A Brief Memoir of Joseph Beldam
Joseph Beldam was born in Royston, Hertfordshire, in 1795. He studied at St. Peter’s College, Cambridge, and upon leaving University became a student at the Middle Temple, London, where he began his legal studies.
Beldam started his career providing legal advice throughout Norfolk, but was soon forced to retire due to fatigue and ill health. He then established a stationary practice at Palace Court, London, but resigned following a dispute with the court.
Beldam was a descendant of a Huguenot family. Huguenots were French Protestants persecuted by their Catholic government in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most, like Beldam’s ancestors, were forced to flee France. As such, in 1827, Beldam published The Laws affecting Protestant Dissenters. The book was very well received.
It was around this time that Beldam addressed a letter to Lord Dacre, MP for Hertfordshire, regarding the freedom of slaves. While The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, passed by Parliament in 1807, banned trading slaves it did not ban the act of slavery itself. Beldam’s letter was published and met with general approval, receiving praise in a speech made by the Prime Minister, George Canning, in Parliament.
The publication of this letter, importantly, led to Beldam meeting Zachary Macaulay, a leading figure in the campaign against slavery. Macaulay was the founder and editor of a monthly publication called The Anti-Slavery Reporter and helped establish The Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1823. This became the Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and still operates today as Anti-Slavery International. It is the oldest international human rights organisation in the world. Meeting Macaulay was Beldam’s first step into the anti-slavery movement.
In 1827, Beldam joined the Anti-Slavery Society in London and for many years devoted his time and attention to obtaining freedom for slaves throughout the British Empire. He wrote or edited most of the Society’s publications and papers, sat on numerous committees and later became their official legal advisor.
The Slave Emancipation Act was passed in 1833. This legally gave all slaves across the British Colonies their freedom, but it was not immediate or automatic. Instead, there was an interim period of apprenticeships, during which time enslaved people were made to work as unpaid apprentices for their masters. The apprentice was entitled to maintenance and food allowances or, if food was not provided, to sufficient land and time to grow their own.
However, it soon became apparent that the Act was violated and open to exploitation. In fact, claims were made that the treatment and working conditions of apprentices were even worse than those of slaves. Beldam was at the centre of the legal battle to address this and was tasked with collecting and analysing evidence from all sides. He wrote a report called Negro Apprenticeship in the British Colonies.
The subject of black apprenticeship caused strong conflict of public opinion but the Anti-Slavery Society thought the system worked badly and should be abolished. Beldam visited Macaulay to consult his views on what steps should be taken. Macaulay advised Beldam to take the matter ‘professionally and perseveringly’.
From that time until the final abolition of slavery, Beldam dedicated his life to the subject, collecting and examining documents in an effort to prove the existence of violations of the law. His findings were presented to the House of Commons in 1835 and a Committee was established by Parliament to investigate. Beldam was appointed as a representative of the Society, as was Sir John Jeremie who, unlike Beldam, had a thorough knowledge of the practical workings of slavery in the colonies. Together they provided sufficient proof of both legal and practical abuses. The investigation was conclusive and Parliament was forced to abolish apprenticeships in 1838, three years before the date set by the Emancipation Act.
After this final liberation of slaves in the British Colonies, Beldam turned his attention to supporting efforts to end slavery internationally. He joined The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa, founded by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. Prince Albert was its president. This was the first time royal approval had been given to the anti-slavery cause. Beldam was responsible for writing the proceedings of the Society’s first public meeting in 1840.
By 1841, the Society had organised the Niger Expedition to establish farms, encourage legitimate trade and commerce, and set up Christian missions in Africa. The expedition ended in disaster; the farms failed, many lives were lost from disease and the Society disbanded.
Beldam maintained good friendships with leading members of the Anti-Slavery Society and took an active role in preparing for a second expedition, the civilisation of Central Africa. Following the Niger Expedition, most were unwilling to show support for another. Beldam was one of the few who strongly recommended it and he supplemented the Government grant for shipbuilding, contributed to the expenses of the Society and volunteered to prepare the report. The second expedition was considered a success and its example, aided by subsequent expeditions, was actively applied in various parts of the African continent.
Despite his best efforts, Beldam was not without fault. In his quest to abolish slavery and bring peace to Africa, he believed, like most of western society at the time, that the only complete cure was the introduction of Christianity into Africa. He said in a speech to the Society that ‘the substitution of our pure and holy faith for the false religion, idolatry and superstitions of Africa is, in [the Society’s] firm conviction, the true ultimate remedy for the calamities that afflict [Africa].’ Unfortunately, the Society’s missions led to the eradication of many ancient African beliefs and a forced teaching and acceptance of Christianity.
Since the initial aim of the Anti-Slavery Society had now been obtained they began the examination of colonial law, with a view to prevent further oppression. For this, Beldam was appointed the senior official. He published a pamphlet about the principles on which future free men of the colonies should be governed. These ideas were received with praise by the House of Lords and, with some alterations, successfully passed. Despite opposition in the Commons, which blocked some of its stricter regulations, the Slave Trade Act of 1839 added a lot of security against the inhumane trafficking of slaves.
Following the success of the anti-slavery cause, Beldam was advised to retire from professional life on medical grounds. In 1845, he accompanied members of his family to Italy and from there went on to Egypt and Syria, visiting many of the iconic landmarks in the East. He wrote about his trip in Recollections of Travels in Italy and the East, published in 1850. It was on his return from this tour that Beldam brought to England the water from the River Jordan which, at Queen Victoria’s request, was used at the baptism of her daughter, Princess Helena.
Beldam’s other interests included antiquities and he contributed various research papers and reports to the Royal Society of Antiquaries and the Archeological Institute. Beldam returned to Royston, taking permanent residence in his hometown again, and made investigations of Royston’s heritage.
In 1852, Beldam made a careful examination of Royston Cave, assisted by his friend, Edward Nunn, who was the curator of Royston Museum at the time. They also partially excavated it. His report was initially presented to the Royal Society of Antiquaries and was later published in his book The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave, for which Beldam is now most famously remembered.
In his book, Beldam concluded that Royston Cave was a Roman construction, built towards the beginning of Christianity, and, at a later period, was used as a Roman tomb. He suggested that most of the carvings and decorations were made later, perhaps around the time of the Crusades, and that it was then converted into a private chapel to which a hermitage was probably attached.
Beldam was subsequently elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London for his historical and archaeological research.
As a character, Beldam never tended to engage in politics directly and generally preferred to maintain a low profile, only entering debate on subjects he felt strongly about. He often refused payment for his work, rarely signed his name to publications and refused two positions offered to him by the Government in recognition of his services to the liberation of slaves. In fact, it was not until the mid 1900s, when his papers were presented to the National Library of Jamaica, that his anti-slavery efforts became known.
With the exception of visits to Europe, Beldam continued to live in Royston until his death. Although he suffered with his physical health, he remained mentally active. After a short battle with bronchitis, Joseph Beldam died at The Banyers House on Melbourn Street on 6 June 1866, at the age of 71. He is buried in his family vault at Royston Parish Church.
Unknown (1866). A Brief Memoir of the Late Joseph Beldam. Royston: Royston Crow, August
Beldam, J. (1898). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Fourth Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.
Beamon, S. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
National Archives (2020). Emancipation. National Archives. Viewed Oct 2020. <https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/emancipation.htm>
Cambridge County Council (2013). Joseph Beldam 1795-1866: Counsel and Support of the Anti-Slavery Society. Cambridge County Council. Viewed March 2013. <http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/leisure/archives/online/slavery/josephbeldam.html>