The excuse for this is to avoid causing offence, though the hiding of the past actually offends against truth and honesty. How refreshing, therefore, to be able to commend the determination of Liverpool City Council and other community groups in the city to deal openly and honestly with slavery and its legacies in the British city most associated with the trades in slaves and slave-grown goods such as sugar and cotton.
There are many streets and other locations in Liverpool named after notable figures in the city’s history who were involved with slavery. In 2008 the city mounted an exhibition in St. George’s Hall, entitled ‘Read the Signs’, which examined the association of local places and names with slavery. In early 2020, when other cities and organisations were intent on hiding their history by removing statues and names, Liverpool City Council decided to put up ‘plaques and other public notices to explain the city’s heritage and its links to slavery near street names’. The project involved local museums, community groups, and charities. It built on the work of two well-known local historians of Liverpool and slavery, Eric Scott Lynch (1932–2021) and Laurence Westgaph (founder of the Liverpool Black History Research Group and author of the pamphlet Read the Signs: Street Names with a Connection to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition in Liverpool).
The first of these plaques was unveiled on William Brown Street in April 2021, outside Liverpool Central Library, which Sir William Brown (1784–1864) built for the city and its inhabitants. Brown was a major importer of slave-grown cotton and an owner of cotton plantations in the United States before the American Civil War. The plaque explains this clearly, accurately and concisely, although it does not mention other aspects of his life unconnected with slavery. The city council has committed to erecting nine more plaques around the city like this, though there are many more than ten figures from the city’s history associated with slavery. The list of possible names, which was made public in August 2020, includes Blackburne Place, named after John Blackburne, mayor of Liverpool (1760), salt merchant and slave-trader; Bold Street, named after Jonas Bold (b. 1745), sugar merchant, slave-trader and another mayor of Liverpool (1802); Parr Street, named after Thomas Parr (1769–1847), sugar merchant, slave-trader and banker, who owned a vast slave ship (possibly the largest slave ship built) which could be crammed with 700 slaves; and Tarleton Street, named after the slave-trading family from Liverpool whose members also served as spokesmen for the West India interest in parliament.
Not everyone will agree that the placing of explanatory material alongside place names is a good idea. There is a strong argument for simply leaving everything as it is. The values and choices which inspired people to name streets after these figures were different from ours today. We should respect those differences and refrain from tampering with a previous generation’s remembrance of the past. There is also the argument that to define these sons of Liverpool only in terms of their involvement with slavery is to do them, and the rest of us, a disservice. They were businessmen, industrialists, civic leaders, mayors, and, in several cases, MPs also. To fully reflect the range of their lives, and in the interests of public education generally, these contributions should also be included on Liverpool’s plaques. It is to be hoped, as well, that plaques may be erected to commemorate those famous leaders of the antislavery movement from Liverpool like James Cropper (1773–1840), immortalised in Cropper Street, and William Roscoe (1753–1831) (Roscoe Street, Roscoe Gardens and Roscoe Lane) who was MP for Liverpool when the slave trade was abolished in 1807. Both men suffered for their commitment to antislavery in a city which had benefitted greatly from slaves and their labour.
There is also a Gladstone Road in Liverpool, apparently named after Sir John Gladstone (1764-1851) and also his son, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98), four times prime minister. Their names occur in various reports and articles about this Liverpool initiative. John Gladstone’s holdings of land and slaves on Jamaica and Demerara in the early nineteenth century were enormous. On the other hand, although William’s path in life was smoothed by the wealth he inherited, he himself owned no slaves. In his maiden speech as an MP in 1833 he did not defend the principle of slavery, but he did argue for higher compensation for slaveholders forced to give up their slaves under the Emancipation Act of that year. Later in life he referred to slavery as ‘the foulest crime’ in the nation’s history. His personal support for the Confederacy in a speech he delivered in Blackburn in 1862 is often mentioned, yet at the time he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in a government that remained studiedly neutral throughout the American Civil War. There can be no doubt whatsoever that John Gladstone’s very deep involvement in slavery requires comment and remembrance. The case for including his son, whose political positions and stance on slavery became ever more liberal across his life, is less clear.
If Liverpool City Council do include a plaque about John and possibly William Gladstone in their eventual list, they will have done much better than the University of Liverpool which, in 2021, decided to rename a hall of residence then called after William Gladstone. The greatest political son of the city was simply cancelled. Pleas to keep the name, or to erect a plaque explaining his indirect links with slavery, which would have informed students and allowed them to develop their own views, were ignored. The university’s Vice-Chancellor did not reply to my letter.
A great seat of learning seems not to have understood its role to educate and inform. Liverpool University is shamed by Liverpool City Council, which has shown commendable good sense and historical sensitivity in retaining and explaining names and clues to its past, however painful that history may be. It is to be hoped that other towns and cities will follow Liverpool’s admirable example and deal honestly, fully, and accurately with their pasts, too.
For more information on Liverpool’s initiative see: