Slavery in Bath

In the time of the transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century, Bath was a Georgian spa town, dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. It was very popular, attracting rich and fashionable society like absentee plantation owners from Jamaica and Barbados, who indulged their profits in the city.

The medicinal qualities of the waters became well known and as affluent visitors flocked to the city, the expectations of entertainment Scrinium1
and a grand social life were met. There were dances, concerts, assemblies, games, cards and all manner of amusing activities but Bath also hosted lectures and sermons and had a wide variety of shops. It became the ultimate meeting place, against the backdrop of stunning buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and the newly built streets and squares made of Bath stone.

Only miles away from Bath, was the busy trading port of Bristol, one of the main ports of the transatlantic slave trade which ran between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Goods were taken to Africa in exchange for black slaves, who were then transported to the Americas and more goods were brought back into Britain. For over a century, until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, more than 2,100 ships set sail for Africa from Bristol onto the Americas including the Caribbean Islands, transporting about 500,000 Africans into slavery.

In the eighteenth century, it would not have been an uncommon sight to see black people in Bath considering the close proximity of both Bristol and London, where 10,000-20,000 black people lived. It was neither unheard of to have a black servant or freed slave working in Bath, in a place where the appetite for domestic servants was voracious. Families often had a black servant in attendance. Plantation owners from the Americas and the Caribbean came to Bath to retire on their profits or to attend the spa, and brought with them their retinues, typically freed slaves.

The first record of a black person in Bath dates back to 1681 through the church records of Francis Hooper, ‘a blackemore’. Church records are the main source for finding out about black people in Bath through the recordings of a person’s skin colour, ‘Coffee’, place of residence, ‘Bath’, or occupation, ‘Butler’.

Like the physical marks left on a slave, the landscape of Bath also bears witness to the slave trade, greatly through the architecture of the city, such as Beckford’s Tower. William Beckford was a novelist, art critic, politician, absentee plantation owner and at one time the richest commoner in England. Beckford only made it as far as Portugal in his travels to Jamaica, and cared little for it or for those who worked there. One thing he spent more time over was plundering the profits he had. In debt, in 1822, he moved to Bath, making a home in Lansdown Crescent, where he commissioned an architect to build Lansdown Tower in which his treasured possessions and collections could be kept. It is commonly now known as Beckford’s Tower, keeping watch over Bath and the many buildings that were built during the eighteenth century as the city rose up the popularity scale.

Beckford’s ignorance of slavery and indulgence in its profits was a shared trait across society, where the increase of money was immediately felt in status and improvement of life and the conditions of the slave trade could not be seen. On some level, everyone in Bath society involved themselves in the slave trade, from the ale house patron drinking rum to ladies sweetening their tea with sugar. Ordinary people like the Morgan family of Bath held shares in plantations and owned slaves on the island of St Vincent at the turning of the eighteenth century.

Beckford is just one of the faces of slavery in Bath. There are many which highlight the multiplicities of the trade that could be found in the city. There were those in society who took an active role like the Morgan family, and those who encouraged it without thought like Bath resident Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who once asked for a ‘little black boy’, a fashion accessory of the time. Like the ‘little black boy’, there were those people who were freed slaves working as servants and those who through small measures, like the anti-saccharites who refused to use sugar, showed their disgust towards slavery. There were those who were campaigning to put an end to the trade like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave and campaigner who visited Bath in 1793 where he continued to turn the public against slavery.

The tide was beginning to turn against slavery towards the end of the eighteenth century in Bath, particularly in the 1780s and in 1792, when anti-slavery campaigns reached a new peak as a petition against slavery was presented to Parliament. It would be over a decade later however, in 1807, that the slave trade would be abolished.

One of the most illustrious streets in Bath, Great Pulteney Street, was commissioned from the wealth of plantation owner Sir William  S2 Pulteney, the Earl of Bath. The Pulteney name is a famous one; Pulteney Bridge was built to unite the centre of Bath with the Bathwick Estate where William lived. It is renowned now for its rarity and uniqueness at having shops built into it, one of only four in the world to do so like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

It was in Great Pulteney Street that two interesting figures to Bath lived: religious writer, philanthropist and slavery opponent Hannah More briefly lived at Number 76 and English politician and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce, stayed at Number 36.

At the head of Great Pulteney Street is the Holburne Museum: a striking Palladian style building situated to survey Great Pulteney Street and Pulteney Bridge.  In the late eighteenth century, it was a social meeting place called Sydney Hotel, built in the grounds of Sydney Pleasure Gardens, close to Sydney Place. The Pulteney family owned large American plantations; their legacy can be seen in the American settlements of Bath and Pulteney in New York. Sydney Place and Pulteney Place accommodated the numbers of visitors to the city from plantations in Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica and their assembled corteges which will have included slaves.

