Slavery in England

Houses of Parliament, Palace of Westminster, London.

Although property in slaves was recognized at the time of the Conquest, it fell into decline and had ceased to exist by 16th century.


In Cartwright’s Case in 1569, the Court of Queen’s Bench held that flogging a slave could not be justified.  The court was dealing with a Russian slave.


In 1696 in Chamberlain v Harvey or Chamberlaine v Harvey, the Lord Keeper, Sir John Somers, held that trespass did not lie for taking a slave.

In 1701 in Smith v Gould, Chief Justice Holt (who was the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench) held that trover did not lie for taking a slave.  He observed: “By the common law no man can have a property in another” and he added: “there is no such thing as a slave by the law of England”.


In 1705 in Smith v Brown and Cooper, Chief Justice Holt stated: “as soon as a negro comes into England, he becomes free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave”.


Although popular myth has it that it was Chief Justice Mansfield (the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench) who, in 1772 in Somerset v Stewart held that a slave who sets foot in England is free, the actual distinction goes to Lord Henley LC, who, in 1762 in Shanley v Harvey (1762) 2 Eden 126, 28 ER 844 (HC Ch) uttered the immortal words: “As soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free”, and to the earlier decision of the Court of Queen's Bench in Cartwright’s Case in 1569, which held that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.


In 1824 in Forbes v Cochrane (1824) 3 Dow & Ry KB 679 at 742, 2 B & C 448 at 463, 107 ER 450 at 456, 2 State Trials NS 147, Holroyd J held that where a person gets out of the territory where it [sc slavery] prevails and out of the power of his master and gets under the protection of another power, without any wrongful act done by the party giving that protection, the right of the master, which is founded on the municipal law of the particular place only, does not continue.

See also the decision in 1827 of
Lord Stowell, a decision of the High Court of Admiralty, in The Slave, Grace (1827) 2 Hag Adm 94, 166 ER 179, 2 State Trials NS 273.

However, in a concession to slave owners, the common law of England and Scots law were abrogated by s 17 of the Slave Trade Act 1824 to the extent that domestic slaves accompanying their masters to the United Kingdom did not become free.  This created new problems because devious slave owners use this loophole as a method for transporting slaves, pretending that the slaves were domestic slaves accompanying their masters: see Two Slaves (1828) 2 Hag Adm 273, 166 ER 244 (HC Admir), per Sir Christopher Robinson; The Adelaide (1829) 2 Hag Adm 230, 166 ER 228 (HC Admir), per Sir Christopher Robinson; The Slave, Fanny Ford (1829) 2 Hag Adm 271, 166 ER 243 (HC Admir), per Sir Christopher Robinson; Three Slaves (1832) 2 Hag Adm 412, 166 ER 294 (HC Admir), per Sir Christopher Robinson; The Slave, Duncan (1832) 2 Hag Adm 427, 166 ER 299 (HC Admir), per Sir Christopher Robinson.




Last Updated April 03, 2007


inks to other sites also dealing with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire:

British campaign against slavery

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1846)

Thomas Clarkson  (1760-1845)

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

Slave Trade Act 1807

Slave Trade Act 1843

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Joseph Sturge (1793-1859)

William Wilberforce  (1759-1833)

Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in the USA:


Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Abraham Lincoln

American Civil War

13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights

Links to pages dealing with the abolition of slavery in other countries:


Peter Van Scholtenc

Links to other pages dealing with slavery:

Does slavery still exist?






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