Wednesday, August 29th, 2018
Since my work on Frederick Douglass took me to the University of Edinburgh to live and study, I had expected to open my Douglass in the British Isles series in Edinburgh or at least one of the many cities in Scotland where Douglass traveled, lived, and worked. I have lots of that research already done and am raring to go. But there are some exciting things happening this fall and winter throughout Scotland in celebration of this bicentennial year of his birth that I’d like to include in my story, so I’m going to plan my trips around them and tell you all about that I’ve learned and experienced there. It just so happened, in the meantime, that I had the opportunity to travel to Newcastle for a couple of days. Since an especially important thing happened for Douglass in Newcastle, I decided to take the opportunity and start this series here.
I have a list of sites and events to explore for this story but my geographical information is very incomplete. So, I begin my inquiry at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. It’s located in the Library on the top floor of the Great North Museum: Hancock at Newcastle University. I head east and north from Newcastle Central Station, taking my time and exploring a bit along the way. I know that this journey will take me to sites that are all pretty centrally located since Newcastle was much smaller then, later growing outwards from the older parts of town in all directions. I check out many of the city’s major historical structures, the Castle and its Black Gate, the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, remaining sections of its ancient city walls, and Grey’s Monument, making mental notes of the layout of old Newcastle along the way. I veer east from the monument and eventually, I approach the University from King’s Walk and admire the Arches, which access the Quadrangle from King’s Road across from the end of the King’s Walk. It’s a handsome red brick, three-story building with lovely details topped by a castellated decorative roof. It was erected in 1911 when this place of learning was still called Armstrong College. I turn right at the King’s Road and continue past campus buildings, ascending a short rise across the road where, to my left, I find a classical, clean-lined cream stone building with ‘The Hancock Museum’ engraved in the grey stone-edged roof. I pass museum case after museum case, exhibit after exhibit, of all manner of things with of scientific, historic, and cultural interest. I make a mental note to make time to return next time I’m in town.
A few floors up, I find a small cozy library stuffed with old histories, directories, and all manner of local records and documents. First another patron who, as she explains, spends a great deal of time in the collection, then the librarian, help me in my search. I’m here, first, to find out the precise locations of sites associated with Douglass in Newcastle. For three of them, I only have the name or description and the street that they’re on. For one of them, the street no longer exists under that name, so I’ll have to do some more digging. With the patron’s help, I locate an 1847 Newcastle directory. The directory gives me names and addresses of people associated with this story, but there are no maps or atlases to locate them on so that I can compare them with current street names and addresses. For maps, the librarian refers me to Newcastle City Library on New Bridge Street. It turns out to be an excellent resource, with a wealth of maps, directories, and more. By the time it comes to leave and rejoin my travel companion for dinner, I’ve gathered a good deal of information about the city, the places I’ve seen thus far, and the sites I’m seeking for my Douglass journey, though I have a bit more digging to do before I go and visit those sites tomorrow. On my way back, I chance to see a historical plaque, high up on near the corner of a building over a shop window, related to the stories I’m following. I make another mental note to return the next day, and I’ll tell you all about it then.
Thursday, August 30th, 2018
I begin my day with lots of coffee and more research, mostly online following up on yesterday’s discoveries at Newcastle City Library, and putting two and two together with previous Douglass research I’ve done. It’s a lovely day with a blue, puffy-cloud-scattered sky, balmy, with just enough coolness in the air to keep one from getting too warm on a brisk walk. I make my way north and east from the coffeeshop near Central Station, passing sections of the ancient city wall. At Westgate Road, I turn left. It’s a wide thoroughfare which takes me uphill past tree-lined Blandford Square and shops and eateries. At Elswick Road, I find I’ve overshot the mark a bit and make my way back west through a lovely old neighborhood. My destination, 5 Summerhill Grove, is on a quiet, pretty little street across from Summerhill Park. Part of the three-story red brick house is under repair, its left side fronted by scaffolding.
There’s a round black plaque to the right of the doorway. Placed by the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s dedicated to Frederick Douglass. It commemorates the time he stayed here with the Richardson family, who spearheaded the effort to ‘formally buy his freedom in 1846.’ This was the home of Anna and Henry Richardson. Anna, her husband Henry, and his sister Ellen were abolitionists who aided others who had escaped from slavery as well. In addition to welcoming Douglass into their home and raising the money to purchase his freedom, they did the same for Douglass’ abolitionist colleague, fellow self-liberated slave, and fellow author William Wells Brown.
