Research into an area of Liverpool named Goree leads to discovering the workplace of John Newton, the slave trader turned preacher and most famously the author of Amazing Grace.
In Part One of this series we covered the early history of an area in Liverpool named Goree that took its name from a Slave embarkation island off Senegal. This installment concerns the discovery of the workplace of a famous historical figure on the site, John Newton. There is a host of material available on Newton’s religious works and the abolitionist stance he took later in his life. However, it is the earlier stage of his life in Liverpool we are concerned with on this post.
Arguably the best-known Christian hymn is “Amazing Grace.” Its text, a poem penned in 1772 by John Newton, describes the joy and peace of a soul uplifted from despair to salvation through the gift of grace. Newton’s words are also a vivid autobiographical commentary on how he was spared from both physical and spiritual ruin. It relates the happy ending of the tale of a defiant man who manages again and again to escape danger, disease, abuse, and death, only to revert to “struggles between sin and conscience.”Nation Library of Congress
Considering it was written by someone who had been a Slave Captain, it perhaps surprising that Amazing Grace has always been closely associated with the African American community in the Untied States. In 2015 the then President Obama sang it at the funeral service of the church leader and South Carolina state senator, Clementa Pinckney, who was among nine people shot dead in the city of Charleston. The song was also sung at protests and the funeral of George Floyd in 2020 (see the end of the post).
John Newton (born London 1725 – died London 1807) is the perfect example of a historical character who’s legacy is being reassessed in view of his connections with the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 18th century. His later work as a preacher and an abolitionist should be balanced against his earlier life as a captain of slave ships.
If you are new to the life of John Newton it is a fascinating and sometimes shocking story. Often his life is told as story of two contrasting halves, first as a slave trader and then as a a devout Christian minister who turned to God after a near-death experience on a ship. The reality is quite different. Newton would continue as a captain of slave ships 6 years after his conversion.
Even apart from the fact he was a slave captain, it’s hard to find any redeeming character trait in the young Newton. In fact as a young adult he was despised by his crew mates on at least two voyages. Newton was a troubled youth, devoid of any religious or moral principles, he would often admit in later life that he was not content with his own bad behaviour but rejoiced in inciting others to follow him.
As a religious minister he would often write of his earlier wrongdoings on slave ships. Although he limited his admissions of depravity to cursing and blasphemy, he hinted at far worse. Steve Turner in his biography of Newton points out that Newton admitted to his childhood pastor Dr. David Jennings that he had been “a slave to every customary vice” and included telling bible passages such as 2 Peter 2:14.
With eyes full of adultery, they never stopped sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an unstable brood.
His accounts of rape and torture of enslaved Africans on the ships he served on is limited to other captains and crew. He also told of captains using thumbscrews to subdue and torture any person who tried to revolt on ship. He admitted to using these himself but only ‘slightly’.
It is a singular illustration of the influence of habit and public opinion on questions of justice and humanity, that a man of earnest piety and thorough honesty like Newton could mingle in all the horrors of the slave-trade with scarcely a suspicion that there was any moral wrong about it.J. A. Picton, 1875 (Full quotation below)
The National Portrait Gallery does not pull any punches in the short biography that accompanies the portrait above, it includes:
John Newton is best known today for his hymn Amazing Grace. As a sailor he had been part of the violence of the middle passage. He haggled for enslaved Africans on the southern coast of the Continent, he raped women chained in his ships, tortured men who tried to escape and made a profit from their sale in the Americas. It was not until 34 years after he left the slave trade business that he spoke out against the trade in a pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.National Portrait Gallery
The inscription on the tomb in Milton Keynes where Newton and his wife Mary are buried was written by himself:-
‘JOHN NEWTON, CLERK.Historic England
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE.
A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA, WAS BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY. NEAR 16 YEARS AS CURATE OF THIS PARISH AND 28 YEARS AS RECTOR OF ST MARY WOOLNOTH.
Newton may have convinced himself that his metamorphosis into a preacher and abolitionist may have absolved him from the misery, torture and often death he inflicted on innocent African people for the sake of personal profit. He may have prayed for the God he believed in to judge him fairly, but if we put aside the concept of religious redemption we can judge for ourselves.
The early life of John Newton
The story of Newton’s bonds to Liverpool begins with Joseph Manesty, a Liverpool ship owner who had originally traded to the Mediterranean but had switched to slave trading in 1744 as main owner of the ship Chance. Unlike most Slave traders who managed to avoid the later shameful spotlight that came after abolition, you will find many references to Manesty in print and online. But this awareness of him was not for his business dealings but because he spent several decades bailing out the wayward Newton, son of one of his friend and business acquaintance, John Newton Snr.
Newton’s connection with Liverpool commenced about 1747. Having sailed as mate in a vessel belonging to Mr. Joseph Manesty, he was appointed in 1750 master of the “Duke of Argyll,” and in 1752 of the “African.” These ships were engaged in the slave trade, and it is a singular illustration of the influence of habit and public opinion on questions of justice and humanity, that a man of earnest piety and thorough honesty like Newton could mingle in all the horrors of the slave-trade with scarcely a suspicion that there was any moral wrong about it. In 1754 he quitted the merchant service, and in the following year he was appointed one of the tide surveyors at Liverpool, in which office he continued until he entered the Church in 1764.
