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13 November 2014

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You are in: Wiltshire > History > Local History > Big Spenders: The Beckford's and Slavery

Fonthill House - Beckford Tower Trust

Fonthill House - Beckford Tower Trust

Big Spenders: The Beckford's and Slavery

Jamaican sugar plantations and African slaves were the source of the Beckford family's wealth...

When William Beckford (1760-1844), the famous writer, collector and recluse, was just 10 years old he inherited one of the greatest individual fortunes in England to become, as Byron titled him, 'England’s wealthiest son'. 

How Beckford spent his wealth is well documented but what is less well known, perhaps, is the story behind the source of the family's fortune.  In fact the wealth, that made the Beckford family a force to be reckoned with in 18th century politics and enabled the great Beckford collection to be formed, actually came from numerous sugar plantations in Jamaica and the hard labour of the African slaves who worked them.

Alderman Beckford - courtesy Beckford Tower Trust

Alderman Beckford - courtesy Beckford Tower Trust

The Beckfords in Jamaica

The story begins in 1661 when, as Samuel Pepys records in his famous diary, the young Peter Beckford makes plans to go to Jamaica in search of his fortune.  It's this Beckford, the great grandfather of the builder of Fonthill Abbey, who not only purchases the first family plantation on the island but sets the family on its path to riches.

His son, also called Peter, builds on his father's success and soon the family business includes wine shipping and trading, sugar planting and factoring, money lending and of course the ownership of numerous enslaved Africans.

As the Beckford family grow in Jamaica, so too does their influence and power on the island.  In 1737, when his elder brother Peter dies, William or Alderman Beckford takes control of the family fortune.  On his inheritance he becomes one of the largest landowners in the West Indies and takes his seat at the head of one of the most powerful British colonial families.

Slavery wealth invested in Wiltshire 

In 1744, on his return to England, the Alderman purchases the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire and sets about transforming Fonthill House into the Beckford Family seat.  However in 1755 a fire destroys the original house and a new mansion, designed in the Palladian style, is soon created.

The new Fonthill House quickly becomes known as 'Splendens', because of the splendid things it contains.  The Beckford's immense wealth means that the house can be filled with the best art, objects and furniture money can buy.  But, as with all absentee plantation owners settling in England, it's 'new money' and even with their great wealth the Beckford family are never truly admitted to the upper echelons of polite society.

Fonthill 'Splendens' - Beckford Tower Trust

Fonthill 'Splendens' - Beckford Tower Trust

Plantations reap £50,000 per annum

Through the 'Worshipful Company of Ironmongers' Beckford soon becomes an Alderman and embarks on a career in British politics.  And, as a close friend of William Pitt and three times Lord Mayor of London, he is able to use his wealth to extend the power and influence of the West Indian Planters. 

In 1756 he marries Maria Marsh, a member of the powerful Duke of Hamilton's Family.  It's an advantageous match for Beckford who, by this time, has already had many illegitimate children whom he openly acknowledges.  But in 1760 William Beckford is born and, as the only legitimate child, inherits the entire family fortune when the Alderman dies in 1770.

There are several versions of the exact amount William Beckford inherits, when the Alderman dies, but it loosely equates to over £1 million in capital in the bank, somewhere in the region of £20,000 per annum from British estates and a massive £50,000 per annum from the family plantations in the West Indies. 

His persistent collecting of books and furniture, of rare and valuable objects and artworks, on a scale far greater than his father, hardly makes a dent in his fortune at first.  But, the building of the immense Fonthill Abbey, in Wiltshire, sees the infamous Beckford family wealth steadily decline. 

Beckford's Tower - courtesy Beckford Tower Trust

Beckford's Tower - courtesy Beckford Tower Trust

Fonthill Abbey – the money pit

Built between 1796 and 1822, Beckford pours money into Fonthill Abbey at a time when the situation in the West Indies is dramatically changing.

Income from the sugar plantations is not only on the decline because of poor management but as a result of the 1807 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.  This, coupled with Beckford's lack of interest in the plantations means that by 1822 he is seriously in debt.  Selling up in Wiltshire he moves to Bath where he builds a neo-classical tower to house his collection. 

The tale of the Beckford fortune epitomises the idea of the absentee plantation owner using wealth, built from slavery, to establish a position in British society with buildings and collections that are the status symbols of an educated, cultured and civilised Gentleman.

To find out more, an exhibition 'Big Spenders: The Beckford's and Slavery' is running at Beckford's Tower & Museum in Bath from 7th April through 1st July 2007.

last updated: 03/12/2008 at 15:05
created: 06/03/2007

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