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   Andrew Bradford​

The story of Charlie and Kathy Bradford​

Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars

Slavery has been part of human life since the dawn of history. It is still with us today, as shown by American singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’s twenty-first century re-write of ‘Barbados’, an eighteenth century poem by the abolitionist William Cowper.

Cooper Wrote:

What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans

It's almost enough to draw pity from stones

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

Especially sugar, so needful we see?

What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!

Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes

Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains

If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will

And tortures and groans will be multiplied still

And Giddens re-wrote those lines as:

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum

For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium?

The garments we wear, the electronics we own?

What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!

Besides, if we do, the prices will soar

And who could afford to pay one dollar more?

Sitting here typing it seems well worth the price

And you there, listening on your favorite device

This bargain we're in, well, it's not quite illicit

So relax, my friend, we're not all complicit

It might be argued that today’s western consumer, who also enjoys the ability to vote and influence political discourse, knows and cares far less about slavery than his or her eighteenth century counterparts. Our forebears, who by and large, were unable to vote, regularly packed town squares and churches to protest against slavery and used their economic power to boycott slave-produced sugar and rum. Why doesn’t the twentieth-century consumer do the same? Could we make a difference if every time we bought a garment from a high-street store, we asked whether it was made from cotton produced by coerced Uighur labour in China, for example?

However, to argue that slavery has always been, and by inference will always be, part of humanity, runs the danger of minimising what happened to thirteen million Africans at the hands of white Europeans from the sixteenth until, in the case of the Belgian Congo, the early part of the twentieth century. More than a million died on the journey to the New World, and those who were enslaved in the West Indian sugar plantations, once sent to work in the field, measured their life expectancy in months not years.

Today, a lot of political discourse is centred around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Crudely, the culture wars are presented as a conflict between older people, who are concerned about familiar and loved local landmarks being renamed or demolished; and younger people who are accused of trying to ‘re-write history’. The National Trust has come in for a lot of criticism for daring to examine the relationship between many of its properties and collections. Specifically, the Trust is researching whether the wealth that established some of its large estates was created by the ownership of other humans. This criticism is, in my opinion, entirely malevolent and unjustified. What is the point of a body such as the NT if it doesn’t carry out historical research on its assets? Why should some areas of research be deemed acceptable while others are considered beyond the pale?

In 1784 Samuel Greg opened Quarry Bank Mill in the remote village of Styal, which is now on the outskirts of Manchester. The Mill took cotton that was produced by West Indian slaves and spun it into thread using water-power from the River Bollin. Greg needed a labour force to work the new machinery, and within Britain itself, slavery was not acceptable. Greg needed to find a way of subduing labour without enslaving it, and the solution was to tour the workhouses of London to find children as young as eight years old to work ten-hour days in the mill. These children lived in the cramped Apprentice House, which was controlled by superintendents who, to be fair, did their best to educate them. However, industrial accidents such as severed fingers were common.

Quarry Bank Mill has been owned by the National Trust for many years, and the Trust has always presented visitors with an honest and balanced visitor experience about the role of coerced child labour in the mill’s early history. But how was the Mill financed in the first place? The Trust’s research concludes that the initial capital came from the Greg family’s ownership, over several generations, of slave plantations in Dominica and St. Vincent. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, Samuel Greg’s son Thomas claimed £5,080 - more than half a million pounds in today’s money – as compensation for the loss of 210 slaves.

Slavery is only the most extreme form of coerced labour. The young boys and girls who were sent to Quarry Bank Mill’s Apprentice House from the workhouses of Hackney and Chelsea were also coerced, but by a lesser degree. In terms of the culture wars, those who criticise the trust should answer the question why they consider it acceptable to point out the Greg family’s involvement in the exploitation of children but unacceptable to point out their involvement in slavery. For a nation both to have an honest record of its history, and to understand its place in the modern world, we need to be able to hear, and be prepared to listen to, both stories.


Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of


. Here are my thoughts:

Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies

In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.

Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.

In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?

In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.

In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog  will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.

The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would! 


Christmas, Charles Dickens, Mr J. G. Street and Me

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 10:25 AM

Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and since then his name has been indelibly associated with Christmas. This novel is credited by historians with reconstructing Christmas as a family centred festival of generosity.