His subsequent career is known wherever the English tongue is spoken. It must be recorded to his honour that when aroused to the iniquity of the trade in human flesh in which he was once engaged, no man could have been more earnest and zealous in aiding to abolish it. He resided in Edmund Street, out of Oldhall Street, where during the latter portion of his residence he held religious services on Sundays. Newton was a freeman of the borough. In the poll-book of the election for 1754, he is entered as ” John Newton, Officer,” voting for Hardman and Lloyd.Memorials of Liverpool, J. A. Picton 1875
Born in London, Newton lived in Liverpool between 1755 and 1764 although he would have visited here from 1748 as the slave ships he captained were Liverpool-owned. A timeline of his life can be viewed here:-
Newton’s father was a captain of merchant ships and he had taken his young son on six voyages before he retired in 1742. The first example of what would become a pattern, was when the young Newton went against his father’s wishes to work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica owned by Joseph Manesty (see ‘Manesty slave plantation owner?’). This offer was made by Manesty in a bid to settle the young Newton. At first Newton consented but soon he had met his future wife Mary (Polly) Catlett and could not bear to separated for four to five years. Instead joined a merchant ship trading in the Mediterranean and worked in Venice for up to a year.
Newton’s father’s connections to the slave trade
It is usually recorded in biographies that Newton’s father was in ‘Mediterranean trade’ and not the slave trade. While he may not have bought and sold enslaved people himself, he was certainly an essential part of the business that made it possible. In Newton’s own ‘Authentic Narrative’ of his life he says his father had ‘a connection with the African Company’. It’s likely then that his father was supplying goods, such as beads, to slave ships to exchange for slaves in Africa. The beads were manufactured across Europe but centre of the bead trade was Venice. Therefore it is possible that Newton was also involved in this business while he lived in there for a year. It is also likely that it was his father’s business dealings with the African Company brought him into contact with Joseph Manesty in Liverpool.
Press-ganged into the Royal Navy
In 1743 Newton was forced into the Royal Navy by the Press Gang. As a midshipman onboard HMS Harwich he tried to desert and was flogged eight dozen times and demoted to common seaman.
When the Harwich was in Plymouth Newton had asked for a transfer but was refused. Back onboard, Newton contemplated suicide and even killing the captain.
The ship left England for the East Indies. While temporarily stationed at Madeira the Harwich was boarded by two crew members of a merchant ship the (often incorrectly named in biographies as the Pegasus but possibly the Levant) that was bound for West Africa. Newton asked once more to be transferred and this time the captain agreed. The commodore of the ship knew Newton’s father and this probably indicates that it was part of Joseph Manesty’s fleet. Away from the strict regulations of the Royal Navy, Newton’s behaviour worsened.
While I was passing from one Ship to the other, I rejoiced in the exchange with this reflection, that I might now be as abandoned as I pleased, without any control ; and from this time, I was exceedingly vile indeed, little, if any thing short of that animated description of an almost irrecoverable state…
…I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every Occasion: nay, I eagerly sought occasion, sometimes to my own hazard and hurt.John Newton ‘An Authentic Narrative, 1766
Newton’s conduct led him to be hated by the Captain. This captain fell ill and died but his replacement held Newton in similar disdain.
In the space of six months the unruly Newton found himself in need of another career change. This came from a land-based slave merchant who was onboard as a passenger returning to Africa (see update August 2021 at the bottom of this post). Originally located at Cape Mount he had established a business purchasing slaves from the African merchants and selling them to the ships ‘at an advanced price’. The trader was now looking to start a new slaving post on the largest of the three Plantain Islands and needed a servant. Newton had shown he was not yet suited for a life at sea, now he had an opportunity to try his luck on land instead. He obtained his discharge by entering into the service of the merchant. As his new master had a one third share of the ship this was easily agreed. Newton in his haste to leave the ship, neglected to check the terms of his indenture. This would be a costly mistake.
Newton and his master proceeded to build new business premises on Plantain Island to sell newly-captured slaves. The merchant lived with an African woman (of the Sherbo people) named by Newton as P.I. (the letters resembled the sound of her name). P.I.’s family held some power in the region and her influence had him start his slaving venture several years before. Newton later wrote that the merchant was very much under the direction of her. P.I. lived in the ‘European style’ and had her own enslaved people.
Newton becomes a ‘servant of slaves‘
Newton and his master were supposed to be sailing to the ‘Rio Nuna’ for trade but Newton fell ill. Newton was then left in the service of P.I.. His mistress initially cared for Newton but after he took a while to recover from his illness she only had contempt for him. She began to treat Newton no better than one of her slaves. This would lead Newton to later claim he was ‘a servant to slaves’.
When I was very slowly recovering this woman would sometimes pay me a visits not to pity or relieve, but to insult me. She would call me worthless and indolent, and compel me to walk, which, when I could hardly do, she would set her attendants to mimic my motion, to clap their hands, laugh, throw limes at me; or, if they chose, to throw stones (as I think was the case once or twice) they were not rebuked: but, in general, though all who depended on her favour must join in her treatment, yet, when me was out of sight, I was rather pitied than scorned by the meanest of her slaves.John Newton ‘An Authentic Narrative, 1766
While there he had to plant lime trees and sleep on the floor with a logo for a pillow. When his master returned Newton told him of the cruelty he endured under his mistress but his protest was dismissed.
Newton’s relationship with his master was further soured when he was accused by another merchant of defrauding his master. Newton managed to transfer his service to another merchant who had a slave factory on the River Kittam. Newton became joint-manager of this venture with another servant. ‘Here’ Newton said ‘I began to be wretch enough to think myself happy’. Newton had written to seek his father’s help whilst he endured the mistreatment of P.I. but now he was content to stay in Africa.
Newton adopts the African lifestyle
Many English merchants gradually assimilated themselves to the customs of the African people and Newton was no exception. Newton describes this as ‘a white man grown Black’. He entered into ‘closer engagements with the inhabitants’ including their rituals. Newton says of the English merchants’ adoption of the African lifestyle over their home country:
so far as to prefer that Country to England ; they have even become dupes to all the pretended charms, necromancies, amulets, and divinations of the blinded negroes, and put more trust in such things than the wiser sort among the natives.John Newton ‘An Authentic Narrative, 1766
Newton is ‘rescued’ from Africa
Based on the earlier pleas he had received, Newton’s father was under the impression his still needed rescuing. To this end he put up a reward for his return, again it is Manesty that his father turned to for help. He sent one of his ships, the Greyhound, to look for him while it followed the coast of West Africa trading for gold, ivory, beeswax and dyer’s wood.
