding birds from their hands. Today, in London’s Kensington Gardens there are flocks of green parakeets that happily feed from visitors’ hands.

The surprising thing was that my germ conscious mother permitted my sister and me to feed pigeons as described already. In New York, pigeons are known as ‘flying rats’. Pigeons are are actually less hygienic than rats and they carry mites, which irritate human skin. I cannot believe that pigeons in Italian cities in the 1960s were any cleaner than those flying about today. Had my mother been aware of the pigeons’ unsavoury lack of hygiene, feeding these creatures would have been totally forbidden to my sister and I. I am pleased that she did not realise that the dear flying rats are so filthy!