29 October 2022

A church in London says
goodbye to the legacy of
an 18th century slave trader

An empty niche in Saint Botolph without Aldgate once held the bust of Sir John Cass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was visiting Saint Botolph without Aldgate last week in my search for the story of Dame Dorothy Comberford and the Poor Clare nuns of the Minories, where she was one of the last Abbesses.

I wrote about Saint Botolph’s after a visit in early 2020. But I noticed last week that, since that visit, the bust of the 17th-18th century slave trader Sir John Cass has been removed from the church porch in response to a growing awareness of his involvement in the slave trade.

The bust was removed on 18 June 2020 with the approval of the Archdeacon of London after a vote at an emergency meeting of Saint Botolph’s parochial church council. The niche in the porch that once held his bust is now vacant, with a simple sign explaining the decision taken by the parish.

The decision to distance the parish from the former benefactor and from his involvement in the slave trade followed a similar decision by Sir John Cass secondary school in Stepney to change its name and a decision by the Cass Foundation in the City to of London remove a similar bust.

‘We voted unanimously to seek permission to remove the bust’, the Rector of Saint Botolph’s, the Revd Laura Jørgensen, said in a statement to the East London Advertiser.

‘We apologise for the years spent celebrating the legacy of a man without understanding the origin of his wealth, gained through slavery and human exploitation,’ she said. ‘Removing the bust is an important step in acknowledging that history, but it’s not the end of our journey. We are a diverse congregation and promise to do all we can to eradicate racism, discrimination and inequality.’

John Cass was born near Aldgate in 1661 and was a City alderman and sheriff before being elected an MP in 1712. He had set up a school in Aldgate for 50 boys and 40 girls in 1710 and rented buildings in Saint Botolph’s churchyard.

Cass’s name is linked with many institutions in the East End and the City. His foundation set up in 1748 gives grants to promote education in inner London, including the secondary school in Stepney Way and a primary school in Aldgate both named after him.

The secondary school has since changed its name to Stepney All Saints’ School. Two universities also adopted the name Cass for centres of learning with funding from the foundation.

The Metropolitan University’s Cass School of Arts was embroiled in controversy five years ago when the Aldgate and Whitechapel campuses were occupied by students to stop them being closed. The protest stopped the arts school being transferred to the university’s main campus in Holloway. The school also changed its name after the protest.

City University’s business school in Clerkenwell adopted the name Cass in 2002 following a donation from the foundation to promote education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It set about reviewing of all its historic funding sources to find out if there are any other links with slavery.

The foundation commissioned an independent academic in February to look into links to the slave trade. It reaffirmed its ‘abhorrence of racism and discrimination’ in an initial statement following George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests around the world.

Statues or busts of Cass have also been removed from the University of East London Stratford Campus; the façade of 31 Jewry Street in the City of London, headquarters of Sir John Cass’s Foundation, where the statue was a fiberglass replica of the original; and Sir John Cass Redcoat School, Stepney.

The parish has distanced itself from the legacy of Sir John Cass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The statement in the church porch in Saint Boltoph’s reads:

‘Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, there was an immediate global response which highlighted structural racism, both in the United States and here in the United Kingdom.

‘After the toppling of the Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the spotlight fell on other prominent people who traded in enslaved people and who were honoured with statues. One such person was John Cass (1661-1718). Having founded a school in the churchyard of St Botolph’s in 1710, John Cass endowed it under his Will to provide education to Portsoken’s poor children.

‘John Cass made much of his wealth from the exploitation and death of others in the transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated that he invested today’s equivalent of at least £1 Million Pounds in the Royal African Company. John Cass was involved in the management of the Royal African Company which transported nearly 150,000 enslaved women, men and children from Africa to the Caribbean. There are references to John Cass in this church, for example on the board to your left which records the names of the Aldermen of the Portsoken Ward. He is part of the history of St Botolph’s and as its current custodians we have a duty to speak out against the devastation brought about by the enslavement of human beings made in the image of God.

‘In this niche stood, since 1966, a bust of John Cass. It was a focal point of honouring him at the annual Founder’s Day service held here. The Parochial Church of St Botolph without Aldgate, on the learning the source of John Cass’s wealth, petitioned for a faculty from the Church of England to remove the bust. We leave this space empty, for now, as a sign of our repentance that we had not seriously understood his role in the Royal African Company, and that we had not thought to do a basic search for him.

‘We believe that racism and oppression are a denial of the glorious Gospel of love preached by Jesus Christ and to that end we are to anti-racism, acknowledging where we have fallen short, and doing our best to highlight and address the issue of modern slavery today.’

On Founder’s Day in February each year, the pupils of the Sir John Cass schools wore red quills in their lapels and made their way to Saint Botolph’s Church for a remembrance service, when each pupil receives an orange and a bun recalling the founder’s generosity.

Cass was active in public life in the City of the London as a merchant, builder and politician. This career began when he was elected Alderman for the ward of Portsoken, one of the 25 wards of the City of London.

He was a Conservative MP for the City of London in 1710-1715, and was elected one of the Sheriffs of the City in 1711. In addition, he was a member of the newly-formed Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, set up to oversee building new churches for the expanding population of the City. He was treasurer of both the Bethlem Royal and Bridewell Hospitals in 1709-1715. He was knighted in 1713, became Master of the Carpenters’ Company and in 1714 moved to the Skinners’ Company.

In 1709, Cass founded a school in buildings in the churchyard of Saint Botolph’s in Aldgate, attended by 50 boys and 40 girls. His health began to fail by 1718, prompting him to write a new will in which he hoped to secure future provision for the school, leaving it all the property he had acquired since making his first will.

While completing his new will, Cass suffered a brain haemorrhage and died with only three pages of his new will signed. His heirs contested the latest will in the Court of Chancery and their action continued for 30 years. His will was finally upheld, and the Sir John Cass Foundation was established in 1748.

Cass was buried in the churchyard of Saint Mary Matfelon in Whitechapel. The church was destroyed by fire in 1880. Today, all that remains of the church are a few graves and a small external arch on Whitechapel Road. The churchyard and church area were turned into Saint Mary’s Park, which was renamed the Altab Ali Park in 1998 in memory of the young Bangladeshi clothing worker murdered in 1978.

The bust of Sir John Cass was removed in 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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