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‘Hidden histories’ of slavery narrated in Wells

20 March 2023

Trail to historic site includes Wells Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace


From left: Susann Savidge, conference co-chair, of the Somerset African Caribbean Network; the Acting Dean of Wells, the Ven. Anne Gell; the headmaster of Wells Cathedral School, Alastair Tighe; the Revd Dr Carlton Turner; and Simon Tudway-Quilter. They are standing inside Cedars House, in front of a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s painting Charles Tudway MP

From left: Susann Savidge, conference co-chair, of the Somerset African Caribbean Network; the Acting Dean of Wells, the Ven. Anne Gell; the headmaste...

VISITORS to Wells are now able to follow a trail to historic sites that represent the city’s connections with slavery, and which include Wells Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace.

The Wells and Transatlantic Slavery Self-guided Trail draws attention to places and items, including paintings, stained-glass windows, and chandeliers, linked to the enslavement of Africans. A QR code provides access to online information for those following the trail.

Launched on Thursday of last week, the trail a result of the Wells and Transatlantic Slavery Project. Researchers at the University of Exeter have been exploring links between the city and slavery. Funders include Wells Cathedral and members of the local Tudway family, whose antecedents owned African slaves on the Parham plantations in Antigua.

The launch was held at the Wells and Transatlantic Slavery Conference, convened by the cathedral Chapter at Cedars Hall, which was built and owned by Charles Tudway. Participants included sixth-formers from schools in the area and the High Commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda, Karen-Mae Hill. British and Caribbean speakers explored the research.

They included the Revd Dr Carlton Turner, the Anglican Tutor in Contextual Theology and Mission Studies at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. His paper, “Re-thinking African Enslavement”, explored “how the trauma associated with enslavement, and the race-based ideas that justified it, still affect people on both sides of the Atlantic”, a press release from the cathedral said. “The Anglican Church is implicated in this trauma and, together with others, can help with the healing process.”

A report on links between the cathedral and slavery, commissioned by the Chapter and published in January, says that the cathedral’s proximity to Bristol, formerly a busy transatlantic slave-trading port, “meant that it sat physically surrounded by propertied families who had generated their wealth from transatlantic slavery”.

In the 19th century, “wealthy Somerset-based families with connections to Caribbean slavery looked to invest their financial capital, both from their profits from enslaved labour and the compensation for slavery paid out under abolition, in the political and religious institutions of the day.

“In the Church itself, the reorganisation of ecclesiastical finances under the Church Act of 1836 meant that cathedrals like Wells looked increasingly to outside sources of income, such as loans and subscriptions, in order to survive financially.

”As a result, a close network of individuals and families linked to Caribbean slavery increasingly began to dominate much of the cathedral’s financial and ecclesiastical life from the 1840s.”

During the conference, the activities of the Tudway family were explored by Stephanie Mathivet, a local author. Joy Lawrence, an Antiguan historian and poet, reflecting on the legacy of slavery in Antigua, screened a 20-minute film that showed the Parham plantations today.

Individuals mentioned in the report include William Thomas Parr Brymer, whose father had been a North American colonial administrator involved in the shipping of commodities produced by slave labour in the Caribbean to Halifax in Canada. He held a canonry of Wells and the archdeaconry of Bath. The MP for West Somerset, Francis H. Dickinson, whose family owned slaves in Jamaica for centuries, emerged as the cathedral’s “leading patron and sponsor of restoration works”.

Also discussed is the Revd John Hothersall Pinder, a slave-owner from Barbados, and a vocal opponent of the abolition movement in the 1820s. He served as chaplain to enslaved Africans on the Codrington plantations, sugar-cane estates in Barbados bequeathed to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel by Christopher Codrington in the 18th century. Pinder was also Principal of Codrington College, an Anglican theological college founded with money from Codrington.

On his return to England, Pinder became the first Principal of Wells Theological College, which funded “Pinder Scholarships” for students at Codrington training to become missionaries in West Africa.

In his talk, Dr Turner, spoke of training for ordination at Codrington College, passing a plaque commemorating Pinder for three years. His Master’s degree was sponsored by USPG (formerly SPG), of which he is now a trustee, and his PhD explored the legacies of colonialism and enslavement on the religious and cultural heritage of people in the region.

“There was Transatlantic movement for abolition, but it did not go far enough,” he said. “It did not deal with the deep ideas and beliefs within British society — both Church and State — that permitted such atrocities.” The legacy of this continued to this day. There was a need for “not only an intellectual conversation, [but] an existential one.”

The report speaks of a commitment to telling stories “from the perspective of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean that connect to Wells”, and to reflecting on “the inequalities generated by British slavery that continue into the cathedral’s present and wider society”.

It says: “Historic and existing financial benefits from slavery-derived wealth will also need to be subjects of discussion, identifying the full extent to which the cathedral has benefited financially from slavery and the potential for reparatory action through education and outreach programmes.”

“Many historic landmarks in Wells were built or rebuilt with slavery-derived wealth from the plantations in the West Indies,” one speaker, the Professor of History at Exeter University, Dr James Clark, said last week. “But, until now, these have been hidden histories, and what this project has done is draw back the curtain on what some might see as challenging territory, telling this story for the first time.”

The conference participants watched a short performance by the actor Paterson Joseph, author of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho. It was accompanied by the music of Sancho, an abolitionist and composer, played by children from Wells Cathedral School. A “Decolonising Movement” dance workshop was led by Cleo Lake-Ayiih, a former Lord Mayor of Bristol and a research associate at Bristol University.

Among the work under way at the cathedral is the creation of “interpretation boards” for the Dickinson, Pinder, and other memorials.

“The research clearly indicates that Wells Cathedral has benefited from slavery-derived wealth from both the slave trade and the enslavement of people in the Caribbean,” the Acting Dean, the Ven. Anne Gell, said last week. “Chapter is profoundly sorry for the effects of these historic failings, and aims to scrutinise and respond to any financial, social, spiritual, and other legacies from this time, in order that it may do better in the present.”

Recordings of the conference papers will be available online at wellsandtransatlanticslavery.com from the end of this month.

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