Cookie policy: This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to simplify and improve your experience of this website. Cookies are small text files stored on the device you are using to access this website. For more information please take a look at our terms and conditions. Some parts of the site may not work properly if you choose not to accept cookies.


Subscribe or Register

Existing user? Login

Liverpool apothecary in the slave trade

By Stuart Anderson

Stuart Anderson, reader in the social history of pharmacy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tells how apothecary Edward Parr made his fortune

See other Christmas miscellany articles 


In the middle of the 18th century Liverpool was at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade. In total, around 11,000 ships were despatched from England to Africa in pursuit of the trade, of which nearly half departed from Liverpool. Most of the others left from London or Bristol.

The first known Liverpool slaver was the Blessing, which set out for Guinea in West Africa in August 1700. By 1730 around 15 ships a year were leaving the port for the African coast. Numbers grew steadily, reaching 50 or more a year by the 1750s, and to just over a hundred a year in the early 1770s. By the end of the century more ships left Liverpool than all the other British ports combined.

Among those involved in the trade was a Liverpool apothecary by the name of Edward Parr. Parr’s name appears in the list of top 10 Liverpool slave traders sending 500 or more slaves to the Chesapeake region of North America. By 1756 he had already transported 541 slaves from Africa to the Chesapeake in three voyages.

By contrast, the largest Liverpool trader, Foster Cunliffe, had despatched nearly 2,000 slaves in 20 voyages. The Chesapeake was the centre for the tobacco plantations, and most of the Liverpool slave traders also traded in tobacco.

Parr appears to have been involved in a variety of different trades in the Chesapeake area and elsewhere, and owned his ship, the True Blue. We know something of Parr’s involvement in the trade from the letter book of Joshua Dixon, who went to work with Parr as his assistant apothecary in 1764.

Dixon arrived in Liverpool on 27 October, having moved from Whitehaven in Cumberland (which was also involved in the slave trade but to a much smaller extent), where he was brought up. He wrote extensive letters. In one to his friend John Tate, he notes that Parr “quitted Liverpool in his vessel for the West Indies”. Parr clearly spent a significant part of his time abroad, leaving Dixon to manage things.

Manning the ships

Equipping ships for a slaving voyage was an expensive exercise, involving expenditure on provisions for both the crew and the slaves, on the purchase of a cargo of trade goods to barter for slaves on the African coast, and hiring the crew itself. The average tonnage of the slave ships was around 100 tons, and each typically had a crew of between 30 and 50.

Dixon’s letters give glimpses of the trials of manning the slave ships and of recruiting reliable captains. In a letter to his mother, dated 2 May 1765, he wrote: “Our vessel True Blue sailed this morning, Captain Conway, with whom I have not had the least intimacy since Joseph Jackson’s [another merchant involved in the slave trade] letters, being obliged to him for a clear representation of his qualifications. Mr Parr approved of him at first, but lately came to hand a writ for £10 which Mr Parr had accepted payable when the vessel arrived from Jamaica.”

It seems likely that Conway was involved in trading of slaves on his own account, supplementing his income with unauthorised dealings of his own. This appears to have irritated Parr, who was nevertheless resigned to having to recruit people of dubious character to man the ships.

Dixon continues: “All I can learn from Mr Parr testifies to [Conway’s] dishonesty, and he said he should be glad to have him overboard; though [he was] so scarce of men as obliged to love mere villains from prison, and their complement 40 to pursue the voyage with 30 [able-bodied men].”

Recruitment difficulties were hardly surprising since the ships were away for the best part of a year at a time undertaking the so-called “triangular trade”. Ships departed Liverpool laden with goods to barter for slaves on the African coast; they had to pick up a consignment of slaves from the various forts and camps along the African coast, and head across the Atlantic on the middle passage. They then had to return to Liverpool with the products of the plantations, whether tobacco, sugar or cotton.

The comings and goings of the various ships were painstakingly reported in the local newspapers on the east coast of America and in the West Indies, to give notice to all those with an interest in the trade which ships were expected with what cargoes. Twenty references to the True Blue appear in the Early South Carolina Newspapers Database alone between 1750 and 1770, suggesting that this was its regular trading route.

