There are far more similarities between the slave trade and the leasehold system in England and Wales than you would ever imagine. The leasehold system is a form of financial servitude where the leaseholder is forever compensating the freeholder for living on ‘their land’. Just like slavery, the leaseholders find themselves snared in this system without ever giving their consent.
Wait, you may say, the leaseholders signed the lease! Surely that is consent to them being bound by the rules of the leasehold system? Not true, leases are purposefully drafted by freeholders and their oily solicitors to obfuscate the true nature of the terms. Generally, the punitive fees demanded for licences and permissions hidden in the lease vaguely promise to be ‘reasonable’ but are usually far from that.
The real truth though is no leaseholder has ever granted their consent to be part of the actual leasehold system itself, no leaseholder wants that, they want a share of the building and land it sits on when they purchase their property. Commonhold exists and should be compulsory like it is in the rest of the world except all flats and many houses in this country are created as leasehold with no consultation with the future purchasers.
Freeholders regularly trot out the moronic excuse ‘if you don’t like leasehold, don’t buy a leasehold property, simples!’ But with 5 million leasehold properties accounting for nearly 20% of the total housing stock in a market suffering severe housing shortages, blaming a leaseholder for buying a property of this type is like blaming a starving person for eating contaminated food, they have no choice!
There is little profit to be had from arguing this point further, only freeholders and those who make their money representing them bother to deny this is true and their voices are valueless in this debate. Leasehold is an unfair, unjust system which immorally benefits a few at the expense of the many, just like slavery did. Undeniably immoral but inexplicably not illegal at all!
The slave trade in Britain in the 18th century
In the 18th century the slave trade in Britain had become one of the main sources of wealth for the British Empire and had grown into the ‘dot com’ lucrative financial bubble of its time.
It wasn’t just the slave traders that rode into villages and forced millions into a
curtailed life of servitude who profited from this trade, there were fortunes to be made by helping to finance the transportation of slaves too or even just buying a couple of slaves as a pension for old age. The slave trade was respected and so ingrained in many aspects of daily life that ending that trade seemed impossible.
In the 18th century alone British vessels were involved in the shipping of between 4-5 million slaves.
The support for the trade came from the very top of British society. Queen Elizabeth I bankrolled one of the first ever slaving expeditions, in fact the royal family and the wider aristocracy’s financial support was central to the development of the lucrative slave trade.
For example, ‘The Royal Adventures in Africa’ company had financial backing from King Charles II and his wife the Queen, seven Knights of the Realm, four barons, and a Marquis.
The Bank of England also backed the slave trade. Richard Neave was the director of the bank and was also the director of the ‘Society of West India’ merchants and his son went on to run both companies simultaneously too. It was the backing of the financial sector that really allowed the slave trade to become so established.
The slave trade also created the very first British millionaire, William Beckford, who owned more than 22,000 acres of land in Jamaica. He along with his brothers used their wealth to become MPs and subvert both political direction and public opinion in favour of the slave trade.
In fact by 1766 there were at least 40 MPs who were either planters or they made their money from the slave trade in some way or another. The abolition of slavery seemed like an impossibility, everyone was making too much money from it to ever allow it to change.
Then along came a remarkable man who decided to make it his life’s goal to do just that, bring to an end the slave trade.
The man who made slavery illegal.
Thomas Clarkson was born 1760. He was the son of a reverend and grew to be a good six inches taller than the average Britain of the time. He was bright, enjoying his education but he was seemingly destined for an unremarkable life as a priest in a sleepy country parish somewhere.
However, he entered a competition where he had to submit an essay written in Latin to win a prize. He won the prize but the contents of what he had written would change his life completely and eventually the world.
The topic of the essay was ‘Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?’ (‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’)
Thomas was so deeply affected by the research he had done for his essay that he became consumed with wanting to find out all he could about the slave trade, he read everything he could about it and when that was not enough he went out to speak with anyone he could find who had first hand knowledge about it.
He said of that time that: “A thought came into my mind… that if the contents of the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”
Thomas became that person, a man possessed. He started to scour the country looking for like-minded people he could talk with. It was said he would often ride 16 hours a day and he travelled at least 35,000 miles on horseback before he saw his dream realised.
It became the norm that people would threaten to kill him and on a stormy night in Liverpool a group of slave ship owners tried to throw him into a torrid sea.
To get his message out even further he translated his essay into English and distributed it across the country, as well as igniting sentiment it also acted as an introduction to other anti-slavers and soon a body of resistance had formed. This angered those at the very head of the establishment as well as those who made their fat living from slaves.
