9 Park Street, Bath and Nathaniel Wells, Britain’s First Mixed-Race High Sheriff Who Claimed Slavery Compensation

These days, Park Street is a quiet residential street on the northern slopes of Georgian Bath, leading out of the north west corner of rather more fashionable St James’ Square.  It’s a mix of entire terraced houses built from the local Bath stone, standing shoulder to shoulder with others that have been divided into sometimes rather shabby flats.  With no off-street parking available, the street is lined with cars, while plastic waste boxes and recycling bags often festoon the railings.

In the 1830s, at least three of the houses in Park Street (Nos 9, 26 and 34) were owned or occupied by individuals who lodged claims for compensation following the abolition of slavery in 1833.  This post is about Nathaniel Wells (1779-1852), an established member of Georgian high society who died at No 9 Park Street and is remembered in St Arvan’s Church in south Wales, but who was of mixed race African/Welsh heritage.

9 Park Street

Nathaniel was the son of William Wells, originally from Cardiff, who moved to St Kitts in about 1749 and became owner of three sugar plantations, the largest of which was ‘Vambells’. Nathaniel’s mother was Juggy, one of William’s enslaved house servants, who took the name Joardine Wells on manumission (the act of a slave owner in freeing his or her slaves).  William had at least six illegitimate children, as well as legitimate daughters, but Nathaniel was his only son and inherited the bulk of William’s estate – three sugar plantations and money estimated at £120,000 – on his death in 1794 when Nathaniel was about 15 years old.

Nathaniel was educated in England and at the age of about 23 in 1802 he paid £90,000 for Piercefield estate near Chepstow, Monmouthshire. Despite his African/mixed race heritage he became an integral part of Monmouthshire society, becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1806 and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1818. He served as church warden at St Arvan’s from 1804 to 1843 and together with the Duke of Beaufort paid for improvements to the building .

On 13 February 1837, Nathaniel was awarded £1400 9s 7d in relation to 86 enslaved persons on the Fahies and Ortons sugar estates in Saint Paul Capesterre, on the north western end of St Kitts.  The claim was contested but awarded.

Nathaniel died at 9 Park Street, Bath on 13 May 1852. His memorial incription in St Arvan’s reads: “Sacred to the memory of Nathaniel Wells of Piercefield, Esq, a Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant of the county of Monmouth, who died at Bath May 13th, 1852, aged 72 years. Also of Esther, widow of the above, who died on the 1st day of June, 1871, aged 67 years. R.I.P.”  Esther was his second wife.

I am grateful to Roger Evans for the information that Wells was buried in the graveyard of Bath’s fashionable church, St Swithin’s, Walcot on 20 May 1852: Roger notes that the plot (392) is unmarked due to a clearance of the headstones at some time.

Piercefield estate is now the home of Chepstow Racecourse.  The house is derelict and abandoned.


UCL Database: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/25474

J. A. H. Evans, ‘Wells, Nathaniel (1779–1852)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Wells


Baron Dr George Gavin Browne-Mill, Physician to Louis XVIII

This is the story of how a Scottish doctor, practicing in Bath, inherited plantations in Grenada from one of his patients and was then awarded compensation for loss of income following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.  I have drawn it together from a number of online source materials listed below.

George Gavin Browne (who became Browne-Mill in 1803) was born at Prior-Montagu, Lanarkshire on 19 February 1748  (some sources, including the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, erroneously state 1774).  He was the son of the Laird of Priorhill. After gaining an MD in 1779 from Edinburgh University he moved to Bath, where by 1792 he was practising at Brunswick Place.  In 1809 he moved to 27 Marlborough Buildings and seems to have worked in the City as a consulting surgeon until his death in 1842.

Screenshot 2016-02-26 10.40.03

27 Marlborough Buildings (from Google Streetview)

In 1792, a wealthy plantation owner and Scottish resident of Bath, Montrose-born David Mill who had ‘acquired a considerable fortune in the West Indies’, began making a number of codicils to his will which increasingly benefited Dr George Browne.  In 1792 he left £3000 to Dr Browne, for “attention and kindness … experienced for several years past”.  In 1799 he gave him equal shares (one fifth) of his estates (probably cotton) in Cariacou, Grenada, which were subject to a rent-charge payment of £300 a year.  In 1802 he disinherited two other beneficiaries, making Browne one of the remaining two beneficiaries of his will, but  requiring him to “take upon himself” the additional name of Mill in return.  This Browne did, ‘out of grateful respect to and in compliance with the desire of his friend, David Mill, of the said City of Bath’.  Finally,  in 1804, David Mill died and the now-named George Gavin Browne-Mill inherited half of his estate including his Cariacou plantations.  As a result of Mill’s will there was a court case, Attorney-General v Mill, reported at length in Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery, Volume 3 by James Russell but the will was finally proved in 1808.

