Chesterfield Stand up to Racism campaigned for town primary school to drop slave trader name

The Chesterfield branch of Stand up to Racism has told how it urged a primary school in the town to change its name due to associations with a former Lord Mayor of London who had links to slavery.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 12:55 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th October 2021, 1:22 pm
Members of Stand Up to Racism Chesterfield and North Derbyshire during their protest at what was formerly known as Gilbert Heathcote Primary School

Whittington Moor Nursery and Infant Academy started the new school year with a fresh identity on Thursday, September 2, after previously being known as Gilbert Heathcote Nursery and Infant School.

The name change was described as the ‘start of a new future for the school’, which is part of the Cavendish Learning Trust.

Now, further details have come to light about a possible contributing factor for the change – the fact the school was named in honour of Chesterfield-born Gilbert Heathcote who had a successful career between 1681 and 1733 in the Jamaican slave trade.

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Whittington Moor Nursery and Infant academy took on its new name on September 2

Jeannie Robsinon, Secretary of Stand Up to Racism Chesterfield and North Derbyshire, wrote to the Chief Executive and Board of Trustees of the Cavendish Learning Trust in August giving further details of Gilbert Heathcote’s role and said the name was “an issue that needs to be addressed.”

She said: “It is not surprising that most of us in Chesterfield have not been aware of Gilbert Heathcote’s role in the slave trade.

"If you were to look at the most easily accessible reference points for information on Gilbert Heathcote, his central role in the early phase of slavery in Jamaica is not mentioned.

"His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography for example merely states that he ‘traded in Spanish wines and other produce’ and ‘had large transactions with Jamaica’.

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“However, research initiated by English Heritage and carried out by Professor Nuala Zahedieh of the School of History, Classics & Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh clearly establishes Gilbert Heathcote’s central role in the Jamaica slave trade and identifies slavery as a key source of his huge wealth.”

Although there is no evidence that Sir Gilbert Heathcote directly owned slaves, he was appointed as the English Crown’s ‘Agent for Jamaica’ in 1693 overseeing Government contracts for managing the slave economy.

Here, he had control over the trade in slaves and the produce from the slave plantations, primarily sugar, rum, and indigo dye.

His earnings from the slave trade also saw a major boost through his leading role in the ‘Asiento dos Negros’ agreement which saw him benefit from the contract to supply 4,800 slaves per year to the Spanish colonies.

When Heathcote died in 1733 at the age of 81, he was reputedly the richest man from a non-aristocratic background in Britain, leaving behind a personal fortune of about £83 million in today’s money.

As part of their campaign, 25 members of Stand Up to Racism Chesterfield and North Derbyshire conducted a protest outside Gilbert Heathcote Primary before the decision was made to change its name.

Neil Turner, who was a pupil at Gilbert Heathcote School and took part in the protest, said: “When I was at the school none of us kids knew anything about the man Gilbert Heathcote.

"Once I found out that he made a fortune out of the slave trade and became Governor of the Bank of England, I felt it was really important to expose that and change the name. I went on the protest as well. I am very very pleased it's now called Whittington Moor Infants School.”

Janet Lea, whose son went to Gilbert Heathcote, also attended the protest. She said: “I really want to thank the school for taking the trouble to change the name. I really support that and hope everyone will recognise how important it is to challenge the legacy of slavery in our town.'

The Cavendish Learning Trust Board of Trustees said they made the decision to change the name to Whittington Moor Nursery and Infant Academy to ensure it reflected the name of the community which it serves.

"A consultation process was instrumental in determining the new name, which included consideration of the correspondence from Stand Up to Racism in Chesterfield and North Derbyshire along with other key stakeholders,” they added.

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