A Society Built On Slavery

The extent to which Britons were involved in slave-ownership has been laid bare by a project based at University College London. Katie Donington shows how one family profited.

The Slave Trade, an engraving by J.R. Smith, late 18th century.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has been based at University College London since 2009. The project has digitised the records of the Slave Compensation Commission. The work highlighted the little-known economic process of compensation that accompanied the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, the Cape of Good Hope (both 1834) and Mauritius (1835). As part of the measures to end slavery the government paid slave-owners £20 million in compensation. This act created a bureaucratic record of everyone who claimed property in people at the moment of abolition. Working with these records, the project has built up a biographical database of the recipients in order to try to measure their impact on the formation of Victorian Britain. Multiple research strands were identified – cultural, political, commercial, imperial, physical and historical – so that the project could examine the different spheres of influence that slave-based wealth infiltrated.

The database offers a unique snapshot of who the slave- owners were at the ending of slavery. There were approximately 46,000 claimants, although not all of them were successful in gaining compensation. Of the £20 million paid out, nearly half of the money stayed in Britain. Unsurprisingly, some of the funds went to wealthy absentees, but the flow of money also highlights the importance of another class of compensation recipient: the British merchant. This merchant class was a vitally important cog in the machinery of transatlantic slavery and yet little is known about it. When it comes to the public memory of slavery, these money men have attracted hardly any scrutiny. Barry Unsworth detailed the operations of the West India counting house in his 1992 novel Sacred Hunger. Describing the maps and ledgers and the markings in tidy columns, he remarked on the ways in which these careful dashes and figures represented the 'violence of abstraction'. Far away from the horror of plantation life, slavery's human face was subject to a process of geographical and psychological distancing. The suffering of enslaved men, women and children was converted into hogsheads of sugar, puncheons of rum and barrels of sticky molasses. Mercantile wealth derived from the profits of the plantation was one important way that slavery returned home to Britain.

Among the thousands of entries in the database it is possible to lose sight of the human stories that underpin the records. In attempting to understand a history of the magnitude of transatlantic slavery it is sometimes useful to approach it through the individual. George Hibbert was born in 1757 to a Manchester family that had made its money as cotton manufacturers. The family supplied finished cotton goods that were then shipped from Liverpool and used to trade for enslaved people in West Africa. George's father's generation had become increasingly involved with the slavery business and in 1734 his uncle Thomas had left for Jamaica where he settled, making a living as a slave factor. Buying enslaved people directly from the ship and selling them on to his plantocratic clients, Thomas made a reputation for himself as 'the most eminent Guinea factor in Kingston'. During the 1760s the family's concerns in Jamaica expanded; they became involved in credit finance and bought sugar plantations and pens. The business was run by a close-knit network of kith and kin, a feature that was common to the most successful of the transatlantic merchant houses.

George Hibbert by Thomas Lawrence, 1811.

In the late 1760s George's eldest brother Thomas returned from Jamaica, where he had learned his business from his uncle. Thomas set up a commercial house in London from which he and his partners acted as sugar merchants and plantation suppliers, as well as providing credit to their associates in the colony. The Hibberts counted some of the wealthiest men in Jamaica as their business correspondents, including the planters Simon Taylor, John Tharp and Nathaniel Phillips. George joined his brother's firm in 1780 and quickly rose to become its senior partner. While four of his brothers served their time in Jamaica, attending to their uncle Thomas' slave trading empire, George himself never visited the island. Instead he became a leading member of the London West India interest. He was a regular attendee and sometimes chairman of the Society of West India Planters and Merchants. He purchased the seat for the rotten borough of Seaford, in Sussex, and served as an MP between 1806 and 1812. He spoke at length in defence of the slave trade during the parliamentary debates in 1807. Eventually he achieved his lifelong ambition and was appointed Agent for Jamaica in 1812, a position he kept for nearly 20 years, only relinquishing the post when old age and infirmity forced him to retire from public life.