I have my own childhood memories of Dickens at Christmas that I'd like to share with you, and I'd also like to share with you a tale of the remarkable generosity of a man I've probably never met, Mr J.G. Street. I have no idea what the initials J G stand for.

Every Christmas when I was a kid the Harrods van would turn up at our doorstep on the council estate where we lived in Edmonton. That was unusual, I doubt if any other doorsteps on the estate got such a delivery. On the van there were always three parcels for our family; a Christmas cake and a bottle of whisky for my Mum and Dad and a book, usually a Dickens volume, for me. The book was always inscribed in what is now to me obviously an old person's handwriting:

"To Andrew. from Mr J. G. Street. XMAS - year"

Mr Street was my Dad Charlie's pen friend and they'd been writing to each other for over thirty years by the time I was eleven in 1959. Charlie was then just over fifty, but Mr Street was then in his nineties.

Charlie was a working class boy from Edmonton who worked on an assembly line and Mr Street was a public school and Cambridge educated man who had been a successful barrister. We lived in a London council house, but Mr Street lived in a Surrey mansion that had servants quarters, and he still employed servants up to his death. I have no idea whether he ever married or had children, but I suspect he hadn't.

The original reason My Dad and Mr Street had started to write to each other in the late 1920s was because when Charlie was three he had caught the polio virus which left him disabled in both legs and his left arm. This meant that as an adult, before the birth of the NHS, he had to buy crutches, leg irons and wheelchairs and he - as well as countless others like him - didn't have the money to do so.

The Shaftesbury Society - a Christian charity - used to provide people like Charlie with a list of potential wealthy benefactors to whom they could write and ask for assistance, and Dad was given Mr Street's name. In other words they had to write begging letters. But Mr Street gave him financial support for about twenty years until the birth of the NHS meant that it was no longer needed. But these two men from such different backgrounds had become friends. They now wrote to each other as equals.

When Charlie married Kathy - another polio survivor - in 1945, Mr Street was an honoured wedding guest. His wedding present was an art deco seven day clock by Heal's that sat on the mantelpiece in our living room. When I was born in 1948 he sent me a christening present, and he sent me books every year until he died in the early 1960s. I must have met him when I was very small, but I have no memory of it. I do remember my Dad reading the letters from his pen friend and writing back, and the fact that Charlie's letters always began "Dear Mr Street" while the return letters always began "My Dear Bradford". I suppose that's how you were taught to write a personal letter at public school in the 1890s. I also remember having to write him a thank you letter for his Christmas gifts. It wasn't something that my eleven year-old self did very willingly of course.

I still have seven volumes of the Dickens books that Mr Street gave to me - I could never think of giving them away, but the book I really value most of all is my copy of "Treasure Island". It's probably the book that gave me a lifelong love of literature. It's inscribed "Andrew - from Mr Street -Easter 1955." So he must have thought of us at Easter as well as Christmas and birthdays.

How appropriate that so many of his books were by Dickens. Prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol most families simply celebrated Christmas by going to church. They didn't give gifts to each other, and they didn't see it as a reason for giving to Charity. But by the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novel; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens's Christmas books and vowed to give generously. In America in 1867, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.

So let's remember just how much Charles Dickens has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas, and I'll also remember the way he influenced the remarkable Mr J G Street.

Let's also remember that the period that I'm recalling - the 1950s and 60s - was in some ways a golden age for people whose disabilities meant that they needed to use expensive mobility aids such as wheelchairs and mobility vehicles. Quite simply, these were just supplied by the state - the user never entered into a financial transaction. It is of course true that the equipment the state supplied was very basic; there was little choice and little innovation, but the commitment to supply these products rendered the generosity of people like Mr Street redundant. But his friendship was never redundant, even twenty years later.

Today, the state provides cash to people with disabilities in the form of Personal Independence Payments , and it is out of these cash payments that the users are expected to purchase their own mobility aids. It is true, that this form of support provides users with choices about what aids they purchase and from whom they purchase them, and it is also true that this encourages more innovation. However, for many people PIP payments do not provide sufficient funds to purchase what the user needs; assuming of course that they can jump the significant hurdles to qualify for this assistance in the first place


On Facebook today you can see crowdfunding appeals to provide wheelchairs and other mobility aids. These are the twenty first century's equivalent of the begging letters of the 1930s and they are being responded to by a new generation of Mr Streets.


Categories: Christmas, Charles Dickens, disability history

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