Joseph Manesty, a longtime friend of Newton’s father who had recently extended his trade to Sierra Leone, discovered John seemingly by chance, but actually in God’s providence. In order to collect the father’s reward for returning his missing son, Manesty lied to Newton by telling him a legacy of 400 pounds per year (then a considerable fortune) had been left to him in England.http://vancechristie.com/2016/06/13/john-newton-white-slave-christs-servant/
A storm is the beginning of Newton’s religious conversion
Homeward-bound on the ship Greyhound, it wasn’t long before Newton returned to form and was despised by the crew for his profanities and blaspheming. It during a storm on this journey that Newton said he was converted and began to read the New Testament.
The storm may inspired the fear of God, but it would not prevent him from becoming a slave captain. Even after he left that profession he still had investments in plantations until at least 1764 (see later in this post).
The sluggish sailor was transferred to the service of the captain of the Greyhound, a Liverpool ship, in 1747, and on its homeward journey, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.” He converted during the storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”Christianity Today
Newton comes to Liverpool and begins his career on slave ships
Back in England in 1748, Manesty offered Newton the captaincy of one of his Liverpool slave ships but Newton decided he needed experience first. Instead of joining Manesty he turned to another friend, Richard Jackson, who had been Mate of his rescue ship the Greyhound. Jackson had been given captaincy of a ship called Brownlow (owned by John Kennion, William Haliday, Edmund Ogden and Peter Holme). Newton then joined Jackson as Mate.
Barbaric cruelty onboard the Brownlow
Newton would later write about his voyage under Captain Richard Jackson in a letter to the abolitionist Richard Phillips in July 1788. Newton does not name Jackson, only that he was a captain he sailed under (the Brownlow was the only slave ship that Newton was not the captain). In the period Newton wrote the letter he had changed his views on slavery and become a supporter of abolition. In the same year as the letter Newton had just published his Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. In this Newton mentions the sadistic brutality of the captains but spared his readers the horrific details – “For my readers sake, I suppress the recital of the particulars”. In the letter to Phillips however he provides the full harrowing details.
During the voyage of the Brownlow an uprising of the enslaved Africans had taken place, Captain Jackson’s response was swift, and brutal beyond comprehension. Newton told Phillips that Jackson used a method he referred to as ‘Jointing’ the prisoners to deter others from insurrection. This involved using an axe to methodically cut the individual limbs off the victims at each joint whilst they were still alive. Only when all limbs were removed did Jackson cut off their head:-
Some of them he jointed; that is, he cut off, with an axe, first their feet, then their legs below the knee, then their thighs; in like manner their hands, then their arms below the elbow, and then at their shoulders, till their bodies remained only like the trunk of a tree when all the branches are lopped away; and, lastly, their heads. And, as he proceeded in his operation, he threw the reeking members and heads in the midst of the bulk of the trembling slaves, who were chained upon the main-deck.Letter from John Newton to Richard Phillips, 5th July 1788. Memoir of the Life of Richard Phillips
by Mary Phillips. See also Markus Rediker, Slave ship; A human history
Jackson’s psychopathic cruelty did not end there, for the other insurrectionists he had another method of fatal torture:-
He tied round the upper parts of the heads of others a small soft platted rope, which the sailors call a point, so loosely as to admit a short lever: by continuing to turn the lever, he drew the point more and more tight, till at length he forced their eyes to stand out of their heads; and when he had satiated himself with their torments, he cut their heads off.Letter from John Newton to Richard Phillips, 5th July 1788. Memoir of the Life of Richard Phillips
by Mary Phillips. See also Markus Rediker, Slave ship; A human history
What Newton neglects to tell Phillips is, as Mate, he would have played an active part in this torture and murder – he was not an innocent bystander. The nearest Newton makes to an admission of guilt comes at the end of the letter when he told Phillips that he hopes ‘God has forgiven him’.
Looking back three decades later, Newton may have been appalled by the scenes his younger self witnessed and facilitated, at the time however, the experience did not deter Newton in his chosen career in the slightest.
Newton is reunited with his old tormentor
Whilst in Africa looking for slaves to purchase, Newton would face his old tormentor Princess P.I. In the years since he had been freed from servitude in Africa, Newton’s old master had died. Now P.I. was in business with a Scottish merchant named Patrick Clow. (See update at the bottom of this post).
Newton is promoted to captain
When the Brownlow returned to Liverpool, Newton took up Manesty’s offer and began his four-year-long career as captain of his slave ships. The first he commanded, the Duke of Arglye, left Liverpool in August 1750. This was followed by two voyages on the African.
The ships Newton sailed on are shown below.
1745 Unknown ship often incorrectly referred to as Pegasus but possibly the Levant’. This was the slave ship he transferred from the Harwich to.
1747 – 48 The Greyhound a merchant ship known as a Guinea trader (this was his rescue ship and likely dealt with African slave merchants to purchase goods).
August 1748 – December 1749: Mate of the slave ship ‘The Brownlow’.
August 1750 – October 1751: Captain of the slave ship ‘The Duke of Argyle’.
June 1752 – August 1753: Captain of the slave ship ‘The African’
October 1753 – August 1754: Captain of the slave ship ‘The African’
Newton’s account of his Slave trader voyages
Newton kept a journal when he was a Captain of slave ships. They record the harrowing Middle Passage of the triangular route the ships took. This route was:-
First stage: From Britain to Africa with ships loaded with goods to purchase enslaved people in Africa.
Middle passage: From Africa to the plantations with slaves inhumanely chained and crowded so tightly that they could not move. Many would not survive the journey. Some of the living would be still chained to people that had died.
Return home: From the plantations back to Britain with the ship loaded with slave-grown produce.
