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.

Walking through Lockdown London with a visor!

On 3 June 2020 I left my home for the first time since mid-March. I live in the London borough of Southwark, just south of the river Thames, and we had distinguished ourselves early on as having one of the highest rates of Covid infection in the capital. So – I was very strict about lockdown and quarantine.

The only reason I left my home today was that back in February, I’d started root canal surgery and it was left with a gaping hole in my molar. That got infected and so I had to dash to the dentist and get the surgery finished off.

So what to say about Lockdown London on 3 June. Well, despite all the reports that quarantine has all but collapsed, I found a city that was eerily deserted still. Yes, there are more cars and construction workers – but no office staff.

I didn’t see a single person in a suit in the middle of town. Even though I walked down Fleet Street and Chancery Lane – centre of the legal community. Not a single arrogant, over-paid lawyer in sight! 🙂

DISCOVER: Coronavirus and panic in history

London is not a stranger to plague and lockdown as I’ve mentioned on the blog. In 1665, we had a Great Plague which involved King Charles II and his court fleeing the city for Oxford. Much to the annoyance of Londoners. They took the full force of the disease while their social betters were miles away.

Then there was the Black Death where the bodies piled up in huge pits – stricken with the bubonic plague. Incidentally, these plague pits are dug up every so often and others lie under your feet in the most unexpected places. Like a supermarket in Whitechapel I won’t mention, for example.

This virus hasn’t been on the scale of 1665 or the Black Death. Nor the many cholera and typhus outbreaks that hit the city over the centuries. And I suppose our response has been more sophisticated – though at present, most Londoners I know are not hugely enamoured of the politicians.

Anyway, I didn’t feel at enormous risk today with my visor. But the lockdown has forced many business sectors in London to rethink their models. Do we need so many offices? Do we need all these hotels? How will transport work with social distancing?

And it’s going to change the way we interact. A year ago, pre-lockdown London was booming. Previously derelict areas of the city were becoming terribly chic and crowded with hip young things. And now?

Are you missing Game of Thrones?

If you are then I am posting here my iPhone footage of the Game of Thrones live concert experience back in 2018. I saw this amazing spectacular with composer Ramin Djawadi conducting the orchestra and choir – plus actors and dancers, etc.

So – relive the glories of Game of Thrones by clicking on my video to watch!

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

DISCOVER: Why were the bodies of crusaders de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

DISCOVER: An urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Murder of Jewish exiles in London – 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

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They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.

Unfortunately for the judges, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

DISCOVER: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.

London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

FIND OUT MORE: The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

London abuse against the French long before Brexit

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

British and French

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists.

If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

Victorian slang for beginners!

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Maybe a character in a Charles Dickens novel like the Artful Dodger? Here is the guide to Victorian slang!

Now let’s talk Victorian slang!

Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

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“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

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Victorian slang terms for money

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Why I prefer Roundheads to Royalists

America had its revolutionary war in the 18th century – at the same time as the French Revolution. But a hundred years before, England had a war that pitched defenders of parliamentary democracy – Roundheads – against defenders of absolute monarchy – the Royalists.

The issues were not entirely dissimilar to what would be played out in the new United States in the future. If you want – the English Civil War between Roundheads and Royalists was a dress rehearsal for George Washington versus King George III.

Roundheads against Royalists – whose side to pick?

BBC Four is broadcasting a new series titled Charles I: Downfall of a King telling the gripping of how a divinely anointed king of England in the 17th century was toppled and eventually executed by beheading in front of a London crowd.

His overthrow was the result of a civil war that divided England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into two camps: Roundheads who opposed the king and Royalists who fought for him.

Which rather begs the question – which side would any of us have been on?

Royalists or Roundheads then?

Watching the programme last night, I found my inner Roundhead stirring. Here was a pint-sized monarch painted to look like a victorious giant with a decidedly mean streak when it came to his own subjects.

In one letter read out on the programme, he cheerfully orders troops to go and shoot at those who dared to question his divine right to rule.

And let’s be clear, since Magna Carta was signed over four hundred years earlier, kings and queens had been forced to take on board the views of the aristocracy, clergy and wealthier citizens as opposed to ruling like an all-powerful pharaoh.

That was something French kings did – exercising absolute power and accountable to nobody.

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How power mad monarchs provoked Roundheads to fight Royalists

But Charles and his father James I had sought to enforce the notion of ruling by “divine right” – that is they were not monarchs because of human decisions but because God had chosen them to rule. England’s parliament was justifiably angered by such a notion.

But so too were religious dissenters who opposed Charles trying to enforce one version of Christianity on the whole kingdom.

Scotland rose in revolt when Charles tried to impose his authorised prayer book and Anglican bishops. There was a strong suspicion among puritanical Protestants that Charles was seeking to create the kind of Catholic influenced monarchy you could see across Europe with its accompanying Inquisition and blind obedience to the pope.

Patriotic Roundheads and treacherous Royalists

This suspicion was fuelled by the fact that Charles was married to a French woman, Henrietta Maria. And she was undoubtedly of the view that her husband should clamp down on both political and religious opposition.

England had experienced a Reformation a hundred years before to throw out the pope, monks and friars – and there was no appetite to turn the clock back. Charles was swimming against the tide of progress and reform. Once defeated at the end of the civil war, he resorted to petty scheming and plotting, even with foreign powers, to get his untrammelled power back.

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Cromwell and his Roundheads vanquish the Royalists

Once Charles was deposed and then beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth – an early experiment in republican rule. He’s been reviled and demonised by royalists ever since. In fact, Cromwell’s reputation is far worse now than it was under the Victorians a hundred years ago – who regarded him as a champion of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

But Cromwell was everything that Charles wasn’t. A solid Englishman from the shires who inspired others by his leadership and rejected royal pomp and extravagance. When he was painted, the Lord Protector ordered that the painter depict him “warts and all”. Unlike Charles who was made to look gigantic and his wife Henrietta Maria whose teeth were apparently like “bullwarks” but appears to us as a rare beauty.

I’d be interested to know whether you see yourself as a Roundhead or a Cavalier…