Irish Studies

Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland – In Conversation with Ciarán McCabe

Beggars and begging were ubiquitous features of pre-Famine Irish society, yet have gone largely unexamined by historians. Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland explores for the first time the complex cultures of mendicancy, as well as how wider societal perceptions of and responses to begging were framed by social class, gender and religion. The book has recently been unlatched by Knowledge Unlatched, and the ebook can now be accessed for free. We spoke to author Ciarán McCabe about this recent publication.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

I have been interested in the history of poverty and welfare for a number of years, and the topics of begging and vagrancy kept coming up in the sources, but there was no substantial study of them. I think I was initially attracted by the language used by contemporaries to describe “study beggars and idle vagrants”! The sheer ubiquity of beggars in the pre-Famine period was fascinating to me: they were everywhere and constant. They were found in large numbers in both urban and rural areas, and they were inevitably commented on by foreign travellers, albeit with some literary gloss sometimes applied to their account!

When researching this topic during my PhD at Maynooth University, I decided to explore how charitable societies, civil parish bodies and the various churches dealt with mendicancy. And this facilitated the approach I have taken in Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland, wherein I consider societal perceptions of beggars and begging, and then responses to the problem  – (begging was usually seen as a problem!). I also consider the other side of the giver / receiver exchange, and explore the motivations and experience of alms-givers.

The book explores different ways in which beggars were seen: as spreaders of disease; as work-shy idlers; as conveyors of gossip and political sedition; as a drain on the benevolence and Christian generosity of a mostly impoverished population. But, they could also be seen as engaged in a perfectly legitimate, fundamentally human act: asking assistance of one’s fellow man. When factors such as gender, social class and religious background are considered, it becomes a fascinating, yet complex, topic.

In a nutshell, Chapters 1-3 consider the broad topic of mendicancy: how can we define who was a beggar and what was begging; how and why were many contemporaries so eager to enumerate the numbers of people begging; and the disparate ways in which beggars were perceived.

Chapter 4 explores the short-lived mendicity society movement (there were more than fifty anti-begging societies established throughout Ireland between 1809 and 1845), while Chapter 5 looks at how parish vestries regulated begging through a badging / licencing system.

Chapters 6 and 7 respectively examine Catholic and Protestant approaches to mendicancy and discuss differences and similarities in perceptions and responses.

You highlight the lack of historical study into begging in pre-Famine Irish society. Why do you think this topic has been somewhat overlooked?

I think that the seeming lack of sources – especially sources from the perspective of the soliciting beggar – did not lend itself to considerable attention from scholars. I trawled through archives and libraries throughout Ireland and Britain finding material relating to begging and beggars in Ireland, and in some cases came upon sources which had not been used before, while in other cases, I asked new questions of well-worn sources.

The historian Caitriona Clear has written about beggars and vagrants as having “at best, a walk-on part in Irish history”, which I think is perfectly accurate. In social historians’ studies of the pre-Famine period beggars are usually mentioned, but have been left as ubiquitous, yet not terribly important, figures. My book broadens out the question beyond just the people engaged in begging and considers the practice of begging itself, as well as the significance that begging played in wider social and political reforms, such as the introduction of the Poor Law into Ireland in the late-1830s. But also, it looks at how a study of mendicancy informs changes in other developments within Irish society – the evolving experiences of poverty and welfare; the emergence of statistical and social inquiry in the early- to mid-nineteenth century; societal responses to disease epidemics; the changing function of the parish vestry as a unit of local government.

How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

Among the topics I explore is the changing role of the civil parish vestry as a local government entity and a provider of social services, such as the care of orphans and deserted children, the provision of coffins to poor parishioners and the regulation of begging through a badging system. The parish gradually lost these powers throughout the mid-nineteenth century and this loss, I think, represents a substantial change in community power-brokering and interdenominational relations, especially in urban parishes, which is a much-neglected subject.