Clearly a popular man, in 1809 Browne-Mill received yet another legacy through the will of Robert Stewart of Hampstead: ‘I leave and bequeath to Docter G. G. Browne Mill of Bath two hundred pounds for a piece of plate as a small Mark of my Great Regard and High esteem for him, from whose Valuable friendship and Eminent Medical abilities, I have often derived essential benifit. I also leave him a Gold snuff box & a diamond Ring with hair on which I place a great value. I leave to his house keeper twenty Guineas for her great attention to me when sick.’

Hester Piozzi (the former Mrs Thrale and great friend of Samuel Johnson), occasionally mentions Dr Browne-Mill in her letters from Bath, referring to him as “the Man of Course; a wise and good man everybody thinks him” in a note to John Williams, 11 December 1818.

After the abolition of slavery in 1833 the UCL database notes that, together with James Mill (probably a cousin of David Mill), Browne-Mill was awarded his share of the compensation of £4,640 17s 3d on 30 November 1835 for 183 enslaved persons on the Grand Bay Estate, Grenada.

Browne-Mill was also awarded compensation of £369 11s 11d on 26 September 1836, for his share in 194 enslaved persons on the Dunbarton Estate in St Ann, Jamaica, due to him as the trustee representative William Gale Redwar deceased, through the marriage settlement of a George Coleman and a Harriet Redwar.

At the time of his death, Browne-Mill had become known as “Baron” George Gavin Browne-Mill, “Baron of France” – presumably as a result of his being awarded the Legion d’Honneur by Louis XVIII.  His will of 20 January 1843 is held in the National Archives at Kew under the title “Will of Doctor George Gavin Browne Mill, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (Baron of France and Physician to the late Louis the eighteenth King of France and Navarre) of Bath, Somerset”.

Sources include:

UCL Legacies of Slave-ownership database

The Piozzi Letters 1811-1816, Alan Bloom et al, Delaware Press, 1999

The Piozzi Letters: 1817-1821, Volume 6; Volumes 1817-1821, Alan Bloom et al, Delaware Press, 2002

Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery During the Time of Lord Chancellor Eldon, 1826-1829, Volume 3, James Russell, 1830

National Archives, Kew

Elton House in Abbey Green and the Eltons of Clevedon Court, Bristol

Elton House in Abbey Green is a large, handsome Georgian building, just south of the Abbey in the very heart of Bath.  The earliest parts of the house date from just before 1700, but it was enlarged and re-modelled by Elizabeth and Jacob Elton after 1749, when they purchased the lease from the Duke of Kingston.

In 1738, Elizabeth Elton (nee Marchant) inherited the house and its furniture from her father, Edward Marchant, a builder and developer who had profited from the 18th century local building boom.   Jacob Elton was the second son of Bristol merchant Sir Abraham Elton (1654-1727), first baronet.  In 1709 Sir Abraham purchased 14th century Clevedon Court as his family home.

The Elton family money was made from investing in slaving voyages and providing goods for export to Africa in exchange for slaves.  According to the History of Parliament website, Sir Abraham was ‘a Dissenter of humble origin 1, who became one of the greatest commercial magnates of 18th century Bristol, ‘a pioneer of its brass foundries and iron foundries, and … owner of its principal weaving industry, as well as of its glass and pottery works, besides largely contributing to the shipping of the port.’2′  He owned a brass works which supplied goods in the late 17th and early 18th centuries to many slaving ships (brassware made up a large part of the trade goods typically carried to Africa to exchange for slaves).  According to the Guardian newspaper in 2006, quoting from a book by a descendent of Sir Abraham, his business activities and those of his sons included “estates in Jamaica”, investing in ships “alleged to be slavers” and petitioning parliament “on the danger of the trade to Africa being monopolised” by London. The Eltons “contributed seven Masters and thirteen members to the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers”.  Jacob himself was Mayor of  Bristol in 1733.

Sir Abraham was created a baronet in 1717 in reward for his services in the rebellion of 1715. He sat as a Whig MP for Bristol from 1722 to 1727, when he stood down in favour of his oldest son. He died on 9 February 1728, leaving a fortune estimated at £100,000.  According to the History of Parliament website, Sir Abraham was a Bristol Alderman (1699), Sheriff (1702-3), Mayor (1710-11) and Master of the Merchant Venturers (1708-9).

Jacob and Elizabeth Elton (both of whom had been married before) almost certainly lived in Bristol after their marriage in 1739, and not in Bath.  It seems Elton House probably provided them with an investment income, as after they purchased the lease from the Duke of Kingston in 1749 they made several alterations and improvements to it, rearranging it as sets of lodgings to accommodate the affluent Georgians who flocked annually to rented rooms in Bath.   By 1750, the house had become a handsome, robust building on several floors, with a fine staircase and excellent joinery.

