A letter about a letter about a letter..(Object 42)

Wilberforce House pamphlet

“Wilberforce House, Hull: Its history and collections”

This 1946 brochure from the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull (“price fourpence”) was sent to Elsie Fry in May 1948 by J.B. Fay, director of the Municipal Museums of the City and County of Kingston upon Hull, along with this letter, which I found inserted inside the brochure:

City and County of Kingston upon Hull, Municipal Museums
31st May 1948

Dear Madam,
I am very pleased indeed to receive the interesting slave letter, which I shall have pleasure in adding to our collection at Wilberforce House. I will report the gift to my Committee at its next meeting.

Yours faithfully
J.B. Fay
Director”

More light is shed on this “slave letter” by a further letter to Elsie, found  folded inside the first, and dated 1 month later, on 30th June 1948:

“Dear Madam,
The Director of Museums reported to the last meeting of the Museums, Art Gallery and Records Sub-Committee of my Corporation that you had presented to the Museums an MSS. Letter from slave in Kingston, Jamaica to her master in England asking to be transferred on account of ill treatment, 12th April, 1793, and I was desired by the Sub-Committee to tender to you their best thanks for your kind gift.
Yours faithfully,
E.H. Bullock, 
Town Clerk [Kingston upon Hull].”

Letters found inside the brochure

The letter from Mr Fay, above, seems to dispute my mother’s version of this story, with which I had grown up. She always maintained that the famous “slave letter” was written by a freed slave to an ancestor of Elsie’s, a slave owner, imploring him release his slaves, which he subsequently did. I am slightly disappointed to find that Mum’s version of the story seems to differ from the real thing. The story must have changed over the years of telling; after all, freed slaves make a far better story than ill-treated ones. It raises intriguing questions about the woman herself though – an educated, literate slave with the courage to write to her master requesting better treatment. I wonder what happened to her; whether she got her transfer – or perhaps the man, on receiving the letter,  was moved to release her, hence the legend? I may have to make some further enquiries!

Further reference to the mysterious “slave letter” can be found in another letter written to Elsie Fry in 1937, which featured in my previous post. The unknown writer has been trying to get some of Elsie’s old documents valued by a “Mr Hollis”, and writes:

“Oddly enough he did not know there was to be any special centenary celebration of slavery freedom but he says there is a Wilberforce museum in Hull & if you write to the curator there he would tell you all about it  – if there is to be one – & he would probably love to see your letter with which Mr H was charmed.”

Presumably, Elsie took Mr Hollis’ advice and sent the letter to the Wilberforce museum, where I presume – and hope – it is kept to this day.

All of these documents, though fascinating, also serve as a chilling reminder that my distant relatives, the Frys, were slave owners generations before they became abolitionists and liberals, and made their money from the sugar trade. This may explain the “estate in Tenerife” owned by Elsie’s father’s family.

Inside the brochure

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About Hoarder of Babylon

A chartered librarian and curator of my family archives.
This entry was posted in 18th century, 1930-1949, Fry family, Letters, cards and documents. Bookmark the permalink.

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