With all that is in the news recently I thought it would be an opportune moment to write about Fen Court which is one of my favourite spaces in London. It’s in the old Roman city and is the site of the former churchyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch which was around by at least 1108AD but which was sadly destroyed by the Great Fire of London of 1666 and not rebuilt.
When the Romans arrived, London was largely marshland and as with the marshy Fens in East Anglia it is likely that this may have influenced the naming of the area along with the established hay trade.
A plaque on Fenchurch Street by Parchment House records the site of the church, which may have belonged to the Cnigtengild and been given to Holy Trinity Priory at Aldgate in 1108.
The churchyard was present by the early 14th century and soon walled off and despite the loss of the church itself, it remained surrounded by railings and closed to the public beyond WW2.
1960 saw it gain a new lease of life as a paved open space with a few trees and raised beds with seating amongst three impressive looking 18th century chest tombs. One of which dates from 1762 for Anne Cotesworth with the inscription stating that she was ‘born in the parish and her nearest relatives being buried in the next vault‘.
What really makes Fen Court special is the ‘Gilt of Cain’ sculpture that was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008. It commemorates the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and depending on how one looks at it, is evocative of both a pulpit and a slave auctioneer’s podium whilst the columns can be both stems of sugar cane, a crowd at a slavers auction or a church congregation listening to a preacher.
The artwork also features a powerful poem by Lemn Sissay which cleverly combines Old Testament text with the language of the Stock Exchange.
The placement of this moving artwork is no coincidence as this garden is close to the old St Mary Woolnorth where prominent anti-slavery campaigner Reverend John Newton preached. Today he is best remembered by many these days for his incredible hymn, Amazing Grace.
John Newton worked closely with William Wilberforce (and others such as John Wesley) who regular competes with and sometimes beats out Sir Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton of all time due to his.
There was never slavery based on racial grounds in Britain, at least not really since Roman times, our bigotry has always been to do with Class, not race and anyway, there was a whole land of peasants around all ready to be exploited.
That being said, some people in the British Empire made a lot of money from the slave trade which was run on an industrial scale and cities such as Liverpool and Bristol became very rich from it and of course nearby to Fen Court was the head quarters of the East India Company that despite being a mercantile corporation ended up one way or the other occupying and making such a mess of India (as well as reaping untold wealth) that it was closed down and the government from London ended up taking control directly.
It was thanks to men such as William Wilberforce that saw Britain become the first country in the world to outlaw slavery which had long been seen as un-Christian to the educated and more liberal classes in London who looked down on the trade in the colonies with distaste as can be seen in these writings of 1785 by William Cowper.
We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad?
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free.
They touch our country, and their shackles fall.
That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud.
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
With the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the more forceful Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 it allowed the complete force of London and the Empire to work towards the end of international slavery with the one of the main roles of the Royal Navy after the Battle of Trafalgar for much of the 19th century being to intercept vessels and inhibit the slave trade between Africa and the southern states of the United States.
I always find it an incredibly moving place to visit, even more so knowing of the history of the place and the symbolism involved and all right in the very centre of the financial district. It’s also a quiet and leafy garden just where you’d least expect to find one.
From time to time people in the media say that there needs to be a memorial to slavery in London, seemingly oblivious that there is already this incredible monument with all the heritage around and about that could never be re-created in a tourist hotspot.
I visit Fen Court on my Secret Gardens of the City of London walk which I’ve noticed is listed by Viator/Trip Advisor as the top off the beaten track or authentic experience of London which I guess is very nice 🙂 and a good excuse to release a book of the same name!
You might be interested in an older but very popular post 10 of the most oppressed minorities around the world.