Here is a small selection of Newton’s entries, the enslaved people are stripped of humanity and given numbers, yet he refers to the ship as ‘She’. Newton tells of attempted insurrections, torture and the rape of a heavily pregnant women by a crew member:-
Wednesday 12 June
“….Got the slaves up this morn. Washed them all with fresh water. They complained so much that was obliged to let them go down again when the rooms were cleaned. Buryed a man slave (No 84) of a flux, which he has been struggling with near 7 weeks… ”
Thursday 13 June
“…This morning buryed a woman slave (No 47) Know not what to say she died of for she has not been properly alive since she first came on board.”
Sunday 16 June
“… In the afternoon we were alarmed with a report that some of the men slaves had found means to poyson the water in the scuttle casks upon the deck, but upon enquiry found they had only conveyed some of their country fetishes, as they call them, or talismans into one of them, which they had the credulity to suppose must inevitably kill all who drank of it. But if it please God they make no worse attempts than to charm us to death, they will not much harm us, but it shews their intentions are not wanting…”
Monday 24 Junehttps://www.learningforjustice.org/classroom-resources/texts/hard-history/the-journal-of-a-slave-trader
“…Buryed a girl slave (No 92). In the afternoon while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. l hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I shall impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83…”
Newton believes God helped him to stop an insurrection
Newton even believed that God helped him in his slaving, writing that he was helped ‘by favour of Divine Providence’:-
Friday 28 Junehttps://www.learningforjustice.org/classroom-resources/texts/hard-history/the-journal-of-a-slave-trader
“…By the favour of Divine Providence made a timely discovery today that the slaves were forming a plot for an insurrection. Surprised 2 of them attempting to get off their irons, and upon farther search in their rooms, upon the information of 3 of the boys, found some knives, stones, shot, etc, and a cold chissel. Upon enquiry there appeared 8 principally concerned to move in projecting the mischief and 4 boys in supplying them with the above instruments. Put the boys in irons and slightly in the thumbscrews to urge them to a full confession. We have already 36 men out of our small number.”
In Newton’s Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade he graphically describes the nightmare conditions the enslaved Africans had to endure:
With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable, she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty Slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three, (for the men, the boys, and the women,) besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the Slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more.
And I have known a white man sent down among the men, to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other. Nor is the motion of the ship, especially her heeling, or stoop on one side, when under sail, to be admitted; for this, as they lie athwart, or across the ship, adds to the uncomfortableness of their lodging, especially to those who lie on the leeward, or leaning side of the vessel.
Dire is the tossing, deep the groans.
The heat and the smell of these rooms, when the weather will not admit of the Slaves being brought upon deck, and of having their rooms cleaned every day, would be, almost, insupportable, to a person not accustomed to them. If the Slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this, added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits, when thus confined, soon becomes fatal. And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the Captives of Mezentius, fastened together.Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, John Newton, 1788
Illness ends Newton’s career as a Slave Captain
In 1754 Newton’s career as a captain of Slave ships ended not because he had a turn of heart but because he a convulsive fit. He had arranged to captain another of Manesty’s ships, the Bee, but the sudden, unexplained (and never repeated) sickness saw him retire from the sea and devote more time to his new found faith and his wife. He had married Mary ‘Polly’ Catlett in 1750 but since he had been away at sea, their relationship was almost entirely limited to a frequent exchange of effectionate letters. Newton later published these in his ‘Letters to a wife’.
Newton’s connection to Manesty continued, he held financial investments with him. When Manesty became bankrupt in 1764 Newton wrote that his money was lost. This shows that although he was no longer actively engaged in Slave voyages he was still profiting from them a decade after leaving the sea.
Manesty invests in a sugar house in Chester
One possible investment by Newton could be shown in this record below from 6th October 1764. It shows the sale of one of Manesty’s businesses, a sugar house in Cuppin’s Lane, Chester. This is just before the bankruptcy hearing on the 27th.
Manesty owned half the shares of the proposed sugar house, with Hincks and Wilson a quarter each. John Parr and Edward Parr appear to have supplied the mortgage.
Draft AgreementThe National Archives
Between (1) Joseph Manesty of Liverpool, co. Lanc.
Merchant, John Welsh, John Backhouse, John Williamson and John Parr, all of Liverpool, merchants, trustees of the estate and effects of Joseph Manesty(2) John Hincks of the City of Chester, merchant and Benjamin Wilson of the said City, merchant.
Refers to Articles of Partnership of 21st March 1757 between (i) Joseph Manesty (ii) Jno. Hincks (iii) Benjn Wilson – for 21 years to form a company for carrying on the business of sugar baking in a sugar house and buildings erected for the purpose on premises purchased in the name of Benj. Wilson from Th. Prescott.
This earlier record from 1758 provides more detail:-
He (Manesty) has credited £698. 4s. to Sugar House. About half the sugars by these two Jamaica ships were sold today for Dublin 39/- a 43/- per Ct. He is in treaty for 50 hogsheads & if bought shall ship them next spring tides; some of the remains of heavy Barbados sugars remain at 39/- he doesn’t suppose Wilson would choose them. Mr. Patten bought some ordinary Jamaica last week at 40/-.The National Archives
Manesty gets Newton a job as the Tide Surveyor in Liverpool
In 1755 Manesty bailed out Newton for the final time by securing him the job as Tide Surveyor. The job title is confusing as it had little to do with the tide. It is not to be confused with work of William Hutchinson who is credited as being the first person in the UK to have kept regular tidal records. Instead Newton’s role was the senior customs officer overseeing boarding of ships to check goods. Newton answered to the officials at the custom House and like Tide Surveyors in other ports his office was the Watch House. Under Newton’s command were the Tide Waiters who oversaw the landing of goods from merchant vessels in order to secure payment of duties.
