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Black Lives and the Bethlem and Bridewell Governors

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A view of the Boardroom in our Museum. While this dates from 1930, it features many elements, such as the shields on the wall, the Portrait of Henry VII and the chandelier, that we believe would have been present in the Boardroom in the 1700s

We’ve looked at how Bridewell and Bethlem may have served black Londoners in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There is a lot of uncertainty associated with this enquiry, as the identities of all ordinary people living in Britain are difficult to trace back this far. Records are incomplete and patchy, and even when we do have an indication of a person’s background it is sometimes just a fleeting mention without anything we can use to corroborate it- and this actually applies to the vast majority of all the people who pass through the records of both institutions.

However there is one group of people associated with the Hospital that we do know considerably more about - the Governors of the Hospitals. From its establishment in 1557 up to 1948 the Court of Governors of Bridewell and Bethlem was made up of important men from the Corporation of the City of London, and were nearly all ‘freemen of the City’- this would have meant that they had been apprenticed, learnt a trade, and then subsequently joined a Livery Company. Up to the 1800s it was necessary to be a member of a Livery Company to practice a trade or profession within the City walls, and the City Corporation jealously guarded the privileges afforded its members.

While you did not have to be a man to be a Freeman, in practice by the late 1600s nearly all people awarded the freedom were, a trend that continued into the 1700s. Some of the Governors would have been Aldermen or Common Councilmen, the men who were selected to run the Corporation as it governed The City of London, which was and still is the area of London that lay within the old Roman Walls. It’s only when the expansion of London far beyond the walls rendered this boundary irrelevant, that the City’s Livery Companies began to become the networking and charitable organisations they are today.

The City of London maintained its association with Bethlem even as it came into the NHS in 1948, and so most of the Governors retained links with the City even as its system of freedoms and apprenticeship lost its relevance in the 1800s. Because of the records associated with the City (its own freedom records, and the apprentice and membership books of the Livery Companies) we know far more about the Governors, even if they aren’t household names. However, many were important enough that we can trace who they are in published secondary sources, like history books and contemporary newspapers.

Civic involvement in the City of London, and indeed in the running of Bethlem, which was then a charity, was a matter of civic pride. It was expected that successful men would give their time in ensuring the good governance of the City that had played a part in that success. Today we tend to look a bit suspiciously at wealthy people who ‘do a lot of work for charity’, but this kind of civic philanthropy would have been seen as an obligation in the eighteenth century. It was also a way for these men to cement their status in society, and mix with other men who were similarly elevated.

These men would seem to have little to do with the lives of the black people we have seen suggested in our other sources. However there is one way that these important businessmen and traders would have had a connection to black lives, and that is through their own connections to the slave trade. As the capital city of the British Empire in the 1700s, London would have supplied much of the expertise that allowed the transatlantic system of trade to flourish - whether that was in the direction of the companies that profited directly from the trade in people, or through involvement in services like insurance and banking that supported it.

Presidents and Treasurers


The Coats of Arms of three of the men looked at in this blog- Rawlinson, Cass and Withers

We have limited our enquiry to the President and Treasurers of the Court of Governors of the Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlem. These are the most visible names to us, since their coats of arms line the Boardroom in the Museum. There were up to 400 Governors at any one time in the Court, so researching an exhaustive list of every single one is simply beyond our resources. Our volunteers Bob Dinsmore and Barbara Prynn have been looking through the list of Presidents and Treasurers to identify those with known links to the slave trade, but we include the list here in case others wish to take this research further.

What we have found is four men with strong links, or suspected links, to the slave trade. They all date from the early 1700s. Sir Samuel Dashwood, President 1704-1705, Sir Thomas Rawlinson, President 1705-1708, Sir William Withers, President 1708-1721 and Sir John Cass, Treasurer 1709-1714. This doesn’t mean that the other Presidents and Treasurers did not have involvement in the slave trade, only that we have more information about these particular people. In fact, I would not be surprised to find that a large number of prominent City businessmen with a range of charitable interests, Bethlem included, had interests in companies that either traded in human beings or facilitated that trade, particularly when slavery was a very profitable business in the eighteenth century.

Sir Samuel Dashwood was an Executive of the African Company in its Court of Assistants, and therefore directly involved in the African slave trade. He was also a Lord Mayor of the City of London and an MP, and he used those positions of power to advocate for the use of African slaves in the plantations of the Caribbean.

Sir Thomas Rawlinson achieved renown as a vintner (wine maker and seller) in London, and rose to the rank of Lord Mayor in 1706. While he himself does not seem have been directly involved in the slave trade, his father Daniel was born in Graysdale in Hawkshead in Lancashire. This implies a connection to the Lancashire Rawlinson family who were actively involved in the slave trade in the early 1700s. Thomas Hutton Rawlinson, the son of Abraham and grandson of another Thomas, was particularly prominent in the trade, running several slave trading ships and forming an alliance by marriage to the Dilworths, another prominent family with interests in the slave trade.

Sir William Withers, who succeeded Rawlinson on the latter’s death in 1708, was a Director the Africa Company between 1697 and 1710, and also had a large hand in building a new dock in Liverpool which facilitated and help to grow the transatlantic trade.

Sir John Cass sat on the Court of Assistants of the African Company from 1705, and held shares in the Company up to his death. We also know that while Cass was Treasurer the Hospital seems to have come to an arrangement where it invested £1000 into African Company bonds in 1709, presumably to boost the Hospital's funds. Reference to this can be found in the indexes to the Court Minute books, which are at the front of the Court Books that you can digitally view on our catalogue here. According to the Voyages database, the African Company was responsible for the transportation of some 212,000 slaves from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean, of whom 44,000 died.

Royal African Company Bonds

The entry in our Court Minute books detailing the investment into the African Company

These may not be the only connections the Hospital had to the slave trade, but these are the most concrete links we have found so far. It seems likely that this group of men had strong personal connections between them, and used this network to gain power and position, not just in Bethlem but in the City and in Parliament, and wealth through the African Company. There is definitely room to explore this further and see what other connections existed between other Governors at Bethlem and interests like the African Company that were involved in the different aspects of the slave trade.

We view these blogs as a start in looking at this part of our history, which is part of the reason we have shared our research (and the resource created by Duncan Salkeld) is to enable researchers to take this work further. History and the discussions around it never finish, but we hope these can start some new conversations on how our records can be used to explore diverse themes and topics.