However loudly Thomas’s voice would decry the inhumanity of slavery the establishment would shout as loudly back declaring slaves were simply being saved from a life of savagery and were being given a chance to become ‘good’ Christians. They argued that contrary to what Clarkson asserted, slaves were generally treated well by their masters except of course for the odd ‘bad apple’.
Thomas knew he would have to raise his game considerably if he were to drown out the white noise of the establishment’s pro-slavery PR campaign.
He started to display the tools of the slave trade which were openly on sale in most port towns. He had handcuffs, leg shackles, thumb screws and surgical instruments with a screw device called a ‘speculum oris’ which were used to pry open the mouth of any slaves refusing to eat, who figured being dead was better than the life awaiting them, so they could force feed them and the slave owner would not lose their investment.
He also displayed fine art work and crafts produced by the slaves to show they were in no way ‘savages’ and no different from any other human being.
People power and politics
He also knew he would need political support if his campaign stood any chance of success. He first met William Wilberforce, the man who would eventually get all the credit for the abolition of slavery, in 1787. After a long and animated discussion between the two men Wilberforce agreed to raise the issue in Parliament for the first time.
Clarkson’s campaign started to gather pace quickly and by 1788, 103 petitions for the abolition of slavery had been signed by around 80,000 people and presented to Parliament and Wilberforce did manage to raise the issue of the slave trade in the House of Commons.
Although the abolition movement had gained considerable public support it was the political influence of the slavers in Government that was hard to shake. Lobby groups went into Parliament to argue their side of the debate. They cranked up their PR campaign another notch, even claiming that the time slaves spent on the slave transportation ships being ‘carried to their new adventure’ were the “happiest part of the Negros life”.
The efforts of these slavers in Parliament turned the abolition battle into a war of attrition with many debates on the subject in the house becoming nothing more than hot-air.
Clarkson realised that continuing to call for the abolition of slavery as an all-or-nothing event was futile, there were too many vested interests standing in the way.
He needed something that would sway public opinion so firmly in his favour that it would sweep away the political opposition and he came up with an idea that was pure genius.
A picture paints a thousand words
He decided to commission a true life accurately scaled drawing of the conditions slaves were actually transported in. He used the exact measurements from an actual ship which carried anywhere from 697 to 740 slaves. The picture painted a truly dire picture of the conditions the slaves were transported in, it shocked the nation and the effect of that picture was like a bomb going off.
Once printed, it began to appear in pamphlets, newspaper articles, magazines and books. Also 7000 copies were produced which were hung on the walls of homes and pubs throughout the country.
This picture was one of the most important instruments used to turn public opinion against the slave trade once and for all and would create a swell of public anger that would sweep away the political posturing.
The picture was important for two reasons, firstly it made ludicrous the slavers claims that being transported in this manner could be the best days of anyone’s life. More importantly though, it humanised slaves as people just like us. It forced people to see slaves as fellow human beings who had the same feelings and dreams that we did and were not just revenue generating units for the rich to grow richer by exploiting them.
It proved decisive.
The end of slavery and the biggest compensation pay-off in history
An unavoidable momentum gathered pace and as we know the slave trade was eventually abolished in 1833. The story doesn’t end there though.
The Government was forced to compensate all the slave traders and owners and it became the biggest compensation pay-out ever made and still, to this day the total amount paid out has never been beaten.
The British government’s paid out a total of 20 million pounds to compensate some 3000 families for the loss of their ‘property’ the slaves. This equates to about 18 billion pounds in today’s value.
The list of those who received compensation was far reaching and showed how this trade had become part of the fabric of life. There were also many notable names too like the families of David Cameron, Douglas Hogg, Graham Greene, George Orwell and the Earl of Harewood who all received considerable compensation when slavery was abolished. John Gladstone the father of the 19th century prime minister William Gladstone received compensation of £106,769 which is worth around 83 million pounds today for 2508 slaves he ‘owned’.
Not one slave though ever received a single penny compensation from the Government to compensate them for what they went through.
Let’s look at the leasehold system today and look at the many similarities.
The history of freeholders in 200 words
The very first freeholder was the Crown. William the conqueror took all the land in country by force which the Crown still, technically, owns and have managed to cling onto for nearly 1,000 years. Some of this land was then dished out in a feudal stylee to aristocracy and nobility in exchange for funds and military support and they too still own huge swathes of the country as well as many of the most lucrative freeholds.