My book also makes considerable use of the published reports of the Whately Poor Inquiry, which sat between 1833-36 and examined in considerable detail the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland a decade before the Famine; their final output comprised more than 5,000 pages of reports. While numerous historians have made great use of the Whately Inquiry material, I still found new questions to ask of the sources. I think that the inquiry’s reports are wonderful sources that other scholars can return to as well, bringing new interests and asking new research questions.

The book uses a range of sources including case studies. Are there any sources which particularly stood out to you which you could discuss further with us?

The most enjoyable sources to work with were ones which opened up new perspectives on the history of begging, vagrancy and the relief of the poor. I started my research by considering these topics within the broader history of criminality, but the research evolved away from this angle and towards considering the responses of charities and churches. As such, it became a study of begging and alms-giving within the wider sphere of charity. The sources which facilitated this approach included Presbyterian kirk session minute books, the manuscript records of the Methodist-run Strangers’ Friend Society, the Society of Friends’ monthly meeting minute books and, for a Dublin case study, the papers of Archbishop Daniel Murray, who served as the Catholic archbishop of Dublin between 1823 and 1852.

Most interesting of all, though, were the vestry minute books of parishes from across Ireland. With some exceptions, these were all consulted in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin. The parish vestry was a gathering of (male) householders in a parish, to consider the levying of local rates (a parish cess) to fund particular items of expenditure for the coming year. The minutes reveal that, from the 17th into the 19th centuries, parishes’ role was not limited to ecclesiastical matters, but extended into social matters – for example, the support of foundlings, orphans, widows and, in some fascinating instances, the operation of a system of licenced begging. Local ‘deserving’ beggars, who were known to the authorities, were issued with copper or tin badges, which served as a licence to solicit alms in a public place. The beggar who did not possess a badge could, therefore, be labelled ‘undeserving’ and duly refused alms. The parish vestry minute books are a much underused body of sources for Irish social history tell us much about the public operation of power and community tensions, as well as attitudes towards poverty and welfare, in this period. I was fortunate in being pointed in the direction of the vestry minute books by the late Dr Caroline Gallagher of Maynooth University.

As valuable as the vestry minute books are, they are best considered alongside contemporary newspaper reports of the annual Easter vestry meetings. These reports, especially for parishes in large urban centres such as Dublin and Cork, reveal much more about these meetings than the administrative records. Journalists’ accounts reveal to us the debates, arguments and (occasional) boisterousness which went unrecorded in the minute books.

What are you going to be working on next?

At the moment I am a postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin, funded by the Irish Research Council’s Enterprise Partnership Scheme. My project examines the survival strategies of working-class women in Dublin city between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, and is associated with Dublin City Council and its new museum at 14 Henrietta Street. Among the topics I am exploring are the position of charwomen in Dublin’s unskilled labour force, women’s use of pawnshops, Dublin’s second-hand clothes markets, and the social and cultural relevance of the ubiquitous ‘open front door’ in the city’s tenements.

Visit our website for more information on Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland or to read the ebook for free.


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Modern Languages

Middlebrow Matters – In Conversation with Diana Holmes

Middlebrow Matters is the first book to study the middlebrow novel in France. It asks what middlebrow means, and applies the term positively to explore the ‘poetics’ of the types of novel that have attracted ‘ordinary’ fiction readers – in their majority female – since the end of the 19th century.  The book has recently been unlatched by Knowledge Unlatched, and the ebook can now be accessed for free. We caught up with author Diana Holmes to discuss more about the book.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Middlebrow Matters and what drew you to focus your work in this area?

Since at least A-level days I have been fascinated by literature, even the more arid reaches of modernism (Robbe-Grillet and the French ‘new novel’ come to mind). But I gradually became aware of a real divide between what I thought of as ‘books to read with a notebook and pen handy’ and the books I read – constantly – for pleasure. There was something in the deeply pleasurable experience of reading fiction that was neither valued nor accounted for in most literary criticism and theory. I wrote seriously about fully ‘popular’ fiction, including the Harlequin romance, but that did not correspond either to the sort of novel I and (I think) most avid book-lovers read, which falls between ‘literary’ and popular and is thus … middlebrow.

