Kingswinford parish – associations with slavery

In a recent post, I contributed to the debate on to what extent the early railways in Great Britain and Ireland were capitalized by slave-compensation funds to former slave owners. In doing so I used data from the UCL website Legacies of British Slavery. As I write, that debate rumbles on, but in this post I move away from it somewhat, to use the UCL to determine the impact of slavery on the industries in the area and period in which I am most interested – the western Black Country parish of Kingswinford in the 19thcentury.  The discussion will thus be somewhat wider than the railway industry and will also embrace the iron and mining sectors. It will be seen that the evidence for the impact of slavery finance in this area is more than a little ambiguous, but the UCL does nonetheless add to the general body of knowledge of industrial developments in the region, and the relationships between individuals.

There are three potential links with slavery within the parish of Kingswinford in the 18thand  19thcentury – through the Corbyn family, formerly of Corbyn’s Hall; through the Lords of the Manor – the Barons Dudley and Ward; and through the Gibbons family. The former can be quickly dealt with. The last Corbyn in the parish was Thomas, who died in 1688. His heir, Margaret, married William Lygon, and moved to Madresfield in Worcestershire, and Corbyn’s Hall was sold to John Hodgetts – see Kingswinford Manor and Parish (KMAP), Chapter 3. The last generation of the Corbyn’s, other than Thomas, all seemed to have worked in various trades in London. His brother Henry (1629-1675) eventually moved to Virginia. Correspondence between Thomas and Henry reveals that the latter had become at least a part owner of one or more slave plantations – presumably either cotton or tobacco. The Corbyn’s seem to have prospered in North America and the story of their involvement with slave worked plantations could no doubt be told given sufficient research. But that is an American story of no direct relevance to Kingswinford in the Black Country in Britain, and will not be taken further here.

Figure 1 The Dudley Tree

Now let us consider the Lords of the Manor – the Baron’s Dudley and Ward. Their descent is quite complicated, but the relevant parts are shown in figure 1 (from KMAP Chapter 3). The involvement of this family with slavery came through the marriage of John Ward, 6thBaron Ward, 1stViscount Dudley and Ward (1704-1774) to Mary Carver (-1782), who had inherited three plantations in Jamaica from her father John.  She left these to her son William Ward (1750-1823) and then in trust for her grandson John Ward (1781-1833), 4thViscount Dudley and Ward, and from 1823, the 1st Earl of Dudley and Viscount Ednam. He was an MP for various constituencies from 1802 to 1823, before being made and Earl, and as a member of the House of Lords was Foreign Secretary from 1827 to 1828. He spoke against slavery, although advocating reformation rather than abolition of the system.  Nonetheless at his death he was still in possession of the three Jamaican estates. He was succeeded as Baron Ward by his cousin, Rev. William Ward (1781-1835), although his estates were held in trust for William’s son, another William. The trustees were John Benbow, a solicitor who sat as MP for Dudley from 1844 to 1855; Francis Downing, Lord Dudley’s Agent and mayor of Dudley from 1818 to 1819, Edward Littleton, Baron Hatherton and Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire; and Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, one of the more flamboyant 19thcentury bishops. It was these trustees who made a claim for compensation for the three estates of Whitney (284 slaves); Rymesbury (320 slaves) and New Yarmouth (70 slaves), and whose names thus appear in the records, although they were never slave owners themselves.  They were allocated £12,728 in total. To put this in context, the income of the Dudley Estates in Staffordshire and Worcestershire was around £120,000 per year at the time, and John Ward left £350,000 in his will. The slavery-compensation was thus only a rather small part of the latter William’s overall inheritance. 

When I learned about this involvement of the Dudley’s with slavery I was in the first instance somewhat surprised. Whilst not being an expert on the Dudley’s by any means, I have read quite widely about them, and not seen any reference to this involvement. This may be that historians did not think this remarkable enough to discuss, or perhaps because of a slight embarrassment.  Certainly the Bishop of Exeter must have so felt when he realized he was responsible for slave owning plantations as a trustee. Alternatively it may be that the Dudley Estate itself thought little of it, other than as a profitable line item in their accounts. Either way it is perhaps somewhat shocking.

