As we know, part of the 2022 Commonwealth Games will take place in Leamington. The Commonwealth Games began life as the British Empire Games in 1930 and now features teams from 54 countries, most of which were former British colonies. The imperial history is entwined with Leamington and, coinciding with a walking tour that Leamington History Group will be running1, I have written some notes that show how Leamington is connected to Commonwealth countries including Australia, Canada, India, Guyana and St Kitts. This is a challenging history that takes in slavery, colonialism and racism, but also an essential history for understanding the origins and legacies of the Commonwealth today.
Royal Pump Rooms
The Royal Pump Rooms were built on land belonging to Bertie Greatheed, whose family had become one of the major landowners in Leamington thanks to proceeds derived from colonial slavery. Bertie’s grandfather had emigrated to St Kitt’s in the early part of the 18th century and established a sugar plantation called Canaries. Wealth from this plantation was then used by Bertie’s parents to buy the Guy’s Cliffe estate on the River Avon, along with 236 acres of land in Milverton and Leamington.
Bertie had a conflicted relationship to his inheritance. He supported the abolition of slavery and referred to his plantation in his diaries as ‘that odious property’ but at the same time kept a close watch on its profitability and never sold it off. Forming a syndicate with local businessmen, Bertie diversified into property development, selling off land north of the river and investing in the building of the Pump Rooms, Assembly Rooms and likely the Regent Hotel.
In 1886 Leamington Town Hall played host to 150 visitors from the Colonial and Indian Exhibition then taking place in South Kensington. The visitors were on a four-day trip around Warwickshire and Oxfordshire to help strengthen imperial links beyond London, and the guest of honour was Raja Pratap Singh from Narsinghgarh, a princely state of the British Raj.
At the banquet in the Town Hall, the first toast was given by Mayor S. T. Wackrill and made to Queen Victoria, who he described as the ‘acme of union through whom they shook hands together as members in common of one mighty empire’ – a sentiment later reflected in the inscription to Victoria Queen Empress on the statue erected outside the Town Hall. Speakers at the banquet then discussed how the Empire would be held together as the dominion of Canada and colonies of Australia and New Zealand pushed for greater political autonomy. Self-government for India, by contrast, was given no such credence.
Chapel Court on Hamilton Terrace began life in 1849 as the Congregational Church. In 1872 it played host to a meeting of the National Agricultural Labourer’s Union (NALU) whose officials were invited there for tea by the Reverend F. S. Attenborough. He and other supporters of the labour movement in Leamington helped the NALU to become one of the biggest trade unions in the country. One of their most significant legacies was to assist tens of thousands of English farmworkers and their families to emigrate to the settler colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which were sometimes referred to as ‘Greater Britain’.
Imperial House is a 1960s office block built for the food division of Imperial Tobacco at the top of Holly Walk, but prior to this it was the site of Byron Lodge. During the mid-nineteenth century Byron Lodge was occupied first by Frederick Manning, an esteemed philanthropist previously involved in the West India trade as a merchant and slave-owner, and second by William Mellish Parratt, a retired officer of the 12th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry. These are real-life counterparts to the fictional characters of Paul Dombey and Major Joseph Bagstock in Charles Dickens’ 1848 novel Dombey and Son, part of which is set in Leamington. Dombey is the head of a colonial trading company that operated out of London whereas Bagstock is a retired officer who had seen service across the British Empire. They spend time in Leamington after the death of Dombey’s son, and whilst there, also meet Dombey’s future wife Edith, who is featured in a scene of that some historians believe is Holly Walk.
1 The walks will take place on five Tuesday afternoons, 19th & 26 July, 2nd, 9th & 16th August at 2:30 pm. Further details on the Leamington History Group’s website.