Heritage: sugar, slavery and Southampton – women’s stories

Heritage: sugar, slavery and Southampton – women’s stories

by Claire Ballinger, Rose Wiles and Pauline Bisson.

The Black Lives Matter movement, triggered by the death of George Floyd in the US, created an impetus to better understand black experiences, both currently and historically.  

In late 2021, we joined a group of volunteers to explore links between artifacts in Southampton’s museums and galleries, the city and slavery.  The project, headed by Dr Maria Newbery, Curator of Maritime and Local Collections for Southampton City Council, was funded by the Arts Council England.  Southampton was not a slave trading port, unlike Bristol or Liverpool.  However, our growing awareness of Britain’s role in slavery suggested that Southampton and its population still benefitted from the Transatlantic slave trade. As feminists, we were particularly interested in exploring evidence about the experiences of women, who ‘only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history’ (Hughes, 2016).

The small exhibition resulting from the work of all the volunteers has just opened in the Southampton Stories gallery at SeaCity Museum.  It is called ‘Sugar, Politics and Money’.  Below, we share the stories of three women who are included in the exhibition and also describe an historical activity supported by Southampton women to promote the end of slavery in the US, after its abolition in Britain in 1807.



Marie Anne was born in 1734 to a French couple, Nicolas and Anne Hebert, in Spitalfields, London.  Nicolas and Anne were French Huguenots, as were the Brissaults.  With the risk of intense persecution and torture in France, the Huguenots are recognised by many as being the first refugees in Britain.


Marie married John Brissault, whose father ran one of the many sugar houses in London, and moved to Southampton with John when he sought to establish the first sugar house in Southampton in the mid-18th century.  There is documented evidence that John built the Southampton sugar house, and that he held up to 46 enslaved people in Jamaica, producing coffee and ginger. However, as was common in the 18th century, the sugar house and the slaves were recognised only as the property of John.


The Southampton sugar house was built on the site of the city’s old friary, to the east of the High Street, within easy reach of the Quay (from where the unrefined molasses would have been purchased) and clean water.  Twentieth century excavations suggest that it was seven storeys tall, and archaeologists found evidence of boiling pans, ash pits, stoves, stores, sugar moulds (known as ‘cones’) and drip pots within the ruins  Detailed information about the Southampton sugar house can be found at:   http://www.mawer.clara.net/loc-south.html.

Sugar mould and drip pot from John Brissault’s Sugar House near Southampton High Street, 1770s, in Exhibition


The British appetite for sugar expanded considerably during the 17th century, and became available to most people. Sugar cane grown by enslaved people in the Caribbean was crushed in sugar mills, to extract a brown sticky juice. This was transported to the UK, and in the sugar house, boiled, then left to drain and cool in moulds, or cones, with drip pots.  Various substances were added to drain through the cooling sugar to purify it, including clay and blood.  Once drained, the sugar loaves were reheated, further impurities removed, and then shaped.  Sugar refining was hard, physical and dirty work, and John Brissault employed several men to help him process the sugar.  It is very unlikely that Marie Anne would have been involved in the activities of the sugar house, but lived beside it in the family home, and would have used sugar herself in tea, coffee and perhaps in cooking.

There is little information about Marie Anne’s life either in Spitalfields or in Southampton.  The Brissaults had between five and seven children (disparity between records). John Brissault’s sugar house business failed (possibly in part due to the boycott of sugar produced by enslaved people), and he was declared bankrupt in 1775.  The sugar house site and contents, including 15,000 pots and moulds were sold at auction.  John Brissault wrote his will in 1765, proved by Marie Anne in 1808, in which he left all his estate to his wife.

In the decade following the auction of the sugar house, the site was used as a granary. The sugar house itself was damaged in the Blitz in 1940, and demolished in 1942.  Marie Anne left a will, proved in 1829, indicating that she remained in Southampton for the rest of her life as did at least some of her children. 

Whilst Marie Anne Brissault is implicated with slavery through her husband, her story is interesting and complex, challenging the simple binary of ‘wealthy/powerful slave owner’ and ‘oppressed slave’.  It is unclear how much she was involved in either the business of the sugar house or the Jamaica plantation.  She came from a family who experienced persecution in France and who were among the first refugees in England.  Her story illustrates the complexity of women’s lives, rarely documented, in the late 18th century. 



There is little evidence of the presence of enslaved people in Southampton.  An interesting exception to this is Zoe Holloway (nee Loanda), born into slavery but who came to Southampton in 1852 as a servant, and subsequently lived as a freely married women, raising a family of four.  Much of Zoe’s story has been taken from a recently published book by Cheryl Butler (2021).  