 S6Two astounding pieces of Bath’s famous architecture are the Circus and the Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son, John Wood the Younger. Their creations are now seen as the finest remaining pieces of Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom. They became another notch on Bath’s rising status as a fashionable city. The Woods’ first patron was The Duke of Chandos, a man heavily involved in the Royal Africa Company which ferried slaves to the Caribbean.  The Woods’ developments were also funded by those well known to Bath, including Richard Marchant and John Jeffreys, through money made from slavery. This money also helped Woods’ other buildings including Queen Square, the new Assembly Rooms and numerous new streets. The Woods contributed to the building revolution of Bath in the eighteenth century that was partly responsible for the city’s stylish status and the creation of a landscape that is still very much admired.

Walking away from the Royal Crescent, into the heart of town via Gay Street and the bustling Milsom Street, through the whirl ofS5 shopping and fashion, eventually Bath Abbey will rise up in the steam of the Roman Baths and the Pump Room. S8The Abbey has a surprising association to its name; it features more funerary monuments for slave traders, planters and West India merchants than in any other final resting place in Great Britain. The Caribbean countries most likely to be found etched into the stone and into the history of Bath’s association with slavery includes Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, Bermuda and Grenada.

One of these monuments is for James Holder Alleyne, of the powerful Alleyne family who were the largest owners of sugar estates in Barbados. He owned the Reid’s Bay estate and additionally bought two more estates, Swan’s and Gregg Farm and The Spa plantation.  He is known to have resided at Clifton, near Bristol and his memorial can be found in the north transept of Bath Abbey.S9

Just like the deaths of plantation owners, the transatlantic slave trade would also meet its end on British soil in 1807, in the form of The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This measure would halt money coming into Bath made on the back of slavery, but the evidence of its prior circulation was, and still is, evident from its roots in all aspects of Bath life. In the history of the city, the revered architecture, implements used for daily life, and the sugar added to tea that was infused with the bitter taste of its origins.

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On New Year’s Eve 2007 the Longacre Tavern on London Road welcomed the New Year with a party that tragically ended with murder. It is one of the most notorious unsolved crimes to have happened in Bath. This is partly due to the twenty-five witnesses that never came forward, but mainly the poems that began to appear around the scene of the crime three months later.


Running from Paul Kelly

Now I will show how a few words can be made

As sharp and deadly as any boy’s blade

How running away will not you save

The truth is there like an open grave

You can wipe your bloody hands in the grass, till they bleed…

A defenceless man is dead and his blood’s gone cold

But the story of his end is going to be told

You can run and run until your shoes wear thin

And hope that you’re safe because of the colour of your skin

Paul Kelly lies dead, and who held the knife?

It was you, [name removed], we all saw take his life.

The New Year was but a short hour old

When you and your mates were: Oh, so bold

You put us to shame,

But we did the same

It was black on white, so it must be right

It was you who said:

‘He had it coming that night’

Then you ran away and we turned our backs

You said we would be next if we breathed a word

We took in your threats that now sound absurd

So we closed our eyes

And took in your lies

So where will you run when, at last, you face a brave man?

You gonna run once more through the streets, all a-quiver?

Will wash yourself down in the deep, deep river?

You, young [name removed], where you threw the knife,

Listen to what I say and take good heed,

You can wipe your bloody hands in the grass till they bleed…

But you will never, never get them clean.

The young male named in the poem was then arrested and tried, but found not guilty. As the poem suggests, a conflict between races was suspected.


I was able to speak with a man who – although was not present on the night – has a very strong connection to the story. He wishes to remain anonymous, but offered me an untold version of the events that took place on – and even months after the murder of Paul Kelly.

We sat down with our half lagers and, naturally he was suspicious of my intentions with his story. I assured him that I wouldn’t use his name and if he didn’t want to speak to me then he didn’t have to. This seemed to soften him up slightly. He took a swig of his drink, leaned in and began.


‘On New Year’s Eve I wasn’t there, but I do know the story. That night there was a good party at the pub, everybody was having a good time and the victim so to say – the person that fatally died – was in there with his friend, who we called Manchester, he was a stocky little guy. They’ve shifted him out of Bath now, but he lived up Snow Hill and I think they lived together. Well, them two started to have a bit of beef and Manchester ended up head-butting his friend. You know what it’s like – people were saying “Take that out of here! Take that out of here!” Because there was a lot of people having a good time, but these two guys were having an argument and that’s their business. Old Manchester only lived around the corner so he went off and come back. The next thing, there is this incident and his friend ended up being dead.’


From what he told me so far, I didn’t think there was enough reason for him to actually suspect Manchester of the stabbing. He never actually saw the events that took place on New Years Eve. I thought about picking him up on it, but before I could, he began to tell me about his own run in with Manchester that gave birth to his suspicions.


