Town’s links to slave trade shame exposed

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PRESCOT’S links with the slave trade more than a century ago have been made clear in ground-breaking new research.

Data gathered by a team from University College London shows how the British government used some £20m of taxpayers’ money to pay compensation to plantation owners, businessmen and merchants connected to the forced labour of African-Americans following the ending of slavery in 1833.

One of the cases involved Richard Willis, from Prescot, who was the beneficiary of two large payments concerning the fate of slaves on a couple of estates on the island of Jamaica.

Willis benefitted from an award of £866 12s 2d given to his sister-in-law Eleonora Atherton in relation to the Spring Vale Pen in St James, on the island of Jamaica.

She was entitled to claim half of the compensation for the freeing of 182 slaves at the Spring Vale estate, which was jointly registered to the heirs of E. Atherton and a William Peatt Litt in the Jamaica Almanac, published in 1828.

Under similar arrangements, Willis profited from a payment of a further £2543 4s 5d for the Green Park estate at Trelawney, which had 544 slaves.

Willis, who lived in Eccleston Street, was married to Eleonora’s sister Lucy and the family was wealthy enough to have hired servants, according to records from 1841.

Though some doubt exists over whether the data all refers to the same person, records also appear to show that he was born in Liverpool and died in Prescot in 1858.

Another case from 1836 saw £1126 3s 6d awarded over the freeing of 86 slaves at the Hartfield Estate to two mortgagees, one of them Sir Joseph Birch, who lived at Red Hazles in Prescot.

Birch, who was born in 1755 and died in 1833, had extensive business interests in the Caribbean and re-made his will shortly before his death as he felt the slave trade’s abolition made Jamaica’s commercial prospects unfavourable. His son Thomas served as a Liberal MP for Liverpool.

The register of compensation payments, which shows around 4,000 estate owners and businessmen claiming money from the public purse to make up for the loss of their former property, was amassed through parliamentary records collected in the National Archive at Kew in London.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but freeing the thousands of slaves already working in the British Empire from their chains took a further 26 years of political effort.

For many, however, the abolition in 1833 proved to be something of a false dawn as many of the newly-freed slaves were immediately signed up for apprenticeship schemes which bound their labour once again to their former oppressors.

Similarly, iIn nearby Wigan, the town’s most wealthy and successful families prospered through the abolition of slavery.

James Lindsay, the 7th Earl of Balcarres who owned Haigh Hall, was awarded thousands of pounds by Parliament under a system which used £20m of taxpayers’ money to pay British owners and businessmen for the loss of their former property.

Following the ending of enforced slavery in the Caribbean in 1833, a system of negotiated settlements was agreed to compensate owners for the freeing of slaves and to set up a system of apprenticeships to tie the newly-freed men and women into a new system of labour.

Earl Lindsay, whose father the 6th earl was the Governor of Jamaica, being awarded money in 11 separate cases for thousands of slaves on the Caribbean island. The largest settlement saw the earl awarded £9352 14s 10d - which could be worth as much as £11m today.