Although slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807, other nations continued to trade in enslaved people, notably Portugal and the United States. Britain’s interest in ending slavery extended beyond its territories and borders, and following abolition, Britain maintained an anti-slavery fleet, known as the West African Squadron, whose purpose was to patrol the West African coast and intercept possible slave ships. A mariner who saw his fortunes rise through service with the West Africa Squadron was Albert Heseltine. Heseltine began his anti-slavery service in 1837 as a Lieutenant with the ship, the Electra, stationed in South America. Enslaved people freed by patrols were often sent to Rio de Janeiro, where the British Consul decided the fate of the freed people.

In 1839, the Electra intercepted a Portuguese slave ship, the Diligente, and liberated several enslaved people.  Among them was believed to be a very young, orphaned baby, Zoe.  She would have travelled to Rio along with the rest of the liberated group.  Albert Heseltine married Georgina O’Reilly in Rio in 1840, and Zoe joined the family.  Zoe was baptised in the Anglican Church in Rio the following year, and as was common with enslaved people, likely given the family name ‘Loanda’ as a reference to her place of origin in Angola, Africa.  

The Heseltine family, including Zoe, moved to the UK in 1846, living with Albert’s father in Carnarvon for a period.  The family moved to Beech Cottage, near Foundry Lane in Southampton in 1852, with Zoe, then aged 13 or 14, identified as a ‘servant’ in the Census of that year.  

Wickham Court near Brewhouse Lane where Zoe and her family lived. The houses were classed as ‘dilapidated housing’ and were demolished in 1890.  Photograph, 1880s


Records show that Zoe married a former mariner, George Holloway, in Millbrook in 1887, and lived together with another family in a small house in Brewhouse Lane.  The Holloways’ first child, Zoe Ada, was born in 1860, whilst the family still lived in Brewhouse Lane.  Zoe and George went on to have three more children. The family were far from affluent, with George working as a labourer. George died at the age of 44 in 1880 and the 1881 Census records Zoe as a widow and working as a charwoman, with her youngest daughter still living at home.   The following year, at the age of 45, Zoe herself died.  

Zoe’s story is unusual and marked by rupture and dislocation.  Although a free woman in Southampton, Zoe’s life would have been hard, starting married life in substandard accommodation.  It hasn’t been possible to find any records relating to Zoe’s four daughters, and their subsequent lives.  Zoe didn’t achieve much in Southampton deemed worthy of note within official records, barring her marriage and children’s baptisms. However, she carved her own path with no role models, crossing continents and changing status from ‘enslaved person’ to ‘servant’, to independent married woman.  Although cut short, her life story shows that some enslaved people were able to survive their early trauma, and build other lives as workers, partners, and parents.  Perhaps Zoe’s great achievement is the ordinary life she led in Southampton, after the gross injustice and violence of her earliest years. 



Born In Georgia, Ellen and William Craft toured Britain, talking in venues including the Polytechnic institution at Hanover Buildings in Southampton, talking about the horrors of enslavement and of their escape from slavery in America in the 1850s. Theirs was an extraordinary story of great bravery. 

Ellen Craft (main image) had a fair skin and could pass for white, being the offspring of her first master and one of his biracial slaves.  They escaped by Ellen disguising herself as a white male cotton planter travelling with his slave, William. It was William who came up with this scheme to hide in plain sight but ultimately it was Ellen who convincingly masked her race, her gender and her social status. The journey was fraught with narrow escapes and heart in the mouth moments that could have led to their discovery and capture. 

Ellen and William lived In Macon, Georgia and were owned by different masters. William was put up for auction at the age of 16 to help settle his master’s debts and had become the property of a local bank cashier. As a child Ellen, the offspring of her first master and one of his biracial slaves, had frequently been mistaken for a member of his white family. Much annoyed by the situation, the plantation mistress sent 11 year old Ellen to Macon to her daughter as a wedding present in 1837, where she served as a ladies maid. Ellen and William married but having experienced such brutal family separation despaired over having children fearing they would lose them. Pondering various escape plans, William, knowing that slaveholders could take their slaves to any state, hit upon the idea of Ellen passing herself off as his master because her skin was almost white. She needed to travel as a man because it was not customary for women to travel with male servants. Because they were favourite slaves the couple had little trouble obtaining passes for a few days leave at Christmas giving them some days to be missing without raising the alarm.

Before setting out on December 21st 1848 William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length, she put her right arm in a sling, which would prevent any hotel clerks and others from expecting ‘him’ to sign a registry or other papers because neither Ellen nor William could read or write.  She also asked William to wrap bandages around much of her face hiding her smooth skin and giving her a reason to limit conversation with strangers.  She wore a pair of men’s trousers that she herself had sewn and she wore a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. 

