Legacies of Slavery

Bristol was one of Britain’s three principle cities involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Many of its residents were also involved in the plantations where the slaves worked, and the many businesses connected with them or benefitting from the wealth derived from these enterprises. Individual families links to slavery are often quite complex but its importance to the city’s economy in the 18th and early 19th century cannot be underestimated.

Rather than continually refer back to these legacies in the text whenever land purchases, gifts, property improvements or any other developments are concerned, they are mentioned here instead.

While many properties in the city can be very directly linked to the proceeds of industries that used slave labour, the connections of the house we are concerned with is less obvious. This is doubtless the case with many other properties and institutions in the city, which are more likely to have “invisible” or less easily discerned connections than the property’s listed on the UCL database as having a documented link with plantations – just over 200 in and around Bristol at the time of writing.

It is also worth providing the context in which this history is currently being written. The National Trust has very recently completed a reassessment of its property’s links with colonialism. The Bristol History Commission has been set up by Bristol City Council to examine how the city’s past is presented today, and the University of Bristol is working on a similar project. Oddly this period of reassessment is being challenged by those who consider re-examining the history of our institutions to be “woke” and a challenge to patriotism of modern day Britons. That is not what is intended here. This short section of the house history solely aims to clearly set out where the more direct linkages with slavery are for the benefit of the historical record.

Way/Smyth – Arthur Edward Gregory Way lived in the property 1880-1919. He lived off income from the Ashton Court estate and was able to purchase the property due to an inheritance that was, in all probability, in large part comprised of funds derived from the estate. The Smyth family, which the Ways married into at least twice, owned the land pre-build from 1605 to 1874. In Historic England’s “Slavery and the English Country House” (2013), Madge Dresser highlights the following: 

The renovation of Ashton Court near Bristol came after the marriage in 1757 of John Hugh Smyth to the Jamaican heiress Rebecca Woolnough. The marriage settlement of £40,000 comprised properties in England and Jamaica (including the Spring plantation in Jamaica) and substantially improved the fortunes of the Smyth estate. Indeed it was estimated by one local historian that the profits made by Sir John Hugh Smyth from the Spring plantation and the sale of its sugar amounted to some £17,000 over the period 1762–1802.

However, subsequent research suggests that the family’s association with the Atlantic slave economy pre-dates this marriage, as Sir Hugh Smyth’s father, Jarrit Smith, a Bristol solicitor, was also a member of the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers – the elite body which actively lobbied on behalf of Bristol participants in the African, American and West Indian trades.

Cave – Ada Louisa Cave married Arthur E G Way and lived in the property 1888-1936. After her husband’s death in 1919, she owned the house for another 17 years making her the longest standing occupant of the house. The Caves were a very wealthy Bristol family, with interests in banking, glass manufacturing and shipping. Her grandfather, John Cave of Brentry (1765-1842), is listed by UCL as a “claimant or beneficiary” of the scheme that compensated slave owners following abolition.

His first wife was Penelope Oliver, the daughter of Thomas Oliver, whose family owned the Friar’s Hill plantation on Antigua and derived a considerable income from it. In November 1835, a compensation claim against the Friar’s Hill plantation (137 enslaved) netted six members of the family, including Ada’s grandfather, John, £1,984. Other sources suggest that Friar’s had 206 enslaved peoples working on the plantation in previous years. It is worth noting, if it is not already obvious, that although the database provides a figure strictly for the compensation payout, similar figures do not exist for the less tangible but potentially more profitable ways in which the Caves will have benefitted from plantation ownership. 

Thomas Oliver’s former home (Elmwood House) is itself undergoing a historic reassessment at the time of writing. It was originally built for Oliver during his time as the last Royal Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and would go on to house a succession of notable residents including an American Vice-President and a man who would give his signature to the American Declaration of Independence. The house that stands today was once part of a 100-acre estate but more recently was donated to Harvard University and is now used as the residence of its incumbent president. 

Thomas himself would end up in Bristol having supported the British side in the American War of Independence. He is buried at St Pauls.

John Cave was also a founding partner of Cave, Ames and Co, or “the Bristol New Bank”, which would later become a constituent part of NatWest. Two other partners, Thomas Daniel and Richard Bright of Ham Green were involved in the triangular trade. John’s portrait hangs at the National Trust’s Basildon Park site, where he is depicted wearing his uniform from the “Bristol Troop of Gentlemen and Yeomanry Cavalry”. This is not due to a direct connection with the family and Basildon and its owners to the best of my knowledge but the result of a bequest to the trust from the Caves in the 1970s.

As mentioned in the text – the primary family seat for the Caves at this time was Brentry House (later Brentry Hospital and now known as Repton Hall).

Brentry House, now Repton Hall, was the family home of the Caves: Linda Bailey – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wills – The Wills family never owned the property or lived there but were important in the development (or not-too-extensive development) of the local area. Their former houses (Bracken Hill House and Burwalls House) as well as donations of land to the National Trust are mentioned throughout this text without referring to the use of slave labour by the tobacco industry so it is noted here instead. This short summary from Bristol Museum (Tayo Lewin-Turner, Madge Dresser, Sue Giles) provides a helpful overview: 

The Wills family grew rich off the tobacco industry in the nineteenth century from their family company, W.D & H.D Wills. Although much of the Wills’ wealth would come after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833, and although members of the family supported the pro-emancipation MP for Bristol in 1830, the family had long-standing ties with and profited greatly from the enslavement of Africans.

Henry Overton Wills III used slave-produced tobacco from the USA to supply his business. This source of revenue was not abolished until the loss of the Confederate States in the American Civil War in 1865. The Wills’ use of slave-produced tobacco allowed the family to become the great philanthropists for which they are now remembered.

In the Leigh Woods context this philanthropy specifically involves: the 1909 donation of 80 acres of land to the National Trust (Nightingale Valley and Burwalls Forest) by George Alfred Wills and the 1936 donation of 60 acres by Walter Alfred Wills.

Coates, Ashley. “Legacies of Slavery – A History of a Bristol House.” A History of a Bristol House, ahousehistory.com, 10 May 2022, https://ahousehistory.com/legacies-of-slavery/.

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