The circumstances of him gaining this post has been described as ‘providential intervention’ (God’s intervention into the universe) as the current tide surveyor died suddenly. How much intervention was given by Manesty is open to interpretation.
His constant friend Mr. Manesty was using every means to promote his interests ; and in the month of June he succeeded in obtaining for him the situation of tide-surveyor at Liverpool.https://archive.org/details/johnnewtonofolne00bull/page/74/mode/2up?q=liverpool
Manesty had gained Newton a patronage from Thomas Salisbury MP, on the grounds that the previous surveyor, Mr Coxton, has resigned the commission. Yet Manesty was left with egg on his face because Coxton hadn’t resigned and was adamant about staying in his post. He was just about to write an apology to Salisbury when the following day Coxton was found dead in his bed, having been well enough to perform his duties the night before.
And how it came about that Mr. Newton got this better situation is but another of the many singular illustrations of providential intervention of which his life is so full. It was supposed, though without any sufficient ground, that Mr.Newton’s immediate predecessor in office intended to resign his situation. This led Mr. Manesty to apply to the member for the town for it on his friend’s behalf. The request was at once granted under this false impression. But now is the remarkable part of the story ; no sooner was the appointment thus given, than the place did really become vacant, for the person who then held it was found dead in his bed. Nor was this all ; about an hour after this painful event became known, the Mayor of Liverpool applied for the office for a nephew of his ; but though thus early in his request, he was of course too late. ‘ These circumstances,’ Mr. Newton well observes, ‘ appear to me extraordinary, though of a piece with many other parts of my singular history. And the more so as by another mistake I missed the land-waiter’s place, which was my first object.John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth, Josiah Bull, 1868
Job as the Tide Surveyor
Newton seems to have had an easy time in his new appointment. His role was split between surveying the tides and boarding ships to inspect their cargo. As shipping was much reduced to his appointment being at the time of the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) the role of boarding ships took up little time, Newton himself described it as a ‘sinecure’ (a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit).
My duty is one week to attend the tides and visit the ships that arrive, and such as are in the river, and the other week to inspect the vessels in the docks, and these alternately the year round. The latter is little more than a sinecure, but the former requires pretty constant attendance both by day and night. I have a good office, with fire and candle, fifty or sixty people under my direction, with a hand- some six-oared boat and coxswain to row me about in form.
Newton’s home and workplace in Liverpool
Between 1755 and 1764 Newton tradition places Newton as living in Edmund Street, off Old Hall Street. This was the first permanent lodgings for the newton’s. Earlier they had lived in lodgings in Pitt Street and possibly also lived in the Manesty household. Evidence for the Edmund Street house is limited and so far it has not been possible to locate its exact location. Research into this house is ongoing and if further information is discovered we will update the post.
Dear Brother, . . . You were at the coronation, no doubt. We shall be glad for a letter from you upon the subject. Upon that happy occasion I laid aside one half of my recluseness, mixed with public company, waited upon the mayor at his house, and had the honor to stand as a kind of cipher in three long rows of a procession to the Exchange. Then the company were halved, quartered, and disjointed to all the inns and taverns in town; but none of them were good enough for me to solemnize such an evening. Therefore I deserted, went to Edmund-street, drank tea, and spent the evening with an acquaintance of yours. In such a situation I envied neither the honors nor the pleasures of kings, queens, lords, or commons.
October 5th 1761https://gracegems.org/Newton/additional_letters_of_newton.htm
Although lacking evidence to enable the location to be pinpointed, the street (not his house) is marked with a commemorative plaque. This plaque commemorates his work as an abolitionist and clergyman but whitewashes the legacy of the man by failing to mention his time as a slave trader, instead it commemorates his job as a Tide Surveyor. The irony is that the man himself admitted his part in the Slave Trade in the 18th century but UNESCO didn’t over 250 years later.
The Watch House, Newton’s workplace
Newton’s workplace was the Watch House, due to the date of his appointment and the fact the role was connected to the Custom House this would appear to have been at the newer premises at the wet dock. In researching this post however this was not the case.
As we have seen (on this post link) the new Custom House (1722) lacked the facilities of the old Water Street premises that had been used since 1663 (check) . It had no warehouse, tobacco pipe, sheds or Watch House and its location next to a leaky dock and on top of the old tidal estruary known as the Pool meant it’s cellars were permanently damp. Instead, for decades after the new custom house was erected all these functions remained on the site of the Old Custom House at the foot of Water Street.
A dramatic event that occurred at the Watch House provides further proof that his workplace was on the shore at the Old Custom House yard. Instead of an office within a lager building, Newton describes a building where the chimney is blown down forcing the roof to fall in to his office.
I rose early and went to the watch-house till eight o’clock. At ten a most violent storm came on, doing considerable damage while it lasted. In the afternoon when I returned to the watch-house I found the roof beaten in by the fall of the chimney, and the chair in which I usually sit broken to pieces. Had the storm happened two hours sooner, or at many other times, I should have been crushed in a place where I should have thought myself in safety.
Although drawn before Newton’s tenure a tide surveyor, Lang’s plan in 1750 shows previous damage and subsequent repairs to the buildings (the staggered sandstone wall repair). Considering its expremely vulnerabale position on the shore, this might have been the result of a similar accident from a bad storm or excessive winds.
To prove without question that Newton’s office was at the Old Custom House is the entry from the Liverpool Memorandum Book for 1753 (published in 1752). James Croxton (Newton’s predecessor) and Francis Stewart are the Tide Surveyor at this time and the office is listed as Tide Surveyor’s Watch-House, bottom of Water-Street.
In the same publication of 1753, Newton is recorded as the Captain of a slave-ship called the African sailing to the Windward and Gold Coast. The owner is unsurprisingly J. Manesty & Co.
Newton uses the Watch House to write
Newton mentions the Watch house several times in his journals, not so much as a place of work but as an opportunity to contemplate his life and write. At this time he had started sermons in Liverpool and had started to formulate plans to establish a religious society in the town.