There was also a sort of semi-conscious political motivation in the desire to write this book. Literary scholarship tends to display a quiet disdain for ‘what most people read’. Difficult, ground-breaking, challenging, shocking is good: absorbing, page-turning, easy-to-read, moving is bad – hence the negative connotations of the word ‘middlebrow’. And somehow what women write and read is more readily placed in the latter category.

 This is the first book to focus on the middlebrow novel in France. How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

Inevitably, despite the self-consciously challenging stance of each generation of literary scholars, a sort of master (the word is apt) narrative of a country’s literature gets written and generally accepted. Much has to be excluded, and I think what has disappeared especially in France is that broad swathe of serious-but-pleasurable fiction read by the majority – and the majority of readers over the past century have been women. Fiction read by a significant section of the population surely plays its part in forming, or inflecting, socio-political values.  In some cases such literature is hard to re-discover: I am still surprised by the relative absence in France of the rich seam of middlebrow women’s writing so evident in Britain in the inter-war period (thank you Virago and Persephone), and I hope there are authors there I failed to find.  Much work remains to be done on reading tastes at different periods, on forgotten writers and on the mainstream, broadly popular reception of acknowledged writers such as Mauriac, Colette, Beauvoir.

The book looks at several middlebrow authors from varying periods. Is there a particular author who you think is crucial to this study, or one you particularly enjoyed writing about?

Well of course there is Colette – I think the only book in which I have managed not to talk about Colette is the one on François Truffaut’s cinema. She is crucial here not of course because she is under-recognised (though she was for a long time), but because in the copious criticism devoted to her the aspect of her work least acknowledged is probably her huge appeal for ‘ordinary’ readers, and the reasons for this. Then there is the brave band of Belle Époque women novelists – hugely read at the time, then totally forgotten until (mainly Anglophone) feminist critics rediscovered them over the last few decades, though they remain largely out-of-print. Topical as they were, their novels (I think especially of Daniel Lesueur) are still brilliant page-turners that also deal with hard questions of gender politics,  and they deserve further attention. As does the equally topical but also durably eloquent fiction of Françoise Sagan.

You close the book with a double reading of Marie NDiaye’s  La Femme puissante which is a particularly interesting feature of your work. How did you find switching to and from ‘non-academic mode’, and what did you conclude from this?

This was part of the original proposal for the book – one of those bright ideas that you later have moments of regretting when it proves really difficult to write! Rather than a conventional conclusion – I hoped the central argument had been sufficiently spelled out – I wanted to try to put into words the (usually unarticulated) experience of suspending disbelief and travelling in imagination into the fictional world, and to compare this with the more detached, analytical reading I also engage in as a literary critic. To separate these completely is of course artificial, but what I learned from the exercise was that ‘just reading for pleasure’ is as instructive as the more cerebral process of analysing a text, though in a different way. The ‘immersive’ reading of Ndiaye’s story left traces of felt emotion that my critical reading might well have ignored. Through imaginative absorption into someone else’s consciousness and a world dissimilar to our own, we simulate experience beyond the confines of our own lives and thus (even if unconsciously) we grow a bit, develop, get outside our own skin. This is not often captured in literary analysis.

What are you working on next?

This book took a long time to write and I have unfinished business begun alongside ‘Middlebrow’ that I want to complete before deciding on the next direction. There is a collaborative edited volume on French feminism 1975-2015, Making Waves, now in production with Liverpool University Press. I am also engaged in a collaborative project on women and ageing in French culture, and writing a comparative piece on ageing in the work of Annie Ernaux, Nancy Huston and Margaret Drabble. Then a research group in Paris have invited me to speak at a conference on women and literary periodicals in France (Femmes et revues), and that allows me to go back to archival work on ‘my’  Belle Époque women writers and their spirited struggles to be taken seriously by a deeply patriarchal literary establishment. One of these will probably contain the seeds of a new project.

Visit our website for more information on Middlebrow Matters or to read the ebook for free.


