Welcome to birmingham.gov.uk

Welcome to birmingham.gov.uk

Section 2 - Society

Birmingham was not a port, so lacked the obvious involvement of Bristol or Liverpool. Birmingham was the manufacturing centre of Britain, and the slave trade created the demand which the town grew to fill. Contemporaries commented on the dependence of Birmingham on "the Africa trade", and prominent manufacturers petitioned Parliament against the abolition of the slave trade, pleading that it would ruin the town (see document 2/4).

In an age when letter writing was the major way of communicating over distance, the business correspondence of individuals gives us an insight into the position in society held by plantation owners and those who derived their fortunes directly from the slave trade. Among the elite of manufacturing Birmingham and their associates there seems little distinction made between those who were directly engaged in the trade and those whose involvement is less obvious.

Matthew Boulton and James Watt's partnership is famous for its importance to the Industrial Revolution. Their archives, in which personal and business matters are often intermingled, contain a wealth of information about their network of contacts. The records show their willingness to supply engines to the West Indies and their contact with known slave traders such as John Dawson of Liverpool. In document 2/2 Matthew Boulton records dining with Mr Pennant, notoriously describing as "a most amiable man" the owner of the largest plantation in the West Indies, who built up a large fortune there and invested it in North Wales in slate quarries. It seems also that the manufacturers had an eye to the promotion of their own product - note Boulton's comment that Mr Gale and Mr Beeston Long "wish to see steam answer in lieu of Horses".


(2/1 pages 1 and 2) Letter from John Dawson of Liverpool to Boulton and Watt, 9 November 1790. He refers to "the King of Spain having granted a Loan of a million Dollars to the inhabitants of Trinidad for the purpose of erecting a Sugar Works and Purchase of Slaves which I am to have the supplying of" and suggests that they become involved in the sugar works. Watt replied with technical advice and the firm supplied steam engines to the West Indies over a number of years.

See document 2.1 page 1

See document 2.1 page 2

See a transcription of document 2.1 pages 1-2


Part of a letter written by Matthew Boulton from London, 19 April 1793 in which he describes dining with three plantation owners.

See document 2.2

See a transcription of document 2.2


Letter from John Woodward suggesting that, following his inheritance of an estate in Jamaica, he should be taken into partnership with the firm Boulton and Watt. He gives his ambitions as being "to be respectable in the very circumscribed circle of my friends" and "to make my Children useful members of the Community". The second part of this document is reproduced as document

See document 2.3 page 1

See document 2.3 page 2

See a transcription of document 2.3 pages 1-2


Extract from the Journal of the House of Commons, vol 44 (1788-89), 20 May 1789, recording one of many petitions from big cities. This volume is in the Social Sciences section of the Central Library.

See document 2.4

Joseph Sturge and the Anti-Slavery Society
Olaudah Equiano
The Trade Connections Between Birmingham and the West Indies