Frederick Douglass in Manchester

Rekindling abolitionism, challenging complacency

by William Douch

“However much, however deeply, the people of this town are interested themselves in this subject, it was evident to him that the anti-slavery feeling had greatly degenerated.” 

Manchester Guardian, 20 January, 1847. 

Following decades of campaigning in the UK and resistance, revolts, and rebellion in the Caribbean, slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1838. The anti-slavery effort that had supported emancipation and, the earlier abolition of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade in 1807, became far less active following this major victory. 

Manchester played an important role in these campaigns, hosting public meetings and activist groups and supporting large anti-slavery petitions from its citizens. It was globally renowned as the world’s first industrial city, the centre of British textile manufacturing. While British slavery had ended, the vast majority of the cotton upon which Manchester’s wealth was based was still produced through the exploitation and enslavement of people across the Americas, particularly in the United States and Brazil.

Anti-slavery campaigns in the United States had gathered momentum through the 1830s and 1840s, but constantly faced a fierce and violent backlash from the enslavers and their supporters. New tactics and organising were needed, so US abolitionist leaders decided to turn some of their attention to Britain.

They hoped to re-energise British anti-slavery networks to find new supporters and donors but also to increase financial and political pressure on southern slaveowners by turning their most important market, British cotton manufacturers and textile consumers, against slave-grown produce.

Leading the drive to re-light the fire of activism in the UK was Frederick Douglass. A charismatic and powerful orator, Douglass was one of the most famous public figures of the age following the international popularity of his bestselling 1845 autobiography which eloquently detailed his experiences of enslavement and subsequent escape to freedom. On-and-off Manchester would be his base for several months during his 1846-7 UK activist tour.

Frederick Douglass, about 1879.
Wikimedia Commons.

Who was Frederick Douglass? 

Frederick Douglass was born into enslavement on a Maryland plantation in 1817. He never knew his father, but he speculated that it was his mother’s owner. He was separated from his mother at a young age and raised by his grandmother.  

“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant⁠—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Full text here

After a brief period at Wye House plantation, he was sent to Baltimore to serve his owner’s brother, whose wife illegally taught him the basics of reading and writing. 

Douglass escaped from his enslaver and worked as a fugitive alongside both black and white workers in Baltimore’s shipyards but, in 1833, he was captured and transported back to the plantation of his birth.  

In 1838, Douglass escaped once again, this time to New York City. 

“I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free state. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced.” 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Full text here

Douglass became involved in abolitionist activism, becoming a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, and publishing his autobiographical Narrative in 1845.

1845 portrait of Douglass printed at the beginning of his Narrative. Full text here.

“I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. […] I was afraid to speak to anyone for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.” 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Full text here

The huge success and circulation of his book increased the possibility that Douglass’s former owner would learn of his whereabouts and have him kidnapped back into slavery. His voyage to Britain was motivated both by the constant danger he was living with as well a desire to build networks of abolitionist support and financing in the British Isles. 

Douglass in Manchester 

Douglass spoke publicly on at least eighteen separate occasions in a variety of venues in Manchester and the surrounding area from July 1846 until his return to America in April 1847. 

A letter in Douglass’s own hand from 11 March, 1847, addressed from 22 St. Ann’s Square. Full text here.

We know from letters dated from the 3rd and 22nd of December in 1846, that he stayed at 22 St. Ann’s Square during the month of December, where he also stayed in March 1847, if not on his other visits to the city. This accommodation is believed to have been organised by Alexander Morris, a linen draper and supporter of Douglass. 

Frederick Douglass’ itinerary in Lancashire:

2 July 1946- Manchester Town Hall 

3 July 1946- Manchester 

12 October 1846- Free Trade Hall, Peter Street 

14 October 1846- Public Hall, Rochdale 

15 October 1846- Public Hall, Rochdale 

10 November 1846- Public Hall, Rochdale 

11 November 1846- Public Hall, morning, Rochdale 

11 November 1846- Public Hall, evening, Rochdale 

13 November 1846- Stockport 

17 November 1846- Warrington 

23 November 1846- Bacup 

25 November 1846- Oldham 

1 December 1846- Corn Exchange, Manchester 

4 December 1846- Corn Exchange, Manchester 

10 December 1846- Ashton-Under-Lyne 

11 December 1846- Ashton-Under-Lyne 

22 December 1846- Manchester 

18 January 1847- Corn Exchange, Manchester 

19 January 1847- Baptist Chapel, Grosvenor Street, Manchester 

9 March 1847 – Mechanics Institutions Lecture Hall, Manchester 

Find out more about Douglass’s trip to the UK on the Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland website

