Newnham College’s history and the legacies of enslavement

Newnham’s Legacies of Enslavement research programme works to better understand our institution’s foundation within its historical setting, to recognise our responsibilities today, and to contribute to a deeper understanding of British and global history.


In 2019, the University of Cambridge announced an “in-depth academic study into ways in which it contributed to, benefited from or challenged the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”. The two-year inquiry has explored University archives and other records to uncover how the University may have gained from enslavement and the exploitation of labour, through both financial and other bequests. In addition, the inquiry has investigated the extent to which scholarship at the University of Cambridge might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th centuries.  Their report was published in summer 2022.

The University inquiry encouraged colleges to consider undertaking their own inquiries. As Newnham College was founded in 1871, more than a generation after Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, it might appear that our institution would have no, or very limited, links with enslavement. However, as an institution dedicated to research, learning and education, Newnham should be ready to research its own foundations, reflect upon what it means to have been a beneficiary of late-Victorian philanthropy, and gain understanding of how this was built upon the financial legacies of earlier generations.

Accordingly, the College embarked on its own set of discussions. Undergraduate student representatives proposed to Newnham’s Governing Body a student research project in the College Archives, with the students to be paid for by the College.


Newnham’s Legacies of Enslavement research programme

In 2020, Newnham fellows, staff members and students commenced a research programme. This has included a series of public lectures co-convened by Newnham Research Fellow Dr Mezna Qato, with the Archives of the Disappeared Research Initiative at the Margaret Anstee Centre, together with a reading and discussion group. Our inaugural Legacies of Enslavement lecture was given by Prof Theresa Singleton of Syracuse University, on ‘The Archaeology of Marronage: Mapping slave runaway sites in Hispaniola’. Our second speaker was Jake Subryan Richards, of LSE, who spoke on ‘Violent Abolition: Encounters and Authority at the End of the Trade in Enslaved Africans to Brazil’ in February 2021. Our third speaker was Prof Catherine Hall, Principal Investigator of the ESRC/AHRC project ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ ( By holding the lectures on Zoom, we were able to open them up to researchers internationally.

Meanwhile, students were invited to apply to participate in the Student Research Project. This would look further into the College’s archives, to make a preliminary assessment of the links between enslavement and Newnham. Many excellent applications were received, and two complementary projects investigating the early benefactors of the College students were selected.

The student researchers were allocated three weeks in the College Archive for a focused research programme, working with the College Archivist, Academic Supervisor and College Librarian and Assistant Librarian. In preparation for the archival research, the students were given introductions to archives and archival research, supervisions looking at other research inquiries and methods of carrying out research in this area, and an introduction to the early history of Newnham College.  The clear research focus and the targeted academic supervision, along with the students’ own prior experience of dissertation research, enabled them to ‘hit the ground running’ and to make the most of their time in the archives.

The students focused on identifying the social and economic networks in which Newnham’s early benefactors existed. They took the important and interesting approach of using commercial stakeholder mapping software as a way of recording and exploring these networks.

In particular, they identified Newnham founders and benefactors who were members of families connected either directly or indirectly to the Atlantic slave trade. They were able to identify benefactors whose families had owned slaves or had invested directly in plantations. Other families had members who were bankers, manufacturers or cotton mill-owners, other professions where there may be linkages to enslavement.

The resulting report is a series of preliminary case studies, considering a range of early benefactors of the college, and exploring their economic and social links to the Atlantic slave trade, with the assistance of digital mapping software showing social networks and familial and financial connections. It is clear that, despite Newnham’s late 19th century foundation, there are links between the institution and the Atlantic slave trade and potentially to enslavement elsewhere such as India. This would be a fruitful subject for further research.

The student researchers were committed to making the enslaved as visible as possible. A key aspect of the digital map is that it includes enslaved people who could be identified and shows their place in the economic network, alongside the more familiar names in the College history.