The extent of the Hibbert family's involvement in slavery is evident from the sum they received in compensation. Twelve family members received jointly the total of approximately £103,000. As the head of the family counting house, George received the largest single sum: £63,000. The Hibberts made claims as trustees, owners-in-fee, mortgagees, judgement creditors, devisees in trust and executors. Their ownership of enslaved people was based both on plantation ownership and on the complex system of credit relationships that characterised the West India trade. It shows how long the campaign for compensation took and demonstrates Hibbert's vital role in the negotiations. George himself had supported the principle of compensation from as early as 1790 when he gave evidence to the select committee tasked with examining the slave trade. He consistently argued throughout his career that investment in the slave economy was legitimate and that respectable people would be ruined without payment for their loss of 'property'. As late as 1833, just four years before his death, he wrote to The Times newspaper to make his case.

Although Hibbert was an active member of the proslavery lobby in London, in order to consider the ways in which the wealth generated through the slavery business infiltrated the British economy, the following account focuses on the private world he inhabited. George Hibbert's domestic life provides an opportunity to examine the relationship between the profits of slavery and the culture of conspicuous consumption in Britain.


The association between Clapham, in the south-west of London, and abolitionism – particularly the Clapham Sect, or Clapham Saints, a group of social reformers who included William Wilberforce – has created a particular historical narrative and identity for the area. Many of the buildings in which the abolitionists lived, worshipped and worked proclaim their inheritance proudly with plaques which draw the casual passer-by's attention to this history. English Heritage Blue Plaques and their forerunners, the London County Council plaques, can be found adorning the walls of Holy Trinity Church, where the Saints worshipped, at the Pavement, which was the home of Zachary Macaulay, and at Broomwood Road, where William Wilberforce was based.

In 2007 Britain marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. Abolition was deemed a public history priority and numerous activities were arranged around the Clapham area. While critics of the commemorations dubbed it 'Wilberfest', 2007 arguably gave historians, museums, libraries, archives, galleries and community groups the time, space and, importantly, the funding to investigate their links with the history of the slave trade and its abolition. This allowed people to recover so-called 'hidden' histories of their local area. The links that were turned up as a result were striking in their diversity: a reminder that the local and the global were deeply enmeshed in a period when commercial and imperial endeavours were creating a far more interconnected world than had existed previously.

Situated in the abolitionist heartland for over 20 years following their arrival in 1793, George Hibbert's family lived at Clapham Common Northside. George was joined in Clapham in 1800 by his brother Samuel's widow, Mary, and her son, Samuel Junior, who was also a member of the Hibberts' London West India merchant house. By 1812 George's brother William, a partner in the family firm, who had spent time working for their uncle in Jamaica, had also moved into the area, on the South Side of the Common.

'Perambulation of Clapham Common', 1800, showing family residences.

The Hibberts were not the only residents on the Common who had links to the slavery business, as a map of 1800 shows. Instantly recognisable on the map is the Wilberforce residence and living next door to it was the Wedderburn family. The Wedderburns, like the Hibberts, were a slave-owning family with interests in Jamaica, who had also set up a London West India mercantile partnership. A tutor of the young James Webster Wedderburn – John Campbell the future Lord Chancellor – described how he was bored to the point of resigning his post by the incessant talk of the West Indies within the household.


In explaining the presence of slave-owning families on the Common it is important to recognise the character of the area as it stood during the period; not solely as an enclave for abolitionists but as a popular destination for London's successful merchants and bankers, who sought to establish themselves in suburban villas on the outskirts of the capital. Away from the threatening and uncontrollable boisterousness of the capital, but close enough to make it accessible, Clapham provided a happy medium, combining the conspicuous trappings of gentility with the everyday demands of a working merchant. Its draw for respectable families was summed up by the novelist E.M. Forster, whose great-aunt was Marianne Thornton, daughter of the abolitionist Henry Thornton. Forster wrote that:

The Clapham area had become civilised, there was no danger from highwaymen, the merchants and politicians who were beginning to settle there could leave their families in safety when they drove the four or five miles to Westminster or to the City.

That sense of security came not only in the form of physical safety but also from the moral and spiritual character of its middle-class residents.

