Research shows link between some founding members of private members' club and slave trade

The private members club The Athenaeum in Church Alley Liverpool 1 with links to the slave trade (Image: Liverpool ECHO)
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool ECHO)

A research group has discovered over a third of the founding members of a private members' club had direct ties to the slave trade.

The Liverpool Black History Research Group (LBHRG) has unveiled its first findings of the business activities of the founding proprietors of Liverpool's Athenaeum. The Athenaeum is the oldest surviving private members' club, which was established in 1797.

The Athenaeum holds a unique place in Liverpool’s history, but the findings of recent research sheds light on its connections to the slave economy. The findings represent a least case calculation, with the potential for more connections to be identified as the research of the LBHRG continues.

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Historian and founding member of LBHRG Laurence Westgaph said: "Our initial findings shine a light on a profoundly difficult aspect of the city's history, often overlooked in favour of abolitionist narratives. Unquestionably, the power dynamics amongst early shareholders heavily favoured those with an interest in maintaining the slave trade, contrary to the abolitionists' story the Athenaeum have chosen to adopt."

The Library at the Athenaeum in Liverpool's private members club (Image: Liverpool ECHO)
The Library at the Athenaeum in Liverpool's private members club (Image: Liverpool ECHO) -Credit:Liverpool ECHO

LBHRG research is divided into two phases; the first identified shareholders directly involved in the buying and selling of human beings. The second will examine those with indirect connections, such as involvement in the trade of slave-produced goods or supply of materials used in the trade.

The key findings of phase one included the identity of shareholders as not only merchants, but consisted of; attorneys, clergy, doctors and esquires with over a third who had direct ties to the slave trade with prominent famlies including; the Aspinalls, Earles, Heywoods, and the Gladstones. The research highlighted from 90 of the first 250 shareholders; 57 were already involved and 33 became involved after joining the Athenaeum.

Half of the 22 first officers of the committee were involved and its first president George Case was involved in over 140 voyages capturing over 45,000 Africans to be sold into slavery on plantations.

The LBHRG said: "While the research acknowledges a small number of shareholders with abolitionist sympathies, such as William Roscoe, their influence was outweighed by the majority with interests in sustaining the slave trade. Shareholder Reverend John Yates expressed abolitionist views but maintained secret business ties to the slave economy."

Laurence said: "We suggest the Athenaeum should openly and honestly engage with these findings and show a commitment to inclusivity and reparative justice. As an institution of some prestige it is well placed to show an example through open dialogue, engagement in educational initiatives and a commitment to learn from the past."

The Athenaeum have since responded to the LBHRG findings and updated their website and pledged support to phase two of the LBHRG research.

Chair of the governing board, Roger Phillips said: "Many thanks to the Liverpool Black History Research group for the excellent research they’ve done. We will ensure that this part of the Athenaeum’s history is fully recognised."

Athenaeum president Dr Paul Burns added: "Laurence Westgaph and the LBHRG have done an excellent job in researching the history of the Athenaeum’s links with the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. This is an important part of our history and the history of our city.

“It is essential we acknowledge and engage with it. I look forward to reading the results of his research in full.

"As with our predecessors, our current members include people of many different backgrounds and diverse (often opposing) views. Of our first four Presidents, two were slave traders and two were abolitionists. We cannot change our history, but we can, and must, learn from it."

The Athenaeum state they seek to create a welcoming environment and a place where people can study, engage in discussion or simply enjoy each other’s company.

Charlie Gladstone, a founder member of the Heirs of Slavery Group and a direct descendant of John Gladstone, one of the shareholders identified said: "I believe this research by the LBHRG is an important step in unpicking the history of Liverpool, and I continue to support the group in their work."

For information on LBHRG visit HERE

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