Legacies of slavery and colonialism on the Surrey HER
The name of the Surrey Historic Environment Record (HER) makes clear it covers things that were created or happened in the past – hence why the HER Officer has been known to quip that, no matter how efficiently the team works, its workload gets larger by the day. But this does not mean it exists entirely removed from present-day issues and debates. On the contrary, it is necessary for a public resource like the HER to include and reflect changes in current understanding of the historic monuments, places and artefacts that are the subjects of its records.
Following on from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter protests held around the world, the historic environment is having one of its occasional moments of prominence in the news headlines in relation to the debates surrounding the continued appropriateness in the public realm of statues commemorating individuals or institutions with links to slavery, mass mortalities, racism or other forms of discrimination. A lot of it cuts right to the heart of questions around what history is: a succession of events that happened in the past and which consequently cannot be changed or understood in any ways other than were established around the times when they occurred; or something more dynamic and capable of reconsideration as new evidence becomes available or novel approaches to interpreting existing information are adopted.
In its own work, the HER team does not just add new entries to our database as new evidence is found through excavation or other forms of research. A lot of what we do involves enhancing our existing data – no entry in the Surrey HER can be considered the final word on its subject, incapable of revision and improvement. Just as something long considered to be a prehistoric burial mound may through archaeological investigation turn out to be in fact entirely natural in origin, or a building that looks to be of one date from the outside may through expert analysis of its internal features be found to incorporate a much earlier structure, so the historical contexts of old buildings, parks and gardens, and monuments are susceptible to reassessment in the light of new research.
This brings us back to the current debates about the significance and place of monuments with controversial historical associations in the present day. While the HER cannot take a view on relative merits of particular political arguments that have been advanced in this regard, we can and have used them as the impetus to re-examine the content and focus of existing HER entries. One of the missions of the HER is to be representative of current knowledge about all aspects of Surrey’s historic environment, and this includes the different human experiences behind the existence of particular structures and landscapes. In terms of reflecting Surrey’s place in the history of the capture, trade and ownership of enslaved people (the decision to avoid using the term “slaves” is deliberate, being in accordance with practice that emphasises the forced nature of enslavement), or other aspects of Britain’s imperial legacy, the HER falls a long way short of representing this is a full and balanced way.
As a result, and as a start, we have undertaken a project in recent days to enhance some of our records by incorporating information contained in a number of online resources relevant to such subject matter. This blog post focuses on one of those resources, and explains the approach taken by the HER and a few of the immediate outcomes of this work. It also sets out some of our longer-term resolutions with regards to improving not only our data but also the historic environment sector of which we are a part.
Legacies of British Slave-ownership forms part of the name of a research centre at University College London, as well as a vast searchable database that was one of the key outcomes of a research project undertaken in 2009-12. Our colleagues at Surrey History Centre have written a page dedicated to it elsewhere on Exploring Surrey’s Past, and there are introductions to other aspects of the topic of slavery from a Surrey perspective to be found via the Surrey and Slavery page.
Using the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map of Britain, over a dozen named country houses and other properties in Surrey were found for which corresponding HER entries exist. The information provided by the relevant entries in the Legacies… database, plus additional online sources cited in them, was used to write new paragraphs in the description sections of the HER entries. In many cases, the HER has separate records for a house and its park/garden. Sometimes the additional information is such that the same text can be used for both, but for others the historical information is such that more specific additions can be made. Some of the existing description texts already mentioned individuals associated with the property in question, often the owner responsible for commissioning the extant historic house or laying out of the surrounding parkland. Including information from the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database reveals the extents to which their wealth was derived from the ownership of plantations in and around the Caribbean – and therefore the ownership of enslaved people – and in a small number of cases from being slave-traders.
To pick a couple of examples, the record for the house and grounds at Fetcham Park (SHHER 4681) now does more than mention the names of Arthur Moore and G. B. Hankey in passing. For a start, it sets in context Moore’s role in the South Sea Company and therefore his connection to the trade in enslaved black African people through the 1713 ‘Asentio’ with the Spanish crown. The revised description also highlights that Hankey’s ancestors were bankers, one of whom, Thomas Hankey, was among the partners responsible for a loan secured by a mortgage on the Union sugar plantation in Grenada that, after being defaulted on, made him a legal co-owner of the plantation. 103 enslaved people were recorded on the plantation in 1766, a number that had risen to 127 in 1772, the year in which the estate was sold. In other words, Arthur Moore’s and Thomas Hankey’s ownership of Fetcham Park was enabled in no small way by money obtained from the sale and labour of the enslaved.
Similarly, paragraphs have been added to the records for Hampton House (earlier Hampton Lodge; SHHER 8260) and its surrounding park (SHHER 13545) near Seale to make clear that this large country house was owned for several decades by the Long family, after its purchase by Edward Beeston Long in 1799. The family had a colonial association with Jamaica reaching back to Samuel Long‘s participation in its military conquest in 1655. Much of the Longs’ later wealth was based on ownership or co-ownership of two plantations on the island, Lucky Valley and Longville (the latter named after the family), as well as a more short-term interest in at least one other. Therefore, they possessed hundreds of enslaved people: on the Lucky Valley estate alone between 1813 and 1826, when it was owned outright by Edward Beeston Long, the numbers recorded never went below 246 people and rose to as many as 290. Edward Beeston Long’s father was Edward Long, who belonged to the West India merchants’ and planters’ committee, and more notoriously was the author of what is now recognised as a racist work of history, the three-volume History of Jamaica published in 1774.