It is unlikely that Parr’s business interests were restricted to the slave trade. Dixon attempts to quantify the size of the business in a letter to his mother, dated 2 November 1764. A distinction is made between Parr’s home and overseas interests and the supply of chests for the African trade.

“I can scarce tell how to compare Mr Parr’s business with that of any gentleman’s in Whitehaven. I think to include them all in one may perhaps equal his home and foreign considerations (I don’t mean his African trade, that amounting to the number of 24 boxes in 12 months).”

With so much of his time spent travelling overseas to the plantations Parr had to depend heavily on support staff back in Liverpool. He had a number of other employees working for him besides Dixon, and Dixon himself had support, for in a letter to surgeon William Tharer, dated 20 November 1764, he reports: “I have a porter who has managed the slavish part of the business for seven years. He distils simple waters, makes incredible concoctions of unguenta, prepares each chymical process, and takes care of every preparation in the laboratory.”

Extent of wealth

Parr undoubtedly became rich — rumours suggested that he was in fact the second richest man in Liverpool. Further references to his wealth are made in Dixon’s letters. Although known to be careful with his money he also had a philanthropic streak.

In a letter dated 19 January 1765, Dixon declares: “Liverpool deserves to prosper, as its gentlemen are generously disposed. Mr Parr has given upwards of 20 guineas in expenses to poor women this Christmas according to rumours.”

Parr’s wealth was said to be of the order of £20,000, although according to Dixon’s letter “you may easily imagine he is much richer. Bills to the value of £1,000 arrived last week, and the porter who has served Mr Parr eight years said he was worth one hundred such sums.” The guess may well have been a wild exaggeration, but it was probably of the right magnitude.

John Tarleton, another major African and West Indian merchant at the same time, and who was Mayor of Liverpool in 1764, saw his fortune soar from £6,000 in 1748 to nearly £80,000 in 1773.

Parr was practising as an apothecary at a time when there was an ongoing dispute about occupational boundaries between apothecaries and physicians. Despite this there was considerable transfer between the two professions; a significant number of apothecaries went on to train and qualify as physicians.

This was clearly in Dixon’s mind, and he discussed with Parr the relative benefits of training as a physician rather than continuing as an apothecary, possibly with a view to Parr supporting Dixon’s training.

In a letter to his mother he says of Parr: “He argues the present age gives little encouragement to physicians, and that it is not worthwhile to prosecute my education, the fees being so greatly inferior to the profits of an apothecary.”

Parr remained a prominent figure in Liverpool until his death. The Liverpool directory for the year 1766 refers to him as “Parr, Edward, merchant and apothecary, Castle Street”. His brother John Parr was described as a “merchant of Old Church Yard”. Parr Street in Liverpool, close to Lime Street Station, is named after John and Edward Parr, who were described as “slave trade merchants”.

Joshua Dixon, also did all right for himself. He decided to reject Parr’s advice about training as a physician, and took his MD at Edinburgh in 1768; he returned to Whitehaven to practise as a physician, and he remained there for the rest of his life.

Liverpool’s dominance of the English slave trade continued right up to abolition in 1807. Even after abolition Liverpool traders continued to supply goods to Spanish and Portuguese slave traders.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052443

Readers' comments (1)

  • I enjoyed your article on the Liverpool dated Dec 2010

    I have an original document dated September 1756 linking John and Edward Parr With Mr & Mrs Gilbert Tarlton to a property in Dale Street Liverpool
    I understand that your work was over 10 years ago but if it helps.........
    Lovely clear signatures and seals on vellum

    Keep Safe

    Stan Turner

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

For commenting, please login or register as a user and agree to our Community Guidelines. You will be re-directed back to this page where you will have the ability to comment.

Recommended from Pharmaceutical Press

RPS publications

Pharmaceutical Press is the publishing division of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and is a leading provider of authoritative pharmaceutical information used throughout the world.


Search an extensive range of the world’s most trusted resources

Powered by MedicinesComplete
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Save
  • Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

Supplementary images

  • Liverpool 1680

Newsletter Sign-up

Want to keep up with the latest news, comment and CPD articles in pharmacy and science? Subscribe to our free alerts.