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.

Thanet Press plans refused

TP1It was a bit of an honour to be asked to speak at Thanet District Council’s planning committee last night. I was there on behalf of our local residents, asking the council to turn down plans for a large site on the road where I live. The former Thanet Press works is a lovely jumble of buildings from the earlier Bobby & Co, the first Victorian printers on the site, up to 1950s modernist blocks built when Thanet Press was part of the publisher Eyre & Spotiswoode. I’ve written about the history of the site previously. The plans are to replace this with two large blocks of flats, one storey higher than the surrounding terraces and over twice the height of any buildings currently on the site. The current facade, a pleasing jumble of buildings in different styles, would become one big, uniform building – a tower block laid on it’s side and dressed in an amateur dramatic company’s version of a Georgian costume.

Our ward councillor, Iris Johnston, had called for the plans to be seen by the full committee, after planning, traffic and conservation officers all recommended refusal. And Iris spoke on behalf of the developers last night, who she confirmed she’d had a number of meetings with. She reinforced her credentials as a supporter of the Armed Forces, and suggested that the 64 one and two bed flats to be crammed into the site might be ‘Homes For Heroes’ (there’s no evidence that this is the plan). Iris was taking a brave stand, speaking out against 34 of her constituents, the Resident’s Association in her ward, the town’s Conservation Area Advisory Group, and the council’s own officers, who’d all objected to the plans – not one local had written in support of them. Iris asked for any decision to be deferred, to allow a site visit to the collection of buildings which are just across the road from the council’s offices.

TP2Thankfully, councillors disagreed with her, with Cllr. Clive Hart pointing out that he’d walked past the site at least a thousand times. The plans were refused unanimously, fourteen committee votes against them.

Here’s what I said last night:

Good evening Chair and members; my name is Dan Thompson. I am a Union Crescent resident  and am speaking on behalf of the Hawley Square Residents Association.

We urge committee members to refuse this application for all the reasons raised by Planning Officers. Residents would like to draw attention to 4 points:

1. Density
Margate Central is already densely populated, and is one of the most deprived areas in the UK with a high concentration of small flats. Existing houses in Union Crescent are split into as many as six flats.
The small flats attract a transient population, which causes problems which the council’s planning department, the Margate Task Force and our ward councillor are aware of.

The housing strategy says we have too many small flats and not enough family houses – a fact highlighted when we moved here, from Worthing, and struggled to find a family home to rent. This scheme proposes 64, 1 and 2-bed flats. This is completely against policy. Instead of addressing a need, this development would make a problem situation, worse. Cllr Hayton spoke earlier about cramming – this is cramming on a massive scale.

2. Highways
These additional flats with 1 parking space will be harmful to the amenity of all neighbours, and is against policy D1.
The strain on street parking and pedestrian movement highlighted in the officer’s report is increased by large numbers driving in from elsewhere and using the mosque, churches and the Theatre Royal. And this in a road already busy with buses and delivery lorries. We are particularly concerned about the problem of crossing at the top of Pump Lane and note the Highways Officer’s concerns about crossings for those with impaired mobility.

3. Heritage
Union Crescent is in a Conservation area. It is lined with a variety of fine buildings, many grade II listed.
The collection of industrial buildings that form Thanet Press are unique and tell the story of earlier prinetsr on this site and of a nationally-important company, founded in 1770, printing everything from bibles to Royal Wedding invitations and exam papers. Policy says these buildings should be protected or enhanced. Wiping out this history would be harmful to the Conservation Area.

The massive block of flats proposed would be overbearing and even more harmful to Union Crescent,  Princes Street and its Listed neighbours.

Demolition and redevelopment is only permitted if it would enhance the Conservation area. This does not enhance the area, and should be refused because it is against national policy and local policy D1.

The existing buildings can adapted and re-used. Their heritage celebrated. Other developers do this –The Vinyl Factory in West London, Butler’s Wharf on the Thames and Circus Street Market in Brighton are all premium developments because of their history.

There is no evidence of any attempt to preserve these buildings and people like me, who’ve approached the agents, have never had a reply, or have been told the site is unavailable.

4. Employment
Which leads to my final point; employment. Thanet Press at one time provided employment for 300 people. While the economy has changed, there is still a need for employment in the area, which has above average unemployment.

At the same time, businesses like mine are unable to find suitable premises and creative studios and coworking spaces across the town – of which there are a remarkably high number – are all at capacity.
No other site in Margate lends itself so well to a mixed ecology of studios, offices, spaces for small-scale manufacture, live-work units – all with an excellent street-facing façade and just a minute from the old town which is also at full capacity. This is in line with both local and national policy.

Thanet Press boarded up is a problem; but opened up by good development and new use, this could be the biggest opportunity Margate has to embed the emerging creative economy in the town centre.

Thank you.

nb The above is taken from my notes and is not a transcript of what was said so may vary slightly from any recording.