It has long been understood that Clandon Park House (SHHER 8629) was designed and built for Thomas Onslow, 2nd Baron Onslow, in the early 18th century using money generated from a colonial plantation on which hundreds of enslaved people toiled. Looking more closely at the counterpart record for the grounds (SHHER 3703), the dates of circa 1776-81 when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown worked on remodelling the gardens and extending the parkland coincide with Clandon Park coming into the hands of a new owner via inheritance, George Onslow (made 4th Baron Onslow in 1776, and Earl of Onslow in 1801). He also inherited the large Whitehall plantation located at St Thomas-in-the-East, Surrey, Jamaica. A document shows him as owner in 1784, three years after the completion of Brown’s redesign of Clandon Park, and, as Earl (of) Onslow, he recurs as the registered owner when the numbers of enslaved people on the plantation are first recorded in the early 19th century: 135 in 1810, 131 in 1811. Although it is not known from where precisely Thomas and George Onslow took the money needed to pay for their reconstructions of the house and grounds at Clandon Park, it is also the case that they would have derived a significant share of their wealth from the Whitehall plantation.
Using the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database has also laid bare some of the contradictions of the period. Foxhills in Chertsey (SHHER 13639) was a country house with landscaped grounds built for John Ivatt Briscoe around 1840. As a consequence of his 1819 marriage settlement he was a beneficial owner of a plantation in Barbados named Lower Berney’s, at which over 120 enslaved people were forced to work and live. Subsequently, he became a beneficiary of a successful claim made by the trustees of the marriage settlement in the wake of the Slave Compensation Act 1837 for compensation for 136 enslaved people; the amount awarded totalled £901 14s 1d. Yet Briscoe also attended and spoke in favour of abolition at an anti-slavery meeting in Epsom in 1826. The indirect quotation of his words given in a report of the meeting printed in The Herald newspaper (a digitised version of which is available on Exploring Surrey’s Past here) encapsulates the contradictory position he occupied, in stating that;
‘he could not entreat a blessing upon his own labours if he did not reprobate the enormous cruelties which were inseparable from it. He admitted that next to the evil of slavery itself would be the immediate emancipation of the Slaves. All he asked was, that a beginning should be made.’
What happens next?
At the very least, it is hoped that this blog post has impressed upon you the fact that some of the people who owned country houses and parks in Surrey in the 18th and early 19th centuries between them also owned thousands of fellow human beings, and that to differing degrees the former circumstance followed from the latter. This information can be perceived in a number of different ways but, so far as the content of entries in the HER database is concerned, it is not something that can go unacknowledged any longer. Our database entries often incorporate historical contextual information: for example, explaining why Jonathan Tyers came to establish a house and grounds at Denbies near Dorking because he was the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens in London (SHHER 14739), and why an obelisk close to Brooklands was set up most likely as a monument to the Locke King family to celebrate the success of their nearby motor racing circuit (SHHER 19807). Referencing the links between ownership and investment in Surrey property on the one hand and enslaved people on the other therefore conforms to established practice.
The enhancements made to the HER over the past week affect a tiny fraction of the total number of entries. As was stated above, this work has been a start, and a belated one at that. It’s not enough to carve out the time to do a standalone project, write a blog post, and then go back to business as usual – all the more so when it’s painfully obvious that none of the names or life experiences of the enslaved people of colour behind the recorded numbers are available via the sources used in the improvements made to the respective entries. The Surrey HER under the present HER Officer is resolved therefore to continue making its records more representative of Surrey and the wider world, past and present, as a long-term commitment. To help in this, we are always grateful to receive recommendations of any online (or printed) resources similar to the ones highlighted above that we could use to enhance our data further; please comment below or email [email protected] with your suggestions.
Beyond that, the Surrey HER needs to be a resource of greater practical and professional benefit in the future. We had ambitions to develop a proper programme of placements and volunteering with the HER in 2020, but COVID-19 has put paid to them for the time being. In the interim until things return to a state where we can host people in our offices, messages can be sent to the HER team email address by anyone, but especially people from BAME, LGBTQ+ and other backgrounds that are currently under-represented in the UK historic environment sector (as identified by the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group), who wants to find out more about how to get into our line or work or allied ones. If this sounds like you (or a friend, relative, or colleague), please drop us an email to the above address with any questions and we’ll be happy to engage and help as best we can.
Rob Briggs, HER Officer
For further reading on this topic, one recommendation is Slavery and the British Country House, edited by Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann, published in 2013 and available for free download from the Historic England website. It provides an excellent introduction to the historical subject matter of this blog post at both the national and local levels, including case studies of specific country houses.