London celebrations

Why a London borough is rethinking its ties to the transatlantic slave trade

London has a rich black history dating back to the Roman period. From artists to politicians, the British capital has plenty to celebrate.

But with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement two years ago, a new spotlight has been shone on a terrible part of this country’s history.

The killing of George Floyd has sparked protests around the world and prompted a re-examination of official histories.

In the UK, debates have raged over statues, monuments and memorials associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

The most symbolic event of this period has to be the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. The four people charged with criminal damage during the removal of the statue have all been acquitted.

While the media discourse has at times become particularly toxic, their acquittal has shown that the public cares about Britain’s uncomfortable past.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan then launched £25,000 grants to examine and improve diversity and representation in the capital’s public spaces.

It is in this context that a council in south London has decided to launch a “community listening exercise” in which it asks residents for their opinions on local areas associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

However, the move has drawn ire from some commentators who accuse Lambeth Council of trying to ‘cancel’ an entire suburb.

Newspaper reports have claimed that the Tulse Hill area is in danger of losing its name because it derives from a family who owned mansions in the area in the early 17th century and had ties to slavery.

Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden has spoken out against the plan, accusing the Labor-led borough of “wasting its money on vain schemes”.

Lambeth were forced to deny that there were plans to rename Tulse Hill and insisted that asking residents for the name came at no extra cost.

Sign outside Tulse Hill station in South London. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

Dominic Lipinski – PA Images via Getty Images

Labor MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, whose constituency covers parts of the borough, also hit back, saying the plan was to have an “honest conversation”.

She told HuffPost UK: “It’s not about erasing the past, it’s about digging into it and understanding how it continues to shape our present.

“There is clearly an appetite for an honest conversation about this and an open discussion about who we want our public spaces to commemorate and honor in the 21st century.

“Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing such a backlash against this from conservative precursors in the right-wing press.”

Councilor Sonia Winifred, a cabinet member for equalities and culture, said there had been “misleading stories” written about the program.

“What we do in Lambeth is take a measured, iterative and educational approach to highlighting the historic links within our borough to the transatlantic slave trade,” she said.

Winifred said she wants to listen and assess “to the extent legally possible” if new names or commemorations could be suggested by residents to mark those who have contributed to the borough.

Councilor Sonia Winifred and Deputy Bell Ribeiro-Addy
Councilor Sonia Winifred and Deputy Bell Ribeiro-Addy

Lambeth is one of the most diverse boroughs in the country. According to 2015 GLA figures, around 60% of its population describe their ethnicity as other than white British and 24% are black.

It also contains the Brixton area which has long been a hub of black British history.

The local archives center carried out an audit to identify places linked to the slave trade.

Here, HuffPost UK walks you through the sites they’ve identified as being under review in the borough.

Vasall

A number of places in Lambeth are named after Henry Richard Vassall-Fox 3rd Baron Holland of Foxley and his wife Elizabeth Webster, née Vassal, who owned slaves.

They were compensated after the abolition of slavery for their slaves and their plantations in Jamaica. Together they owned the Holland estate in Brixton.

Henry Richard Vassall Fox 3rd Baron Holland 1773 to 1840
Henry Richard Vassall Fox 3rd Baron Holland 1773 to 1840

UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images

Tulse Hill

Tulse Hill is named after the Tulse family who owned local mansions in the early 17th century.

A descendant of the family, Sir Henry Tulse, became Lord Mayor of London and derived much of his wealth from the slave trade.

In addition to streets and places named after the Vassal and Tulse families, a number of other individual streets are named after people with ties to slavery or colonialism.

Juxon Street

Archbishop William Juxon whose family was involved in the sugar trade in Jamaica and whose family coat of arms has four African heads.

Shopping route and statue

John Tradescant the Elder and Younger were gardeners from Lambeth who occasionally used slave trading ships traveling to North America and Africa for the transport of botanical and anthropological specimens.

Rhodesia Road

The old colonial name of Zambia and Zimbabwe derives from the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Thurlow Road

Named after Edward Thurlow, politician and Lord Chancellor, who opposed the abolition of the slave trade.

Statues and memorials

Grave of Captain William Bligh, St. Mary’s Cemetery, Lambeth Rd

Bligh transported breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean, which became a staple for those working on the slave plantations. Subsequently Admiral and Governor of New South Wales.

St Paul’s Church, Clapham

A plaque commemorates William Hewer, private trader, investor and governor of the East India Company.

The churchyard contains the grave of plantation owners George and Elizabeth Hibbert.

Howland House, Leigham Avenue, Streatham

Commemorates John and Elizabeth Howland, Director of the East India Company.

A statue commemorating Oliver Lyttleton, National Theatre, South Bank

Oliver Lyttleton, politician and former Colonial Secretary.

Memorial to John Massingberd, St. Leonard’s Church, Streatham

Commemorates John Massingberd, Treasurer of the East India Company.

St. Thomas Hospital, South Shore

A statue commemorates Charles Murchison, an orderly for the East India Company.

A statue commemorates Robert Clayton, chairman of the hospital, Lord Mayor of London and banker involved with the Royal Africa Company, directly involved in the slave trade.

St. Thomas Hospital
St. Thomas Hospital

Andrew Aitchison via Getty Images

Uncertain origins

Some places have uncertain origins, but may be linked to the slave trade or colonialism.

Lambeth said that due to this uncertainty they are not currently proposing to consider renaming these streets.

But they added: “If the local community expresses a strong desire to educate and inform people about their possible origins, we will explore ways to do so.”

They include Burgoyne Road, Cromwell Road, Dundas Road and Nelson’s Row.

Celebrate

The council is asking citizens to name people or organizations that could be celebrated in the borough with a memorial, information board or plaque.

For more information, visit the council consultation website.