The Profits of Slavery found in Northwich and Around

The issue of slavery, and its legacy, has hit the headlines in Britain, America and across the world, during the past six months. The Black Lives Matter campaign has won adherents in many countries, and activists have toppled statues of historical figures linked to slavery in many different locations.

Within the U.K. many towns and cities have links to the dark days of the slave trade in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when British families, traders and companies profited from the sale and utilisation of black slaves, packed into slave ships on the west African coast, and transported to work on sugar, cotton and other plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas. Even a small town like Northwich, together with its surrounding satellite villages, possesses significant architectural evidence of the vast profits made from Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

Northwich, situated in the centre of Cheshire, is roughly twenty-five miles inland from Liverpool, one of the world’s great historic port cities, so it is not surprising that the links between the Northwich area and the slave trade are quite significant and long standing.

The Hosken-Harper Memorial. (Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

The authors Adrian and Dawn Bridge explain many of the known (and some unknown) architectural links between Northwich and the slave trade, in their book “Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings” published by Amberley Publishing in February 2021. The links between ‘Northwich & Around’ and the slave trade fall into a number of categories. To begin with, there are those buildings and monuments constructed by, or on behalf of, slave owners and slave traders. Here, the small village of Davenham, just to the south of the original township of Northwich, looms large. Davenham Hall, as it stands today, was largely constructed on the profits derived from the slave trade in the British Caribbean colony of Montserrat. The Hall was bought by William Harper, an influential Liverpool slave trader, in 1795, and he bequeathed his money and estate to his daughter Anne, and his son-in-law John Hosken (who became John Hosken-Harper to inherit his father-in-law’s estate and slave trading wealth). John almost certainly became a slave owner in his own right, and it is his monument – the Hosken-Harper Memorial – which still stands today at the junction of London Road and Fountain Lane, in Davenham.

Davenham Hall. (Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Just a few miles to the north of Davenham Hall, lies the Grade 1 magnificence of Winnington Hall, which was owned, at the end of the eighteenth century, by Richard Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn. Pennant was also a slave and plantation owner, with extensive sugar and rum producing interests in Jamaica. At least some of the money generated by his Jamaican plantations (along with profits from his North Wales slate quarries) was ploughed into the major Regency period extensions to Winnington Hall which can still be seen and admired today.

Georgian stone wing of Winnington Hall. (Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

In 1833, the British government made slavery illegal throughout the burgeoning British empire, and it subsequently decided to compensate all those who had financial investments in slaves and plantations, for their business ‘losses’. Thus, many British people who had investments in slave owning enterprises received often very generous financial compensation when their slaves were set free (often to become very poorly paid indentured servants on the same estates). This officially sanctioned compensation package provided a welcome boost to the Victorian economy. It also provided a considerable financial boost to the micro-economy of Northwich and around. John Hosken-Harper of Davenham Hall received £714 for the ‘loss’ of his slaves in Montserrat. The nearby Davenham gentry France-Hayhurst family received a far more substantial compensation package for the loss of its slave and plantation interests – one which it passed on through the generations so that by the late nineteenth century, Thomas France-Hayhurst, rector of St. Wilfrid’s, Davenham, was able to leave over £100,000 in his will.

The France-Hayhursts also linked themselves with the Hosken-Harpers, via marriage, to become Davenham’s dominant gentry family. These families involved themselves in many acts of charity and good works, such as the building of Davenham’s first new school, in 1856, on the junction of Hartford Road and London Road. At least some of the money for these endeavours came from the government compensation paid to the France-Hayhursts for the loss of their slave owning interests.

Portrait of Sir Hardman Earle, Illustrated London News, 1877. (Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Hardman Earle, from Liverpool, lived briefly at Mersey Vale, on Chester Road, Hartford, during the 1870’s. He was a peripheral figure in terms of residence, but had a major economic impact on the Northwich area. Earle came from a major slave owning family, and he received the astronomical sum of over £17,000 as compensation for the ‘loss’ of his slaves in Antigua (equivalent to about £2,000,000 in today’s money). He used this money to invest in railway stocks and other business ventures, and he was one of the driving forces behind the companies which built the Vale Royal Aqueduct and the railway lines connecting Birmingham and Liverpool.

Front entrance to Hefferston Grange. (Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Robert Heath, the owner-occupier of Hefferston Grange, near Weaverham, from the 1850’s until 1907, had slave owning interests which were entirely in a category of their own. Whilst the other individuals and families mentioned above were either slave traders or owned plantations within the British empire, Heath was a significant cotton planter and slave owner in the Confederate states of America, prior to their defeat by Abraham Lincoln’s Union forces in the 1861-65 civil war. The Georgian interiors of Hefferston Grange were improved substantially by Heath in 1876, and at least some of the money for these renovations must have come from Heath’s involvement in the cotton plantations of the short-lived slave-owning Confederate states of America.

Adrian and Dawn L. Bridge's new book Northwich & Around in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.