coakly lettsom

The Abolitionist who owned a thousand slaves

Near where I live in London, a well known opponent of slavery had a mansion in the early nineteenth century. But somehow, despite his best intentions, this noble abolitionist ended up owning a thousand slaves. So, how did that unfortunate situation arise?

I recently bought a small magazine from February 1825 from an antique dealer that included a feature on Grove Hill, the mansion built by John Coakley Lettsom. Here I am with the magazine below. And it revealed an intriguing story about an abolitionist who unintentionally ended up owning an awful lot of slaves.

This prosperous gentleman was born to a slave owning father and an Irish mother in what is now the British Virgin Islands, a group of Caribbean islands to the right of Puerto Rico if you look at a map.

He was sent off to England as a child where, under the care of a guardian, he eventually studied medicine and became a doctor. Then the news came of a large inheritance back in the Caribbean as both his father and older brother had died. The brother had spent a large part of their father’s legacy but…a hundred slaves were left on the family plantation.

Now, John Coakley Lettsom had become a Quaker in England. And consequently an abolitionist – as that Christian denomination opposed slavery. So the first thing he did was to liberate all his father’s slaves – which left him penniless. He then set up as a doctor and eventually earned enough money to return from the Caribbean to England.

His self-sacrifice as an abolitionist who had stuck true to his principles got him very favourable publicity in London. England, at this time, was turning very much against the ownership of slaves. In contrast to the Americas where slavery would persist until the mid-century, slavery was officially outlawed in legislation passed in 1807 and 1833. Throughout the British Empire, it became illegal to own other human beings.

Lettsom built a large mansion outside London called Grove Hill – on a high point where you could see the city in the distance. As London has expanded, the area today is just another borough of south London. His mansion was demolished not long after his death and a row of very fine Regency houses built, many of which are still there.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Just before he died, fate played a cruel trick on Lettsom. His son Pickering Lettsom went to live in the British Virgin Islands, where his father had been born, and married a rich woman. Tragically, Pickering died a month after the marriage and his wife not long after. They left everything in their will to John back in London including….a thousand slaves that Pickering’s wealthy wife owned.

Before the exasperated abolitionist could free all these newly acquired slaves, he himself died in 1815. So having begun his career by freeing a hundred slaves to widespread public approval in England, he ended his life accidentally owning a thousand!

Below is a picture of the abolitionist at home with his family in Camberwell before learning about his windfall of a thousand slaves.

Ancient bog body murder mystery

Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post – as we look at an ancient bog body murder.

All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.

Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.

Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?

I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.

And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder

Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.

So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.

Clonycavan Man

He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.

Clonycavan Man – note his man bun hairstyle – image by Tony McMahon

Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.

DISCOVER: The history of exorcism!

He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.

The skull of Baronstown West Man detached from the body but with hair well preserved – National Museum of Ireland – image by Tony McMahon

In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.

Bog body confused for modern murder

A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.

For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.

Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!

2019 – a busy year for me on history TV programmes!

In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!

Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.

FIND OUT MORE: Tony McMahon discusses Jesus and James Bond

American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidence and NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.

So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.

Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!

Knightfall – room for improvement in season 2!

I’ve bottled this up for a couple of months but goddam I’ve now got to let it out – the History channel’s big budget Templar drama Knightfall needs to pack a bigger punch in season 2. So, may I be so bold as to suggest where it could be a whole lot better?

