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An escaped slave tells citizens of Ross-on-Wye about American slavery

Ross is full of interesting buildings, many of which we see almost every day but know little about. I have always admired the red sandstone Victoria British & Foreign School on Wilton Road (Historic Environment Record reference no. 38198), although I'm sure some of the children taught there in the 19th century would not share my feelings. In the book The Story of Ross (by Pat Hughes and Heather Hurley), you can read about the history of this impressive edifice, which was built in 1836 with the aim of providing teaching space for 400 children and accommodation for their two(!) teachers. (Although in fairness, it should be stated that the main system of teaching in the affordable British and Foreign Schools was with the use of many student monitors.)

School attendance for children between the ages of 5 and 13 was not compulsory until 1870, and even then parents were expected to pay up to 9 pence a week. During this time, when education was not government driven but relied on the patronage of churches, charities and individuals, schools often became battlefields in the power struggle between the Church of England and the various Non-conformist groups, such as the Methodists, Quakers and Baptists. The Victoria British & Foreign School, whilst not supported by the local rector, was established by a committee of Non-conformists.

One member of this group was Captain George Adams, who kept a journal in which he recorded significant events in the daily life of the school (this is now held by Hereford Record Office). A particularly successful event was an evening lecture on slavery, the abolition of which was a topic close to the heart of many Non-conformists.

In November 1839 the school room of the Victoria British & Foreign School was packed out to hear Moses Roper speak about his life as a slave in America, his miraculous escape and his plans to become a missionary in Africa. According to Adams' Journal, the lecture drew a huge crowd, "the room and lobby adjoining were at an early hour filled almost to suffocation and hundreds went away who could not obtain admission".

Slavery was held to be against the law in Britain in 1772, but was not abolished in the British Colonies until 1838, less than a year before this lecture. Captain Adams, the chairman on this occasion, congratulated Britain on the abolition of slavery and added that he hoped that America would soon follow suit. The members of that audience may have agreed that slavery was a terrible institution but, perhaps feeling a bit smug, they may also have wondered, "What has slavery  got to do with Herefordshire?" Look at some of the beautiful Herefordshire country houses and the rolling parkland they are situated in. What can such a peaceful, pastoral landscape have to do with the cruelty of slavery?

In fact, at least one of Herefordshire's beautiful country houses and estates - namely Moccas Court, the seat of the Cornewalls - was enlarged and improved on the strength of money gained by the labour of slaves, as the Cornewalls held a large plantation in the West Indies. And how many local people owned shares in businesses connected to the slave trade?

It is recorded that the audience "listened with the greatest sympathy" and bought many of Moses Roper's books. I wonder what held people's attention the most? Was it Roper's "horrifying anecdotes relative to the treatment of slaves", his display of instruments of torture used to abuse slaves or his impressive physical presence which is described thus: "this interesting individual is like everything American - on a large scale; he stands near seven feet high, is well made in proportion, manners pleasing, and is only twenty four years of age."?

We all like to hear stories of people overcoming adversity, and I am sure that the people of Ross were moved by the indomitable spirit of this escaped slave. It is fitting to let Captain Adams conclude: "Mister Roper certainly evinced a mind of no common order and shows that 'the oppressor may hold the body bound, but know not what a range the spirit takes'."

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2004. This article was first published in The Ross Recorder, April 2004]