The report and the digital map that accompanies it are available to be consulted in Newnham College Archives To access them, please contact

Next steps

The student researchers and academic supervisor presented their report to Governing Body in March 2022. The research was warmly received, and the work of the student researchers and their supervisors was commended. This was followed in May 2022 by a presentation of the research project to an audience including members of the College and researchers on the broader University inquiry. Students, staff and current and former Fellows discussed the findings and have started to reflect on the next steps to take.  A small working group of Fellows and student representatives will help guide that reflection. Initial next steps are as follows.

Further research

Further research should be carried out into the financial interests identified in the initial case studies, in order to clarify and better understand the probable links between these and Newnham College.

More broadly, there is a great deal of fruitful research into the social and financial links between late Victorian society, Newnham and the legacies of enslavement that could be carried out by both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The College should encourage and support this research.

Communications and educational materials

The College should communicate the nature and the findings of its Legacies of Enslavement research programme to other Cambridge colleges, the University, and the broader public.

On an ongoing basis, we should seek to incorporate these aspects of Newnham’s history into the way we tell our story.

Working with the University Museums, library and archive staff hope to develop displays and run workshops that explore specific elements of our College’s history more deeply, including these links to enslavement.

Development of the College Archives

To facilitate further research by scholars, the Archivist will digitise and make available the records referenced in the report that relate to the establishment of the College, and consider how to identify and collect further information related to enslavement and its legacies for the College Archives

Working towards racial equality

The Legacies of Enslavement research programme is linked to the College’s broader work towards racial equality in all areas of College life from outreach and admissions through to the nature of the artwork displayed within College. For example the College has been fundraising for postgraduate awards for BME students, the Margaret Anstee Centre will be advertising a visiting Fellowship for a Black scholar, the College seeks to communicate the achievements of students and alumnae of colour across all of its communication channels, and appointed an Advisor to BME students from the 2020/21 academic year. The current BME Advisor is Professor Manali Desai.

Contribution to wide research

We know from comments from other researchers that the Newnham Inquiry, alongside the other College inquiries, has expanded and enriched the work of the broader University inquiry. It also demonstrates the use of interesting methodological approaches to understand the social networks of women in early College history, and Cambridge women’s histories.


Lecture series

In 2023 MCR  students curated a speaker series to contribute to work on legacies of enslavement at Newnham College. Visiting member Deidre Coleman of the University of Melbourne explored the continuation of forced labour across the world after the abolition of slavery, and its legacy today; UCL lecturer and Newnham high table member Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi shared her own research in the talk In Bad Taste: Sugar, Slavery and Wordsworth’s Racist Poems; and Professor Catherine Hall of UCL returned to consider reparations and how to address the legacies of enslavement. 

The Library and Archive collections

As part of the Newnham Legacies of Enslavement programme, Library staff have been seeking to better understand and critically appraise the complex histories of our collections. Using provenance records, they have been identifying rare books and manuscripts which may have an indirect connection to legacies of enslavement. These might be volumes whose previous owners acquired them from the financial proceeds of slave-ownership or who purchased them with wealth derived from markets that relied on slave-based labour.

Library staff have so far focused on the donations of Henry Yates Thompson. In addition to funding the building of the 1897 and 1907 library buildings, Yates Thompson was a great collector of books and manuscripts and, over a period of time, he and his widow presented some 50 rare books and manuscripts to the College. Other notable beneficiaries were the Fitzwilliam Museum and the British Museum. Henry Yates Thompson’s maternal grandfather, Joseph Brooks Yates, was a slave-owner receiving compensation in 1833, and Henry Yates Thompson was in turn born into affluence, his family’s wealth generated, at least partly, through the Atlantic slave trade. (It is noted that Henry Yates Thompson’s An Englishman in the American Civil War: the diaries of Henry Yates Thompson, 1863 records his personal opposition to slavery.) Henry Yates Thompson appears to have been meticulous about recording the provenance of his books and manuscripts. This has allowed us to identify two medieval manuscripts and four early printed books as having originally been in the collection of Joseph Brooks Yates. Newnham College Library has digitised one medieval manuscript, Piers Plowman, in Cambridge Digital Library, and added details of its provenance linking it to the Legacies of Enslavement enquiry.