Before their move to Clapham, George and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Phillip Fonnereau, an MP and director of the Bank of England, had lived on Broad Street in the City. The residence was a short walk away from the Hibbert family counting house on Mincing Lane; the noise, smells and poverty of the fellow residents of the nearby courts meant the area was hardly the place for an aspiring gentleman to keep a wife or raise children. George had grown up in Manchester, where his parents lived in a dwelling house with warehouse space adjacent to the property. His mother and the children would have been exposed to his father's thriving business but things would be very different for his wife and young family: a reflection of the rise during the period of the notion of separate spheres. After nearly ten years of marriage, with six children and their seventh expected, George and Elizabeth left the City.

By this time George had attained a level of seniority within both the counting house and the West India interest and a suburban villa reflected his increased status within London's commercial society. A detailed inventory of the house and land can be found in the 1820 advertisement for its sale. The profits from George's lucrative engagement with the slave economy had clearly paid off; the advert described the house as a 'capacious' and 'commodious' family abode. It boasted a 170ft approach to the front as well as 'another elevated Frontage in a most beautiful situation' to the rear of the property, double coach houses and stabling for four horses, a gardener's cottage, six servants' rooms and a servants' hall, nine family bedrooms, 12 further rooms for the family's use and an extensive 500ft garden that stretched down to Wandsworth Road. The family rooms give a glimpse into the comfortable existence of the young Hibbert family. The three bedchambers on the second storey were accessed via a grand double staircase on the first floor. As the family rose in the morning to prepare for the day they had the use of three dressing rooms. Their early hours might have been passed in 'a cheerful Morning Room'.


George was an avid collector of books and he reached a degree of fame for his prized possessions. His collection included works printed by Aldus, a collection of books printed on vellum, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible and contemporary authors, as well as a large number of texts on the West Indies and slavery. An indication of the size and value of George's collection can be taken from an auction of his books which took place in 1829: he sold 20,000 volumes over 27 days raising £21,753, which he then invested in remodelling his country estate. George was by no means an uninformed fashionable consumer; his library was both a home for his books and place in which he could work. His reputation for erudition created an alternative identity to that of slave-owner and merchant, authorising his claims, or so he might have imagined, to the cultural superiority which legitimised his ownership of 'lesser' human beings. The house then operated as familial, social and business space. In his diary George's brother Robert made multiple references to business conversations which took place at the family home. For instance in 1801, he wrote 'Thursday we go to Clapham and dine with George, the new co-partnership canvassed'.

Monument of the late Thos. Hibbert Esq in Jamaica, by James Hakewill, 1825.

The Hibberts held large dinner parties, dancing and theatrical performances. George's brother Robert wrote in his diary about balls he attended at the home in Clapham and George's commonplace book was filled with plays he had written for the family to perform in the house. The 'elegantly fitted up drawing room', adorned with 'costly marble chimney-pieces', was without doubt the centrepiece of the Hibberts' abode. The Reverend Thomas Dibdin described the room and house in his Bibliographical Decameron, as a 'Palace of Pleasure', gushing 'Oh the luxury of that abode! The felicities which his taste and his well-replenished purse impart!' George was also an enthusiastic patron of art. His cosmopolitan taste included examples of the Old Masters, Italian, Dutch and Flemish prints and contemporary British artists. The drawing room at Clapham was dominated by a specially commissioned frieze by Henry Howard, The Fable of Cupid and Psyche. Classical civilisation with its vast empire and practice of slave-holding appealed to George; he used examples from it to bolster his arguments during the slave trade debates.

Guests of the Hibberts would have been encouraged to take advantage of his extensive gardens. George was a serious amateur botanist and he spared no expense in pursuing his passion. The building of a hothouse was testament to his horticultural ambitions. The effect was captured vividly by a friend, Dibdin:

Must I tell how the Alpine or Chinese roses, how the exotics from America or Japan have given place to the delicious performances – to flowers whose bloom is perennial – from the garden plots of Spira, Jenson and Zarotus? Shall I lead you in imagination to the Morocco (not azalea) bowers, and Russia (not orange tree) vistos, of Honorio?