1755John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth : an autobiography and narrative., Josiah Bull, 1868
In the course of this year we find it had been Mr. Newton’s habit generally to rise at five o’clock, and to engage for two or three hours in devotional exercises. Often, too, when compelled to be early and late at the watch-house, he spent much time in reading and meditation.
Newton’s journals give us a picture of the man at a turning point in his life. His office was located right on the corner of Water Street which at this time was on the shore of the Mersey. Looking out of his window at high tide, Newton would have seen the waves crashing within yards of the old stone walls. Walls which had been ravaged by tides and gales since the mid 17th century at least. It is not hard to imagine that a man in his situation, with little work and an inspiring seafront view may turn his mind to more spiritual thoughts.
It appears then that much of the work for Newton’s 1756 publication ‘Some Thoughts on the Advantages and Expediency of Religious Associations’ was written in the Watch House as well as his study in his house. It was printed by John Sadler of Harrington Street (inventor of transfer printing on pottery).
Tuesday 30 September 1755
Rose at 4, went to the Watch House, engaged in prayer, reading, etc, till past 6, then took a walk to plan and to pray over a thought which has been several times in my mind but particularly today, to endeavour to set on foot a religious society in this place.
Wednesday 1st October 1755
Went early to the Watch House, had no interruption in my morning exercises; walked out, and thought farther of a plan for a society and began to commit it to writing.
Monday 16 February 1756
from near ten till past eleven at the Watch House, employed in writing about the plan of a society.
One of Thomas Galley’s boats?
Newton mentions a boat when describing his job as the Tide Surveyor:
I have a good office, with fire and candle, fifty or sixty people under my direction, with a hand-some six-oared boat and coxswain to row me about in form.
There is a strong possibility that this built by the shipwright Thomas Galley who lived next to the Watch House when Newton was there (See Part One). Two decades later there is a record that shows Galley supplied it’s replacement:
29 April 1772
please to receive an incident bill of Thomas Galley’s, boat-builder, for building a new boat for the Tide-Surveyors at this port, amounting to £33 15s. o d., which boat was built in pursuance of your commands on the 3rd December last for the payment of which bill we crave your order and beg etc etc.
Newton leaves Liverpool
In 1764 Newton was ordained as an Anglican priest, he left Liverpool and became curate of the parish church of St Peter & St Paul in Olney. In the same year he published his autobiography ‘An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton‘. As this was a series of letters between Newton and Thomas Haweis and including his time in Liverpool. a considerable part of this writing would have been done at the Watch House as well as his home study in Liverpool. Not surprisingly for the period (43 years before the abolition of slavery) the early editions like the copy on the link above (from 1775) show it was anonymous, the owner has added Newton’s name to the book’s title page, as is the case with this copy shown below from 1786. Later copies have his name included in the title:
Newton stayed in Olney until 1779 and published several books, probably the most famous being the 1779 joint-production with William Cowper called the ‘Olney Hymns’. This comprised of 348 hymns including Amazing Grace that was originally titled ‘Faith’s Review and Expectations’.
In 1779 Newton moved from Olney and became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in London.
In this period became an ally of the politician and leader of the movement to abolish the Slave trade, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce underwent an evangelical conversion and was contemplating leaving politics but Newton and William Pitt convinced him to stay.
In 1788 Newton published his Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade which was sent to every M.P. and required a second edition.
Newton’s wife Mary died in 1790 and Newton on 21st December 1807. He lived to witness Britain’s abolition of the African slave trade as the Slave Trade Act 1807 had been passed in March of the same year. Newton ‘rejoiced to hear the wonderful news’.
The Slave Trade Act only stopped the practice of initiating new Slave trading. Enslaved people that were already transported and sold were not freed. It was not until 1833 that an act was finally passed which gave freedom to all British Empire slaves. To facilitate this the British government paid out £20 million in compensation – not to the enslaved but to the slave owners, the loan for this staggering sum of money, the equivalent of £300bn in today’s money, was only paid back in 2015!
Newton was buried beside his wife in St. Mary Woolnoth in London but in 1893 both were reinterred at the Church of St Peter and Paul in Olney.
West Africa House, the site of John Newton’s workplace
Since the early 20th century the site of the Watch House has been West Africa House, built for the Bank of British West Africa (previously in Castle Street). An ironic (but coincidental) name as West Africa was not only the location of Newton’s slaving voyages but also that of his own ‘enslavement’.
Where did John Newton’s patron, Joseph Manesty live?
Manesty Lane was named after Joseph Manesty and connects School Lane to Hanover Street, running parallel to Paradise Street. Manesty owned property on the north side on College Lane from 1749 to 1753, when the lease renewed to John Ashton; and also at the bottom by Hanover Street from 1748 to 1766, when the lease renewed to John Brown.
Manesty had previously lived in King Street, according to the baptism records of his sons, Joseph in 1746 and Edward in 1747. By the time of his son William’s baptism in 1750 he is listed living in Hanover Street. Manesty’s house is shown below (left) with its main entrance door on the side – facing Hanover Street.
When John Newton received his orders from Manesty for the command of his slave ships: the Brownlow 1748 (as first mate), Duke of Argyle 1750 (captain), and African 1752 and 1753 (captain), it’s perhaps not improbable that some were discussed or even received from here. Before Newton’s wife joined him in Liverpool he wrote that he was now part of Manesty’s family and that she would be welcomed by them when she arrived. It is possible therefore that the Newtons also lived here while seeking their own permanent home.
