Henry Laurens in England, 1771–1772


December 6, 2018
by Will Monk Also by this Author


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On October 9, 1771, a ship arrived at the southwestern tip of England. The Earl of Halifax had spent twenty nine days crossing the Atlantic from New York, and now its captain and crew peered at the shore to find the entrance to Falmouth harbor. The sun was going down in the west, but the sails caught enough wind to take the ship and passengers safely to a dock as the light faded. On board was Henry Laurens, a rice merchant and slave trader from South Carolina, with two of his sons and an African slave named Scipio. Together they stepped on shore and found a tavern where they could eat and sleep. Henry Laurens had been to Europe once before as a young man, but on this trip, as an active businessman, he wrote numerous letters to family and friends; his letters, along with the writings of other travelers of the era, provide a vivid picture of his experiences.

The next day the visitors took a tour of Falmouth: shipyards, churches, warehouses, fields, gardens, and two citadels—Pendennis Castle and St. Maw’s Castle—each with a view of the city, its ship cluttered port, and the vast ocean beyond.[1]

The Laurens party took a carriage north on dirt roads through County Cornwall. Sheep and cattle bellowed on the distant hills. Every few miles the carriage came to a village, and many houses had a front yard, no matter how small or close to the road, with flowers and vines growing across stone walls that separated one property from another. The Laurens party stopped for the night at a tavern before travelling with fresh horses into Devon and Somerset, farther up the long peninsula that led into the heart of England. They took another night of rest before reaching their next stop, the city of Bristol.[2]

Bristol was the second largest city in England, and home to a slave trading fleet that sailed to Africa, the West Indies, and America. Its harbor on Bristol Channel could hold a hundred ships, with sails and masts swaying in the tide. These ships carried all manner of goods from America and Europe: apples, beef, beer, cod, coconuts, deerskins, herring, indigo, linen, linseed, flaxseed, pine boards, poplar boards, white oak planks, pig iron, pork, rum, mackerel, salt, and sugar. Incoming ships had to stop at ports in England to pay a customs tax before going to Ireland—even when it took ships longer than a direct trip to the Irish coast. Laurens walked over a bridge that crossed the Avon River. The statue of a former king, Charles II, stood in front of the offices for the city’s mayor and sheriff. Beyond that was the Exchange: merchants set up their stalls to sell fruits, vegetables, beef, linens, wool, farm tools, and ship supplies to crewmen about to leave on slaving voyages. Laurens and his party stayed only a day, tending to details of a ship that would carry a cargo of rice from South Carolina, before setting out again.[3]

They rode thirteen miles southeast, to Bath. It was built above ancient Roman ruins, yet much of the city was new and laid out to please the English gentry that came on holidays. Unlike Bristol’s irregular streets, Bath had wide, paved streets leading to a crescent of townhouses, with iron railings parallel to the street. A public garden was called Orange Square, in honor of the Prince of Orange—ruler of the Netherlands—who had visited there. The Town Hall stood over the market, in a stone building with twenty four pillars showing effigies of ancient kings. Most of the tourists, however, came to enjoy spas called the King’s Bath, Queen’s Bath, Hot Bath, Cold Bath and Leper’s Bath. At the Cross Bath—which had a statue of the Holy Ghost attended by angels—musicians sat on a balcony, playing to the visitors below. Crowds filled Bath when Henry arrived, so he had to wait for the quiet of evening to enjoy the city.[4]

A day or two later Laurens led his sons and slave east again, toward London. The driver was careful to look for highway robbers, who hid in the forest to pounce on carriages coming out of Bath and Bristol. A series of toll roads had been built across England, so the driver also stopped to pay the highest price for a loaded carriage, while others paid less for riding a single horse, or leading a herd of sheep from one field to another. When the carriage reached a hill, the horses fed while the driver put chocks behind the wheels to keep his carriage from rolling backwards.[5]

The group traveled a hundred miles before the capital came into view. Although close to London, the carriage travelled through farm country as hens and chickens flew away from the horses’ pounding hooves. Children ran up and down rolling hills that seemed to flow toward the city, like waves on the ocean. They passed Greenford Fields and Ealing Common, where farmers took their goats to graze, and within half an hour the carriage passed Kensington Palace and the gardens surrounding it. The carriage turned south again, on winding roads past Erle’s [Earls] Court, Brompton, and Queen’s Elme, until it got close to the Thames River. Henry Laurens, his sons and the slave took a house in Chelsea, a neighborhood just west of London. By now, after a week in Britain, Scipio insisted on being called Robert Laurens, as if he were a free man.[6]

