Article | Producing the next generation of advocates for the black histories of rural England

Author: Dr Corinne Fowler


From the 1670s to the early twentieth century, many country houses were bought by merchants whose money came from colonial trade.[i]

A great many more houses are connected to slave-derived wealth, often in more than one way. Some houses were owned by men who insured slave ships or plantations, or who participated in parliamentary debates on issues which affected their own financial interests, such as East India Company trade.[ii] Many houses were built or remodeled with slave-produced wealth, or have other associations, such as lobbying Parliament about abolition, owning plantations, buying shares in the Royal African or South Seas Companies, producing goods to trade for slaves, and holding colonial office.[iii] Many other houses share these histories, but have been pulled down and no longer exist. [iv] Current research concentrates on surviving properties which are owned by preservation societies such as English Heritage and the National Trust. Related to this is research which focuses on substantial early black presence in the countryside, since enslaved people were shipped over to work on country estates.[v]

Historians such as Margot Finn, Kate Smith and Barczewski are interested in empire’s architectural and aesthetic impact on country houses.[vi] Hothouses, pavilions, orangeries and temple-like structures were built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Barczewski notes that while some of these architectural features reflected estate owners’ direct experience of colonial travel, many others simply followed élite fashions.[vii] Country house interiors signalled owners’ wealth and status with displays of porcelain, Chinese wallpaper, Indian tea chests and other treasured commodities.[viii] A prominent example was Sir Walter Scott’s Chinese wallpaper, obtained by his cousin, an East India Company naval captain.[ix] Major colonial players had priceless ivory furniture brought to their luxurious rural retreats, notably Edward Harrison, the former Governor of Madras, and Warren Hastings, Governor General of India.[x]

Such workplaces country houses at the centre of an imperial map which extends East, to East India Company trading, and West, to Caribbean plantations worked by enslaved people. Crucially, it also shifts the customary focus of slavery and abolition commemorations[xi] from former slave ports to country estates. Correspondingly, influential historians such as Catherine Hall and Nick Draper are calling for comprehensive investigations of the ways that slave-related profiteering shaped Britain’s rural, cultural and economic life.[xii] Older historical work touches only lightly on the extent to which colonial profits formed modern Britain.[xiii]

Historians are also calling for widespread reconsideration of Eric Williams’s 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery. Hall, Draper, McClelland, Donington and Lang[xiv] are keen to rescue Williams from the prevailing belief that he said slavery brought about the industrial revolution. Williams actually wrote that profits from slavery and the triangular trade were ‘reinvested in British industry’. Hall and her co-researchers are in the process of revisiting and refining his idea that overseas trade was more economically significant than historians previously thought.[xv] This retrospective support for Williams’s work is substantiated with evidence from a new database showing the compensation paid by the British state to former slave-owners after abolition in the 1830s. This data was unavailable to Williams in the 1940s, and it provides a wealth of new information about material interests in the early nineteenth century. This evidence seems to support Williams’s central claim that ‘wealth from slave-ownership was among the significant forces reshaping British society and culture in the nineteenth century.’ [xvi]

As Finn points out, previous historians underestimated the extent to which imperial wealth – as much as agrarian and industrial profits – admitted people into the landed gentry and aristocracy.[xvii] Country houses helped newly enriched men to acquire power and influence. The case of the Hibbert family illustrates this point very well. Their fortune was linked to slavery, yet their integration into rural life helped to obscure its origins. Donington believes that the family’s investment in country estates secured them ‘a lasting position – that is still maintained today – within Britain’s aristocratic elite.’[xviii] As merchants, the Hibberts helped produce materials used as commodities in the West African slave trade. They provided logistical support for finished cotton and other goods to be transported to Liverpool warehouses.[xix] In Jamaica, the family made money between 1764 and 1774 by purchasing and selling on enslaved people from sixty-one ships, before acquiring land there.[xx] In London, the family financed sugar’s commission and supply, investing in the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs. They publicly defended slavery by means of speeches, pamphlets and letters to newspapers. They also received a total of £33,408 for loss of business in these docks following the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, compensation for which George Hibbert (1757-1837) actively campaigned.[xxi] As the family accumulated wealth, they moved into the countryside around Cheshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. They owned Birtles Hall, Chalfont House, East Hyde, Hare Hills, Bilton Grange and Braywick Lodge, among others. The family boosted its social, political and civic standing from their countryside residences. They secured their legacy by funding local churches, schools, hospitals and alms houses.[xxii] Streets in Battersea, Luton, Maidenhead, Manchester and Marple bear the family name, which has become disassociated from slavery. Without any sense of irony, a leaflet about abolition describes John Hibbert (1811-1888) as a ‘local philanthropist’.[xxiii] Similar philanthropic strategies used by nabobs, wealthy East India Company returnees. Lowri Ann Rees observes that philanthropy helped to combat local suspicions about the unsavoury sources of nabobs’ wealth. Three famous Welsh East India Company returnees, John Wynn (1760-1840), Thomas Phillips (1760-1851) and William Paxton (c.1744-1824) spent their money on infrastructural projects, such as canals, also funding schools and colleges.[xxiv] These complex expressions of wealth have obscured the origins of this money. Historians are recuperating a sense of country houses’ material connection to empire, highlighting their role in providing routes to power and influence for those with slavery-produced wealth.

Now is the right moment to produce the next generation of historians, curators and country house managers who will bring these histories into the mainstream narrative of Britain’s past.

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[i] Barczewski, 2014, p.122.

[ii] Miranda Kaufmann, email correspondence, 16th November, 2015.

[iii] Dresser, 2013, p.12.

[iv] Dresser, 2013, p.12.

[v] See David Dabydeen, ed. 1984.The Black Presence in English Literature (Manchester: MUP), Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann, 2013, p.12, and David Callaghan and Barbara Willis-Brown, eds. (2011) A Day in the Life. A Black Heritage Trail of the West Midlands (Birmingham: SCAWDI), p.5

[vi] Margot Finn was the Principal Investigator of the Leverhulme project ‘The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857’, (2011-2014). Kate Smith was a postdoctoral researcher on the project.

[vii] Barczewski, 2014, p.181.

[viii] Barczewski, 2014, p.167-8.

[ix] For more information about Chinese wallpapers, see Emile de Bruijn, Andrew Bush and Helen Clifford’s Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses (2015), available from The National Trust.

[x] Barczewski, 2014, p.143.

[xi] Janet Todd, 2005. Jane Austen in Context (Cambridge: CUP), p.11

[xii] Hall, Draper and McClelland, 2014.

[xiii] Margot Finn, ‘Overview of Project, May 2013’,, accessed 16th November, 2015.

[xiv] Hall, Draper, McClelland, Donington and Lang, 2014. Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge: CUP). See also the project from which this book emerged: ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ (2013-2015, ESRC) at, accessed 16th November, 2015.

[xv] Hall, Draper and McClelland, 2014, p.9-10.

[xvi] Hall, Draper and McClelland, 2014, p.3-5.

[xvii] Finn, 2013.

[xviii] Kate Donington, 2014. ‘Transforming capital: slavery, family, commerce and the making of the Hibbert family’ in Hall, Draper, McClelland, Donington and Lang, 2014, p.203.

[xix] Donington, 2014, p.206.

[xx] Donington, 2014, p.207.

[xxi] Donington, 2014, p.211.

[xxii] Donington, 2014, p.204.

[xxiii] Donington, 2014, p.226.

[xxiv] Lowri Ann Rees (Bangor University) ‘The nabob returned: the infiltration of East India Company men into Welsh landed society’, paper at East India at Home conference, 2014.


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