George's activities as a merchant and his involvement with shipping enabled him to collect specimens from all corners of the globe. He employed professional horticulturists, one of whom, James McFayden, went on to become Jamaica's island botanist. George's botanical knowledge and connections gave him the authority needed to be taken seriously in new scientific ventures affecting colonisation and trade; the Colonial Secretary Robert Wilmot Horton sought his advice on introducing the silk worm to Jamaica.


The garden reflected the needs and ambitions of its owner; it was paid for and stocked by commercial endeavour but, while it might have aspirations towards the rural idyll, it was shaped by the demands of urban fashion. George never visited the further reaches of Empire, preferring instead to remain in Europe, but he did stock his garden full of the flora and fauna of the imperial world, creating his own botanical microcosm of the Empire in his hothouse in Clapham.

George's villa was situated in a prime location close to Holy Trinity Church, where both the Hibberts and the Saints worshipped. It was under the ministry of Henry Venn, an ardent Evangelical and founding member of the Clapham Sect, whose son John went on to become rector in 1797; he was also involved in the abolition movement. Holy Trinity constituted a sacred space for the Saints; it was their spiritual home, a place in which their beliefs were formed and enacted. While there was no bar to the Hibberts using the church as a place of worship, one must wonder how the abolitionists felt about the presence of someone who was so publicly opposed to one of their most treasured principles.

The social importance of church life can be read in a series of disputes which broke out between George and a Mr Dobree over who was the rightful claimant of a highly desirable pew; while the trustees wished to allocate the seats to George's rival, he was able to prove his claim and the pew was duly awarded to him along with a further five seats at the back for his servants. The almost comical round of musical chairs played by the great and good of Clapham Common's Holy Trinity Church is indicative of the importance of the family's visibility in the religious life of the community.

Living a lifestyle which shadowed the Saints enabled George to demonstrate to the abolitionists the ways in which respectable middle-class families were supported and maintained by an engagement with the slave economy. Cultivating a genteel identity for himself was politically useful. George noted in his diary in 1816 that: 'Mr. Wilberforce came to me in the House of Commons the other day purposely as he said to thank me for being the only one of his opponents who had treated him like a Gentleman.'


Tangible traces of the Hibberts can still be found in Clapham: George's first son, also George, and his brother, William are buried in the churchyard at St Paul's in Rectory Grove. They share the graveyard with a number of African children. In 1799 Zachary Macaulay had brought the children with him when he returned home after serving as the governor of Sierra Leone. In the years following their arrival most of the children died. They were interred in the same churchyard as George's son and brother. While the Hibberts' grave has lasted intact for over 200 years, nothing has survived to name, mark or commemorate the African children.

Further down from St Paul's, on Wandsworth Road, is the still operational Hibbert Almshouse. Erected by the daughters of William Hibbert, George's brother, the building carries an inscription to the memory of their father, creating a lasting reputation for William as a benevolent philanthropist divorced from his involvement with slavery.

The presence of the Hibberts in Clapham acts as a reminder that slave-based wealth was not simply generated and spent in the local areas we now associate most closely with the slavery business. As the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has demonstrated, the profits of slavery infiltrated diverse geographic locations and a range of sectors of the British economy including, but by no means limited to, the cultural sphere. The house in Clapham was filled with all the trappings of mercantile gentility: luxurious furnishings, paintings and exquisite objects, a library and a garden renowned for its rare blooms. Abstracted in the elegance of the polite mercantile home, the profits from slavery were domesticated and remade as the signifiers of cultural connoisseurship, taste and status.

The traces of the history of slave-ownership can be found throughout Britain. The weight of abolitionist memory might have served to obscure that presence but it is only one facet of the story of Britain's involvement with slavery. Clapham's 'hidden history' mirrors a wider national urge to remember the celebrated role Britain played in emancipation, while simultaneously forgetting an uncomfortable history of domestic participation. In order to move beyond telling stories that suppress the memory of slave-ownership, as well as remembering the Clapham Saints we must also recognise the sinners. It is only through an articulation of both sides of the history that Britain can come to terms with its role as both enslaver and abolitionist.

Katie Donington is a Research Associate with the Antislavery Usable Past project at the University of Nottingham.