At the Macon train station Ellen bought tickets to Savannah 200 miles away and William took a place in the ‘negro car’. In Savannah the fugitives boarded a steamer for Charleston, South Carolina. Trying to buy steamer tickets from South Carolina to Philadelphia, Ellen and William hit a snag when the ticket seller objected to signing the names of the young gentleman and his slave even after seeing the injured arm. To prevent white abolitionists from taking slaves out of the South, slaveholders had to prove that the slaves travelling with them were indeed their property.  Sometimes travellers were detained for days trying to prove ownership. As the ticket seller reiterated his refusal to sign, their good luck prevailed and the genial captain of the ship vouched for the planter and his slave and signed their names.  Baltimore, the last major stop before Pennsylvania had a particularly vigilant border control.  Ellen and William were again detained and asked to leave the train and report to the authorities for verification of ownership. William recounted in the book that he subsequently wrote that he felt that they were about to be overwhelmed and ‘returned to the dark horrible pit of misery’.  However, the officer agreed to let them on board; looking at Ellen’s bandages he said ‘he is not well, it is a pity to stop him, let this gentleman and slave pass’. They arrived in Philadelphia the next morning, Christmas Day.  As they left the station, Ellen burst into tears and cried out ‘thank God William we’re safe’.  It had been an emotionally harrowing journey, especially for Ellen as she had to keep up the multilayered deception.  When they arrived in Philadelphia, Ellen and William were quickly given assistance and lodging by the underground abolitionist network.  They received a reading lesson their very first day in the city.  Three weeks later they moved to Boston where William resumed work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen became a seamstress.  After two years, in 1850, slave hunters arrived in Boston intent on returning them to Georgia. The Crafts fled again, this time to England. They lived in London and eventually had five children. After 20 years they returned to the States and in the 1870s established a school in Georgia for newly freed slaves.  The story of Ellen and William’s escape is taken from work conducted by Marian Smith Holmes (2010).



There was no women’s anti-slavery group in Southampton.  However, following the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807, British women continued to be involved in anti-slavery activities, such as contributing to the anti-slavery bazaar that was held annually in Boston, USA.

The bazaar raised money for the anti-slavery movement and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a weekly publication by the American anti-slavery movement.  It also aimed to publicise their organisation and raise public awareness of the anti-slavery movement.  The bazaar ran for a week each year during the mid-1800s.  The Boston anti-slavery bazaar was seen as an effective way for female abolitionists to sell their handmade objects at a profit while converting members of the public to a political cause.  They raised vital funds for local and national anti-slavery societies as well as supporting the production of abolitionist publications.  Anti-slavery bazaars appealed to a wide audience.  Prospective customers were not limited to active abolitionists but included passers-by, who were attracted by the variety of useful beautiful and novel items for sale.  The bazaar created a space where anti-slavery texts featured amongst, and on handmade items for sale, so customers could be educated by the objects they bought.

Goods were sent from various large cities in Britain including Bristol.  Particularly popular were Honiton Lace, stationery, basket work, dolls, toys and all kinds of fancy work.  Many of the items would be hand-made rather than shop-bought goods.  Appeals for donations were placed in local newspapers.  The goods were transported to Bristol and were included with the items being sent from there.  The donations relied on a large network of women responsible for collecting, sorting, packing, and sending local donations in time for their sale at the American Bazaar.  

In 1854 the Boston fair noted that ‘the Bristol box included collections from Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bridgewater, Bath, Chatham, Southampton, the Isle of Wight, Yarmouth and Chudleigh’.  People were asked to affix a price to each contribution with the name and address of the donor as after each bazaar a gazette was published giving details of the bazaar, describing the articles sold and acknowledging all money donations.  Bazaars raised significant sums of money for the anti-slavery cause and broadened the area of political activities that were open to American and British women.  They created a space for women’s domestic and creative activities, such as needlework, to be used for political effect.

We hope that these stories help, in a small way, to redress the balance in relation to evidence about women and slavery in Southampton.  

As three white women, we are very aware of the potential to further exclude black voices from narratives about women, slavery and Southampton.  The Exhibition text has been reviewed by Black History Month South, and revisions made.   With Black History Month running throughout October, we invite you to visit the Exhibition and learn more about links between Southampton and the Atlantic Slave Trade.


For more information about SeaCity Museum, visit: https://seacitymuseum.co.uk/


Butler C (2021) Telling Other Histories  Early Black History in Southampton C1500-1900  Diaper Heritage Association. 

Hughes B and English Heritage (2016)  Why were wonen written out of history?  An interview with Bettany Hughes  Available at:  https://bit.ly/3B0Wj61  Accessed on:  

Minet W (1892) Some account of the Huguenot Family of Minet from their coming out of France at the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes 1685 founded on Issac Minet’s relation of our family (sic)  Available at:  https://bit.ly/3RkDuAB  Accessed on: 31.08.22.

 Smith-Holmes, M. ‘The great escape from slavery of Ellen and William Craft’ The Smithsonian Magazine June 16, 2010.


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