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Dystopolis – In Conversation with Jasmir Creed

Dystopolis presents new paintings by Jasmir Creed. Critical texts by Dr Lauren Elkin and Dr Graeme Gilloch explore the paintings in contemporary cultural contexts. The paintings explore Jasmir Creed’s ‘psycho-geographic city journeys, focusing on architecture and crowds showing the city as a rich forest-like environment’. We caught up with Jasmir Creed to discuss her exhibition and the publication of Dystopolis.9780956359520

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your artwork and where your inspiration comes from?

My paintings explore the psycho-geography of cities, especially Manchester and Liverpool, focusing on architecture and crowds based on my experiences journeying through cities. My images reflect how geographical locations affect emotions and behaviours, for example tensions between the individual and collective corporate culture, as seen in people and city tower blocks. Images contrast multiple viewpoints, expressing feelings of alienation and flux in the jostling movement of people in city spaces, showing the city as a rich forest-like environment of the known and the unknown.

The materiality of paint and colour filter and personalised experiences, creating dynamic shifts between light and dark, large and small, geometric and organic with exaggerated simplified forms. Rich monochromes, subtle colours and expressive mark making heighten a sense of disorientation.  I am fascinated by iconic buildings such as the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, designed by Daniel Liebskind. I invigilate exhibitions there and notice the slow movement of visitors such as families and war veterans reacting to images of crowds in the exhibits, for example soldiers in conflict.

Other influences include work by Contemporary Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu who explores abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of an unravelling a personal biography, similar to my use of topological maps in my painting. Andreas Gursky’s photographs of crowds, including of Tokyo Stock exchange, show an aerial view similarly to the viewpoint in my painting Fragmentation 2017.

jasmir creed 'fragmentation' 2017 oil on canvas 120 x 90 cmJasmir Creed’s ‘Fragmentation’, 2017 (oil on canvas)

Your exhibition Dystopolis is currently running at the Victoria Gallery & Museum. How did this exhibition come about? What was the process behind this project?

I met the Victoria Gallery and Museum team when I attended a study day there held by the Contemporary Art Society in February 2018. During a break I was invited to show some images of my work and the team were very intrigued. I was then offered a solo exhibition after I sent the curatorial team a proposal soon after the study day. My solo exhibition is running now until 21 April 2019.

The title ‘Dystopolis’ refers to the unsettling architecture that I see as domineering, creating a dystopic sense of a metropolis, illustrating an atmosphere of alienation in the urban environment, as individuals confront crowds weaving through cities. I’m showing 15 large new paintings, curated by the VGM curator Dr Amanda Draper. I successfully obtained Arts Council England funding for the exhibition.

jasmir creed 'sometimes lost' 2018 oil on canvas 120 x 90 cmJasmir Creed’s ‘Sometimes Lost’, 2018 (oil on canvas)

To coincide with your exhibition, your book Jasmir Creed: Dystopolis published at the end of November. What does the book include and how does it work alongside the exhibition?

The production of the book has enhanced appreciation of the exhibition. The book has critical texts on my work by world-renowned writers Lauren Elkin and Dr. Graeme Gilloch (Lancaster University) and the VGM curator Amanda Draper. Audiences will engage with the catalogue against the work displayed through copies available for reading in the gallery and purchase in the VGM shop and via the Liverpool University Press website.

Extracts from the catalogue texts will be presented at learning events, including a creative recharge session at the VGM, will be a starting point for art-making and creative writing aimed at varied age groups, and will feed into my in conversation event during the exhibition.

jasmir creed 'underpass' 2018 oil on canvas 213 x 152 cmJasmir Creed’s ‘Underpass’, 2018 (oil on canvas)

The book is beautiful and includes paintings of yours from 2015-2018. Which of these for you is a stand out piece we should look out for when visiting your exhibition or reading the book?

The exhibition has enabled progression of my ideas and visual language in new work specially made for the exhibition, exploring iconic Liverpool sites such as the cathedrals.

