A research project at University College London into the role of slavery in shaping British history has highlighted unlooked for -- almost accidental -- reminders of the slave trade in some of the historic street names of High Barnet.
Alston Road, Strafford Road, Byng Road...just some of the roads named after prominent politicians whose families had connections with plantations in Jamaica and the ownership of slaves.
When Barnet expanded rapidly in the late 19th century after the arrival of the railway, a common practice was to name new streets to commemorate local politicians, well-known statesmen or other famous individuals.
Alston Road was named after Rowland Alston, Whig MP for Hertfordshire from 1835 to 1841, who became an owner of slaves through marriage and who went on to support the abolition of slavery, standing as a candidate for the Anti-Slavery Society in 1832.
When quizzed at the time about his family connection to the ownership of “122 enslaved people” in the Georgia estate in Jamaica, he stressed his support for abolition and said he would happily emancipate them “the instant provision was made to ensure them employment and food”.
Currently there is considerable debate about the possible repercussions of listing historic associations to slavery given the strength of the debate around the Black Lives Matter protests and desecration of monuments to prominent slave owners.
Nonetheless Barnet historian Dennis Bird – seen here at the junction of Puller Road and Alston Road – believes the data published by UCL has highlighted unexpected local links to slavery and would provide the basis for an enlightening research project for a local school or perhaps a university student.
“UCL have produced a fascinating website and it does provide a wealth of information about British involvement in slavery.” (Study of Legacies of British Slavery, University College London, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ )
When slavery was abolished in 1833, the British government used 40 per cent of its national budget in 1837 to buy freedom for slaves in the empire – a sum that the Treasury says was only finally paid off in 2015.
Much of the compensation paid to slave owners went to landed families in Britain and some it financed an unprecedented spate of electioneering in the wake of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the reforms to electoral system.
UCL’s records show that a compensation claim for £2,505 for 122 slaves in Jamaica, owned by his late wife, passed to Rowland Alston in 1836.
George Stevens Byng, son of John Byng, first Earl of Strafford – of Wrotham Park House – was another prominent Whig politician who shared Alston’s support for electoral reform.
UCL’s website lists George Byng as having made a counter claim for a third of the compensation of £3,018 for 159 enslaved people at the Harmony Hall estate in Jamaica – a claim that was unsuccessful.
Byng, an MP between 1831 and 1852, became the second Earl of Strafford on the death of his father who had supported the Great Reform Act.
As Barnet grew in the late 19th century, George Byng sold off farmland belonging to Wrotham Park – an estate established by Admiral John Byng in 1754 – and fields between Ravenscroft Park and St Albans Road went for new housing.
Four streets were laid out in an area that makes up what is known as the SPACES neighbourhood.
All four roads -- Sebright, Puller, Alston, and Calvert -- were named after four MPs who supported the Great Reform Act: Rowland Alston; Christopher William Puller, MP for Hertfordshire from 1857 to 1859; Charles Calvert, Whip MP for Southwark from 1812 to 1832; and Sir John Saunders Sebright, MP for Hertfordshire from 1807 to 1835, who in 1831 seconded the first Reform Bill.
As part of his own research into local links to slavery, Dennis Bird, a long- standing member of the Barnet Local History Society, said another connection was through the former Archbishop of Westminster and Cardinal, Henry Manning, who was born at Copped Hall, Totteridge.
Manning’s father, William Manning, a West Indies merchant, was a key figure in the slave economy of the Leeward and Windwards, owning over 20 estates and perhaps as many as 2,500 slaves.
Manning's close friend was the long-serving Prime Minister W E Gladstone who initially resisted emancipation, arguing that slaves should have “better morals”, but who changed his mind, favoured gradual emancipation, and supported compensation for slave owners.
Another family which some researchers think that might possibly have had connections to slavery was that of Sir Jeremy Sambrook, who in 1740 erected Hadley Highstone which commemorated the Battle of Barnet.
Whether or not that was the case, local historians and Battle of Barnet enthusiasts are sure that no one would ever suggest that Hadley Highstone should be pulled down in protest.