The industrial revolution and a steep rise in the population happened as the aristocracy declined so the new freeholders were wealthy individuals who hoovered up ground rents as fast as they came to market. Many of them were either already involved in politics or quickly became involved. Others simply funded political parties who promised to represent their interests by maintaining the leasehold system and blocking any attempts to alter legislation.
The financial world has always supported the freeholders with banks, Insurance companies and pension funds woven into the history of leasehold. Of course there are also thousands of ‘accidental’ freeholders who also can be vicious and amoral who see their leaseholders simply as a way to get rich on the back of their suffering.
The campaign against the unjust leasehold system
In the building of Britain leasehold became a vehicle to make staggering wealth for the freeholders, especially when there were no legal rights to ever enfranchise (the meaning of which comes from the old French enfranchiss “to set or make free”).
A freeholder would sell a lease on a piece of land for 99 years (called a building lease) and the builder would build a property to the freeholder’s specification and sell it. Once the lease had run its course the freeholder would then take possession of ‘their’ house (or flat) which they had never paid a penny toward and could sell it on again and again thanks to leasehold creating a perpetual land ownership device for the rich.
That is how many of the grandiose squares in London came to be built and are still owned by the ‘great’ estates who are the freeholders. This method of wealth generation was not limited to prime central London though.
This was also a standard method employed in Wales and Cornwall for miners and farmers. A miner would lease a bit of land and build a home for their family and live it in for generations until one day the freeholder would write to them explaining that the lease had fallen to zero and they now owned the miners house and could they please leave or pay the freeholder a fortune to stay.
In the late 19th century this prompted a huge outcry against these greedy freeholders with newspapers constantly writing articles in support of the leaseholders and emotive debates in the House of Commons. There were marches and demonstrations and the rise of a new term ‘anti-landlordism’ a derogatory term to describe unscrupulous freeholders.
Over the next 160 years there have been countless efforts to end the leasehold system by various groups with varying degrees of support but all of them have been unsuccessful…. up to now.
Why is that?
For the very same reasons the movement to abolish slavery found it so difficult to change a blatantly immoral and brutal system, the movement to abolish leasehold has hit the same brick wall. The people who own the freeholds are often the very elite of society with huge political influence. They are backed by powerful banks and pension funds who make a fortune from the system or they are freeholders who fund political parties to look favourably on their cause, to keep making money from leasehold.
Everyone is making too much money so why change it? A few million people are trapped in this nightmare form of land tenure but, big deal right?
Also the Government knows that to make any retrospective changes to the leasehold laws would trigger a compensation payment to the freeholders that would make the slavery compensation amount look like small change.
Are the leasehold houses the ‘Clarkson picture’ moment?
There is now a huge new movement against the leasehold houses scandal which has gained so much traction it is reaching a critical mass. There have been numerous political statements, inclusions in the Queen’s speech promising to wipe out leasehold abuse (the irony of which should not be overlooked) and it is spoken about daily in the press and media.
The leasehold house scandal has become vitally important in the battle to end leasehold. Just like Clarkson’s drawing of the conditions of the slave transportation, the leasehold house scandal has humanised leaseholders and brought to the public’s mind just how bad the abuses of the leasehold system can be.
Even though many have tried for years to bring focus to the constant abuses suffered by leasehold flat owners, it has always brought a shrug of the shoulders and a swift “Well, flats have to be leasehold don’t they?”
With houses though, it is easy for everyone to understand that there is no need to build houses as leasehold. Add to this the fact developers and freeholders included onerous ground rents and lease clauses simply to make more money, then this has proved to be a step too far in the public opinion.
It is therefore essential that the owners of those leasehold houses as well as every other leaseholder in England and Wales should get behind this campaign and support the abolition of leasehold houses. This is the first positive step in ending leasehold and once the sale of them has been banned the focus will shift to leasehold flats.
People will see that there is no reason that flats should be leasehold either but are made so solely to create an asset class for wealthy people to get wealthier.
An important note
I want to make it clear that in no way whatsoever am I comparing current day leaseholders and their experiences to the actual slaves and the brutal and criminal way that they were treated by the elite of this country.
My comparison here is made purely on the history of the abolition of slavery, the process they went through and the challenges that campaign faced.
There is then an obvious comparison and lessons we can learn which we can apply to the campaign to end leasehold.
We look back at the history of the slave trade with repulsion and disgust and it is hard to comprehend that at one point in our collective history this vile trade seemed a legitimate way of making money.
One day I hope people also look back at this unjust leasehold system and wonder how we all allowed it last for nearly 1,000 years.
Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?