My painting Pool of Life is for me a stand out piece I think audiences should look out for. Pool of Life is inspired by the dream of Carl Jung about Liverpool, a city he had never visited. In the dream he saw Liverpool as a ‘broad square dimly illuminated by street lights into which many streets converged’. He was drawn to the magnolia tree on an island in a centre of a pool in the street which ‘stood in the sunlight and was at the same time the source of light’. The aquatic panel is shown as a lingering reminder of previous rainwater having fallen before on the crowd on the right. The warm yellow resembles hope and life in the pool.

jasmir creed 'pool of life' 2018 oil on canvas 150 x 120 cmJasmir Creed’s ‘Pool of Life’, 2018 (oil on canvas)

What are you going to be working on next?

My production of new work will develop my professional practice, through public display and through engagement with audiences including artists, curators, collectors and writers. I hope to achieve further exhibitions of my work in the UK and internationally.

jasmir creed 'altar island' 2018 oil on canvas 120 x 90 cmJasmir Creed’s ‘Altar Island’, 2018 (oil on canvas)

For more information on Dystopolis please visit our website, and for more details on Jasmir’s exhibition visit the Victoria Gallery & Museum website.


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‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography – In Conversation with Brandon Yen

‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography considers William Wordsworth’s use of iconography in his long poem ‘The Excursion’. Through the iconographical approach, the author steers a middle course between The Excursion’s two very different interpretive traditions, one focusing upon the poem’s philosophical abstraction, the other upon its touristic realism. We caught up with author Brandon Yen to discuss this recent publication.9781786941336

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about ‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography offers close readings of a rich array of images that had a wide currency in late Georgian England. By contextualising these images, I seek to rediscover their cultural patterns and to bring a series of visual etymologies to bear upon Wordsworth’s use of iconography in his long poem The Excursion (first published in 1814), as well as in his other major works, including The Prelude. I pay particular attention to the complex ways in which iconographical images respond to, amplify, or challenge the pursuit of paradise in the post-revolutionary context – a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme which still resonates with us today.

Tree images had a vital role to play in the germination of this study. I had always been interested in the cultural meanings and physical forms of trees, having encountered many amazing trees in various parts of the world. Amongst my favourite is the splendid hornbeam near the Fen Causeway in Cambridge, which always greeted me warmly, rain or shine, snow or hail. This arboreal interest drew my attention to the recurring images of trees in The Excursion. I then discovered how tree images were used not only by Wordsworth but also by many of his contemporaries to express contentious socio-political ideas. Further research showed that a wealth of other images also had remarkable rhetorical power. I wanted to restore the rhetorical potential of these images and to see how they could contribute to our understanding of the nuances of Wordsworth’s poetry.

Why did you choose The Excursion to be the main focus in this study of Wordsworth’s iconography? Can you share any favourite quotes with us which particularly emphasise the point you are making in your study?

Wordsworth’s mind brims with images. We think of the immense beech near Alfoxden House, whose branches sagged down and rose again like those of a banyan tree. More than forty years after he had left Alfoxden, Wordsworth still remembered vividly how many boughs the beech had had. The Excursion is characterised by the variety, density and beauty of its natural images. These images function very differently in this poem than in Wordsworth’s other works because of The Excursion’s fictional and conversational form. Writing to Catherine Clarkson in January 1815, Wordsworth draws attention to the illustrative function of natural imagery within The Excursion’s dialogues: ‘Do not you perceive that my conversations almost all take place out of Doors, and all with grand objects of nature surrounding the speakers for the express purpose of their being alluded to in illustration of the subjects treated of.’ Often, these are both real things that exist physically and iconographical images that are imbued with wider meanings. I set out to explore the complex ways in which their latent meanings contribute to The Excursion’s central arguments.

