The legacy of slavery on the railways

Birmingham Curzon St 1840

In recent weeks an extraordinary Twitter argument has broken out concerning how much the railway system in the UK and Ireland owes to the capital provided by the slave trade. On the one hand we have Gareth Dennis (@GarethDennis), the author of what will be referred to in what follows as the “Thread”, who argued “that a significant proportion of slave-owner compensation was reinvested into the railways; that Britain’s railways are a direct legacy of slavery and colonialism; and that this legacy is hopelessly under-explored”. On the other hand there was a strong argument from Christian Wolmar (@christianwolmar) that the Thread’s arguments were overstated and not properly evidenced. He has repeated this in a recent edition of RAILmagazine. This post is concerned with trying to establish how much slave owner compensation might have been used for capital investment in the early railway network in the Great Britain and Ireland.

The Thread uses the quite outstanding UCL web site “Legacies of British Slave-ownership” which attempts to chart where the legacies of slave ownership, and in particular the compensation paid to slave-owners following theSlave Compensation Actof 1837, was used in commercial and social ventures.  The Thread takes the data from this web site for those who had both been compensated, and who also invested in the early railway companies, and a simple addition of the sum invested by these individuals in railway companies in Great Britain and Ireland comes to £5,261,768 (a little less than in the Thread, no doubt due to a minor omission somewhere that I can’t locate, but this is of no consequence to what follows). The implication in the Thread is that this sum comes directly from slave compensation and it is argued that this forms a significant proportion of the railway capital in the early years – for example the cumulative capital by 1840 was £30 million, and thus the total invested by the slave owners was around 1/6thof the total.  

However, all is not as simple as it looks. Firstly, an inspection of the UCL web entries indicates that a few of the identifications of slave owners with railway investors are not totally firm and that there is some doubt about them. Nonetheless these are unlikely to affect the above figure significantly, perhaps reducing it by a few tens of thousands pounds and no correction will be made. Secondly the web site lists a few payments to trustees, usually of minors. It is a moot point as to whether the future railway investment of these trustees in their own right should be included in the sum. Again, this is not a significant issue and no corrections have been made for it. 

A much bigger issue however is that, as I read it, the UCL web site shows the total investment of individuals in the railways, and that is what the figure of £5,261,768 actually refers to. Many of the slave-owners received far less in compensation than they actually invested in the railways – these figures are given on the pages for individuals in the list. So that figure for capital investment, which the Thread uses as the basis for its arguments, is a very significant overestimate of they investments that were made from slave compensation. For example, consider the three individuals who feature in the Thread. The first, John Moss invested £222,470 in railway concerns, but only received £40,353 in slave compensation; Robert Browne invested £577,260 but only received £797 in compensation; and Thomas Dunlop Douglas invested £396,100 having received £15,907 in compensation. One Robert Pulsford is included in the database as investing £291,000 in railways concerns. However his inclusion is as a result of five unsuccessful claims for compensation and he actually received no compensation at all. Similar discrepancies between total investment and compensation sums can be identified for nearly all the major investors, although the amounts invested for the smaller investors were often very similar to the amount of compensation they received. So the figure of £5,261,768 money that found its way into the railways cannot all be from compensation payments. In fact if one limits the amount of investment for each investor to the amount they received in compensation, the figure falls to £1,134,031 i.e. 21.6% of the original figure.  

But even this is without doubt an overestimate, as not all the compensation money would have been invested in the railways. It might be more realistic to say that the proportion of invested compensation should be the same as the proportion of the total investment to the overall wealth of the investor. The UCL site allows an estimate to be made of this for a subset of those named by giving their recorded wealth at death. The median of the ratio of investment to total wealth at death comes to 10% (excluding those individuals who went bankrupt or suffered major financial distress at the end of their lives). I am of course very well aware that this methodology is more than a little suspect! On this basis however the amount of slave-compensation money that was invested in the railways falls to around £110,000.

On the basis of these figures, the actual amount of compensation that became railway capital was between £0.1 million and 1 million. Whether of not this is significant in terms of the overall capital investment (£30 million by 1840) I will let the reader decide.  But it is best to use as accurate a figure as possible in coming to a view.

The Thread has done the community a service by raising the issue of slave-compensation investment on the railways, which should not be ignored, although it needs to be carefully looked at to investigate whether it was significant in comparison to other investment. In future posts, I intend to look at this issue further – both in relation to those who received large compensation sums and made large investments in the railways (not necessarily those mentioned in the Thread); but also in relation to that area of the Black Country about which I have posted regularly – the parish of Kingswinford – where traces of slave-owner investment can indeed be found if one looks carefully. 

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