Slave shackles for sale in a Liverpool Coffee House
In 1756 Manesty paid for an advertisement to be placed in the very first edition of the newspaper Williamson’s Advertiser. This is perhaps the most shocking piece of evidence of Liverpool merchants involvement in the Slave trade as it shows all the instruments needed to fit out a Slave ship or for sugar/rum production on a plantation. The goods were offered openly for sale on Dale Street. Some items offered are cooking utensils like a corn mill, pumps, funnels, barrel making equipment and a furnace. Also for sale are shackles, neck chains, handcuffs and ‘long chains for slaves’. It also shows iron bars used to trade for enslaved people in Africa. In case of insurrection, gunpowder, cutlasses and flints are included. The ‘brass mortar’ was a cannon and was likely to have actually been made of bronze.
The sale was held at the Merchants’ Coffee House, this been reported in the past as being at the Old Churchyard but in 1756 this would have been an earlier establishment of the same name in Dale Street. Manesty’s name can be seen written at the bottom of the advertisement, this would have been added by the newspaper on their file copy as a record of who paid for it.
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who later visited Liverpool and Bristol to gather evidence of the trade, reported the sale of goods like this in shops and coffee houses.
Manesty slave plantation owner?
In 1766 Manesty wrote to Sir John Hussey Delaval, Baronet advising him on how to manage a slave plantation. These very detailed instructions may indicate that Manesty himself had owned a plantation himself. Manesty had offered Newton a position on a Slave plantation in 1742 which provides further evidence. Manesty’s advice included:
lists of necessary tools and equipment, appropriate furnishings for the ‘Masters House’ and the number of people required, including ‘3 white servants … 10 Negro Men … 10 negro women’https://mshanks.com/2021/02/23/property-legacy-heritage-and-a-case-for-connoisseurship/
Was Great Newton Street really named after John Newton?
It is a popular belief that Great Newton Street was named after John Newton. This has appeared in many publications for decades (at least since the 1980s but not much earlier) and an old street sign used to be on display at the International Slavery museum.
Many streets in Liverpool where named after the landowners and often these were Slave merchants. But like another old exhibit at the the International Slavery Museum, Penny Lane, there is no evidence whatsoever that Great Newton Street was named after him. Both the authors of this blog were part of a team that researched the supposed links to Newton and Penny. After reviewing our evidence, both these street signs have since been removed from the exhibition at the museum.
The street was laid out before Newton died in 1807 as it is not on Gore’s plan of the town in 1796 but appears on Horwood’s plan of 1803. It therefore existed between 4 and 10 nine years before the abolition of slavery that was passed in the same year of Newton’s death.
Other streets with the ‘Great’ prefix in Liverpool include Great George (the King), Great Charlotte (the Queen), Great Nelson (the naval hero), Great Homer (the poet), Great Orford (ancestral home of the Blackburne family) and Great Howard (John Howard of town Goal fame).
Great Newton Street is far more likely to have been named in honour of someone whose fame was more comparable to its companions. That is surely the truly great Sir Isaac Newton?
A search of the newspaper archives of the words ‘Great ‘Newton’ in the period covering the late 18th to the early 19th centuries will return every result with Isaac and not John. There was also a street in Manchester of the same name that appears in the newspapers of the period. Manchester’s street was slightly earlier than Liverpool but this may have been named after an occupant of the same surname.
Between the years 1800 and 1829 there is not a single entry in the Liverpool newspapers held at the British Newspaper Archive for John Newton or Olney Hymns.
His later abolitionist stance would have made him an unpopular choice for a street name in pro-slavery Liverpool. Liverpool merchants were campaigning to maintain the Slave Trade. In 1793, just before the street was likely laid out, The Corporation presented James Penny with a silver epergne for speaking in favour of the slave trade to a parliamentary committee. Liverpool did have people who spoke out about the Slave trade including William Roscoe but they were a minority in the town.
As it was extremely unlikely that Liverpool would honour a man for his abolitionist stance before the Slave Trade Act was passed perhaps it was for his most famous hymn?
Amazing Grace (originally called Faith’s Review and Expectations) was far less known in the late 1700s and only put to music in 1835. Articles about Newton that appeared in Liverpool newspapers, up to before the song was in in the music charts in the early 1970s, don’t even mention it. The hymn was far more popular in the United States and only achieved its popularity in England in the 20th Century.
The hymn wasn’t particularly popular in England, according to Deborah Carlton Loftis, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. She says it became well-known in the United States during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s when thousands of people — white and black — would gather for outdoor revival meetings.
Songs were important to these meetings — although not always exactly as they were written. Revival leaders frequently switched out melodies and borrowed verses from other hymns. “There were choruses and refrains that people could learn quickly,” Loftis says.https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-04-30/complicated-story-behind-famous-hymn-amazing-grace
Reverend Matthew J. Watts, the pastor of the Grace Bible Church in Charleston, West Virginia, says that for enslaved people, a song like “Amazing Grace” would have been particularly meaningful.
The hymn wasn’t particularly popular in England, according to Deborah Carlton Loftis, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. But she says in the United States, it became well-known during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s when thousands of people — white and black — would gather for outdoor revival meetings…
…Reverend Matthew J. Watts, the pastor of the Grace Bible Church in Charleston, West Virginia, says that for slaves, a song like “Amazing Grace” would have been particularly meaningful.
“‘Amazing Grace’ would have spoke to their desire for an experience of freedom, of one day seeing God face-to-face, of one day being with him for all of eternity, and no longer subjected to the type of cruel treatment they experienced during slavery,” he says.American Icons
It appears that the first mention of Amazing Grace and Newton in BNA in Liverpool newspapers was as late as 1972, when a version by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards reached number 1 in the UK music charts. Another newspaper article calls it ‘Judy Collin’s song’ who had recorded it in 1970.
Liverpool street names connected to the Slave trade
The plaque to Newton in Edmund Street and his supposed connection to Great Newton Street is a good example of how Britain is reassessing the memory of African Slavery in Britain. Central to this debate are statues and street names that memorialize merchants who profited from from the trade.
Like all towns across Britain who were involved with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Liverpool has many streets with names connected with it. It also has statues and memorials to merchants who were active in the trade.
