Slavery’s legacy in seven superb episodes

Yrsa Daley-Ward

I was recently listening to Descendants, a BBC Radio 4 documentary that in seven episodes illustrates just how intimately all our lives are entwined in the shame of slavery. The series is presented by the poet and writer Yrsa Daley-Ward who was born in Preston to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father. The programme brought to mind my schooldays in Preston in the Fifties.

When I was at Deepdale Primary School one of my best friends was Willy Herbert. We lived in Burrow Road and Willy lived round the corner in St Paul’s Road. His mum and my mum were friends and for some reason that I can no longer recall Willy and his younger brother Fitz used to come to our house for tea each afternoon after school.

I’m reminded of Willy whenever I pass the bus depot on Deepdale Road. The pair of us were climbing on the roof when Willy fell through a skylight and was left dangling above bus crews gathered below. Police were called and we were marched home by a young police constable. I got off lightly on the understanding that lads will be lads. Willy was not so lucky, for his dad, a former boxer, was much stricter than mine. Willy and I lost contact when he moved away and we went to different secondary schools.

Willy’s young brother Fitz, who I remember as a very gentle youngster, and who went on to become a boxer like his dad, was called Fitz by us but that was not his proper first name (which I can no longer remember). And Mr Herbert was not really Mr Herbert, he was Mr Fitzherbert, his ancestors having been given the name of their owner when they arrived in the West Indies as slaves from Africa.

There’s a double cruelty in the Fitzherbert surname for it harks back past the slave owners of the 18th and 19th centuries to those robber barons, the Norman bully boys of the 11th century. In Anglo-Norman England it meant the son of Herbert. Willy was probably wise to stay with the simpler surname given the unsavoury associations of the full Fitzherbert name.

Another West Indian connection from my childhood was the son of our next door neighbour in Burrow Road who went out to Jamaica to run Leyland Motor’s operations on the island. When the old lady died her house was bought by George, whose surname I’ve now forgotten. George had arrived in Preston from Jamaica to work at the old Courtaulds factory at Red Scar.

It is the way in which the Descendants series builds on such associations and interconnections that makes it such a fascinating listen. It is supported by the extensive scholarship of The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London. The UCL website has a marvellous online database of British slave owners in which can be found the details of the slave holdings of the Athertons of Preston, which Aidan Turner-Bishop has turned into an article for the Preston Historical Society.

The series delves back and forth in history linking slaves and slave owners with their descendants now living in Britain. The episodes do not take a simple course through the history of slavery, instead bringing out the complicated enmeshing of family connections resulting from the fathering of so many children on female slaves by their white masters. And the difficulty of separating the promoters of slavery from the abolitionists is revealed, again because of tight connections, both familial and commercial, between merchants on both sides of the slavery debate, especially in Liverpool.

One surprising fact that the series notes is that one of those Liverpool merchants was the father of that grand old Liberal William Ewart Gladstone. He received the highest sum in Britain when slave owners were compensated for their loss when slavery was finally abolished, and Gladstone himself helped steer the compensation Bill through Parliament.

Another interesting comment came from one of the contributors to the series who recalled Enoch Powell touring the West Indies some years before his Rivers of Blood speech urging islanders to take the boat to Britain. Nurses were much needed in the early days of the NHS.

The series is family history at its finest and is deeply moving, find it here:

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