Friday, 10 May 2013

Nathaniel Wells

A  wonderfully fine and warm bank holiday weekend, and a great walk in bluebell woodland along the cliffs of the river Wye near Chepstow, originally in the landscaped grounds of Piercefield House, a posh neo-classical mansion designed by Sir John Soane, built in the 1790s.  The estate was previously owned by the son of a planter from Antigua, who in the 1750s used his sugar and rum wealth to create an early example of picturesque landscaping, in the region where Picturesque tourism was hatched, with woodland walks, viewpoints on the beetling cliffs, a grotto, a ‘giants cave’, a ‘druid temple’, a gravity-fed fountain and a gentlemen’s bathing house by a cold spring.  All from the same impulse as the dramatic landscape at Hackfall in Yorkshire and its politer neighbour Studeley Royal, and all now in a  state of dereliction, including Piercefield House.  Which in 1802 was purchased by Nathaniel Wells, born in St Kitts, son of an enslaved mother Joardine and a Welsh-born planter, and educated in Britain as his father’s heir.  He  married successively the daughters of two Anglican clergymen, and two of his twenty children also became vicars.  Nathaniel was a rare example of someone of African ancestry and slave origins becoming  a prominent landowner, who undertook the customary local duties as magistrate, churchwarden, county sheriff etc, eventually holding office as deputy lieutenant of Monmouthshire.  The artist Joseph Farington in 1803 heard him described as ‘A West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a  Negro’ (manners and colour being evidently opposed qualities).   Perhaps such prejudice dissuaded Nathaniel from having his own portrait painted, as no likeness is known, though I like to think he is the fashionable gentleman in grey topper shown on left at back of the crowd at the Royal Academy in Cruikshank's Tom & Jerry 1821 illustration A Shilling Well Laid Out. 

On the customary Wye tour that autumn, Farington and friends walked along the clifftop and picnicked  'at the entrance of a subterranean passage cut through the rock' (the giants cave.)  “Not having knives and forks and glasses we sent to Pierce-field House and were furnished with them.”    They were joined by the head gardener, who said that the public days for viewing house and park were Wednesdays and Fridays but that he never knew Mr Wells refuse a written request.  Farington therefore wrote, but failed to take up the invitation, although he also spoke to a woman at the lodge, who “spoke most highly of the charitable and good disposition of Mr & Mrs Wells, and of Miss Wells, his sister.”  Farington, so keenly interested in racial appearance, added that Mr Wells “is a Creole of a very deep colour, but Miss Wells is fair.” 

as plantation/slave owner, Wells was among those who received compensation in 1830s when slavery was abolished in Britain's Caribbean colonies  - a proportionate share of the £20million allocated by the government.  For more information, check out 

Nick Draper
 The 1833 Abolition Act gave enslavers
 £20 million in compensation; enslaved
 Africans in the Caribbean got nothing!

About half of the compensation was paid directly to absentee holders in
Britain. They included over 100 MPs who sat in Parliament between 1820
and 1835; also included were more than 110 Church of England ministers.
They were identified in the records of the Compensation Commission
as either owners, trustees or executors. The compensation money,
the final pay-off to the enslavers, helped to build railways and country
mansions, to fund art collections, charities and to build modern Britain.


No comments:

Post a Comment