Henry Laurens spent the next several weeks exploring London. He walked from his rented house a few miles into the capital; he was one of many American visitors who complained of the city’s crowds and noise. One man wrote home of the racket caused by creaking carriages in narrow streets; a second man wrote of London’s “tumult and confusion;” a woman claimed that everyone seemed in a hurry. Benjamin Franklin apologized to a friend in America for not writing him a letter, because he was so frequently interrupted by visitors and was expected to return visits of acquaintances who urged him to take in amusements in London. Laurens took so much time writing letters to people in America, conducting business for other men in the city, and visiting or receiving acquaintances of his own, that he had time for only one amusement—seeing a play with his son at Theatre Royal.[7]

Laurens often went to the Carolina Coffee House and Bank Coffee House, to meet tourists from America and receive mail from business agents in Britain. There were dozens of similar taverns in London—Pennsylvania, New England, Wenman’s, Amsterdam, French, Tennis Court, Garraway’s, and Lloyd’s, among others—hosting customers from North America and Europe. Lloyd’s and Garraway’s posted a list of ships coming to, and going from, London. The nearby post office had rooms for different seaports in Europe with a mail schedule, ship names, dates and times of delivery for each. People paid the postage and put their mail through a glass door with hinges. The post office also had a board with the names of people for whom mail was waiting.[8]

As in Bristol, the Thames River was cluttered with ships carrying items from the Caribbean and North America: gold, Spanish and French coins, rum, lime juice, coconuts, molasses, cotton, white ginger, black ginger, tar, pitch, turpentine and whale fins. There was a separate price for pimentos from the islands of Jamaica and Montserrat. As for North American furs, merchants in London specified separate prices for those from foxes, raccoons, mink, otters, beavers, wolves, seals, deer and elk, all carried off ships by crewmen and laid out on tables for inspection. Within days of his arrival in London, Henry Laurens wrote letters to other merchants about ships named AnnJohnVine, Friendship, and Rialto. He took special interest in shipments of deer skins from America, and likely spent time at the docks while walking between London and the suburb of Chelsea.[9]

Laurens soon moved to a house on Fludyer Street, in Westminster, a suburb closer to the ancient city. London had been surrounded by stone walls and gates forty feet high for centuries, which had been dismantled in the years before Laurens arrived. Only fragments of the wall remained. The city of Westminster surrounded old London, and was home to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and royal residences at St. James’s Palace and Buckingham House. Being in Westminster was as good as being in London itself, and the lack of medieval walls made it hard to see where one city ended and the other began. Laurens dated his letters from both places, from week to week, as he traveled between the two.[10]

Westminster was also home to a vast array of merchants. Covent Garden was an open square several blocks long, enclosed by townhouses. A marketplace stood in the middle, where bakers brought hot loaves each morning, and farmers sold their fruits and vegetables. Butchers, dairy maids, soldiers, tailors, children, and dogs wandered the square. Neighboring streets had jewelers, goldsmiths, chemists, tailors, hat makers, pastry cooks, music publishers, and tea sellers. Farther away from the refined neighborhoods were breweries, blacksmith shops, glassmakers, and cloth dyers, all using coal ovens. Some breweries burned the coal beforehand to remove sulfur and bitumen, which took away two thirds of its weight but produced coke, and used this to make a sweeter and lighter colored beer. Other factories had little need for it, so the ovens ran on raw coal: belching smoke and ashes that lingered over the streets. Wives scrubbed brooms on their houses and doors; deliverymen brushed soot off their horses. Only rainfall cleared the air for a few hours, before smoke rose out of industrial chimneys again.[11]

While Henry Laurens conducted business, other visitors and residents of London saw the capital’s many attractions. Mrs. Salmon’s wax museum, on Fleet Street, featured models of King Arthur and his knights, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra and the asp that killed her, Queen Elizabeth, King William, Queen Mary, Queen Anne, princesses of South Wales from Roman times, and the mythical Princess Andromeda—chained to a rock to be ravished by a sea monster. Ranelagh House was built like a Roman amphitheater, with 365 windows, and hosted vocal and instrumental concerts. Chelsea Hospital (for soldiers) offered meals to the public in a room filled with paintings, while Greenwich Hospital (for sailors) was built like a palace, with similar halls and chapels filled with paintings and sculptures. At Westminster Abbey visitors saw graves of several kings and queens, and monuments to poets and naval heroes. At Saint Paul’s Cathedral they climbed a winding staircase to the whispering gallery, saw bells in the church dome, and walked outside to a balcony that stood high above the city—although smoke from industrial chimneys obscured the view. At the Tower of London visitors walked through rooms filled with plunder captured from the Spanish Armada, then saw a line of wooden horses carrying statues of knights in armor, each inlaid with gold. After this they found the royal treasury, with crowns, scepters, globes and spurs on display.[12]