Figure 2. The Gibbons Tree

The other possible route of money earned through slavery into the Kingswinford area was through the Gibbons family. The family tree is complicated and is summarized in figure 2, again from KMAP. The Gibbons family were from the Ettingshall / Sedgley area and can be traced back to the 16th century. From Grace’s Guide

After the death of John Gibbons (1703-1778), responsibilities for the business he had built up in iron and coal were divided between his three sons – one son, William (1732-1807), ran the family’s merchant house at Bristol, buying pig iron for the midland forges and overseeing the export of metalwares to the American market. Another of John’s sons, Benjamin (1735-1832) , was entrusted with management of the iron business around Kingswinford. The eldest son, Thomas (1730-1813), took charge of the merchant house at Wolverhampton which was subsequently developed as a bank. 

They continued to work together however and in 1784 took out a lease of land, mines and furnaces  at the Level in Brierley Hill.  The partnership between the brothers was split up in the late eighteenth century. The Bristol house was signed over to William’s only son, William (1782–1848).  It was this latter William who appears in the UCL data as a Bristol merchant and ironmonger, the partner of Benjamin Bickley.  The partners in this firm were William Gibbons, Benjamin Bickley, John Latty Bickley (Benjamin’s son) and Michael Willcox. Bickley counterclaimed on an award in Trinidad for Paradise & Cane Farm plantations in the name of the firm and was awarded £8304. ‘Wm Gibbons’ appears under a second award as an unsuccessful counterclaimant for the Lodge estate on Trinidas, but it is possible that this is the firm not the man.  In both cases Bickley was acting as an Executor on behalf of a deceased person’s estate.

In 1814 Benjamin  (1735-1832) made over the Level furnaces and other industrial plant to his nephews – John (1777-1851), Benjamin (1783-1873) and Thomas (1787-1829) in return for an annuity and ownership of the Corbyn’s Hall  Estate. The three younger Gibbons brothers were declared bankrupt as bankers in 1816, in the slump following the Napoleonic Wars, pulling the iron business down with them. Fortunately the elder Benjamin, as a preferential creditor, was able to take control of some of the iron and coal interests and save the family firm from total ruin. The younger Gibbons brothers continued to develop the Corbyn’s Hall Collieries and Blast Furnaces, which were built by them about 1824. The activities around Corbyn’s Hall went through a number of different iterations over the next 100 years, being leased to a variety of industrialists, but with the Gibbons retaining some sort of interest. Benjamin Gibbons (1815-1863) and Benjamin  Gibbons(1852-) also developed fire clay works and coal mines close by at Dibdale. These works and their successors lasted into recent times. 

The relationship between the Gibbons and the Bickley families continued to the next generation.  In 1838 John Latty Bickley was living at Ettingshall Lodge in Sedgley (the old home of the Gibbons) and was engaged in land transfer deals with the Gibbons brothers John (1777-1851) and Benjamin (1783-1873) and mortgages of land around the Corbyn’s Hall estate.

The question then arises as to the nature of the Gibbons involvement with slave-owning individuals and businesses and whether or not there was significant flow of resource into their activities as a result. The only certainty is that William Gibbons and his partner acted as an Executor for some slave-owners in winning compensation for their estates, perhaps acting as a business rather than individuals. One might speculate that as a merchant trading in Bristol, even in the iron trading sector that wasn’t directly involved with slave-owning, some association would have been inevitable, but again that is supposition. And if there had been any profits from such associations that fed back into the Midlands iron and coal business, it is doubtful whether any traces of these would have survived the 1825 bankruptcy.

To conclude, it would seem to me that the extent of the involvement of industry in Kingswinford parish with slave-owning individuals and organisations was small, and probably had no lasting legacy in industrial terms. The Dudley estate certainly owned plantations in Trinidad together with their slave population, but one senses that this was almost by an accident of marriage rather than by design. Nonetheless this ownership was accepted and the estate no doubt profited from in a manner that was acceptable at the time, but would not be so regarded now. The Gibbons family also had minor associations with slave-owners through their Bristol firm, which illustrates just how difficult it would have been for any organization with activities there to avoid such associations. Thus the interactions of industries around Kingswinford with slavery were small. They are nonetheless worth recording and remembering as part of the history of the area. 

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