The Haberdashers’ Aske’s chain of schools will remove the surname of their 17th century benefactor Robert Aske from their names, in recognition of his investment in the slave trade.
Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation, which is made up of several schools including one in Borough that opened in 2019, told parents in an open letter this month that it is rebranding as Haberdashers’ Trust South.
Robert Aske was a successful seventeenth century merchant, primarily trading in silk. He became a freeman of the Haberdashers livery company, which was one of several ancient trade associations in the City of London. Aske invested £500 (about £110,000 in today’s money) in the Royal African Company in 1672, becoming one of its founding members. The value of this investment increased to about £650 by the time of his death, or just over one per cent of his wealth.
The Royal African Company transported more slaves to north and south American than any other slaving organisation. The Haberdashers’ Company say that the slaving business traded 90,000 human beings in the seventeen years between its launch and Aske’s death in 1689. Edward Colston, whose statue was famously toppled in Bristol last year, was a shareholder in the Royal African Company and served as its deputy governor.
Aske may have voted and taken part in policy discussions at the Royal African Company, as his investment entitled him. There is no evidence that he held a senior position at the company.
The schools were named after him because of the legacy of £32,000 he left for charitable purposes – the equivalent of more than £8m in today’s money. Since the original school was founded in 1693, some 300,000 children have received an education sponsored by Aske, according to Haberdashers’ Company.
Haberdashers’ Trust South held a consultation with parents and other people involved with the schools on getting rid of Aske’s name, as well as a statue of him in the New Cross school and paintings, as well as the motto ‘Serve and Obey’.
The group’s CEO Jan Shadick said there had been a wide range of views.
“Those in favour of its removal think that Aske’s investment – however small – was offensive, unacceptable and at odds with today’s values,” she said in a letter. “Others thought that our school names are overly complicated and need refining, and we have an opportunity to do this.
“Those in favour of retaining ‘Aske’ believe that, through the legacy that founded our schools, Robert Aske benefitted generations of children. They also felt that historic acts should be viewed in the context of their time or that removing the name could be seen as tokenistic.”
As a result of the consultation, Aske’s name will be removed from school names, the trading name of the umbrella organisation and from other forms of “everyday use” like letterheads. ‘Aske’ will stay in the legal name of the trust.
Ms Shadick said that the trust will “seek to repurpose” the statue of Aske at Hatcham College in New Cross. “We will investigate the extensive restrictions over its treatment and aim to contextualise it in a way that ensures alignment with our values and longer-term educational objectives,” she added.
The ‘Serve and Obey’ motto will also go. “There was overwhelming agreement that its 16th Century origins need explanation and are no longer relevant to the society in which we live,” Ms Shadick said. “It is important that our pupils and staff feel a connection to any motto or strapline we adopt and we will begin discussions on a new one as part of our ongoing work on culture.”
The Borough school on Southwark Bridge Road will now be called Haberdasher’s Borough Academy.
The news comes after the controversial decision by the charity that owns a statue of slave investor and Guy’s Hospital founder Thomas Guy to seek to remove it from its prominent location at the hospital.