UK Heritage

Lord Mayor of London in Confederate Controversy

(The original version of this article appeared in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No.47 under the title 'Places in Britain of Civil War Interest: The Mansion House, London')

 

An enthusiastic reception in the City of London for the envoy from the Confederacy resulted in a swift counterblast from outspoken veteran British abolitionist, George Thompson.

 

 


Born in Liverpool on 18 June 1804, George Thompson first became widely known as an advocate of the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. In October 1833 a series of lectures by him led to the formation of the Edinburgh Society 'for the abolition of slavery throughout the world.' He also lectured and took part in public discussions in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Bath and elsewhere. In September 1834 he undertook a mission to America. He engaged with William Lloyd Garrison, Whittier, and other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and was instrumental in forming upwards of 300 branch associations for that object. He is said to have caused by his speeches the failure of Thomas Jefferson Randolph's so-called 'Port Natal' plan for emancipation in Virginia. He was denounced by Andrew Jackson in a Presidential message and his life was frequently in danger: at the end of 1835 he had to escape from Boston in an open boat to an English vessel bound for New Brunswick, whence he returned to England. On his return he was received with wild enthusiasm in various large towns. He revisited America in 1851 and again during the Civil War, when a public reception was given to him in the House of Representatives in the presence of President Lincoln and the majority of the cabinet.

 

While in London during the war he spoke earnestly in favour of the Union cause on occasions, including a public censure of the then Lord Mayor of London, William Rose, for his controversial hosting of the Confederate commissioner in London, James Mason.

 

George ThompsonWilliam Anderson Rose, of Scottish descent, was born in London on 16 August 1820. He died at his House, Bifrons, Upper Tooting, on 9 June 1881, and is understood to be buried at St Mary's Church, Battersea.

 

In February 1863 Mason made a speech at a banquet at the Mansion House "in reference to the existing relations between the Confederate States of America and the English Government. He was a guest ... at a dinner at which the Lord Mayor & the Lady Mayoress entertained the aldermen and the members of the Court of Common Council for various wards.

 

Towards the end of the entertainment the Lord Mayor proposed the toast of 'The Visitors', referring particularly to the presence of the Mayor of Quebec and Mr Mason. The mention of the latter gentleman's name elicited loud cheers. His Lordship proceeded to say, alluding to Mr Mason, that although he could not greet that gentleman as a recognised plenipotentiary to this country he was perfectly justified, by virtue of his position as chief magistrate of the City of London, in offering to him..a hearty welcome in his official residence.

 

Mr Mason, responding to an urgent invitation of the company, presented himself to speak, and was received with enthusiastic cheers. He said - 'My Lord Mayor, my Lady Mayoress, my lords, ladies and gentlemen, but that I feel deeply the obligations I am under to the honoured chief magistrate of this city for permission to be present tonight I should feel strongly disposed to pick a quarrel. His lordship has not chosen to remember that here, in England, I am not considered of full age; that I am yet in my minority. The Government of England ... has declared that the country which I represent beyond that broad water has not yet attained years of discretion, and is not capable of managing its own affairs. (A laugh) I say, therefore, that but for really being overwhelmed by the kind and generous manner in which I have been received by this honoured company, and in the presence of your chief magistrate, I should have been disposed to say, in the language of a poet: -

 

You would scarce expect one of my age

To speak in public on the stage

 

My Lord Mayor, I am a stranger in London - or, rather, I was a stranger, but I have learnt since I came to London that none of English blood from my own Southern land are strangers among you. (Cheers) I speak this from my heart (cheers), for I have been by every circle in England and by every class of society a welcomed and an honoured guest. (Cheers) I return my sincere thanks to you for the kindness with which you have listened to a stranger. The day will come (great cheering) - it is not far off - when the relationship between that Government which is now in its infant fortune and yours will be one of close and intimate alliance. (Renewed cheers) I say this more especially as regards the city of London, which is the great market for the world'.

 

The Pro-Unionist party in London was not impressed. On 19th February 1863, the Pro-Confederate 'Index' paper reported its public response: -

 

"On Wednesday evening a meeting of the 'Emancipation Society' was held at St James' Hall (Piccadilly). A third part of the hall was set apart for those who were willing to pay a shilling admission, the rest of the place was free to those who were willing to agree to everything that was said. Some persons who were foolish enough to express dissent were ignominiously 'turned out'. Mr George Thompson moved a resolution condemning the Lord Mayor for inviting Mr Mason to the Mansion House and, according to the report of the Daily News, 'denounced Mr Mason, contending that the Newgate Calendar did not contain the name of so black a felon, so dire an enemy of God and man, as he who was entertained at the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor. (Loud cheers). A man stealer and a fugitive-slave kidnapper, as Mr Mason was, was unworthy to unloose the latchet of any gentlemanly highwayman in the land. (Immense cheering).' The Times happily describes the persons who have arrogated to themselves the title of 'The Emancipation Society' as 'the very small dogs who have taken possession of the old lion's den.' "

 

Thompson died on 7 October 1878. He was held to be an excellent speaker and 'of attractive manner in society'. John Bright always considered him to have been 'the liberator of the slaves in the English colonies.'

 

 

ACWRT (UK) 1994 & 2002

 

Acknowledgements:

 

Special thanks to Charles Priestley for additional material, and for providing the picture of William Rose (see below)

 

Picture of William Anderson Rose, Lord Mayor of London, is reproduced here by kind permission of The Guildhall Library, London