  1. Petty quibble at the outset. King Philip of France resembles Lord Farquaad in Shrek. It’s offputting. Possibly a costume change and rethink on the hair could improve matters. The flustering temper tantrums might have to be rethought. Other reviewers have likened Knightfall to Game of Thrones – but Shrek kept coming to my mind. Not just Philip but one of the female characters as well – but I’m too gallant and polite to mention who.
  2. Please scuff up the king’s castle and the Paris temple! Everything is way too neat. It’s reminiscent of all medieval cartoons Disney churned out. Idealised castles with pointy towers and pristine stonework. Not a rat or a cockroach in sight. Where’s the hay on the floor and the dung in the stables?
  3. De Nogaret could be a great villain – so why not give him some clever lines? Baddies always get the smart dialogue but I’d be hard pressed to remember a single bon mot that De Nogaret has delivered. That said, I quite liked “Good Christians are spies you don’t have to pay”. But I searched for it on a quotes website to use in this blog post. For some reason, the few good lines De Nogaret gets aren’t registering.
  4. Pope Boniface is the leader of medieval Christendom. In one scene, he wanders into a banquet at the palace and nobody acknowledges or genuflects to him. There is little sense of the pontiff as all-powerful medieval prelate. He just seems to drift around. Plus – that white mitre looks way too 20th century for my liking. Have a word with the costume department.
  5. The plot twists are workmanlike. There’s no element of surprise or shock as Pope Boniface does a 180 degree about turn with regards to Landry in the final two episodes. We don’t know why – and to be honest, I’m not sure we care that much. Season one often felt very rushed and anxious to please. So much so that plot twists were chucked at us with such rapidity that they lacked credibility and authenticity. Just take the frenetic pace of plotting down a notch.
  6. Does the Holy Grail always have to be left around screaming “steal me” in every episode? And let’s be honest – this dusty goblet is a little underwhelming as cosmically significant sacred relics go. I know it’s supposed to be a modest vessel. But where’s the sense of awe? Just a weather beaten old beaker from where I’m sitting.
  7. Queen Joan – gosh, glad she’s gone. Those endless grimaces! Please don’t use the Grail to bring Parsifal back to life. He’s not missed. However, I look forward to Mark Hamill entering the fray in season 2.

I want Knightfall to work – I really do. But friends must speak plainly and it just needs some tightening up. Please. I beg you!

Buried: Templar treasure quest on History

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 23.18.33On 17 July, UK viewers finally got to watch Knightfall – the History channel’s multi-million dollar drama series about the Knights Templar and their quest for the Holy Grail. A thrilling adventure set in medieval France partly based on fact but lots of fun story telling thrown in as well.

Buried – follow the Templar treasure trail!

But even more exciting – on the 24 July, History starts to air an accompanying documentary series called Buried where two intrepid history experts will follow the trail of Templar treasure from the Holy Land to Portugal and possibly the New World – for which read, the United States.

In the third episode of Buried, I appear in Portugal investigating some mysterious caves in the Templar citadel of Tomar. This was great fun to film last summer and swelling with pride to finally see it hit the TV screens in the UK. Make sure you tune in because it’s well worth the watch!

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Beardy History roaming around Templar caves in Portugal with the History channel

Filming with the History Channel in Templar Tomar

I’ve been busy filming with the History channel in the Portuguese town of Tomar for a thrilling new documentary series about the Knights Templar. It’s called Buried: Knights Templar and the Holy Grail and is presented by Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin.

This will accompany the new Templar drama Knightfall about to grace your TV screens.

DISCOVER: What links the Freemasons and the Knights Templar?

Buried follows the Templar quest for the Holy Grail and I caught up with the team in Tomar, the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal.

Tomar, in central Portugal, was on the frontier between the Christian crusader kingdoms of northern Spain and Portugal and the Islamic caliphate to the south. This is when cities like Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba were ruled by emirs. But slowly, the crusaders and Templars conquered the whole Iberian peninsula.

One Muslim army tried to storm Tomar and the cost of much blood, the Knights Templar held the city and pushed them back. One gate where a very vicious struggle took place between Knights Templar and Muslims is still called the Gate of Blood.

I’ve visited this town many times, dominated by its Templar fortress. It’s a hugely atmospheric and enigmatic place. Nowhere I’ve been to in the world captures the essence of the Templars like Tomar.

After the Knights Templar were crushed in 1307, the Portuguese simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. And this is why we wondered in the programme whether Tomar could have been a safe haven for Templars worldwide? And could their treasure have been buried there?

Together with the team, we set out to unearth some Templar secrets and you can find out how we got on later in the autumn – or Fall for my American followers!