While a few wealthy elites gorged themselves on the bulk of the money, slave ownership was far more widespread and dispersed than we had previously imagined. Compensation of private citizens for personal losses was not a well-established practice, though exiled loyalists from the American Revolution had cashed in their claims for a grateful mother country. The £20 million payout to buy slaves’ freedom from colonial planters was the biggest financial transaction at that point; the loans to do this were financed by higher taxes on sugar, which hit the poorest workers hardest since it was an important part of their weekly shopping baskets.
The project team have pointed out that a lot of compensation money went into the pockets of major Victorian philanthropists and the early backers of the railways, filtering throughout the whole of British society, into politics, art, and the economy. More than they realised, as the decades passed and the money dispersed, Victorian Britons lived in a slavery-compensation culture.