Surrey and Slavery

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773 (SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773
(SHC Ref.1487/118, p. 1)

The slave trade was a complex institution with extensive roots in the past and it has huge repercussions today. Seen at the time as a huge asset to many empires, the abhorrent practice also led to a great, pioneering human rights movement to bring it to an end.

Many different slave trades existed in Africa. Some were indigenous, established as a result of tribes in the west (Ghana), acquiring slave labour from nomadic central African tribes, particularly to work in gold mines. Europeans were introduced to these existing slave markets and trading relationships were soon developed with various tribal groups. This established a slave trade which European traders capitalized upon, supplying good and guns in return for enslaved people. The trade was highly lucrative for all involved and first instigated by the Portuguese, who created the largest slave trading route from western and south-west Africa. They also created colonies, along with the French (Togo, Benin and Cote D’Ivoire), British, and Danish (Gold Coast). Some nations, such as the Spanish and Dutch traded in Africa, whereas others established settlements there, including the Swedes and Belgians but it is not certain if these involved the export of enslaved people. The British first began to take enslaved people to the West Indies from Africa in the sixteenth century and the slave trade grew, with more people investing in slave labour and industry in plantations in British colonies such as Jamaica, up until abolition in 1833. By then, the list of slave owners in Surrey alone numbered over one hundred, owning many thousands of enslaved Africans between them. Click here to learn more about the slave trade.

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (Ref/1714/1)

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref. 1714/1)

One notable Surrey resident, the MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Henry Goulburn, possessed a large number of enslaved people in Jamaica. The story of his successes and failures on his slave plantations is known in detail.

Slavery did not exist in Britain as it did in the colonies. But those who had purchased enslaved people and brought them back to Britain, along with the enslaved themselves, brought with them a set of beliefs about what white masters could legally do with and to their human property. While the uncertainty of the law and social mores more generally dissolved many of the colonial practices of slavery within Britain, it remained possible for masters to sell their human property, to mark them as property with slave collars, and to return them to colonies where their enslavement would be certain. The point here is that however unlike colonial slavery labour in Britain may have appeared, for many bound and enslaved people of colour a return to colonial bondage meant that any freedom they enjoyed in Britain was precarious. (Courtesy of the project ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century’, see

An utterly inhumane institution, slavery attracted vocal critics and in Surrey there were a variety of movements to abolish it.  Whether religious, political or philanthropic, each had their own unique perspective. Abolition of slavery in the West Indies, where the treatment of slaves was arguably the worst, was finally achieved in 1834.

Researching enslaved people and slavery

Find out more about how to research enslaved people and slave owners at The National Archives

The registers of the enslaved are held by the National Archives; you can read a brief account of them on the archived website Moving Here (archived pages).

There is also an enormous amount of information about the enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and the African origins website

The Slave Voyages website features a database of archive sources which can be used to identify country house owners who also owned slaving ships, as well as the enslaved themselves

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

In 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it had taken another 26 years to effect the emancipation of the enslaved. However, in place of slavery the negotiated settlement established a system of apprenticeship, tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms. It also granted £20 million in compensation, to be paid by British taxpayers to the former slave-owners. That compensation money provided the starting point for the University College London (UCL) project ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’. Visit the project website to search a database of the Slave Compensation Committee records (1812-1851) and discover how slavery shaped modern Britain.

The fascinating and revealing records of the Slave Compensation Commission, which can often make for uncomfortable reading, feature Surrey slave owners who received compensation following the abolition of slavery. Discover the full story here.

Read more about the BBC series, presented by historian David Olusoga, ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ (broadcast in July 2015), which is based on the UCL project research output

The Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Britain project has created a searchable database of well over eight hundred newspaper advertisements placed by masters and owners seeking the capture and return of enslaved and bound people who had escaped, see

Slavery and the British Country House

Researching the properties that owners lived in can helps create a fuller picture of the slave trade in Britain. Bricks and mortar have a less direct but still important colonial link – owners may have been colonial administrators or investors in the sugar, coffee, cotton or tobacco trades. They may have employed African or Asian servants, owned objects that arrived on East India Company ships – anything from ceramics to furniture and Chinese wallpaper.

Where there may be a family connection to the slave trade, stories can be challenging to address and share, especially when where ancestors profited from their actions or investments. An understanding that the past cannot be changed and that slavery was part of everyday life for many can be acknowledged, along with the understanding that things in the present can change. We can offer up new research to explain the connections between slavery and domestic British history so that more may learn about it and this in turn will highlight the pervasiveness of links to the transatlantic slave trade throughout British society and its institutions. It is also important to help provide a fuller historical narrative of slavery. Making these narratives accessible and better interpreted can help make a better connection with the past and the present. (Details extracted from Daniella Briscoe-Peaple, Heritage Alliance, ‘Telling ‘difficult’ stories at historic houses’, Historic House, Winter 2019).

Historic England have published ‘Slavery and the British Country House’, a free download authored by a range of academics and heritage professionals, which grew out of the 2009 conference on ‘Slavery and the British Country house: mapping the current research’. The report asks what links might be established between the wealth derived from slavery and the British country house and what implications such links should have for the way such properties are represented to the public today. Download a pdf (pdf logo) copy of Historic England’s ‘Slavery and the British Country House’.

Engraving of the Onslow family home Clandon Park, West Clandon, Surrey, 1826, by John Preston Neale, engraved by H Bond (SHC ref 4348/3/77/7)

Engraving of the Onslow family home Clandon Park, West Clandon, Surrey, 1826, by John Preston Neale, engraved by H Bond
(SHC ref 4348/3/77/7)

The National Trust cares for places and collections on behalf of the nation, and many have direct and indirect links to colonialism and historic slavery. A new report (Sep 2020) examines these connections in 93 of their properties to ensure that these links are properly represented, shared and interpreted. Surrey properties featured are: Clandon Park, the Ankerwyke Estate, Claremont, Hatchlands, Leith Hill Tower, and Polesden Lacy. Read the Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust (pdf pdf logo).

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