In January 1772, Laurens returned to Bath and Bristol. He stayed several weeks: inspecting cargoes, speaking with sailors, writing letters to those who would buy his shipments of rice or deer skins. He heard of storms in South Carolina, and shipwrecks at sea. Two men in Bristol offered to sell Laurens a ship of captured Africans, all going to America. At one point, Laurens was in the middle of writing a letter and was interrupted by so much business he did not finish the letter until four days later.[13]

In March, he traveled to Portsmouth, a city on the English Channel. Portsmouth was also home to the Royal Navy, so it was filled with maritime business. Laurens saw the Round Tower, Square Tower, and Southsea Castle, stone citadels built centuries earlier to guard the city from an attack, and the castle boasted a hundred and forty cannons, pointing toward the Channel. At the rope factory men could make five tons of hemp rope per day, twisted into cables as much as six hundred yards long and twenty three inches in diameter, for use on ocean-going ships. Blacksmiths in the forge swung hammers like weapons, flashing sparks with every hit, and the anchors they made were so large and heavy they had to be moved on rollers. A salt factory had twelve iron pans—each eight feet long, eight feet wide, and nine inches deep—where men boiled and drained ocean water to produce salt. A thousand men worked near the shipyard and at noon, when a bell rang, workers scoured the docks for stray pieces of lumber, to be taken home for firewood. The far end of Portsmouth’s yard had a barracks for invalids, a sailor’s chapel, and a naval academy where boys in blue uniforms learned seamanship before joining the Royal Navy as ensigns. The Charter House, another school, had a ship’s model of HMS Victory—six feet long—with rigging, cannons and anchors all protected by a glass case.[14]

Beyond all this, in the wide harbor, was the Royal Navy. Dozens of warships rested at anchor. Each ship carried fifty, sixty, eighty, or a hundred cannons, serving as a mirror of the cannons on shore. Thousands of crewmen worked and slept on these ships, gossiping about where they had been and where they might sail next. The fleet at anchor represented the nation’s power and majesty, and a traveling minister who saw the collected ships at sea called them “the glory of the British nation.”[15]

Henry Laurens left England to conduct additional business on the European continent, not knowing that just a few years in the future he would be part of the revolutionary government waging war against some of those very ships at anchor in Portsmouth.


[1]Henry Laurens to William Cowles, October 10, 1771, Henry Laurens to James Laurens, October 10, 1771, Henry Laurens to Felix Warley, October 10, 1771, and Henry Laurens to William Fisher, October 12, 1771, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book, 37/5, Henry Laurens Papers, South Carolina Historical Society.

[2]John Dickinson to Mary Dickinson, August 1, 1754, Box 5, John Dickinson Papers, Library Company of Philadelphia (houses and walls); Stephen Salisbury Diary, 1766, Volume 2, Octavo 7, 38–52, Salisbury Family Papers, American Antiquarian Society, and Jabez Maud Fisher Travel Book, January 4–February 28, 1776, Thomas Fisher Family Papers, MC 2004.1, Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College, both mention the sounds of cattle and sheep on English fields. Their travel to Bristol by carriage is in Henry Laurens to George Appleby, October 31, 1771, Henry Laurens Letter Book.

[3]Abstract of Exports and Imports of Ireland, 1764–1773, Wolfe of Forenaughts Mss., M2482, National Archives of Ireland, and Samuel Smith to his father, August 15, 1772, Samuel Smith Letter Book, Box 1, Samuel Smith Family Papers, Library of Congress (both on trade products); Henry Laurens to James Laurens, October 19, 1771, and Henry Laurens to Felix Warley, October 19, 1771, both in Henry Laurens Letter Book (in Bristol); Jabez Maud Fisher Travel Book, January 4–February 28, 1776 (description of Bristol).

[4]Jabez Maud Fisher Travel Book, ibid (description of Bath); and Henry Laurens to William Fisher, Jr., October 24, 1771, Henry Laurens Letter Book (crowds).

[5]Francis Goelet Diary, April 27–May 15, 1747, BV Goelet, Francis, New-York Historical Society; Stephen Salisbury Diary, 1766, Volume 2, Octavo 7, 44–56; Jabez Maud Fisher Travel Book, February 28–March 5, 1776 (all on journeys through countryside). The Salisbury Diary specifies highway robbers in Britain, and The John Greenwood Diary #4, 1763–65, pages 51-60, BV Greenwood, John, New-York Historical Society, records a journey coming the other direction, west from Dover to London, which also mentions highways robbers.

[6]John Dickinson to his mother, August 1, 1754, John Dickinson Papers (children on hills); John Rocque. An Exact Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (London: John Rocque, 1746), passim. This is a detailed map of a ten mile radius of London, in book form. The house in Chelsea is from Henry Laurens to William Carter, October 30, 1771, and Scipio’s name change is from Henry Laurens to William Cowles, October 10, 1771, Henry Laurens to James Laurens, October 10, 1771, Henry Laurens to George Appleby, October 31, 1771, and Henry Laurens to Lewis Gervais, November 7, 1771, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book.

