Every year thousands of people visit the numerous stately homes and country houses that dot the British landscape. But most visitors are blissfully unaware of the dark stories lurking beneath the foundations of many of these buildings. It’s a story in stark contrast to the elegant houses nestled amongst their idyllic grounds and gardens. It’s a story of the how blood, sweat and misery can often be found soaked into each and every brick. This post explores that story.
I stopped off to visit numerous country houses during my travels around the UK. These opulent and extravagant former residences of the über-rich provide fascinating insights into a lifestyle most people can only ever imagine (not you, of course, dear reader, I mean members of the peasant class). One such house I enjoyed visiting was Penrhyn ‘Castle’ in North Wales.
Penrhyn is a mock-Norman castle country house situated in Llandegai, Bangor, near Snowdonia. Visitors flock to the property to enjoy leisurely strolls around the sixty acre grounds, the Victorian walled garden, the dolls museum, railway museum and adventure playground. Inside can be found one of the finest art collections in North Wales, elaborate carvings, mock-Norman furniture and the famous one-ton, slate bed made for Queen Victoria’s visit (a bed whose sturdy construction was owed to the great local slate industry, not necessitated by her ample stature). The fantasy castle was transformed during the early 19th century from a medieval manor house into the massive three hundred roomed house of today. It’s the industry that allowed this transformation to take place that forms the centre of this story.
Gifford Pennant began buying up land in Jamaica during the late 17th century. His purchases were combined to become one of the largest estates on the island. His son, Edward, became Chief Justice of Jamaica and his grandson, John, later expanded the family estate through marriage. The land generated great wealth for the Pennant family. This wealth was amassed from sugar plantations – sugar plantations worked by African slaves.
By 1750 the family had returned to Britain and John invested the family’s wealth in land in North Wales, including half of the land upon which the castle would eventually stand. The other half of the land was gained through the marriage of John’s son, Richard Pennant. Once the estate was united Richard set about building the spectacular family home. It’s estimated that the renovation from manor house to mock-castle cost £150,000, the equivalent of almost £50 million today. This astonishing sum illustrates the huge wealth that was amassed by slave owners during the period, and much of this wealth was eventually invested into British property and land.
In 2007 English Heritage began researching the links between slavery and properties in its care. Of the small sample of thirty-three properties surveyed twenty-six were found to have some connection to either slavery or abolition. A separate investigation identified over twenty great houses in the Liverpool area alone that had links to the trade (although most of these have since been demolished). A 1769 map of Bristol and its surrounding area listed forty-two properties whose owners were affiliated with slavery. Of the seventeen surviving houses built near Bristol between 1660 and 1830 at least ten have been linked to slavery-based wealth. A separate project concluded that, in 1830, between five and ten percent of all British country houses were owned by slave-holders. It’s been claimed that the majority of country houses built in England and Wales during the 17th and 18th centuries were done so with its profits, and at one stage over a third of slave plantations on the island of St Vincent were connected to country houses back in Britain.
After his return to Britain, Richard Pennant began managing his plantations by letter. He acquired the moniker of Richard Pennant the Improver on account of his numerous virtuous activities (such as planting over half a million trees in the area). He treated his slaves better than most, but he clearly felt no moral dilemma about the exploitation. Some of his letters complain that not enough children were being born to slave women as “breeding” was cheaper than purchasing new slaves. But more than this Pennant was a passionate advocate of the industry. He became an outspoken champion of the trade and argued that abolition would lead to economic disaster. He wielded his power and influence to organise opposition to the growing abolitionist movement. Parliament was petitioned and pamphlets proclaiming the economic benefit of slavery were distributed. He even told parliament, “Were the house to vote for abolition they would actually strike at £70 million worth of property, they would ruin the colonies, and by destroying an essential nursery of seamen, would give away the domination of the sea at a stroke.”
Thankfully parliament were not swayed by such doomsday predictions and under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 the slaves in most of Britain’s colonies were emancipated, but not without compensation to their owners. It may seem shocking today but £20 million in compensation was paid to those in the industry. The Pennant family alone received £14,683 (almost £5 million in today’s money). But most of this money, along with the rest of the family’s wealth, is now thought to be in the hands of the National Trust who manage the property. So next time you’re wandering around a country house in awe of the great wealth on display, spare a thought for those who may have paid for that wealth with their blood, sweat and freedom.