250 years later, Elton House has again been restored – this time by the Landmark Trust – and is now available to hire as a holiday home.

Clevedon Court, now owned by the National Trust, is today still the much-loved family home of the Eltons’ descendants.

William Wilberforce: married in Bath and a frequent visitor to the city

Much of this post has been drawn from Anne Stott’s excellent book Wilberforce: Family and Friends (Oxford University Press, 2012).   Stott comments how many times Bath appears in William Wilberforce’s correspondence.

The great parliamentarian, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner (1759-1833) was frequently in town to try to improve his very indifferent health.  It was here, on Monday 24 April 1797, ten days after meeting Barbara Spooner (the eldest daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire) that Wilberforce made his engagement to her public by escorting her to the Pump Room.  On 30 May 1797, within six weeks of their meeting, the couple were married in St Swithin’s, Bath’s great Georgian parish church at Walcot – the same church in which Jane Austen’s parents had married. In the winter of 1798, the Wilberforces stayed at Barbara’s parents’ house in the Royal Crescent.

Stott writes that in 1811 William purchased an estate at West Wick between Bath and Bristol, though more as an investment than as somewhere to live.  This needs more investigation!

As a married couple, the Wilberforces continued frequently to visit Bath.  In 1821, they were here with their elder daughter who was taking the waters in an attempt to cure her tuberculosis, but she sadly died in the early months of 1822.

The Wilberforces were celebrities in Bath, and this highly social city was clearly not the place to find much peace and quiet.  On 20 April 1826, William complained that Bath was one of the worst possible places for finding any leisure time in the morning, because the door knocker was continuously being sounded.

It was at 3 Queen Square in 1827 that their surviving daughter, Elizabeth, announced her wish to marry Charles Pinney, third son of Bristol merchant John Pinney.  Charles had inherited a substantial slave estate in Nevis on the death of his father in 1818, as well as the family home in Bristol (now known as the Georgian House). This presented the Wilberforce family with a real dilemma, during which William fell ill. Elizabeth eventually broke off the relationship, later marrying a clergyman from Lydney in Gloucestershire.

In May 1833 Wilberforce was back in Bath but was seriously ill. The waters seemed to have some good effect and he was able to walk on “The Parade” for half an hour (this would probably have been on North Parade where he was know to have stayed at No. 9 in 1831), but he needed to seek the advice of his London doctors.  He left Bath for the final time on 17 July and died on 29 July 1833, just a few days after hearing that his Anti-Slavery Bill had passed its third reading.

William Wilberforce had at least two periods of residence at 36 Great Pulteney Street, in 1802 and again in 1805.  He stayed at 3 Queen Square in 1927 and at 9 North Parade in 1831.  Of all the different addresses used in Bath by the Wilberforce family, however, it is the house on the north side of Great Pulteney Street, at the end closest to the Holburne Museum, which boasts a heritage plaque.

In 2007, Bath City Archives acquired a letter written by Wilberforce in 1832 and sent from the Isle of Wight to a friend in the city, the Reverend James Pears of Broad Street.  The letter tells the story of a young servant of William’s, Michael McCarthy, who was awaiting trial for the theft of a silver dining fork while in someone else’s employ.  It was on one of Wilberforce’s last visits to the city in 1831, staying at 9 North Parade, that he had hired 18-year old McCarthy.  He protests McCarthy’s good character, but it did little good and McCarthy was later sentenced to six months in prison.

Jane Austen: a famous Bath visitor with a slaving association

Of course, everyone who was anyone passed through the fashionable spa city of Bath in the late 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, until the city began its decline as a social centre shortly after the Napoleonic Wars.

Just 15 miles to the east of Bristol, Britain’s greatest slave trading port in the mid 1700s, Bath offered all the amenities that men and women of fashion and wealth could wish for – shops, assembly rooms, dances, circulating libraries, plenty of houses to rent for the season, servants for hire and good stabling for horses.  And everyone who was anyone in the 18th century would have benefited in some way from the trade and wealth generated by the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay plantations, with their harvests of sugar, indigo, rice, cotton and tobacco, including the author Jane Austen (1775-1817) who lived in the city at 4 Sydney Place from 1801 to 1804, and then at 3 Green Park Buildings East until 1806.

In Jane Austen: A Life (Viking, 1997), Claire Tomalin writes of Austen’s father becoming a trustee of an Antiguan plantation owned by his Oxford contemporary James Langford Nibbs.  Nibbs would later become godfather to Jane’s brother, James.

The Reverend Austen died on 21 January 1805 at 4 Sydney Place and was buried in the crypt of Walcot’s great church, St Swithin’s, which had become the fashionable parish church for Georgian Bath and which was where he had married Austen’s mother, Cassandra. His modern memorial is on the north side of the churchyard, close to the railings adjacent to The Paragon.