These statues were not erected to honour their links to Slavery, instead many of these merchants went on use their wealth (gained from the Slave trade) to create institutions, build schools and churches or in the case of Newton becoming an Anglican cleric with a back story that has inspired people for two centuries. Unfortunately, like the Newton plaque in Liverpool, they very rarely mention the shameful way they made their money.
The streets were not named to commemorate the merchants, instead they recorded who owned the land the houses were built on. Other streets have names connected to the trade itself, named after locations such as Jamaica Street and Goree.
The subject of street names made international headlines in 2020. The killing of George Floyd by police in the United States created worldwide fury into the mistreatment, inequality and under representation of Black people. At the heart of the ensuing protests was the Black Lives Matter movement that had been established years before. This also ignited a huge interest in the history of colonialism and race and the physical legacy left by statues and monuments to historical figures connected to slavery.
It is interesting to note that at protests and even the funeral of George Floyd ‘Amazing Grace’ of all hymns was sang – written by a white man responsible for the capture, torture and death of many Black people.
These demonstrations across the world included the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Liverpool too became the focus on a national debate when there was renewed calls (see below) to rename streets that were ‘named after’ Slave merchants. As one of these street was Penny Lane made famous by the 1966 song by The Beatles this made international news. With help from other Liverpool historian the authors proved the Slavery link to Penny Lane to be false.
Liverpool has done more than most cities in recognising these links with the pioneering work of Eric Lynch and Laurence Westgaph who have ran walking tours of the city for decades. Liverpool has had a slavery exhibition since the 1990s and the International Slavery Museum since 2007 but we can still do more of course.
Both Eric and Laurence believe that rather than removing the monuments or renaming the signs, they should be kept and instead used to educate people. The debate about street names in Liverpool goes back to before 2006 when the council debated a motion to rename all streets in Liverpool with a link to Slavery, this is when the Penny Lane myth first appeared and because of it the scheme was scrapped. Laurence has campaigned for years for the Council to mark the history of these streets and monuments, not to remove or rename but instead to erect information plaques. This idea was passed before the death of George Floyd and the interest that followed. In August 2021 the locations of the first 20 plaques was announced. The scheme is to be named the ‘Eric Lynch Slavery Memorial Plaques’. Thankfully Great Newton Street is not on the list.
West Africa House would be an ideal candidate for a new plaque to remember John Newton, this time with a more honest and complete account of the man’s life.
Laurence Westgaph has done an amazing job of organising a fund-raiser to erect a permanent memorial to the Liverpool Enslaved, you can donate here. You can also book a place on one of his regular walking tours of Liverpool.
Update August 2021. Corrections to the text.
Since this was originally posted, further in-depth research was carried out and this was greatly assisted by Amanda Molcher at the Cowper and Newton Museum. This has led to the discovery that several myths concerning Newton’s early life (prior to coming to Liverpool) had found their way into biographies of him. Following this several names have been corrected, to assist in anyone researching Newton we have listed these below,
This post originally stated that the merchant Newton met on the ship after transferring from the Harwich (and was indentured to) was Amos Clow. This is the name given in numerous biographies of Newton. Bernard Martin and Mark Spurrell, the editors of Newton’s The Journal of a Slave trader (1962) also name this man as Clow, but by surname only.
In his journal covering the 1750s, Newton frequently mentions a land-based slave trader named Clow who worked in partnership with the African woman who Newton called P.I. This led some historians to assume he was the same man who mistreated Newton when he first arrived in Africa. Further research shows that this is very unlikely. Steve Turner in his 2002 book ‘Amazing Grace’ points out that it was almost certainly another man. Newton wrote that when he returned to Africa only one of the two people who mistreated him was still alive. As this surviving partner was P.I. it rules out Clow as the trader Newton was first indentured to.
Although Clow’s Christian name is often stated in histories as Amos, this is also false. Newton only ever mentions Clow by his surname. The name Amos probably dates only to 1961 in the novel ‘Servant of slaves’ by Grace Irwin. This book is a highly romanticised version of Newton’s life and Irwin admits in the preface that some names were invented to help tell the story. Research shows the man’s name was actually Patrick Clow, a known merchant in Sierra Leone. Patrick probably took over after the death of P.I.’s original partner. Clow returned to Britain from Sierra Leone in the late 1750s and took lodgings in the Sword Blade Coffee House on London’s Birchin Lane, he died there in 1763. His Will mentions his business affairs in Africa. One beneficiary was his brother James Clow and his wife Jean (Baxter), James was professor of philosophy at Glasgow.
‘I bequeath onto my friend John Auld Esq of Bauno (Banana) Island in Africa the sum of two hundred pounds to be paid or retained by him out of my effects in Africa. And to get in and count the debts and effects which may be owing or belonging to me there – as a small token of my duty and affection for my aged father tho’ his circumstances do not require it I do hereby direct my Brother James to whom I have devised and bequeathed the residue of my Estate Real and personal to pay thereout to my said father during the term of his natural life a dear annuity or yearly sum of twenty five pounds…”From the Will of Patrick Clow
Another correction has been made to the name of the ship that rescued Newton from Africa in 1747. Biographies often name this as the Pegasus but research of original documents by Steve Turner shows that it was more likely to have been another ship called the Levant (although not proven). The Pegasus (and it’s captain Guy James Penrose) appear to be other inventions by Irwin.
The fictional names created by Grace Irwin appear to have found their way into biographies in the 21st century. For example, the errors shown above appear in Jonathan Aitken’s 2007 book John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. The Wikipedia entry for Newton also repeats these errors, possibly because it used Aitken as it’s primary source.
For more information about Newton’s life and in particular his religious and abolitionist work the following sites are highly recommended:-
The John Newton Project
Goree, Liverpool. Part 3
A history of the Goree Piazzas
This post is part of the research for a forthcoming book by the authors.
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