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The Secret Slave Owners

George Hibbert

George Hibbert, West India merchant, slave and plantation owner, collector and philanthropist was born in 1757 to Robert (1717-1784) and Abigail Hibbert née Scholey (1721-1793) of Stockfield Hall near Manchester. Robert was a West India merchant and cotton manufacturer in Manchester with commercial premises on King’s Street, he was also a trustee of the dissenting Cross Street Chapel. George’s uncle Thomas Hibbert (1710-1780) was known as ‘the late Mr. Thomas Hibbert, who had for forty or fifty years before been the most eminent Guinea factor in Kingston, and a most respectable character.’ The family owned several large estates in Jamaica. George was educated at Reverend Booth’s academy at Woolten Hall. In 1784 he married Elizabeth Fonnereau (1765-1841), the daughter of Phillip Fonnereau, an M.P. and Director of the Bank of England. The couple had fourteen children.

In 1781 he left Manchester and joined the family counting house Hibbert, Purrier and Horton which was engaged in the West India trade. The partnership reconfigured several times over the years; it was involved in the shipping and distribution of slave produced good, particularly sugar from Jamaica. Over the course of his career he became the senior partner in the Hibbert family partnerships, the Chairman of the West India Dock Company, a central figure in the Society of West India Planters and Merchants, an Alderman for the City of London (1798-1802), a Member of Parliament for Seaford (1806-1812), and finally the Agent for Jamaica (1812-1831). Such was his reputation within the City that by 1816 he was acknowledged as ‘an eminent West India Merchant, whose family has long been considered as the head of the principal commercial house in Jamaica.’

George was a leading member of the proslavery lobby. He acted as the Chairman of the Society of West India Merchants. He gave evidence to Parliament in 1790 supporting the slave trade and making claims for compensation. He gave three speeches to Parliament in 1807 during the slave trade debates which were later published. He wrote a pamphlet on the Slave Registry Bill in 1816. As Agent for Jamaica he acted as the an intermediary between the imperial Parliament and the Jamaica House of Assembly.

In 1793 George Hibbert became involved in the plan to build closed wet docks for the West India trade. The West India Docks were constructed on the Isle of Dogs and opened for business in 1802. George invested £2,000 and acted as Chairman of the West India Dock Company eight times between 1799-1815.

As a philanthropist George was involved in the establishment of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck in 1824. Sir William Hillary recruited George to help generate funds from his mercantile connections in the City. He was also involved with the London Institution which was founded in 1805 and paid for by subscription. The enterprise involved George Hibbert and his friends Sir Francis Baring and John Julius Angerstein, as well as the abolitionists Henry and John Thornton, and Zachary Macaulay who acted a managers. The Institution was intended for the diffusion of useful knowledge in the arts and sciences with an eye to increasing the productivity and efficiency of commerce and industry both at home and out in the empire. Hibbert took a leading role in its establishment and acted as both President and Vice-President between 1805-1830. The magnificent building at Finsbury Circus was designed by William Brooks and constructed by Thomas Cubitt.

George was a member of a number of learned societies and clubs including the Freemasons, the Linnean Society, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He became a member of the elite bibliophile group the Roxburghe Club in 1816. In 1810 he was sponsored by Earl Fitzwilliam and elected to the Brooks’s. George collected books, prints and art. Major sales of his collection took place in 1802, 1809, 1829 and 1833, 1860, 1868 and 1902. The sale in 1829 was noted in that it ‘occupied altogether forty-two days... There were eight thousand seven hundred and ninety-four lots, representing about twenty thousand volumes; and the total amount realised was twenty-one thousand seven hundred and fifty-three pounds, nine shillings.’

George inherited a country house and estate called Munden in Hertfordshire through his wife Elizabeth Fonnereau’s uncle Rogers Parker in 1829. Prior to that he had resided at different times in Broad Street in the City, Clapham Common Northside and Portland Place. George died at Munden in 1837. Munden remains within the Holland-Hibbert family today.