‘About two months after the dust settled and the cameras had gone, I’m working behind the bar (at the Longacre Tavern) and old Manchester comes down the pub. I said “Oi you, you’re banned.” I said “[The landlord] don’t want you in here, I’m not serving you, you got to leave.” He tried to have a little altercation with me and I said, “Look, get out or I’ll call the Police.” My friend was there at the time and he even said to Manchester, “Look, man you have to leave.” And then he went off. Manchester only comes back down the pub about ten minutes later with a massive carving knife.’


This description of the knife made something click in my mind. From reading about the murder, I know that the knife Paul Kelly was stabbed with was described as a carving knife. It was suspected that the knife had been thrown in the river Avon. Officers carried out a search, but no such knife has ever been found.


‘I’m not joking, after his friend (Paul Kelly) had just died, he come down with that. My friend was having a cigarette down the alleyway and before Manchester even got inside the pub, they had a scuff and he chucked the knife down. Now, my lady was coming to pick me up because I was finishing my shift and she said, “Look, there’s a fight going on out there.” So she goes out and she picked up the knife and bought it into the pub and I called the Police.’


He was about to carry on, but just before he did I asked him to describe the knife to me.


‘It was at least a foot long with a big blade and handle, just like a big knife in your kitchen. That’s what he bought down the pub to have a go at me because I’m telling him I won’t serve him.’


He took a sip of his drink and I saw his shoulders drop as he relaxed slightly. I felt that he was becoming more comfortable in my company and he proved this when he lowered his voice to nearly a whisper and continued.


‘I reckon I know exactly what happened on New Year’s Eve. I think the knife his friend got killed with was the knife he actually brought down there. They were the only two causing problems. No one else is going to come into the pub where everybody in there is friends and family and bring a carving knife! You just don’t do that on New Year’s Eve. It just didn’t happen in that pub, it’d been there for 35 years and it just didn’t happen.’


‘Was there anything about Manchester that made you suspicious of him before all of this happened?’ As he answered my question, he became much more animated. A frown spread across his face and he jabbed his forefinger on the table violently as he spoke.


‘I think the guy is psychotic and dangerous. I know he’s been done before for knife crimes, to the point where he’s cut somebody. The Police know about it – they moved him out of Bath. All you have to do is look at the guy’s history! He’s kidnapped people at knife point and it goes in so deep I’ve heard he’s even kidnapped someone and f***ing buggered the c**t.’


His outburst shocked me, but I appreciated his passion and honesty.


I wondered where he stood on the boy named in the poem, as when I began researching I was convinced he had done it. ‘What do you think about the fact that a boy from Larkhall was arrested?’


‘Although he was arrested for it, I don’t know if he ended up with the knife of if they tried to blame him. The person I think that brought the knife down was Manchester, the same person that brought a knife down two months after and I tell you what, I even accused him at the same time of it. Think about it, New Year’s Eve, you’ve got one Scottish person and one Mancunian bloke amongst a lot of West Indians. You would maybe feel out of place. I’d feel out of place if I was in a pub on New Year’s Eve and was one of the few white guys, but they were known in the community. Nobody had any malice or beef with them, if they had, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.’


‘Do you think this was such a big story because it’s so rare to come across a crime like this in Bath?’


‘Absolutely. Who wants to carry knives around? In Bath everybody knows everybody, we all know the kids, their parents and all the parents know each other.’


I could tell he was very proud of the tight knit community in Bath, but he felt let down by this tragic event. ‘So would you say that most crimes are committed by outsiders?’


It’s only strangers that are going to come in and disturb the peace. They start to move in the most vulnerable people in society, who have no respect for the area and half the time they just bring it down, and they bring it down fast because they’ve got nothing to lose.’


The pub was obviously his thing to lose. From living in a family pub myself, I know it would have been the hub of the community, rather than just your average boozer. It would have held many memories for him and lots of other people in the community. ‘Do you think it was it this incident that caused the pub to close two years later?’


‘Well, yeah, it started to go downhill after that. People just gave it this bad name. It was such a shame. After 35 years of the landlord having that pub, I think it’s pretty good going for just one incident to have happened.’


I agreed with him. We both reflected over this and sipped at our nearly empty drinks. Another frown then crept across his forehead, much softer this time. He seemed to be concentrating so I did not interrupt him. The frown began to fade away as he told me what he had been trying to remember.


‘Y’know, if you went through Brixton many years ago, across the bridge they used to have a big sign saying: 95% of the crimes are committed by 5% of the people. I think it’s a similar story in Bath. 80% of the crimes that happen in Bath are committed by people from outside the city.’


From here, we didn’t speak anymore of the murder. We chatted and finished our drinks before saying goodbye. Although I cannot comment on what truly happened on New Year’s Eve, I now saw the story from the community’s point of view. Sadly, even six years later, this unsolved murder still hangs over the area like a black cloud.

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