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Newcastle, Tyne & Wear

Anti-Slavery Movements at the Guildhall

Last Updated:

16 Jun 2020

Newcastle, Tyne & Wear

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The Guildhall is still maintained as a monument to Newcastle's past, and is possible to visit.

Part of the Black History Collection.

The Guildhall played a pivotal role in Tyneside's response to slavery, and was the background for anti-slavery meetings, petitions and lawmaking. Below are a few examples of when the Guildhall stood as the centrepoint of the Anti-Slavery movement on Tyneside.

'The Quakers were the first to express their opposition to slavery in the 1730s and then in an organised form in Newcastle in 1783, though John Wesley, a fierce opponent of slavery, regularly preached to his big congregations in the area. The Unitarian minister, William Turner, was an enthusiastic organiser of one of the first provincial organisations: then Newcastle Abolition Society founded in 1791. In that year it published 2,000 copies of a version of Thomas Clarkson’s report to the House of Commons inquiring into the slave trade. The petition mounted by the campaign and lodged at the Guildhall accumulated over 3,000 signatures, possibly the largest provincial petition after Manchester’s. Since the petition has not survived we cannot know the social status of its signatories, but the number represents about one in three of the town’s adults, and we would be safe to presume they were almost exclusively male, from all classes, and with a high incidence of protestant dissenters.'

John Charlton, Remembering Slavery
Slave trade, slavery and abolition: the north east of England connections, Renaissance North East

James Losh, Tyneside radical, laywer and Unitarian, said at a speech in the Guildhall on the 31st March 1824: "But sir, the whole slave system with respect to women in our West India colonies is abominable, and must excite horror and disgust in every well regulated mine. They are considered as beings created solely to gratify the avarice or the brutal appetites of their masters - indeed, never treated as women, except for some vile purpose."

'On the afternoon of Thursday 15 May 1828 Newcastle’s Guildhall played host to a gathering of professionals and clergymen who advocated the gradual, rather than the immediate, abolition of West Indian slavery. The attendance was recorded as ‘respectable’ but ‘not numerous’. James Losh, the Unitarian lawyer, explained that public meetings and petitions were the primary means by which the political power of the West India planters could be broken, and he called on the gathering to back an anti-slavery petition to the British Parliament. Public pressure had worked in the past (notably with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807), but as Losh explained, British antislavery had lost much of its momentum since the early 1820s: slave holders, he claimed, had evaded instructions from government that they ‘ameliorate’ the condition of their slaves. Losh favoured gradual emancipation as, for him, this would protect the trade and property of slaveholders, secure the empire to Britain, and give time for educators and missionaries to prepare slaves for full freedom.

The meeting provides a valuable insight into the attitudes of moderates who tried to mesh abolition with the maintenance of public order, the protection of property and the principles of the British constitution. One speaker said ‘the idea of 800,000 of our fellow-subjects being doomed to interminable slavery is most revolting to every human mind’, but he also said that ‘our object is not to injure the property of the planters, but to protect it; not to excite to rebellion, but to prevent it’. The members of the meeting all appear to have been fired by a missionary agenda. One thought gradual emancipation would ‘promote the spiritual interest of the slaves’, and another stated that ‘not less than 25,000 of the slave population pass into eternity every year’ without knowing the truth of the gospel. The vicar of Newcastle said that the Church of England (which owned slaves on Barbadian plantations) was ‘friendly to the abolition of slavery’, but as public pressure would ‘embarrass government’ he could not sign the petition that was forwarded to London.

The hopes of the meeting were partly realised in 1834 when the British government replaced slavery with a system of 'apprenticeship'. Losh and his colleagues at the meeting would also have welcomed the fact that the slaveholders were compensated for the loss of their property - their slaves - by the British taxpayer.'

Joe Hardwick, Anti-slavery meeting in Newcastle Guildhall, Mapping Radical Tyneside, 16/06/20

These are a few examples of how Lawmakers and common citizens alike in Newcastle fought and decried slavery and the awful practices that were commonplace back then. That isn't to say Newcastle didn't play a part in the slave trade as our industrial and economic heritage means it is an inevitability. Nevertheless, the great Tyneside mind of James Losh represents an attitude of defiance and radicalism that we can aspire to. His speech was made a decade before the reform act, and after all we all know our own Earl Grey was a pivotal actor in recognising and banning the slave trade in his tenure.

Though it is only the white voices we hear in history books and documents, we recognise their pain through the anti-abolitionists of the time.

We recognise Newcastle's contribution to perpetuating slavery and ending it, and hope in the face of this recognition to mourn the countless lives lost and remember them going forward. It is worth reading into the history of the black community in Britain, especially the works of David Olusoga who was brought up on the banks of the Tyne, and is recognised as one of the best writers on the subject. Black and British, A Forgotten History by David Olusoga can be found in all good book shops.

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