The Richardsons’ and their fellow abolitionists’ payment to Hugh Auld for Douglass’ freedom was controversial. Many abolitionists and fellow self-liberated slaves thought that buying Douglass’ freedom was tantamount to participating in the traffic of human flesh and acted as a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the slave trade, regardless of intentions. Abolitionist and fellow activist in the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign Henry C. Wright made these arguments in a strong letter of rebuke to Douglass for accepting these arrangements on his behalf. Douglass responded affectionately but firmly to Wright. As Douglass saw it, this payment was no different in kind to the payment of a ransom (as we shall see, he characterized this transaction as such) or handing over money to an armed robber. The fault was not with those who pay such forms of ransom, the fault was with those who extorted money so that their fellow human beings could enjoy the life and freedom they were naturally entitled to.
The Richardsons were a well-to-do Quaker family who dedicated themselves to all manner of religious and moral societies and causes including antislavery and temperance work, making goods available not produced through slave labor, education for poor and working-class children, and religious improvement. Anna also visited prisons to offer cheer, comfort, and spiritual support. The Richardsons and their extended family, women and men alike, took leading roles in the church; for example, Ellen was an Elder for a time until her failing eyesight made it too difficult to fulfill that role. In accordance with Quaker beliefs, the women of the family were well-educated and very active in religious and public life even as they were responsible for keeping a well-run family home. Though city directories list mostly male members of the Richardson family as prominent members of religious and moral societies, Jonathan Mood of the University of Durham describes Anna, Ellen, and other women in the family as generally even more involved, especially in the correspondence and day to day running of things.
Like many others who benefited from their good works and generosity, Douglass never forgot what the Richardson family had done for him. In 1860, he sent Ellen a copy of his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, dedicating it to her as his ‘friend and benefactress.’
I find the door of the house ajar, with a large black extension cord passed over the doorsill. I ring the doorbell, but there’s no answer. I knock and call, but still, no answer. Since the door’s open and there’s construction work apparently going on, it seems to me at first that the house is unoccupied. I enter and stop in the foyer, again calling out again to announce my presence and ask if I could take a look around. But only a few seconds reveal that, though the door was open and new appliances are in the foyer awaiting installation, the house appears to be occupied, or soon to be. From where I stand, it’s an attractive home with a high foyer, steep winding stairway through tall-ceilinged stories, and well-cared-for old wood floors. I can see, through an open door, a large windowed entryway to a sunny, tree-filled back garden. It looks like a cozy, cheerful home with lots of natural light. My history detective instincts have me agog with curiosity but since I’m still unable to discover anyone here after a few more calls and rings of the doorbell, I depart.
From here, I head to my next destination via St James’ Blvd, where I cut over to the narrow green park that runs along a long section of the ancient city walls and towers (including Morden Tower), past Chinatown, then east on Gallowgate, then north on Percy St. I’m led here by an entry in Hannah Murray’s site Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland which describes and maps out Douglass’ travels in the British Isles.
One of the map’s entries for Newcastle reads: ’28 Dec 1846: Music Hall, Albion Street, evening. Meeting of the Newcastle branch of the Antislavery League. 700 people there.’ The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Volume I also lists two late December speeches in Newcastle, one on December 28th with no listed location, and one on December 29th at the Music Hall. Try as I might, I can find no evidence of a Music Hall on Albion Street in directories, maps, or other contemporary documents about the people and places in Newcastle. The only listed music hall in Newcastle is elsewhere, and I’ll tell you about that location shortly. However, I have found other intriguing clues which indicate that Douglass may have visited, attended a meeting, or given a talk at a location on this street.
First, I consulted an 1847 Newcastle directory yesterday at the Antiquities Society for listings of locations on Albion St. There is no music hall or other public building listed there. It does, however, show that three George Richardsons lived at 9 Albion street, one ‘sen.’ (senior), one ‘jun.’ (junior), and one ‘gentleman.’ This likely describes a grandfather, father, and a grandson not yet employed, or perhaps a nephew or cousin. Then this morning, I found two more sources of information about the Richardsons of Newcastle: a website by a Benjamin S. Beck which has a series of pages detailing the genealogy and history of his family, especially the page ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson,’ and Mood’s journal article ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C. 1815-60‘. The first of these list Ellen Richardson as living first at 9 and then at 21 Albion St. When Douglass was at Newcastle in 1846, Ellen was still living at no. 9. Though there are two address for Albion St over time, all of the sources I’ve consulted indicate that the family lived in the same home for a very long time. I suspect, then, that the two different addressed reflect only a change in the numbering over the years rather than a move to another nearby location.
