The Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands – Stories of Great Suffering Upon which our Privileged Lives Are Founded

The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.

Museum of London Docklands
Museum of London Docklands

And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.transatlantic-slave-trade

Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.

So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.

In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:

Babylon was a great city,

Her merchandise was of  gold and silver,

of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,

of purple, silk and scarlet,

All manner vessels of ivory,

All manner vessels of most precious wood,

of brass, iron and marble,

Cinnamon, odours and ointments,

Of frankincense, wine and oil,

Fine flour, wheat and beasts,

Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves

And the souls of men.

Just so during any economy which relies upon the labour of enslaved people. And I must admit the words of that aria flashed into my mind while I was walking round the Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.

Enslaved Africans - transatlantic-slave-trade
Enslaved Africans – transatlantic-slave-trade

If you visit this gallery, you’ll  find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to  identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.

If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Skillman & Sons: The Tool Shop Opposite the Woolwich Ferry – and Traditional Britain Reborn

The London postal service once had to deliver a letter from India addressed as follows:

“The tool shop
opposite the Woolwich Ferry
London”

The original Skillman's of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group
The original Skillman’s of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group

It arrived safely at its destination: A.D. Skillman & Sons, 108 Woolwich High Street, London SE18.
Skillman and Sons of Woolwich (founded by my grandfather Alfred Daniel in 1900) was a byword throughout south east England for generations. A sign used to hang up outside the shop:

“If you want it, we’ve got it. If we haven’t got it, you don’t need it.”

Every member of our family worked there over the years; I used to do holiday jobs selling packets of loose nails from the pigeonholes at the front, or stocktaking at the back, or peeling potatoes for my aunt in the flat upstairs or collecting stamps for her from the Co-Op in Hare Street, Woolwich.

Now of course Woolwich is seeing regeneration, not least through the beautiful Royal Arsenal Thames Riverside, together with the Greenwich Heritage Centre and Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum very close by, and the wonderful Thames Barrier and Visitor Centre. All this regeneration is fuelled by the extension of the DLR from Docklands to Woolwich.

My grandfather Alfred Daniel started the business in 1900 further up Woolwich High Street and later moved it to number 108. My father Ken took over after the war. He was later succeeded by my brother Chris until the business closed in 2002.

But now Skillman and Sons has re-emerged. Not in Woolwich, but in Kensington.

That traditional tool-merchants business now has a new life, through the enterprise and imagination of another hardware store owner, Manish Vara, who is hoping to revitalise the Good Old Days of English service and quality – popularised of course through the current wave of nostalgia and euphoria generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics. A different manifestation of Skillman’s, more hardware than tool-merchant, has emerged. My brother Chris Skillman, MD of Skillman’s of Woolwich, wishes Manish well.

The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington
The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington

Perhaps some time the story of the shop opposite the Woolwich Ferry, and its 102 years of history, may weave its way into my fiction. The River Thames has strong resonance for me – not least when I took the ferry across from Woolwich at the age of twelve or thereabouts, supposedly on a round trip. But I got confused, and disembarked in North Woolwich, across the river, and wandered around lost for about an hour though to me it seemed an eternity!

If you have an interest in the history of south London, and you’d like to know more, I have published a full article about Skillman & Sons in Family History Magazine, which is re-published on my official website under the heading “My family background.” Do click here to read the article.

Are there any traditional shops or longstanding family businesses in your town or area which are part of the landscape of your life? Has the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the tide of patriotism attendant on London 2012 opened up traditional Britain to you again? Please consider leaving a comment!