Sheffield Archives reveal history of city links to slavery and fight to abolish it

Black Lives Matter protests have targeted Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and Sheffield Archives has highlighted its links to the city.

Thursday, 11th June 2020, 10:00 am
Updated Thursday, 11th June 2020, 3:11 pm

An online blog post,, looks at how slavery impacted on the city, including its leading role in the abolitionist movement.

It also gives a link to the Sheffield Libraries study guide on the issue with resources to find out more.

In the 1750s, Benjamin Spencer of Cannon Hall, Barnsley was involved in the slave trade in Antigua and the USA.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Plantation hoes sold by Joseph Smith of Sheffield, 1816

In 1789, amid all the political upheaval here created by excitement at the news of the French Revolution, 769 Sheffield metalworkers petitioned Parliament against the slave trade, the guide says.

A year later, the African slave Olaudah Equiano, who had managed to buy his freedom, made the first of his visits to Sheffield to talk about his life as part of a public speaking tour.

He had documented in an autobiography that helped to boost the abolitionist cause.

Four years later, another petition from the city contained 10 times as many names.

A 19th-century card appealing to the people of Sheffield to boycott slave-produced sugar

A famous campaigner against slavery was Mary Anne Rawson. She was born in 1801 at Green Lane, Sheffield into a committed non-conformist religious family.

Mary Anne married William Bacon Rawson in February 1828, but found herself a widow with a small child only 18 months later.

Mary became actively involved in a number of philanthropic campaigns – she argued to create improved conditions for chimney sweep boys and better education for the poor.

Her parents, who encouraged their children in good works of all kinds, had set up a school and Sunday school in the grounds of their home at Wincobank Hall and Mary Anne formed a trust to ensure its survival.

Election handbills, 1807

Her charity still supports Wincobank School and the Friends of Upper Wincobank Chapel work hard to make sure that Mary Anne’s legacy continues to be remembered.

She was actively involved in the abolition movement at a national level, and continued to campaign for complete freedom after 1833, when slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire.

The guide says that in 1837 she formed the Sheffield Ladies’ Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery.

Three years later, she attended the International Convention for the Universal Abolition of Slavery.

A poster against the shipping of slaves to Cuba, 1862

She was still campaigning for the rights of fugitive slaves as late as 1875.

Sheffield Quaker Hannah Kilham went to work in West Africa as a teacher and her memoirs give a vivid account of what she saw.