Founded in 1683, Historic London Town was a tiny town of about 300 free and enslaved people. So why don’t we talk about it the way we do Annapolis MD, not far away? After less than 100 years, this little port town on the South River faded away because of changing trade routes.
For years, the South River provided a lively trade for the port of Historic London Town, especially for the tobacco trade. Ferries crossed the river, connecting the town with important travel routes to as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as South Carolina.
What was left behind — mostly just a large brick building — was repurposed, but not for anything grand. Built around 1760 as an upscale tavern, the William Brown House became Anne Arundel County’s almshouse in 1828. In fact, its history as an almshouse probably saved the structure. Shortly after the almshouse closed in 1965, the building opened as a museum and historic site.
Historic London Town, Then and Now
William Brown was a carpenter, ferry master and tavern owner in the mid1700s. Brown and his wife and five children relied on indentured and convict servants and enslaved individuals to run his businesses. Many of the signs in the reconstructed buildings and the tavern itself discuss the history of the servants and enslaved individuals.
The building’s history as an almshouse was one of misery for its inhabitants. The county housed physically and mentally disabled individuals there, as well as the poor and indigent. Sanitation and supplies were rare. Almshouse inhabitants were expected to work in the gardens and catch fish, crabs and oysters in the South River. When it closed in 1965, 16 elderly people still lived there.
Today, you can tour the William Brown House (both guided and unguided). In addition, Historic London Town includes a reconstructed Carpenter’s Shop and Lord Mayor’s Tenement. You can also tour a kitchen garden and an 18th century tobacco barn. The historic site focuses on the history, archaeology, and
horticulture of the colonial town and region.
Of course, you should plan time to explore the gardens, which include a rain-roof garden, woodland gardens and ornamental gardens. You’ll get to enjoy more great views of the South River. A walking trail will lead you through the garden areas.
If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter living history reenactments that bring to life what it was like to live in Historic London Town. (Check the website below for more information on when reenactments are planned.)
Slavery and Historic London Town
Enslaved men, women and children were essential to the tobacco economy throughout the Chesapeake region, and the colonial town of London, MD was not an exception.
Historic London Town and Gardens shares the history of slavery in the colonial port town . Because it was a port on the South River, at least eight slave ships between 1708 and 1760 unloaded at the port (and ongoing research is uncovering additional ships). These ships brought enslaved people from Sierra Leone through Angola along the West African coast. The historic site are aware of more than 600 enslaved Africans held aboard those ships who died before ever reaching Maryland. Of those who survived the difficult two-to-three month voyage from Africa to Maryland, hundreds, if not thousands, faced enslavement at London.
Launched in 1994, the international and inter-regional project, ‘The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage,’ addresses the history of the slave trade and slavery. In 2019, the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Historic Londontowne a “Site of Memory Associated with the Slave Route.” London Town joins 30 other sites nationally in this designation, which commemorates the nearly 12 million African people forced into the Middle Passage of the transatlantic human trade.
Know Before You Go
The best time to visit is on a warm-weather weekend, when there are most likely to be guided tours of the William Brown House and reenactors.
Getting there: 839 Londontown Rd, Edgewater, MD
Hours: Winter hours Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; regular hours begin March 31: Wednesdays-Sundays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Londontown Historic Site