Ellen and her sister-in-law Anna’s leadership in the anti-slavery movement in Newcastle may very well have meant that antislavery society meetings may have been held at Ellen’s family home on Albion St, and if so, Douglass would surely have attended if he was in town. However, an entry in the Newcastle Courant of Friday, Jan. 1st, 1847 specifies that the speech Douglass delivered for a soiree of the ‘the Newcastle branch of the Anti-Slavery League’ for 700 ‘members and friends’ was held at the ‘Music-hall’ on ‘Monday evening.’ December 28th, 1846 was a Monday, so it appears that both the December 28th and 29th speeches listed in the Frederick Douglass Papers were held at the Music Hall. This does not preclude Douglass giving a talk at an event held at the Richardsons’ home on Albion St, however, if such an event took place.
Even given the address at 9 Albion St, however, I still would not have enough information to find this location. That’s because, first, there is currently no Albion St in Newcastle. The man who helps me find sources at the Newcastle City Library, however, is able to help me with that one. He just so happens to have recently read something which informed him that the street once named Albion is now called Leazes Park Road. The maps room of the National Library of Scotland is able to provide the final piece of the puzzle. When I visit Albion St, I can only guess at the exact location given the maps, plans, and directories of Newcastle I find during my visit. In the following days, Louise and Rosemary help me locate a city plan and its guide for 1830-1831, also published by Thomas Oliver, which show that George Richardson lived at plot 352. The street has undergone very little change, if any, in its layout, and the nearest cross-street retains its old name. By comparing the location of the old map to Google Maps, I find that the Richardson family home used to stand on or near the place where 23 Leazes Park Road now stands, just south of the parking lot at the southwest corner of Leazes Park Road and Strawberry Place.
At the other side of the street at Leazes Park Rd and Strawberry Pl, there’s a nice roomy bar called Soho. The tablet I’m using for maps and photography is nearly out of power and I’ve forgotten to bring my portable charger, so I take a break with a pint of Guinness while it’s plugged in. As I wait, I read more about the Richardson family.
As mentioned earlier, Ellen, her sister in law Anna, her brother Henry, her brother George, and her father George were all very active in various societies. In addition to Ellen and Anna’s anti-slavery and charity work, the Richardsons were active in promoting their Quaker religion. White’s 1847 directory lists George Richardson, senior (or rather, his house), as the ‘depository for the bible society’ and Whellan’s 1855 History of Northumberland and Newcastle lists George (presumably junior) as treasurer of the Bible Society, with George Sr. serving as accountant and ‘depositary.’ Ellen, who never married, cared for her father after the death of her mother in 1846 (the same year she and Anna organized Douglass’ ‘ransom’) and dedicated herself to education and other worthy causes. She worked for the school for impoverished children called, quaintly to modern sensibilities, the Girls Ragged School, and made other efforts on behalf of impoverished members of the community as well. On November 5th, 1859, for example, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury about the plight of a large Jewish family, explaining why they were appropriate and worthy recipients of ‘parochial charity.’ She signed her letter ‘Ellen Richardson, Secretary to the Jubilee School.’ It just so happens that there’s a link between Ellen and two of the places I visited yesterday: in 1864, at a meeting held in the Castle, she donated a book of Arabic prayers and a document containing the seal of Elizabeth I to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. She lived a long life, dying at the age of 87 after a long-time chest ailment worsened as she developed other ailments. Mary Spence Watson wrote of her recently departed cousin ‘I believe she is the last proper Quakeress in Newcastle, & the last who wore the Quaker’s dress, & she was so splendid.’
Once my tablet has charged sufficiently, I continue my tour by heading east and south toward Grey’s Monument, erected honor of the second Earl Grey, who was instrumental in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 and namesake of that delicious bergamot-flavored black tea. Besides vastly expanding the electoral franchise in Britain, the Reform Act also led directly to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1832. At the monument square, I turn south down Grainger St then stop at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets. This is the place I spotted yesterday with the historical plaque above the shop window. The plaque reads: ‘To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.‘ William Lloyd Garrison was, famously, the abolitionist colleague and eventual ideological rival of Douglass who had given him his start in the movement only to later oppose Douglass’ moving on from Garrison’s abolitionist society to found his own paper The North Star, and Douglass’ newfound commitment to political activism and armed resistance to slavery. Since this city had a vibrant antislavery movement, Garrison visited Newcastle more than once in his multiple tours of the British Isles, including at least twice in 1846, so it’s a delight but no surprised to stumble across this plaque. I less expected to find, and am very interested to have done so, this link to Louis Kossuth, the revolutionary 19th-century Hungarian president lauded by Douglass and his colleague James McCune Smith as a great freedom fighter.
