Enslaved People, Judges and Criminals: Sugar Cutters at The Judges Lodgings
Amy Stanning | Lancaster University
Volunteering at the Judges Lodgings Museum Lancaster is the perfect role for a historian. The opportunity to explain the place of what is Lancaster’s oldest house, to visitors, and to introduce them to the varied range of artefacts on display is a wonderful privilege. The house was rebuilt in much of its current form in the early seventeenth century and in the early nineteenth century was acquired to provide an appropriately comfortable and luxurious residence for the circuit judges who heard cases at Lancaster Assizes court each March and August. In 1973 it was decided the visiting judges would benefit from more ‘modern’ accommodation, and the building became the museum we have today.
The museum has a varied collection and is celebrated for its magnificent collection of Gillow’s furniture, all made in Lancaster and many pieces with associations with the building. Also included are the Gillow’s museum and a museum of childhood.
The gallery rooms offer visitors the opportunity to experience the building as it typically would have been laid out in the mid-nineteenth century. These include a billiards room, sumptuous dining room and drawing room, all displaying examples of Gillow’s craftsmanship.
My favourite room is the Victorian Servants’ Hall, laid out to represent a working kitchen and the servants’ base for when not required elsewhere in the house. Of the many intriguing artefacts in the Hall are a pair of Victorian sugar cutters.
The cutters drawn from Lancashire’s artefact inventory are in some ways unremarkable. Approximately 20 cm long and made from dark iron, they resemble a pair of scissors with blunt ends where the blades would be. They are an open-access item and can be handled by the public.
Why do I find such a modest item, surrounded by so many fine examples of both artisan craftsmanship and art so fascinating?
As a room steward, explaining why the sugar cutters were an important artefact in the house gives me a wonderful opportunity to contextualise the building and its use in the history of the city, the tastes of the visiting judges and the economy of sugar, with all its connotations. The cutters were used to break up the cones of sugar brought by the city’s grocers to the house. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, tea was an item of mass consumption, and the judges would have appreciated their ‘brew’ as much as anyone else. Indeed, taking tea was a feature of the conduct of polite society. Tea was drunk sweet, so plenty of sugar was needed. Sugar was also in much demand for baking, with voluminous quantities of cake being consumed by the judges and their guests. The rough pieces of sugar cut from the cone with the cutters would be granulated using a pestle and mortar.
In the late-eighteenth century, Lancaster was a thriving port at the heart of the triangular trade with the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean. The barbaric transport of slaves for the importation of sugar and other valuable commodities is memorialised today in Lancaster’s memorial to Captured Africans at Lune Square.
Sugar was boiled down in Sugarhouses in Lancaster, dried as cones and sold in Lancaster and beyond through a network of merchants and grocers. It was a short journey from the Sugarhouse to the house via Lancaster’s grocers.
My fascination for the sugar cutters ties in the linkage they provide to Lancaster’s trading past and the sufferings and degradations of the enslaved plantation workers who grew the cane in the West Indies. The cutters also connect the production of the sugar to the judges and their distinguished visitors who consumed the sugar. Indeed, the unfortunate defendants in the cases heard by the judges are also connected, as although they consumed their tea in grim surroundings, they too were connected to the sugar economy as they drank their sweet tea.
Any historian would love the opportunity to unpack so much from a simple set of sugar cutters, the story of sugar and the people that consumed it and to explain the connections the sugar cutters make to enslaved people, judges and criminals.
Amy Stanning is a PhD Student in the History Department at Lancaster University. Amy's research interest is in the public finances of the British eighteenth century' Fiscal Military state'. Her research project considers the development of differential taxation contributions within the population as taxation policy evolved and consumer consumption developed in response to the commodities newly available within the expanding imperial economy.