My favourite image in this context is Wordsworth’s seashell. In Book V of The Prelude, Wordsworth mentions an allegorical dream in which he meets a traveller in an Arabian desert. The Arab is transporting a ‘Stone’ and a ‘Shell’ to safety in the face of an impending apocalypse. The Stone is Euclid’s Elements, whilst the Shell is poetry, which conveys to its listener a ‘loud, prophetic blast of harmony’. The image reappears in Book IV of The Excursion, where the Wanderer compares the physical ‘Universe’ to a ‘Shell’. Through this shell, the ‘ear of Faith’ hears ‘Authentic tidings of invisible things’. This musical metaphor occurs in many of Wordsworth’s well-known passages – in the France Books of The Prelude and in ‘Mutability’ in Ecclesiastical Sketches, for example – to suggest an inherent meaning and order underlying the apparently disjointed, inexplicable events in the world, such as cataclysmic developments in politics and crises in religion. In The Excursion, many visual images also embody ‘tidings of invisible things’ that enrich our understanding of the poem and of Wordsworth’s poetry in general.

Could you tell us more about the five categories – envisioning, rooting, dwelling, flowing, and reflecting – you refer to in your book?

The book is organised around these five categories of images; I use the present participles to capture a sense of the ‘active principle’ propounded by the Wanderer in Book IX. I look closely at how these apparently marginal images contribute to the central themes of paradise lost and paradise regained in The Excursion. The chapter on ‘envisioning’ reveals the changing perceptions of abstraction and prospect views around the period of the French Revolution. It asks how these perceptions bear upon the Solitary’s vision of ‘Glory beyond all glory ever seen’ in Book II and analyses the implications of the vision’s intertextual and intratextual connections with other verbal and pictorial images. Moving away from visionary insubstantiality, the next two chapters – on ‘rooting’ and ‘dwelling’ – examine grounded images. The chapter on ‘rooting’ considers Wordsworth’s shaping of the major characters of The Excursion in arboreal terms, exploring the ways in which trees in the poem not only covey a nostalgia for the ‘sylvan scenes’ of Eden but also witness and commemorate deaths and sufferings, which are integral to the post-lapsarian condition. Images of ‘dwelling’, like trees, are grounded in ‘the very world’ into which the characters seek to reintegrate the Solitary. I study a cluster of ‘ideal’ cottage images – as well as relevant images such as flowers, light, hermitages and temples – to show how they are iconographically constructed to counterpoise the Solitary’s present Lakeland cottage. The concluding chapter analyses the ways in which the iconographical reconfiguration of the post-revolutionary world in The Excursion involves ambiguous uses of water. It demonstrates that the functions of ‘flowing’ and ‘reflecting’ tie in with the poem’s central concerns with perspectives and its unresolved ending.

How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

The Excursion raises many questions that have yet to be fully explored: prosody and form, colonialism and imperialism, sound and silence, paganism and Christianity, education, capitalism and industrialisation, amongst others. I hope my book will encourage readers to think more about these questions. On the other hand, I also hope it will lead to further research on visuality in Wordsworth’s poetry. We live in a world awash with visual images that tend to be ephemeral – easily available but quickly skimmed through and soon forgotten. Not so in Wordsworth’s time.

What are you going to be working on next?

My next book focuses on Wordsworth’s Irish journey of 1829. As an accompaniment to this new project, I’m collaborating with Trinity College Dublin to mount an exhibition on ‘Ireland and the English Lake Poets’, which will be open in Trinity’s Old Library in spring 2019. I’m also thinking about developing an illustrated book on Wordsworth’s trees as a sequel to Wordsworth’s Gardens and Flowers: The Spirit of Paradise (co-written with Peter Dale).

For more information on ‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography please visit our website.


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History, Liverpool Interest

Liverpool and the Slave Trade – In Conversation with Anthony Tibbles

Liverpool and the Slave Trade is the first comprehensive account of the city’s role in the slave trade. Drawing on recent research, contemporary documents and illustrations, it provides a detailed account of how the trade operated and was eventually brought to an end. We caught up with author Anthony Tibbles to discuss this recent publication.9781786941534

First, could you tell us a bit about Liverpool and the Slave Trade and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

I first became interested in Liverpool’s role in the slave trade when I was asked to take charge of the development of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at the Maritime Museum over twenty-five years ago. In doing some initial research, it was clear that there were a lot of myths but very little academically sound published information, particularly about the scale and nature of the city’s involvement. Whilst a large amount of research has been carried and published since then on the transatlantic trade, very little has focussed specifically on Liverpool.