If any images sum up the deep intertwining of Manchester’s history with slavery, few can come more apt than the foremost African American abolitionist campaigner of the age living in a house sandwiched between the Cotton Exchange (now replaced with the Royal Exchange) and Heywood’s Bank (now RBS). The Cotton Exchange was where Manchester’s manufactured textiles, made from slave-grown cotton, were sold while Heywood’s, financed by profits from the slave trade, was Manchester’s first bank and a key institution in the city’s economic development. 

tHE COTTON EXCHANGE, NEAR TO WHERE FREDERICK DOUGLASS STAYED.

Science Museum Group Collection.
22 St. Ann’s Square, where Douglass stayed, today.

From newspaper reports of Douglass’ speeches, we can paint a picture of his general reception and audience in Manchester. For example, we know that there was a strong Quaker presence at the events Douglass attended, as the members of the Society of Friends attended both as speakers and as supporters.  

Douglass frequently spoke alongside leading white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, but the impact of his electrifying presence was essential to the campaign. He was not only a compelling speaker but when he demanded action from his British audience he spoke powerfully from his own experiences of enslavement. 

Newspaper report from the Manchester Times reporting on the meeting in the Free Trade Hall on Monday October 12, 1846, at which Frederick Douglass spoke.
British Newspaper Archive.

Douglass’s reception and impact was influenced by the huge success of his autobiography among both anti-slavery circles and wider society which granted him celebrity status. The chance to see him in person was a huge draw at a time when political meetings were a major source of spectacle and entertainment. 

“Speech! Speech! The live, calm, grave, pointed, warm, sweet, melodious, and powerful human voice is [the] chosen instrumentality.” 

Frederick Douglass, “Letter from the Editor”, Rochester North Star, 1849. 

Honed by his years of experience as a lecturer and preacher, Douglass gained a reputation as one of the foremost public speakers of the day, using call and response techniques to engage and involve the audience in his speeches. He also employed deft stage management skills, such as by dimming the room and focusing the light on himself to draw the audience in.  

Abolitionist William Logan wrote to William Lloyd Garrison from Rochdale explaining the “powerful impression” that readings from Douglass’s Narrative had on an audience. Full text here.

Challenging Mancunian complacency 

“All that machinery which agitated the country ten years ago was thrown aside, and the spirit which animated that organisation seemed to have died away, or at least to have fallen asleep, so that now very little testimony was maintained in this town, and in other towns in England, on the subject of slavery.” 

Manchester Guardian, 20 January, 1847. 

Douglass’s mission for the visit was to re-energise the whole movement and he did this through the eloquent outlining of his own experiences and issuing head-on and uncomfortable challenges to Mancunians. 

For example, at Grosvenor Street Baptist Chapel on 18th January, 1847, Douglass told the audience how disappointed he was that the anti-slavery movement in Manchester had become a shadow of its former self, how it had been “somewhat remarkable for presenting empty benches for the advocates of emancipation to speak to”. 

After rebuking the crowds for their complacency he would then skilfully push them to new efforts with a message of hope and inspiration: 

“He knew that the heart of old England was sound on this subject, and that when it saw, as it might see, how much it could do for the destruction of American slavery, that the spirit which seemed now to sleep would re-awake and go to the contest with all that vigour with which it met West Indian slavery.” 

Manchester Guardian, 20 January, 1847. This speech (as with most) was met with large applause. 

He pulled no punches when he encountered disagreement. In one of his first Manchester speeches, at the Free Trade Hall on 12 October 1846, Douglass spoke of his disappointment that members of the Evangelical Alliance in Manchester refused to cut ties with American churches that included enslavers as members, pushing a motion to condemn the Alliance. 

Illustration of the Manchester Free Trade Hall, about 1860.
Science Museum Group Collection.

When Archibald Prentice, a leading Mancunian progressive campaigner, involved with the Manchester Guardian and owner of the Manchester Gazette, argued for a watered-down motion, Douglass refused to accommodate him, drawing on his personal experiences to issue a withering critique: 

“When he left America for this country, he expected to find here but one opinion about slave-holding […] He found that there were men calling themselves evangelical Christians, who still believed it was their duty to throw the garb of Christianity about the slave-holders of America […] He had felt the lash; he had four sisters and a brother now in slavery, and the man who claimed to own his body was not less than a class leader, a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America […] With these men the Evangelical Alliance struck hands” (followed by shouts of “Shame!” from the audience). 

