Heroes or Villains: the Slave Trade of St Albans

The Triangle Slave Trade

In his time an honoured MP and philanthropist but the statue of Edward Colston, slave trader, was pushed into Bristol Harbour on 7 June 2020. Hero or villain?

Our perspective though the glass of history has changed radically. Many of the men who built the British Empire and made it, and themselves, wealthy, did so in ways that horrify us now. Current events impel us to take a new look at these men.

With Bristol and Liverpool, London was one of the British bases of the ‘Triangle Trade’ trading British goods for people in Africa, selling them in the West Indies and the American colonies, and buying sugar and cotton in these places to sell in Britain. In the nineteenth century St Albans was already an attractive town and many businessmen resident in our city may have had financial interests, even slaves, in the West Indies. At least one, Joseph Timperon, lived at New Barnes (now Sopwell House) from 1810 until his death in 1846.

A respectable family

Timperon, a major sugar trader in London, was one of the founders of the West India Dock Company, a director, present at the laying of the first stone in 1800, and still a stockholder at his death. He was also a director of the Imperial Insurance Co. and while we do not know much about the family’s activities in St Albans, in 1821/22 he was chosen High Sheriff of Hertfordshire so he was clearly held in some esteem locally.

His two younger sons, John and Arthur, were perhaps more social and were certainly generous (in their own way) as in 1848 “the late Mr Temperon [sic]” (Arthur) put up a prize of £100 for a cricket match at New Barnes, for which he also provided liquid refreshments, to the amount of 35 dozen bottles of wine as well as brandy and ale! When he died in 1846 his estate was valued at £120,000.

Joseph’s wealth was eventually inherited by his youngest child, Mrs Isabella Worley, who was noted and much loved for her philanthropy. She gave generously to the poor and needy in St Albans, completed the building of Christ Church in Verulam Road, donated a fountain for thirsty pilgrims and market-goers, contributed to the People’s Dispensary, and is remembered in the name of Worley Road.

Prosperity and slavery

But how was this money made? Joseph was born in Cumberland in 1762 into a family with many connections with the West Indies. His uncle Arthur Peatt was in the sugar trade by at least 1774 and, unmarried, took several of his many nephews into his firm. Joseph, the son of his sister Sarah and Matthias Timperon, was the eldest and had joined him by 1788. They moved soon to 26 Philpot Lane where Joseph remained in business until his death. After Peatt’s death in 1802 Timperon carried on the business, in partnership with cousins, Peatt Litt, Harrison, and Dobinson at various times.

In 1806 he married Anne Kyte whose family were also involved in the slave trade. The Kyte family lived for many years in Berbice (now part of Guyana) and her brother Charles became a slave auctioneer. Between 1796 and 1807, when the slave trade became illegal, Timperon had shares in fourteen slave voyages, of which he owned several ships.

Bill of Exchange for the purchase of an indigenous enslaved woman in Berbice, 2 November 1760 (public domain)

Jamaican slave holdings

From at least 1815 until 1833 when owning slaves became illegal under the Abolition of Slavery Act, Joseph owned estates and slaves in Jamaica. The Jamaican Almanacs show and he usually owned in the region of 900-1,000 slaves, for whom he probably received a generous sum in compensation after the Slave Compensation Act was passed in 1837. The Jamaican Almanacs show that in 1840 the total acreage of his plantations was 5,200 acres. At the time he was considered one of the better owners, the Anti-Slavery Examiner** listing him as one of the owners whose former slaves (slaves transitioned in Jamaica to labourers via the apprenticeship system) earned between 2s 6d and 3s 4d per day, in contrast to many who were paid only 10d per day.

While statues are being toppled and pop groups re-named, perhaps this is the time to look at other connections St Albans may have had with the West Indies?

* Details of Timperon’s holdings in the West Indies and of his partnerships are cited on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership (ucl.ac.uk/lbs) website.

** The Anti-Slavery Examiner, Omnibus, Pt 23, as re-published on (accessed 29 October 2020) (https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/The-Anti-Slavery-Examiner-Omnibus23/)