St Neots and the fight against slavery in the 19th century

As a small Victorian market town, St Neots may be imagined as a quiet and parochial place, but through trade, business and personal links, St Neots people had contacts across the world…

On the 12th October 1886, Frederick Douglass, the most famous black American of the Victorian era, visited St Neots and was invited to speak at the Corn Exchange. His lecture ‘Recollections of the Anti-Slavery conflict in America’ was given to the St Neots Wesleyan Circuit, where he recalled his early life in slavery. A quote from him in the St Neots Advertiser states that “[his] slave life, terrible as it was, had now lost much of its horrors, and slept in his memory like the dim outlines of a half forgotten dream.”

Frederick Douglass

Corn Exchange, 1860

Douglass was an African American man who, in 1838, had escaped from slavery in Maryland on the east coast of America. Likely the child of an enslaved black woman and her white slave master, Douglass was brought up as a slave and made to serve various masters in his early life. In his first autobiography ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ he spoke of the harsh and violent treatment of slaves, his own struggle for education and his escape to freedom in Massachusetts. After his escape, he was supported by other free black Americans and the many Anti-Slavery societies who were working for the end of slavery in America.

Frederick Douglass became one of the most prominent activists, authors, and orators of the Victorian era. As a leader of the abolitionist movement, Douglass toured the United States, and later the world, speaking out on human rights. Despite being physically assaulted several times by anti-abolitionist throughout his life, he continued for fighting for equality right up to his death in 1885. In a powerful and memorable quote, Douglass states: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground.” 

Douglass’ connection to St Neots

In 1886, Frederick Douglass travelled to St Neots to deliver a new lecture and to stay with his friend of over 40 years, Julia Griffiths Crofts. Douglass and Griffiths had first met in 1846 when Douglass had come to Britain on a lecture tour to spread his message on the abolition of slavery and promotion of civil rights to black men and, controversially, also women. Julia Griffiths (as she was then) was drawn to Douglass message and, already with strong family connections to British anti-slavery societies, began work to raise funds to support Douglass’ work.

Ticket to hear Frederick Douglass speak in 1886

On 1849 Julia and her sister, Eliza, travelled to America to work more closely with Douglass. By this date Douglass had set up his own newspaper in Rochester, New York and by early 1850 Julia was helping to write and edit the newspaper, as well as signing up subscribers and raising funds for the paper. Julia stayed in America until June 1855 when she returned to Britain, but she still continued to support Douglass’ work through fundraising and speaking engagements. The pair kept up a regular correspondence for the rest of their lives.

Julia’s life after America

In 1859 Julia married the Rev. Dr. Henry Crofts, a Methodist Minister and widower, and became a mother to his three young girls. For many years they travelled through the north of England on the Methodist preaching circuit, until 1877 when the Rev. Crofts retired to St Neots. Sadly he only lived another year and left Julia a widow.

Spa House

To support herself, Julia opened a girls day and boarding school at Spa House, which stood on The Cross, at the top of St Neots High Street on the corner of Cambridge Street and Church Street, where Kwellers Café stands today. It was here that Frederick Douglass visited her in October 1886 while he was on a lecture tour of Europe with his second wife, Helen.

Sadly, there are no known photographs of Julia Griffiths, and all that remains of Douglass visit to St Neots is a ticket for the lecture and a report in the local paper. Although Julia Griffiths Crofts is hardly known in St Neots today, in America, many of her letters to Douglass are preserved in the Frederick Douglass collection in the US Library of Congress and can be accessed online, here. Do give them a read!