Manchester Guardian, 14 October, 1846. 

An African American man in Victorian Manchester 

While his reception among supporters was enthusiastic, it is hard to tell whether this translated to popularity amongst the wider population in Manchester and what his specific experience as an African American man in nineteenth century Lancashire would have been. 

Douglass is listed as attending major political meetings alongside the city’s leading intellectual and public figures and we have not uncovered records of Douglass relating encounters with racism or discrimination whilst in Manchester. We also know that a decade later the city provided a home to a number of prominent Black abolitionists, including Henry Box Brown and James Watkins.  

Victorian Britain, though, was a society underpinned by imperialism, colonialism, and enslavement, with broad pervasion of racist ideas and attitudes. One of the era’s most popular entertainment forms was minstrelsy, with Manchester no exception to most other UK cities with regular performances which actively portrayed people of African origin through usage of blackface and crudely exaggerated dancing, singing, and dialect.  

Newspaper advertisement from The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 21 November, 1846.
British Newspaper Archive.

Shortly before Douglass’s visit, one popular act, the Virginia Minstrels, performed at the Manchester Athenaeum (now part of Manchester Art Gallery) while another group known as the Ethiopian Serenaders performed for six consecutive nights from 24th-29th November on the very stage at the Free Trade Hall from which Douglass spoke so eloquently and powerfully against the violence and injustice of racial slavery mere weeks before.  

“I have travelled in this country nineteen months, and have always enjoyed equal rights and privileges with other passengers, and it was not until I turned my face towards America that I met with anything like proscription on account of my colour.” 

Douglass did relate one particular instance of racist discrimination which he experienced at the very end of his trip. He booked a return ticket to America by ship a month ahead of his voyage, when he was assured his ticket would grant him the full privilege that came with it. However, upon the day of his departure, Douglass was informed that he would only be allowed to board the Cambria on the condition that he eat his meals alone, didn’t mix with the saloon company and to give up the bed that he had paid for, with no refund offered. 

There were numerous public complaints across Britain at Douglass’ treatment. The outrage was so extreme that Samuel Cunard, the owner of the shipping line made a public apology to Douglass. 

There are multiple reasons why he did not relate any negative experiences he may have encountered due to British racial attitudes. The lack of legal segregation was a difference between the U.S. and the U.K. remarked upon favourably by many African American visitors. Maintaining a positive impression of British attitudes as a mirror to American legal and cultural racism made for an even more emotive and powerful form of attack on American society. 

An 1840s portrait of Frederick Douglass.
Wikimedia Commons.

Legacies 

Douglass and his collaborators considered the British tour a success and it proved a pivotal moment in his life when two abolitionist friends, Ellen and Anna Richardson of Newcastle, purchased his freedom from slavery, allowing him to return to America as a legally free man. 

While this was criticised by some abolitionists as supporting the institution of slavery, Douglass accepted their offer, saying that “it was not to compensate the slave-holder, but to release me from his power; not to establish my natural right to freedom, but to release me from all legal liabilities to slavery.”

Douglass helped re-ignite support in Manchester for enslaved people’s struggle for emancipation and paved the way for two decades of renewed abolitionist campaigns in the UK, laying foundations for other African American campaigners to lecture and reside in the city. He returned to Britain in 1859-60, where he once again toured the country and visited Manchester, giving anti-slavery speeches. 

The work of Douglass and the African American campaigners who followed him in galvanising and inspiring the city’s abolitionists proved essential during the United States Civil War when the immense hardships of the Lancashire Cotton Famine threatened to undermine the city’s solidarity against slavery. The abolitionist sentiment that Douglass had described as dormant 15 years prior had awoken once again.

Find out more 

Online

Revealing Histories, What evidence is there of a Black presence in Britain and north west England?  

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 

Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland, African American Transatlantic Abolitionism.  

Books

Hannah-Rose Murray and John R. McKivigan, Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland, 1845-95, 2021. 

Alan Rice & Martin Crawford (eds.), Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform, 1999.

Alan Rice, “Transatlantic Portrayals of Frederick Douglass and his Liberating Sojourn in Music and Visual Arts 1845-2015” in Celeste-Marie Bernier & Bill E. Lawson (eds.), Picturing Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass 1818-2018 (2017).

This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.