Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour and the Slave Trade

Sir William Curtis is the man who brought the ‘Royal’ to Ramsgate’s harbour. In 1820, King George IV stayed with his friend and drinking companion Sir William, at his house on West Cliff, before sailing to the continent. A year later and in recognition of that stay, King George gave Ramsgate the Royal Harbour designation and Sir William formed a committee to commission a monument to mark the moment – the obelisk that still stands today. But Sir William’s  wealth was built on the slave trade. 

Perhaps the kindest way to describe Sir William Curtis is a ‘colourful character’. After a life as a city banker, financier to the slave trade, businessman, freemason, and MP, he died in Ramsgate in 1829. He was known for throwing wild parties and for his love of a good drink. By the time of his death aged 77, Sir William was massively overweight, and was suffering from gout so severe he couldn’t even walk from his front door, so had to be carried by his servants to a waiting carriage for rides around the town. 

William was born in Wapping in 1752, the son of a successful businessman. His father, Joseph, had built a business supplying sea biscuits – rock-hard food for sailors establishing the Empire’s trade routes to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, North America, China, and through the Mediterranean. William became known as Billy Biscuit. 

He did poorly at school but in 1771, on his father’s death, he inherited the family business. From warehouses in Wapping, they supplied provisions to the Royal Navy and the East India Company. William introduced industrial manufacturing processes to the company’s sea biscuits, and sealed barrels which ended the problems of weevils in the rations, and was soon buying his own ships and investing in other’s businesses.

William become closely connected to the Camden, Calvert and King shipping partnership, as an investor and supplier. They transported at least 20,000 people into slavery, making them the largest slaving company in London. 8.5% of their slaves died on the way. Another close friend of Curtis, Peter Thellusson, also traded slaves and built up a portfolio of slave plantations in Granada and Jamaica. William invested in slave companies, supplied them, and owned ships used by them. William would later claim he had never owned any slaves – but his wealth was unquestionably made from the slave trade.

In 1788, WIlliam became Sheriff of London and after 10 years of trying, in 1790 he became an MP, for the City of London, a seat he held for the Tories for 28 years. He used his position to fight in Parliament for slavery. In 1807, he led the opposition to William Walberforce’s Slave Trade Act. He frequently represented the shipping industry in Parliament, and spoke up for British fishing.

A year after becoming an MP, William became a partner in the founding of a bank – Curtis, Robarts, & Curtis of Lombard Street. William used it to support his business interests and those of his friends: the bank would loan money to plantations and slave traders, before eventually becoming part of Coutts, known today as ‘The Queen’s Bank’. 

William probably owned a house in Ramsgate by this time. By about 1810, the Ramsgate to Ostende steam packet was named the Sir Willliam Curtis, suggesting he was well connected to the town. She sank off Ostende in 1815, and William gave money to support the families of those killed in the disaster. 

In 1818, William lost his seat as an MP, and he was offered a peerage which he declined. He briefly became MP for a rotten borough, returned as MP for the City of London but then abandoned a campaign before Polling Day, and was briefly MP for Hastings in 1826 – winning the election, then sailing home to Ramsgate in his yacht Emma.

William had owned Cliff House in the town for some years. In 1820, his friend King George IV stayed at William’s house on West Cliff, before sailing to the continent. The pair had been friends for some years, and there were suggestions that the King had an affair with William’s wife Anne. A year after his visit, King George gave Ramsgate the Royal Harbour designation.

William died in Ramsgate in 1829, leaving the Cliff House to his wife. The sale of the contents of his Middlesex home took five days, with nearly 4500 bottle of wine, port, claret, and beer sold. 

In 1833, less than ten years after he had left Parliament, The Slavery Abolition Act passed. William’s brand of politics and business was ended. 

In 2015, the UK Government finished paying back a loan it had taken out 180 years earlier. The 1833 loan, £2.4billion in today’s money, allowed the government to pay compensation to slave owners, for having to free their slaves. The former slaves received nothing. Among those compensated was Timothy, William’s son. He had owned 206 enslaved people in St Vincent and was paid compensation worth nearly £1 million in today’s money. The Curtis family continue the baronetcy to this day.

This is a short version of an essay written for Recognising Ramsgate’s Heritage, to be published by Swell Publishing, 2022. Reproduced with their kind permission.