In 2007 I helped edit Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery (Liverpool University Press), a volume of academic papers on various aspects of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade but I still felt there was a need for a comprehensive history especially one aimed at the interested general reader. In the same year, as part of the events organised to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, I was asked to give a lecture on Liverpool and the slave trade at Gresham College in London. After I retired and decided to attempt to write about the subject myself, the Gresham lecture provided me with a template for my approach to the book.

This is the first comprehensive account of Liverpool’s participation in the slave trade. Why do you think this area of the city’s history has been overlooked?

I think for many years there was a reluctance to admit that the city had been so closely involved in what was by then almost universally condemned as an horrific and disgraceful trade. It was easier and less painful to pass over what had become regarded as a shameful episode in the city’s history and concentrate on the spectacular growth of Liverpool in the nineteenth century. I know when we developed the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery there were people who said we should put Liverpool’s role in the trade ‘behind us’, effectively forget about it, and look to the future. In fact, it is only by confronting uncomfortable aspects of the past and recognising that history, that you are able to move on.

Liverpool and the Slave Trade includes the use of contemporary documents and personal testimonies and experiences to explain the topic – are there any stand-out materials which you could tell us more about?

I have made significant use of the Davenport Papers which the Maritime Museum acquired in 2002. They are part of the extensive business archive of William Davenport who was one of Liverpool’s most active slave traders, responsible for over 140 voyages. The letters between him and his captains are particularly detailed and revealing of the complexities of the trade. They show the matter of fact way that Davenport and his captains discussed the buying and selling of fellow human beings and their total lack of concern for the enslaved, unless it affected the profitability of the voyage.

Could you tell us more about the cover image and why you chose it?

The cover image is a detail from a watercolour entitled Liverpool from Seacombe Boathouse which was painted by Michael Angelo Rooker (1746-1801) in about 1768 or 1769 and was published in 1770. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1769 along with its pair A View of Liverpool from the Bowling Green. I wanted an image that related to the subject of the book and although there are one or two paintings of Liverpool slave ships, they are not immediately obvious as such. I thought it was important to show Liverpool and the Mersey and this view shows the port during the height of the slave trade.

How does this volume pave the way for further research on the topic?

This book is a general overall survey of Liverpool’s participation in the slave trade and is intended as a summary of current research.

There are still a number of questions which have not been fully answered and where historians have different opinions. These include the extent of the importance of the trade to Liverpool’s development and economy; how the slave trade related to other trades that the town was involved in; the relationship between the trade and the industrial revolution; and why Liverpool and its merchants came to dominate the trade in the late eighteenth century. More research could also be done on the merchants themselves, who they were, what were their origins, how far they were involved in other trades and how important the slave trade was to their personal wealth and prosperity.

What are you going to be working on next?

I usually have a number of projects on the go at any one time. I have been researching members of the Watt family who owned Speke Hall in the nineteenth century and whose wealth came from Richard Watt (1724-96). He made his fortune in Jamaica as a factor, a dealer in enslaved Africans and a plantation owner and in his latter years was a shipowner and trader in Jamaican produce, particularly sugar and rum. Quite separately, I am also researching Liverpool marine artists and ship portrait painters with the intention of publishing a dictionary. The port was home to some of the most prolific and talented painters in this genre from the late eighteenth century until the immediate post-Second World War years.

I’ve also become interested in the history of bell ringing in Cornwall! This started from seeing a couple of delightful eighteenth century painted boards featuring images of bell ringers and a rhyme about rules for ringing. I’ve now found more than a dozen similar boards in local churches which seem to be unique to Cornwall.

For more information on Liverpool and the Slave Trade please visit our website.


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