Matthew Crampton

The folk musician’s story and folksong show uses local history to bring audiences face to face with global issues of migration. Human Cargo comes to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 5 June

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One evening recently I was talking on BBC Radio Lancashire about a young man from Blackburn called William Stirzaker. In 1850 William was caught stealing a coat, for which he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years. The next day I got a message from a young woman called Lauren Stirzaker, who’d heard the broadcast and wondered if they were related. The name is not common. I sent her links to William on convict websites.

Two weeks later I took my show Human Cargo to Blackburn. It’s an evening of words and folk music based on my book Human Cargo: stories and songs of emigration, slavery and transportation (no, it’s not a bundle of laughs, in case you were wondering). The show gives voice to migrants and exiles from past centuries, to cast light on today’s migrations.

Two of the main characters in the show are Sophia Clifton and Olive King, teenagers from the Brighton workhouse, who in 1839 were transported for 14 years for trying to steal clothing worth seven shillings. The official purpose behind such savagery unfolds over the evening.

Other characters we follow include a boy kidnapped from Aberdeen in 1743 and sold as an indentured servant in Virginia, a community from South Uist in the Western Isles evicted during the Highland Clearances to Quebec – where they were dumped in late autumn, with no food, money or shelter – and the enslaved African Olaudah Equiano.

I weave in local stories wherever we perform. During the section on transportation, I talked of William Stirzaker and, seeing an immediate reaction from row four, I guessed his descendant Lauren was there. She was, with her father. I introduced them. Audiences love such moments when the history comes alive.

But a greater coincidence was yet to strike.

As ever, people stir when history taps them on the shoulder

There’s a point in the show where I mention that much British wealth was derived from slavery – which still surprises some people – and that signs of the largesse still surround us. I talk of the UCL website Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. “Type in a town and you can find out who benefitted locally from enslavement.”

In Blackburn this meant Joseph Fielden, the local MP between 1865 and 1869, who was compensated £13,500 for the loss of his slaves in Jamaica. The fact that abolition compensated slavers, not the enslaved, still surprises some people. As soon as I mentioned Fielden’s name, the audience got agitated. Hands pointed upwards. There on the wall was a plaque saying this very building – a community hall – was built by Joseph Fielden. “The Fielden’s Arms is next door,” someone shouted. I’d noticed neither. As ever, people stir when history taps them on the shoulder.

Later on the tour, I said, as usual: “So I type in wherever we’re performing – to see how guilty the place is.” (An old trick for raising anticipation, and competitiveness.) “St Albans surprised me. Nothing. The town was clean. Unlike Welwyn or Hatfield nearby. Last night in Cardigan was more typical – one local slaveowner. And then I tried today’s city.” The audience tittered. We were in Bristol.

“Wow. 289 individuals, each significantly compensated for owning slaves. There’s nowhere like it outside London.”

It’s easy to talk slavery in Bristol. But it’s best to make it local. “Like Mayor Charles Pinney, who was compensated £28,400 for 1,476 enslaved on 12 plantations in Nevis, St Kitts and British Guiana. That’s around £16.5 million today. Pinney lived in the house over the road, and he worshipped here at St George’s” (where we were performing).

People shuffled in their seats, looked around.

I also tell stories of people migrating to the area. In October 1914, two families called Bartholet moved into 73 Pembroke Road, Bristol. They’d previously spent 10 days hiding in the cellar of their house in a small Belgian town, listening while German soldiers executed hundreds of men outside. An aunt was killed by a stray bullet. They escaped. While hiding in a wood, one of the mothers gave birth. They made it to Bristol, some of nearly a quarter of a million Belgian refugees welcomed to Britain that autumn.

As the Bertholet children enrolled at school in Clifton, they must have borne great trauma. So, too, many of the refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Britain today. In London I talked of Eiad Zinah, a dentist from Damascus, whose frightening journey led to him working in Starbucks. Or another Syrian, Milad Arbash, who watched others drown around him on a flimsy inflatable, reached Derby – and started at Marks & Spencer. Refugees have always had to fit in.

Fortunately there are people throughout Britain helping them. For each performance of Human Cargo, as for my previous show The Transports, I partner with local refugee support groups. This Parallel Lives project now has a network of 50 groups across the country – from rural volunteers gathering clothes for Calais to sophisticated city organisations providing legal, financial and psychological support. The Refugee Council has been a strong support from the start. The current Human Cargo tour leads up to the remarkable UK Refugee Week (18-24 June), which celebrates what refugees bring to Britain.

History has always been shaped by the crossing of oceans by desperate people. Parallel Lives seeks to show, locally, how migration works both ways. In Glasgow, my stories contrasted Patricia Nganga, a nurse who fled Congo Brazzaville and reached Glasgow, with John Lattimer, a handloom weaver from Paisley, exiled for life to New South Wales for some teenage high jinks in 1829.

On 5 June Human Cargo comes to another city linked closely with slavery – Liverpool. You can expect to hear some fascinating local tales, along with some glorious folk music courtesy of oldtime American musician Jeff Warner. Find out more about the show at Book tickets at

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