Penny's Lane

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A silver structure with bowls on supports

The centrepiece given to James Penny. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I confess to helping to raise awareness about the sinister origins of perhaps Liverpool’s best-known thoroughfare. Penny Lane – immortalised by The Beatles’ song – is probably named after notorious slave trader James Penny.

In 2006 there was a move – later withdrawn - to rename Liverpool streets named after people linked to the slave trade. I happened to mention to the local media that Penny Lane was one of them and the story went around the world.

Like other byways named after people, Penny or his family either owned land in the area or had strong associations with it. Penny is now remembered as one of the chief Liverpool apologists for the slave trade. He made 11 voyages as a captain in the trade and had his own shipping company called James Penny & Co. Penny was one of several Liverpool traders who spoke in favour of the slave trade at the Parliamentary enquiry which spent several years investigating the traffic. He claimed that the enslaved Africans on his ships were allowed to play games, dance and sing.

Penny told the enquiry: “If the weather is sultry and there appears the least perspiration on their skins when they come upon deck, there are two men attending with cloths to rub them perfectly dry and another to give them a little cordial.” But he showed his true colours when he clinically revealed details of how they were brutally accommodated below decks: “The average allowance of width to a slave is 14 and two-thirds inches.” When Penny returned to Liverpool, the town’s grateful Corporation (council) -dominated by slaving interests - made a presentation to him in 1792. The silver-plated oval epergne (table centrepiece) is on display in the new International Slavery Museum in MerseysideMaritimeMuseum.

Another display features a Liverpool city centre road named after well-known slave traders. Tarleton Street, off Church Street. Among the most infamous was Sir Banastre Tarleton MP, who was the son of former Mayor John Tarleton. Sir Banastre had a brilliant army career against the rebels in the American War of Independence. He was MP for Liverpool from 1790 to 1812 apart from a year’s break. This was from 1806 to 1807 when he was beaten at the polls by abolitionist William Roscoe who helped secure the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

More on Liverpool streets associated with the slave trade can be found on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from www.merseyshop.com (£1.50 p&p UK).