If you live in Shifnal or have visited the town, you might have noticed Aston Hall. It's a grand historic building that is still a family house, although the servants' quarters have been turned into flats. Well what you might not know is that Aston Hall was bought in the 18th Century by a slave trader who owned tobacco plantations in South Carolina. That man was George Austin.
George Austin was born in Shifnal in 1710. He was the son of a moderately wealthy mercer who came to the town from Stone in Staffordshire. Little is known about his early years but what is known is that George later went to Carolina where he became involved in developing tobacco plantations, one of which he named Shifnal, after his birthplace. It lay next to the Ashepoo river, inland from Charleston, but little exists there today.
|Aston Hall, Shifnal|
It was here that George started to ship and import slaves, and became very rich. In fact, he is believed to have been among the wealthiest men in the colonies. But despite his financial success in Carolina, things became sour after a while. Following disputes with his business partner, Henry Laurens, George returned to England with one of his sons in 1762 and settled at Aston Hall.
Meanwhile, his daughter Eleanor stayed in Carolina and married a man called John Moultrie. John was an even more successful and influential man than his father-in-law. He was was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1729, and was the son of a Scottish family. He came to study medicine at Edinburgh University in his late teenage years and became a doctor on his return to Carolina before giving it up and getting involved with trade and politics. He too bought land and slaves and became very wealthy.
In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War, Spain ceded Florida to the British, and a year after, John Moultrie was appointed a member of the newly established council of East Florida, and later president. He bought a large estate of some 14,000 acres and was very active in encouraging the agricultural and commercial development of Florida.
|"It is quite clear that George Austin got his wealth from the slave trade. He even bought two slaves back to Shifnal when he returned from Carolina. "|
The Spanish had not been interested in developing agriculture, but Moultrie experimented with various new crops: sugar, rice, oranges and indigo. Other settlers followed his example, and Florida changed from being an empty untilled wilderness to a thriving colony. In 1771, Moultrie became Lieutenant-Governor of Florida and encouraged a road-building programme. But this prosperity was not to last. In 1783, Florida returned to Spanish rule and its inhabitants were required to convert to Catholicism.
Many of the British colonists left their newly established settlements and Florida sank back in to wilderness. The Moultrie family were among those who left, and soon afterwards, their home was destroyed in an Indian raid. John Moultrie sent his slaves to the Bahamas, sold everything he could, and in 1784, sailed for England.
After this adventurous career, John Moultrie came to Shifnal, probably not happily. He had few options at the time though and the only thing he could think to do was to settle at Aston Hall, which had been left to his wife Eleanor, by her father George Austin. George had been opposed to the marriage though and had stipulated that everything was to be managed by trustees - so that Eleanor only had an annuity and her husband had no access to the capital.
Eleanor was to have Aston Hall for her lifetime and could then leave it to whichever of her sons she wished. She decided to give it to her eldest son, while the Moultries' second son James, remained in Carolina where he inherited the largest estate that originally belonged to his grandfather George.
|John Moultrie's memorial tablet|
Back in Shropshire, the Moultrie family settled in to life at Aston Hall. John became a justice of the peace and accepted life as a country gentleman. The family name was passed on and a number of descendants became notable members of the community.
Not much is now left of the Moultrie history, except a few small memorial tablets at St Andrews Vicarage in Shifnal, where the Moultrie legacy lives on.