Behind me on the other side of the road and a few buildings west, I find my next destination: the facade of the Music Hall I mentioned more than once earlier in my story, at 10-12 Nelson St. According to Thomas Oliver’s reference book for his 1844 plan of Newcastle, it stood to the ‘east of the Primitive Methodist Chapel,’ which can still be seen in the 1896 Ordnance Survey I find later at the National Library of Scotland. According to Oliver, the Lecture Room was located underneath the Music Hall. It was in that room that Douglass delivered his 1860 speeches. Today, the only remnants of the Nelson St Music Hall and its rooms is its arch-windowed facade with the name and date carved in the front door’s pediment. There’s a City of Newcastle upon Tyne historical plaque on the building to the left of the doorway, like the one at 5 Summerhill Grove, but unfortunately The Alchemist, the bar and restaurant now occupying the spot, has placed a big umbrella right in front of it. I could crane my neck from under the umbrella just enough to read the plaque: ‘Music Hall, Nelson Street, Charles Dickens 1812-1870. Charles Dickens gave public readings of his works in this theatre during 6 visits to Newcastle between 1852 and 1867. “A finer audience is there not in England.” City of Newcastle upon Tyne.‘
This is where Douglass almost certainly spoke at that 700-person antislavery event in December 1846, and where he did speak on February 19th and the 23rd, 1860. Douglass had returned once again to the British Isles that year, fleeing possible arrest and prosecution in connection with his militant abolitionist friend John Brown‘s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry. While he was back in Britain, he embarked on another abolitionist speaking tour. In 1860, Douglass was dismayed to find that anti-black prejudice, which he was so grateful to find nearly absent during his last visit to the Isles fourteen years before, had become more commonplace in British sensibilities. Nevertheless, the talk was so highly anticipated that the event space was packed as full as could be and many who sought tickets had to be turned away. Douglass told the crowd that he feared that the ‘malign influence’ of the American slave system and its apologists were infecting the mother country even though she had already abolished it. Yet Douglass was here once again to seek British support for the cause. American slavery was proving so difficult to eradicate that American abolitionists needed the moral and religious example and support of their freedom-loving British counterparts more than ever.
Even with that support, however, it seemed that armed resistance may have been necessary to end slavery, and in that, Britain could lend its support by withdrawing its trade with and support to slaveholding states. Douglass ended his speech with a defense of Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in hopes of inciting a slave insurrection. Though Douglass had, in person, turned down his friend’s plea to assist the raid on the grounds he thought it unlikely to succeed, Douglass defended the raid’s practicability and propriety to his Newcastle audience. For one thing, he said, the location of Harper’s Ferry was in proximity to a series of mountain ranges perfect for insurrectionists to hide, plan their course of action, and attack from. For another, the raid and planned guerrilla war to follow was not the cruel and criminal attack on peaceable citizens as it was generally portrayed. Slavery was essentially a cruel and bloody system of oppression that placed all involved in it in a state of war already. Slave resistance was merely the counterattack by those who had been savaged in the first place.
My last destination leads me just a little ways south and east to Hood Street. According to Oliver’s reference to his 1844 city plan, the Salem Methodist Chapel ‘forms the centre building to the north side of Hood Street; the front is of polished stone, with a recessed Grecian Doric portico of four columns, approached by stone steps.’ It opened its doors in 1836. There is a building at number 11, at about the right location but a bit further west than I’d expect from the 1896 ordnance survey, which has a small portico supported by two full Doric columns and two pilasters, with three steps leading to the modest-sized front entry. However, the building doesn’t seem otherwise to have the appearance of a church. Photos I find of old Hood St online from 1912 and onward, few as they are, don’t appear to show a church or other building with a Doric-column-decorated entryway. It appears to me that there’s nothing left of the old Salem Chapel.
Douglass spoke at the Salem Chapel on August 3rd and 13th of 1846 at meetings of the Newcastle Antislavery Society. On the first occasion, the 1200-capacity church was packed nearly to overflowing, evidence of the strong popular support in Britain, particularly Newcastle, for the abolitionist cause. Douglass, the only lecturer at the August 3rd event, opened his speech by pointing out the danger of characterizing too many things as forms of slavery that were not, in fact, comparable to American chattel slavery, with all its depredations and horrors, its thorough denial of the rights and humanity of a certain class of human beings. Since chattel slavery was far away and out of sight in the free British Isles, he could see how some Britons might tend to conflate slavery with such practices as the exploitation of workers, unjust taxation, or political disenfranchisement. However, Douglass stressed, to do so undermined the message and urgency of the antislavery cause.
