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The Tragic History of Clapham's School for Africans

A quiet corner of Clapham is home to a graveyard with a tragic history of black Georgian London.

A small churchyard in a quiet corner of Clapham has a largely forgotten and sad part in Britain’s black colonial history. Zachary Macaulay was one of the leading members of the Clapham Sect, a network of individuals working for the abolition of slavery in the British dominions. He is remembered by a memorial in Westminster Abbey, a plaque on the site of his former house just by Clapham Common Tube and a road next to the Common.

Macaulay had worked in the Caribbean and seen slavery first hand and returned determined to end it. He was the numbers man, providing William Wilberforce MP with the facts to demonstrate the trade’s scale and barbarity. Macaulay became the governor of Sierra Leone, the colony set up in west Africa for freed formerly enslaved people, many of whom fought for King George in the American War of independence.

In 1799 Macaulay returned to Britain, bringing with him 25 children, aged from 10 to 19. He set up just opposite St Paul’s Church by Clapham Old Town the School for Africans, and the Georgian house that was the school still stands. The objective was to train the next generation in the skills to support the colony and to return to Africa. Practical skills were taught, but the emphasis was on religious instruction.

The school ended in tragedy. The initial history of the school stated that “one by one they succumbed to the cold”. Slowly the children died, not of the cold, but measles. Of the original 25 only six students had survived by 1806.

They were buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard. But unlike for Macaulay no memorial remains, their tombstones, if they did indeed even have tombstones, have been cleared away a long time ago. All that are left are the records in the Clapham burial register. The myth of the English cold continued and when the Windrush brought Jamaicans to help rebuild a war-torn London in 1948 MPs confidently stated the young men would return after one British winter.

Find out more about Clapham’s history. Book tickets for Dr Stephen King’s Clapham Common Walk now.

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