The Hunted Slaves*

*Painting by Richard Ansdell, now held in the “Legacies” section of the International Slavery Museum, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool.

I have some time to spare before “Mind the Gaps”, Richmond University’s summer conference on post disciplinary theory and practice, and I take the opportunity this morning to compare the notes in British History Online with the streets around Gloucester Road, SW7. I pass 39-41, Victoria Road, where the tiny progeny of the international elite are arriving for the start of their Kindergarten day. These houses were built in 1842. The first lessee of No 39, and from 1846 the occupant, was the animal painter Richard Ansdell, from Liverpool. In 1850, he took over No 41, occupying both houses until 1861.

I turn left into St Alban’s Grove. Its north side enjoyed favour among the Victorian artistic community and showed some expression of individualism. Ansdell began by building a studio here in 1852, and went on in about 1860-1 to replace existing buildings with a large, plain three storey house of five bays in grey brick named Lytham House. (Ansdell also had a sizeable residence in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire, named Starr Hills, where the surrounding area is now named after him.)

The property was later to become Atlantic College, a constituent of Richmond College, which was to become Richmond University, our hosts today.

I turn right for my destination, (Asa) Briggs Hall in Ansdell Street.

In the late 19th Century, this was named James Street, and was in an insanitary and dangerous state. Its houses were small and badly planned; some of them perhaps contemporary with the building of Kensington Square nearly two hundred years earlier. About 384 people lived in the little street, or ten to a house, in this ancient parish of Kensington.

From 1891 to 1894 the Vestry (predecessor of the Royal Borough of Kensington), goaded by its Medical Officer of Health, tried to grapple with this problem. The Vestry appealed to the young London County Council to help it under the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Its surveyor produced a scheme for rehousing the street’s inhabitants. However, there was opposition from adjacent owners, as well as some resistance within the Vestry itself to its direct involvement in working class housing, embodied in the buildervestryman Thomas Huggett.

In 1895 the Vestry thus had properties and a degree of moral commitment in James Street without quite knowing what to do about either. No sooner had the Act been obtained than the large scheme by architect Walter Stair proposed under it was rejected, by developers who were only interested in the smaller area bounded by Thackeray Street. The years 1897-8 passed in “deadlock” between developers and the Vestry, while south of the intended line James Street continued to deteriorate. James Street was never abolished and its old crooked line survives as Ansdell Sreet, which has, of course, been transformed in the intervening years.

We listen to an impressive range of speakers. The first to present following the morning break is Dr Paul Rekret, Associate Professor of Politics, on the theme of ” Cogito, Ergo Habeo”. In answer to a particularly direct question from the audience, he acknowledges that he does not personally like John Locke (1632-1704). (A speaker at the end of the day will suggest that Locke was misrepresented.) As Wayne Glausser has written:

“Every modern scholar who takes him seriously has had to confront an embarrassing fact: John Locke, preeminent theorist of natural liberties, and an influential resource for abolitionist thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, actually participated in the slave trade.”

Ansdell painted the picture above in 1861, the year the American Civil War broke out. It portrays two runaways, turning to face the pack of mastiffs which has pursued them. President Lincoln would make his Emancipation Declaration the following year. While slavery still persisted, the theme of the fugitive on the run from former enslavement would become an important one in art on both sides of the Atlantic.

When this painting was first exhibited, the artist included a quotation in the catalogue from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Dismal Swamp”, which describes the flight of an escaped person. While Longfellow describes an old and somewhat pathetic figure, Ansdell shows a man in graceful and heroic stance.

Ansdell’s painting may also have drawn from a passage, describing an enslaved man named Scipio being cornered by a pack of dogs in a swamp, in the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Her book in turn took inspiration from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Harriet wrote elsewhere:

“A vigorous and original literature is impossible, except to a strong, free, self respecting people….self respect is impossible without liberty.”.

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