Slavery and the Black Country: lords and ladies

This post, and possibly the next couple, is about the Black Country and the slave trade. Historians have had a busy few weeks lately, with the flag controversy, debates about the British Empire, Nazis and memorials in America and yes, this is a little in light of all of that. But I don’t want to write this as a reaction so much as just having a go at writing out the bits I know and have learned about the region in the eighteenth century, and how this horrific and completely discredited industry was once not thought of in those terms at all, but was shot through so much of what the region did and was. I don’t want to do down the hard-working Black Country people of the time either, as though this was some zero-sum game – I think the trade diminished the lives of the Black Country’s nascent working class as well as the commodified lives of those transported from Africa, and I don’t want to be sidetracked into a “which was worse” argument.

A global sense of place
My thinking is more along the lines of gaining what the geographer Doreen Massey called a “global sense of place” (read for free here). That is, the Black Country is not and never has been, insular: it is a crucial node in a global network of trade, economy, culture and humanity. I think this works temporally as well as spatially: these links morph and grow and recede through time too. In more recent historical writing on the slave trade, I think David Olusoga and Catherine Hall seem to approach this historical global sense of place; and that’s how I want to think of the Black Country. It was a crucial node in a new industrial, financial, economic network at mid-eighteenth century, and because of the flows of money that swirled around the hugely profitable slave trade, slave money inevitably flowed into, around, and out of the region. My argument is this: that you cannot have it both ways. Either the Black Country was an industrial region of massive significance and part of an economy embedded in the money and requirements of the trade in enslaved people; or it was neither. There was no such thing as a regional economy which wasn’t shot through with dirty money – although few thought of it like that at the time.

John William Ward, 1st Early of Dudley (National Portrait Gallery)

Local money
To start with an example then. It’s fairly straightforward to work out who owned slaves at the abolition of slavery in the 1830s: they were awarded compensation for the loss of their property. The excellent Legacies of British Slave-Ownership website has tracked and traced these compensation claims to build up a picture of who received compensation and their place within British and imperial histories. It doesn’t take long to find a starting point here: by looking for the region’s most prominent historical figures we quickly come up with our first: John William Ward (1781-1833), the first Earl of Dudley.

The various hereditary peers of Dudley have been some of the most crucial influences on the industrial development of the Black Country. For a start, vast tracts of land – particularly in the South and West of the region, which was particularly rich in ironstone – belonged to the family. Their family seat (after Dudley Castle got a bit too much) was of course the grand Himley Hall, with its Capability Brown-designed grounds, although their wealth (estimated at £120,000 per year) was so great that they could cheerfully afford to buy and reconstruct the grand Witley Court in Worcestershire not long after Ward’s death.

This wealth sprang from two main sources. Firstly of course, he exploited the tremendous mineral reserves of his Black Country estates, which included the recently-enclosed Pensnett Chase. The famous Earl of Dudley’s Railway opened towards the end of his life from Shutt End to Ashwood basin on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal – the first to carry a steam locomotive in the Midlands, the famous Agenoria. It also came from his plantations in Jamaica, inherited from his grandmother’s holdings, Mary Lady Viscountess Dudley and Ward (if you please).

Jamaican money

New Yarmouth sugar mill (Raul A Mosley)

Sprawling in the valley of the Rio Minha river, which rises in the rainforests of Cockpit Country in Jamaica’s mountainous spine, lies the famous Wray & Nephew distillery. It was from here century that the Ward family extracted the second part of their fortune – it was the New Yarmouth sugar plantation. A ruinous sugar mill still exists from this period, an early form of specialist industry. To be processed, sugar had to be cut at just the right time, transferred quickly to the mill, boiled and turned into the sugar that was exported to the well-to-do Georgian home (and, as the century rolled on, this taste for sugar was increasingly a working class demand). Coffee, chocolate, etc. – these are New World products that require sweetening to enjoy, and the great British baking and pudding tradition couldn’t have been possible without sugar mills such as this in the British Caribbean. Of course, to manage this complex industrial process requires not just machinery but manpower – in Jamaica, this was enslaved people. At New Yarmouth, it was 236 of them – at least, that’s the number for which Ward received compensation.

Slave money
In 1807, a great swell of popular opinion led to abolition of slavery – or so the bicentennial narrative went. In fact, it led just to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, leaving enslaved peoples still in the Caribbean. In fact, David Olusoga suggests this entrenched and made more harsh the slaves’ lots – they were now needed for breeding, and for harder work to make up for the lack of new African slaves. It wasn’t until 1834 that slavery as an institution was abolished, and even then, 4 years of unpaid “apprenticeship” remained to soften the blow to the poor planters for their losses. It lasted another three decades in the USA, of course. Throughout those early years of the nineteenth century, John William Ward owned and used slaves to produce sugar for his profits in New Yarmouth, as well as at the Rymesbury and Whitney estates, also in Clarendon Parish. When he died in 1833, he left a huge sum (£350,000) as well as “his said remainder and reversion of or in all and singular the said plantations and estates and the negro and other slaves thereon to hold them.”

