Prominent Shields Victorian’s links to the slave trade

James Mather was actually a strong opponent of slavery.
James Mather was actually a strong opponent of slavery.

He was a noted liberal thinker, credited with designing the first ship’s lifeboat and improving pit safety.

But how much was one of South Shields’s most prominent Victorians, James Mather, involved in a commerce that has tarnished Britain’s reputation for centuries – the slave trade?

The street named after him in the town centre recalls a prominent businessman, who was active politically and who, following the St Hilda Colliery disaster in 1839, wrote a defining report on improvement in the ventilation of mines.

But records recently placed online by University College London (UCL), under the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, appear to show that Mather profited to the tune of thousands of pounds, following the abolition of slavery in 1833, which saw slave owners compensated for their loss.

A James Mather, of South Shields, is shown receiving £128 7s 6d compensation for five slaves in Jamaica in one claim, and £2,341 for a further 116 slaves, also in Jamaica, in another.

Today, the total – £2,469 - equates to nearer £125,000.

But is it the same man?

The project says it could be, but it’s complicated, as Mather was actually known as a strong opponent of slavery. However, his wife’s family were large slave owners in the West Indies, and made a considerable fortune as a consequence. The compensation, on further investigation, was made to Mather “and uxor” (wife) and it’s possible that this is where the connection lies.

Mather, the son of a shipowner, was born in Newcastle in 1799 but settled in South Shields as a wine and spirit merchant in Dean Street, off the Market Place.

In February 1839, he was one of those who took part in the rescue work that followed an explosion at Hilda pit, which killed 50 men and boys (a rescuer also died).

He subsequently became a member of the South Shields Committee for the Prevention of Accidents in Mines. The report he prepared, on the problem of fire-damp in mines and ways of dealing with it, became what was described as “a text book for the scientific mine manager.”

He later stood as an independent Radical candidate in the election in 1852. Mather, who lived at Westoe, died in 1873, at the age of 74.

l There is a disturbing postscript to this because, on delving further into the Mather compensation case, I found my own surname cropping up in respect of what appeared to have been a counter claim. Some further digging required, I think...