[7]Henry Laurens to William Cowles, October 30, 1771, February 17, 1772, and December 30, 1771, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book (his life in London); Stephen Salisbury Diary, 1766, Volume 1, Octavo 6, 23–75 (crowds and carriages); John Dickinson to Mary Dickinson, January 19, 1754, John Dickinson Papers (narrow streets); Edward Winslow Journal, January 29, 1755, New York Public Library (tumult and confusion); Elizabeth White to Thomas White, April 17, 1747 (everyone seemed in a hurry) and Benjamin Franklin to Mr. Hall, April 8, 1759 (interruptions), both in Park Collection, Independence National Historical Park; Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, December 17, 1771 (name of theater). In his letter of February 17, Laurens wrote, “O how disagreeable the Noise even of this quiet part of this Noisy City.”

[8]Henry Laurens to Ann Foster, October 24, 1771, Henry Laurens to William Cowles, October 29, 1771 and October 31, 1771, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, November 19, 1771, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book (Carolina and Bank Coffee Houses); Francis Goelet Diary, December 25, 1750, and April 1, 1751, BV Goelet, Francis, New-York Historical Society (other coffee houses, and post office); Edward Winslow Journal, February 17, 1755, New York Public Library (Tennis Court Coffee House).

[9]Henry Laurens to William Cowles, October 29, 1771, Henry Laurens to William Carter, October 30, 1771, Henry Laurens to Felix Warley, November 6, December 5, and December 14, 1771, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, November 25, 1771, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book (deer skins, and names of ships); “Price of Sundry American Goods in London,” no date, Revolutionary War Miscellaneous Collection, Box 6, undated folder, 1717–1853, New-York Historical Society (cargo on ships).

[10]Henry Laurens to James Laurens, November 19, 1771, and Henry Laurens to William Freeman, November 23, 1771, both in Henry Laurens Letter Book (house on Fludyer Street); Roy Porter. London: A Social History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 106—35 (London walls).

[11]Sheila O’Connell. London: 1753(London: British Museum Press, 1999), 11-22 (Covent Garden, and shops); John Nickolls. Remarques sur les advantages et les Desavantages de la France et de la Gr. Bretagne(Amsterdam: Francois Changuion, 1754), 120-45. “John Nickolls” was a pen name for Louis Joseph Plumard de Danguel. Both the Edward Winslow Journal January 29, 1755, and the Stephen Salisbury Diary, 1766, Volume 1, Octavo 6, 23-45, mention smoke and fog in London.

[12]Francis Goelet Diary, January 31–February 14, 1746/7, and December 25, 1750 (wax museum, hospitals and the Tower); Thomas Fisher Diary, March 27–June 28, 1763, MC 2004.1, Fisher Family Papers, passim (Abbey, Saint Paul’s and the Tower). John Greenwood Diary #4, 1763–65, New-York Historical Society, Travel Diary of Joseph Shippen, 1760–61, am. 1373, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Phillis Wheatley to David Wooster, October 18, 1773, Hugh Upton Clark Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, all mention visits to the Abbey and the Tower. Wheatley’s letter cites the “Horse Armory, small armory, the Crowns, Sceptres and Diadems” at the Tower of London.

[13]Henry Laurens to William Cowles, January 2 and January 11, 1772, Henry Laurens to Ross and Mill, January 15, 1772, Henry Laurens to Felix Warley, February 3, 1772, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, February 6–10, 1772, all in Henry Laurens Letter Book

[14]Francis Goelet Diary, April 28–29, 1747 (ship’s model); Richard Pococke to his mother, July 25, 1754, Journal of Dr. Richard Pococke’s Travels in England and Wales, Add. Ms. 23000, British Library (boys in uniform, invalids, spare lumber and ropeyard); Edward Winslow Journal, June 25, 1755 (a thousand workers); Journal of Charles Carroll’s Voyage to London, June 17–18, 1757, MS 216, Maryland Historical Society (fortifications and shipyard); Jabez Maud Fisher Travel Journal, February 29–March 3, 1776 (citadels, cannons and blacksmiths); Memorandum Book of John Baylor, October, 1775–March, 1778, Series III, Box 4, Baylor Family Papers, MSS 2257, Small Library, University of Virginia (salt works).

[15]Thomas Fisher Diary, March 28, 1764 (ships described); George Whitefield Journal, August 7, 1744, Princeton Theological Seminary Library (“glory” quote).


  • Excellent piece! I love the period detail. I have so often wondered what colonial Americans would have seen when they embarked in the mother country. Thanks for your efforts,Will!

  • I too enjoyed the vivid period descriptions of London and its environs, plus learning more about Henry Laurens.

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