Isolation diary: Exploring my family history

Am I descended from a slave owner?

That uncomfortable question was prompted by the current debate over Black Lives Matter, and specifically by an article by Catherine Bennett in the Observer yesterday. She has been researching the hereditary peers in the House of Lords and checking the sources of their wealth against the database of slave ownership constructed by University College London.

The database identifies anyone who was connected with the slave trade in Great Britain or the British colonies, and records the amounts given in compensation when slavery ended. The deal which resulted in slave owners receiving eye-wateringly large sums in compensation for the loss of their slaves, while the slaves received nothing, is one of the huge shameful blots on our nation’s conscience.

Catherine Bennett was naming and shaming the descendants of those beneficiaries who still sit in the House of Lords. Now I think she is going down entirely the wrong track here. It is a total anachronism that we still have 92 hereditary peers sitting in a chamber of Government – they should be removed as soon as possible – but attacking them because of their ancestors’ ill-gotten gains is a dubious way to go about it.

One reason for saying that is because many of us could, potentially, track our family tree back to people involved in slavery. Some of us could even today be benefiting from the wealth they accrued through their business ventures and specifically through the compensation. What should we do if we discover such unwelcome roots?

I applied the question to myself. I was brought up with an intriguing bit of oral family history. My father’s mother, it seems, was descended from a woman (her grandmother) who was born into a wealthy landowning family in Norfolk. This daughter of the house ran off with the coachman and was cut off without a penny. Her own children, and my grandmother lived in some poverty as a result and all went into service. A few years ago I did some rather amateurish research into this part of my family tree, and actually managed to confirm from legal records that the story was true.

I was planning to do more research at some point, and hoping to go up to Norfolk to see the house which is still owned by other descendants. But yesterday I started wondering about the source of the family’s wealth, so did a bit more digging. As with many families in the 18th and 19th centuries first names were re-used over and over again, and they were the pretty common names of Thomas and John. But this was complicated by the discovery that at least three different surnames had been used, changes being made as a condition of inheritance. Fortunately all three surnames were uncommon and fairly easy to trace.

What I can say is that there is no evidence of anyone with any of those combinations of names being involved in slavery. That discovery was a huge relief. Indeed, this exploration has been a very emotional process for me. But what if I had found one of my ancestors on the database of slave ownership? How should I then react?


Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Happily, the nearest I’ve found to a slavery connection on my family tree was a man who was firmly on the side of the abolitionists. But don’t delve into your past and expect to find everyone is squeaky clean.
    Would you tell young Germans today they should beat themselves up about events from 80 years ago? If there is a living member of your family you don’t like, do you feel responsible for their actions?
    I decided, aged eight, that racism and nationalism were ‘silly’ because no one chooses the colour of their skin, no one chooses their parents or country of birth.
    You didn’t choose your ancestors, good or bad. You can despise their actions, and disown them: that is enough.

  • Great Great Granddad William Raw from Eskdale – a good Methodist – who walked 44 miles to York in 1840 to join a Chartist Demo demanding the release of Feargus O’Connor – and to demand the Vote. Some things never change.

  • William Wallace 16th Jun '20 - 12:40pm

    I’ve just been exchanging messages with distant cousins on my mother’s side, about the occurence of the name ‘Drake’ among second given names, and whether that links us to the Devon family. One has just said ‘but I’m not sure we want to be linked to Sir Francis under current circumstances’…. It’s not just the House of Lords which has descendants; there are some in the Commons who must have connections. The Drax plantation, for example, was one of the largest Caribbean sugar plantations at one point.

  • Probably just about every one was involved in the slave trade one way or another. My relatives on my mothers side lived in Devon and Cornwall and many were based in Plymouth and most of them were sailors and it is more than likely that some of them worked on the ships taking slaved across the Atlantic. There must have been many more ordinary workers than there ever where slave owners involved in the slave trade. Someone had to be part of the crew on the slave ships and if your family came from the south cost some of the crew were surely your family members. So before you condemn other families remember your family members were probably also benefiting financially from the slave trade. The alternative occupations were in the tin and copper mines. One of my distant relatives after her husband died tried to raise enough money to feed her family by sewing and when her son reached the age of 9 he was sent to work in the local copper mine, though admittedly above ground. They had very little choice of occupation.

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