Lancaster University Students' Union (LUSU) has today announced plans to rename its nightclub, The Sugarhouse, due to its connections with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
LUSU's Executive Committee unanimously voted on 16th March to rename the nightclub, as a result of a long campaign by members of Lancaster Black History Group (LBHG) and Why Is My Curriculum White? (WIMCW). LUSU has committed to a participatory process to choose the new name during the remainder of this academic year, but "it’s [sic] implementation and wider rebranding will be a long term process as the financial sustainability of the Students’ Union is secured."
A working group will be established to "assist with the renaming of the Sugarhouse," and LUSU has committed to "investing [sic] and implementing educational programmes" for all students and staff that highlights its colonial history.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests in Lancaster last June, Professor Imogen Tyler of Lancaster's Sociology Department highlighted the town's connections to the slave trade, including the Sugarhouse's nominal link. In August, Atree Ghosh, the Vice President (Union Development), presented a 'discussion paper' on renaming the club to a LUSU Exec meeting, and although the minutes of this meeting were never released, the recording can be found here.
In late September, Ghosh, Misbah Ashraf (the CEO), and others met with representatives from LBHG and WIMCW to discuss action on the Sugarhouse, where Ashraf declared: "from where we are at the moment, a rebrand isn't going to happen anytime soon." As part of Black History Month, LUSU hosted a discussion on the history of the name, which can be viewed here (University log-in required).
Bad blood between LUSU and WIMCW seems to have stalled the campaign to rename the club somewhat, before a petition was launched by WIMCW co-head Fabiha Askari on 16th February 2021, calling for the club to be renamed and for commitment to an educational programme. It is this petition which travelled to LUSU Exec, where it was discussed last Tuesday.
What is the history of the Sugarhouse?
The history of the Sugarhouse hasn't been written, but it is being researched by students as part of LBHG's Slavery Family Trees Community Research Project. While a definitive history is a work-in-progress, here's a summary of what is known so far.
The sugar trade between Lancaster and the West Indies, particularly Jamaica and Barbados, was lucrative and directly linked to the growth of plantations and the enslavement of Africans. Sugar houses emerged in many British ports as places to store and refine raw sugar imported from the plantations, before being sold on.
Lancaster's first sugar house emerged on the site of the present-day Sugar House Alley in around 1681, 340 years ago. This sugar house primarily relied on sugar coming via Liverpool or Bristol, and it closed in the 1690s. A second sugar house emerged in the 1740s slightly further down St Leonard's Gate at the site of present-day Halfords. This operated until the 1830s, and the refinery building burnt down in 1848.
The owners of the sugar houses over both their existences were wealthy Lancaster and Liverpool merchants, several of whom were Quakers. In their merchant careers, some had traded with Virginia, some had sold goods in Jamaica, many had commissioned ships to sail in their names. Families such as the Lawsons, who built Sunderland Point (the site of Sambo's Grave), and the Crosfields, whose business was later subsumed into Unilever, played a role in running the Lancaster sugar houses.
The present-day Sugar House Alley was actually called Spring Court until at least 1900. The reason that name was lost is because, from the 1880s onwards, the thoroughfare had become part of the Waring and Gillow furniture factory complex. The nightclub building itself appears to have been built in about 1908 as a timber workshop. An 'Old Sugar House Alley', a short alleyway running parallel with North Road, roughly where the Gillows student accommodation is today, was demolished in the 1870s.
When the Waring and Gillow factory closed in 1962, part of it – St Leonard's House – became the base of the new University of Lancaster, while Bailrigg was being built. It is probable that, at this time, the alleyway was given the name Sugar House Alley by the City Council, and the old name of Spring Court was lost. The nightclub building was used in the 1970s as the office of the City Architect, before being purchased by local brewery Mitchell's and leased to LUSU in 1982. It is probable that the name 'Sugarhouse' was given to the building by either Mitchell's or LUSU in the 1980s. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you have strong feelings or opinions about its renaming, we'd love to hear about it. Feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: The entrance to the nightclub in the mid 1990s.