Douglass’ impassioned plea against equating actual slavery with other forms of exploitation, coercion, or cruelty reminds me of the trend I see so often in our hyperbolic age with its outrage culture run amok. So many things are characterized as assaults, as rape, as silencing, or as other trespasses on human rights and dignity that in some ways serve to equate minor with egregious forms with minor or less egregious forms, or at least serve to confuse them in the public consciousness. For example, speaking disrespectfully to or groping women, however deplorable, is not akin to physically raping them. Aggressive speech, leering looks, and insults are not akin to physical assault. Promoting one set of views, however loudly, meanly, or distastefully is not akin to silencing competing views. There are plenty of grounds for demanding we treat each other in ways that respect human rights and dignity without conflating these important issues. In fact, conflating the less egregious wrongs we do one another with more egregious ones undermine human rights causes. When it’s not clear what precise harms we are arguing about, the degree to which they damage ourselves and others, and the rights we are violating when we inflict them, then the arguments against them are hard to craft and defend, and our efforts to counteract them are rendered scattershot and ineffective.
Douglass went on to criticize the various ways the legal system of the United States systematically supported and protected the institution of slavery, from the federal Constitution to the laws of states and municipalities. To remove any doubts in the minds of his audience that he might be embellishing his rhetoric with hyperbole, he read out example after examples of such laws so that they could judge for themselves. Over time, Douglass changed his mind about the Constitution as a proslavery document. To Douglass, interpreting the Constitution correctly as an antislavery document meant it could no longer be used as a tool by proponents of the slave system. It also made local laws supporting slavery that much more egregious, since they not only infringed on the natural rights of black people, they infringed on Constitutionally guaranteed rights as well. Armed with this Constitutional interpretation, Douglass went on after his early years as an abolitionist moral suasionist in the United States and the British Isles to focus on political and social activism.
My search for Douglass in Newcastle has proved to be an invigorating and fascinating one, and he has led me to learn about and appreciate not only more about his own work and his circle of friends and colleagues, but about the history of one more great city as well. I look forward to my next adventure following Douglass in the British Isles, stay tuned!
Sources and Inspiration
Alston, Charlotte. ‘William Lloyd Garrison visits Newcastle.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside website
Beck, Benjamin S. ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson.’ Ben Beck’s Website
‘Black Plaque № 48714.’ Open Plaques website
Richardson, Ellen. ‘The Board of Guardians: To the Editor of the Newcastle Guardian.‘ Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. Saturday, 12 November 1859
‘Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.‘ History: Past Prime Ministers at GOV.UK
Douglass, Frederick. ‘Antislavery Principles and Antislavery Acts.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854
Douglass, Frederick, annotated by Henry L. Gates. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893). New York: The Library of America, 1996
Douglass, Frederick. ‘British Racial Attitudes and Slavery‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 3: 1855-1863
Douglass, Frederick. ‘Frederick Douglass to Henry C. Wright, Manchester, 22 Dec 1846.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852
Douglass, Frederick. ‘Men and Brothers.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854
Douglass, Frederick. ‘Slavery, the Free Church, and British Agitation Against Bondage.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 1: 1841-1846
‘Frederick Douglass Speaks: 3 August 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)
Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Oct 1846.’ The Liberator, October 30, 1846
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Hodgson, Barbara. ‘Former Slave ‘Freed’ by Newcastle Couple is to be Honoured in Martin Luther King Anniversary Year.’ ChronicleLive, Nov 5, 2016
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Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. ‘Lajos Kossuth.’ Encyclopædia Britannica
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‘The Nelson Street ‘Music Hall’ of 1838.’ Gen UKI: UK and Ireland Geneology
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Ordinance Survey, Newcastle, 1861-62
Ordnance Survey, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896 (revised 1894)
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Reference to A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Thomas Oliver, 1844
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Ward, Brian. ‘Frederick Douglass: The Ex-slave and Transatlantic Celebrity Who Found Freedom in Newcastle.’ The Conversation, Feb 21, 2018
Whellan, William & Co. History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne… London: Whittaker and Co, 1855
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Wright, Henry C. ‘Henry C. Wright to Frederick Douglass, Doncaster, 12 Dec 1846.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852