Benjamin Buck Greene

Eldest of seven sons and six daughters of Benjamin Greene (1780–1860) (q.v.), brewer and planation owner, and his second wife, Catherine (1783–1855). Greene was sent to St Kitts in 1829 to manage his father's interests (acquired in 1823) which proved to highly profitable. The family also owned ships carrying sugar exports. Greene remained in St Kitts until 1837.

Benjamin senior established with his son Benjamin Greene & Son, West India merchants and shipowners, at 11 Mincing Lane. Benjamin Buck married (1837) Isabella Elizabeth (d. 1888), only daughter of Thomas Blyth of Limehouse, London, a wealthy ship chandler. They had three sons and three daughters.

1846: through his wife's family connections, formed a partnership with James and Henry Blyth, who controlled much of the external trade and sugar production of Mauritius. Blyths and Greene, merchants and shipowners, became one of London's largest colonial merchants and shipowners. Imported sugar from Mauritius, the East and West Indies, India and France; exported British manufactures to Mauritius. Elected a Bank of England director (1850–1900), deputy governor (1871–3), governor (1873–5).

‘Greene emerged from relatively modest circumstances to become an important West Indies sugar planter and, later, one of London's leading colonial merchants. This led him to a directorship of the Bank of England, where he proved to be one of the ablest governors of his generation.’ (Orbell)

One of his brothers, Edward, was Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds (1865-1885) and Stowmarket (1886–91). Great-uncle of Graham Greene (1904–1991), the novelist, and Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (1910–1987), director-general of the BBC.

John Gladstone

Merchant and politican. He was born John Gladstones, though in 1787 he dropped the final 's' to become Gladstone. His father was Thomas Gladstones (1732–1809), a Leith merchant, his mother was Nelly (1739–1806), daughter of Walter Neilson, a merchant of Springfield, near Edinburgh. After an apprenticeship (1771-1781) in a rope and sailcloth business in Edinburgh, he joined his father's corn-chandling business. In 1786 Gladstone moved to Liverpool where he worked with Edgar Corrie until 1801, when the partnership ended acrimoniously. Gladstone had already become a wealthy man by then. Initially his wealth was based on trade with Calcutta, India; later he moved into Virginian tobacco and American grain: these became the foundation of his fortune. His personal wealth stood at £40,000 in 1799; by 1828 it was £502,550. Building his fortune in Liverpool, Gladstone invested in not only merchanting activities but also in shipping insurance, shipowning and urban property (both warehouses and housing).

His sugar and cotton trading with the West Indies began in 1803, in ventures undertaken with his brother Robert (from 1801). Gladstone extended this to include purchasing estates and the enslaved in British Guiana (Demerara as was) in 1803 (the Belmont Estate) and several others. The largest was the Vreedenhoop estate in Demerara which he bought in 1826 for £80,000. It had 430 enslaved people working on it. Further, in the 1820s, Gladstone expanded his sugar estate holdings in the Caribbean, despite the rise of abolitionism.

He was a strong defender of planter interests: from 1809 he was chairman of the Liverpool West Indian Association. As such he was involved in a well-known controversy with James Cropper, a leading abolitionist, in 1823.

With the ending of slavery, he sold most of his West Indian properties and moved into Bengal sugar. But he was also one of the initiators of schemes for the exporting of indentured labour to the Caribbean. While his own schemes ran into difficulties with the government and the hostility of post-1833 anti-slavery advocates, they formed an important bridge to the extremely important flow of indentured labour into British Guiana and Trinidad from the 1840s onwards.

Although having something of career in politics, initially as a Whig but becoming a Canningite Tory by the 1810s, and acting as an MP in the 1820s, his major political legacy was in his children: he was the father of William Ewart Gladstone, one of the most significant politicians of the whole century, and of two other sons who were also MPs: Thomas and John Neilson Gladstone.