Edward John Littleton, 1st Baron Hatherton in 1834, by George Hayter (National Portrait Gallery)

Family money
Ward had no son, and his cousin William Humble Ward (1781-1835) was the chief beneficiary of his will. Also included were other dignitaries including Francis Downing Esq. (the Earl’s mining agent and Mayor of Dudley 1818-1819); John Benbow Esq. (lawyer, Tory MP for Dudley in 1844, and a director of the North-Western and Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railways, both of which ploughed through the Black Country in the mid-nineteenth century), Henry Phillpotts, the Lord Bishop of Exeter (a slave-owner in his own right), and Edward John Littleton, aka Baron Hatherton (of Hagley Hall, with extensive mining interests in Cannock and Walsall, and MP for South Staffordshire). Most of these were engaged in politics in some ways, and the Earl himself was an MP for no less than six different constituencies, including Worcestershire. He was also involved in the setting up of London University in 1826 (today’s UCL – where the Legacies project was based), was foreign secretary for George Canning, and invested in many private ventures like canals.

Investing money
Rev. William Humble Ward’s inherited th’Earl’s money and his second cousin’s peerage, becoming Baron Dudley. He passed on his vast wealth and 30,000 acres of mineral deposits to his son William Ward, for whom the title Earl of Dudley was recreated. He in turn expanded the family’s wealth hugely through their Black Country industry – the Earl’s endeavours included Round Oak steelworks, 200 mines, and private railway system. His investment provided work for hundreds of thousands of Black Country folk over the years. There is nothing to suggest that they, or the Victorian Ward family, had anything to do with slavery, enslaved or freed people, or their dependants. Indeed, the Earls became most famous for their tremendous philanthropy. But the money made by previous generations was the foundation of much of this wealth and investment. Without Ward family money, the Black Country would never have become the important manufacturing centre that it was in Victorian Britain – there would have been no Round Oak ironworks, no Shutt End Railway, no Baggeridge colliery, and so on. Without Littleton’s money, there would have been no Hatherton Colliery in Bloxwich, no Hatherton lime works in Walsall, and so on.

Global money
A similar story could likely be traced through other Black Country aristocracy – the Ansons of Bentley Hall, near Walsall, would be an example. The peak and end of slavery came at a time of major change in the structure of the British economy. The industrial revolution was really the revolution of the industrialists – those willing to play the money game. In the long run, the new capitalist middle class (aka the bourgeoisie) overtook the old landed aristocracy as the foundation of the economy. But it took a long, long time – throughout the whole nineteenth century we find the Earls of Dudley, the Marquises of Stafford, the Giffards, the Wrottesleys. Their money built collieries and canals, blast furnaces and steam trains, and depending on your point of view, either provided countless jobs for Black Country working men and women, or exploited them for profit. Their legacy is complex and at times unsavoury, and demonstrates how when you follow the money, it takes you on a journey. For many African men, women and children, it took them on a journey from home to Jamaica to work for nothing.

5 thoughts on “Slavery and the Black Country: lords and ladies

  1. I must admit to only reading the first part of the article. I came to a statement that completely knocked me off my seat! It is very pleasing to me to see someone expose one of the darker sides of the Earls of Dudley, one of course being their involvement slavery in the West Indies. Far too often this is just glossed over as can be seen in articles in the Black Country Society magazine, and other books glorifying the family.

    However the statement…“His investment provided work for hundreds of thousands of Black Country folk over the years. There is nothing to suggest that they, or the Victorian Ward family, had anything to do with slavery, enslaved or freed people, or their dependants. Indeed, the Earls became most famous for their tremendous philanthropy.”

    For me the royalties on the minerals from beneath the Dudley estates provided the investment capital, and the blood, sweat, tears and exploitation of the Black Country folk provided them with the essential labour.

    Should the Earls be famous for tremendous philanthropy? Looking at other dark sides let me just make a contrast to this by quoting from George Barnsby and his book “Social Conditions in the Black Country 1800-1900.

    P37…the percentage of Black Country miners killed who worked in the Earls of Dudley’s pits varied from 10% in the 1850s and 60s to more than 20% in th 1890s.

    P45…This family amassed its fortune without the need of living in the area, although there was a ducal mansion at Himley Hall…the influence of the Dudleys were exercised through their agents, or alternatively that the views of their agents passed as those of the Earl….The continuance of some of the evils of the Black Country mining, notably the Butty system and pillar and stall working were a direct result of the influence of the Earls of Dudley…

    P49…opposition to the 1880 Employer’s Liability Bill

    P245/6…(their influence)…This immense influence is not only cognate to the effectiveness of monopoly control, but to the more general question of the perpetuation of the deplorable social and economic conditions in the area. The Dudleys gave no lead to the area regarding safety in mines. In the middle of the century their mines were no lesser death trap than those of other owners, and some of the ghastliest accidents of the century occurred in the Dudley mines……There is no record of attempts to improve conditions at the collieries or factories by the provision of schools, libraries, benefit societies, saving clubs and the like….the Earl stood above the law and this immunity was fully utilised….

    …But the greatest indictment of the Dudleys is that they were chiefly responsible for the greates evil from which most other abuses flowed, namely the perpetuation of the Butty system….Thus the Earls of Dudley, far from using their immense influence to ameliorate social and economic conditions were an active, and in some respects decisive influence,in perpetuating disgraceful conditions.


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