An abbey no more: slavery and sightseeing

ENTIRELY JUSTIFIABLE FURORE over recent unlawful police killings of Afro-American citizens in the USA has heightened awareness of the history of unjust treatment of ‘people of colour’ under colonialism and slavery during years long passed. It was only after enjoying an afternoon in the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey near the city of Cambridge that I learned that this delightful place was once owned by someone whose fortune was at least partially derived from  exploitation of India and elsewhere by the East India Company. But first some history of the house, whose gardens we enjoyed despite the rain and gloomy grey late October skies.

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, abbeys, and other religious institutions in England. One of these was an Augustinian priory established near Cambridge by Richard de Clare in 1212. This was originally founded as the Hospital of St Mary during the reign of Henry I (that is between 1100 and 1135). The site of this religious establishment became the property of John Hynde, an important judge, who died in 1550. The religious buildings having been largely demolished, the next owner of the place, the Fowkes family who acquired it in 1595, built a Jacobean style house where the priory used to stand. The house incorporated some of the remains of the disbanded priory and abbey.

Later, the house became the property of Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), a Cambridge carrier from whose name the expression ‘Hobson’s choice’ is derived. Hobson maintained a profitable livery stable in Cambridge as well as arranging the carriage of mail between London and Cambridge. ‘Hobson’s choice’, a name derived after Hobson’s death is essentially the choice between ‘take it (i.e. the one thing on offer) or leave it’. Hobson’s son-in-law Thomas Parker and some of his descendants owned Anglesey Abbey (as the property became known). Later, the Member of Parliament for Malmesbury and then Cambridge, Samuel Shepheard (1677-1748), became owner from 1739. We will return to him later.

In 1848, the Reverend John Hailstone (1759-1847), an important geologist, a member of the Linnean Society as well as the Royal Society, bought Anglesey Abbey. He carried out many restorations and planted many trees in the Abbey’s extensive gardens, which we can enjoy today. Jumping ahead, in 1926, two brothers, Urban Huttleston Broughton (later ‘1st Baron Fairhaven’) and Henry Rogers Broughton, bought the property. They made improvements to the house, enhanced their collections of artworks, and developed the gardens. Henry moved out in 1932, leaving Anglesey Abbey to his older brother Urban, then Lord Fairhaven. Urban built a library to store his ever-growing collections of art works and books and restored the working Lode Mill on his property. When Lord Fairhaven died in 1966, the property was bequeathed to the National Trust. Sadly, because of the current covid19 crisis, we were not allowed to enter the lovely house to view his collection.

Between 1717 and 1720, Samuel Shepheard, an early owner of Anglesey Abbey, was involved with the East India Company (founded 1600 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I). He was elected a director in 1718. His father, Samuel Shepheard (c1648-1719), was one of the so-called ‘interlopers’ who used political connections set up The New East India Company in 1691. So, not much has changed in connection with the overlap of political influence and commercial interests since then! The ‘New’ company thrived alongside the older one for a few years before the two companies merged (https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w21536/w21536.pdf). Samuel’s father tried to involve his son in the promotion of the New East India Company and is alleged to have been involved in irregularities connected with his son’s political advancement (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/shepheard-samuel-ii-1677-1748). The on-line History of Parliament website includes the following about Samuel (junior):

“Concern for trade, and in particular his father’s commercial interests, suggest that he, rather than James Sheppard, twice acted as teller in that session: in favour of engrossing a bill to open up commerce with Africa; and in support of the second reading of a clause for a bill to encourage the tobacco trade.”

As for the former owner of Anglesey Abbey’s connection with India:

“Although serving as a director of the East India Company under George I, he did not seek advancement in the City, preferring the lifestyle of the country gentleman. The establishment of a residence at Exning probably reflected his association with the Cotton family, who were lords of the manor there.”

He became extremely wealthy:

“Dying ‘vastly rich’, he left the bulk of his estate to his natural daughter, who was celebrated as ‘the greatest fortune in England’, and subsequently married Charles Ingram, the future 9th Viscount Irvine.”

Exning is about six and a half miles north-east of Anglesey Abbey. Although Shepheard owned the Abbey, it is unlikely that he resided there as much as in Exning.

Samuel Shepheard was, as already mentioned, a director of the East India Company between 1718 (possibly 1717) and 1720. During that time, the company appears to have been, if not actually involved in, certainly interested in transporting slaves from Madagascar to North America in 1720 (“The William and Mary Quarterly”, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 548-577). To what extent Samuel Shepheard and his father were involved in the slave trade remains unclear. The National Trust are also somewhat opaque on this subject as their report (https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf) reveals:

“Shepheard was a wealthy merchant and Cambridgeshire Member of Parliament (MP) who served as director of the new East India Company and headed the South Sea Company. His father, Samuel Shepheard senior (c.1648–1719), was also an MP and merchant, building the family fortune on overseas trade. He was a founder member of the new East India Company and the South Sea Company, where he held the office of deputy-governor from 1713.”

Does the term ‘overseas trade’ include slavery? While we can not be certain whether or not either Samuel Junior or his father were involved in the slave trade, there is little doubt that the East India Company was not averse to it and might well have profited from it (see, for example: www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2715359?journalCode=jnh and https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=slisconnecting ), certainly in Africa and maybe also in the Indian subcontinent.

Should we let our enjoyment of Anglesey Abbey be disturbed by the knowledge that for a brief period of its existence it was owned by someone, who was involved in a company that ‘plundered’ India and was involved in the slave trade? By stating that Shepheard “… built the family fortune on overseas trade” to quote the National Trust in its report, which was triggered by the recent formation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we can get no closer to ascertaining whether we should have a bad conscience about visiting the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey or should simply enjoy the experience without being concerned with an ill-defined unsavoury part of its history. After all, as far as we know, neither of the Shepheards, father and son, can yet be tarred with the same brush as, for example, the disgraced Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston (1636-1721), whose lifespan overlapped those of the two Samuel Shepheards. And, furthermore, unlike some other stately homes whose fame is largely due to fortunes made by persons involved in slavery, Anglesey Abbey is not one of them. If anything, the glory and splendour of this house and gardens in Cambridgeshire is due mainly to the efforts of men who owned it many, many years after Samuel Shepheard Junior died.

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