Warwickshire’s links to the transatlantic slave economy are slowly being exposed. Studies on the Greville family of Warwick Castle and Bertie Greatheed of Guy’s Cliffe House show how key figures in the county’s history profited from Caribbean plantations as ‘absentee’ owners. In the case of Owen Pell and his wife, Elizabeth Mary, the link is much more direct. Both owned sugar estates in Antigua before settling in Leamington to become esteemed members of society.
Owen Pell (born in Overstone, Northamptonshire, 1787) first went to Antigua in 1813 to oversee the contracts for victualling the British Navy, likely following his younger brother who had served as a naval officer in the West Indies. In 1819 he bought Mayer’s Estate and its 80 slaves, also purchasing 22 more. Many of the slaves in his possession were children. Now part of the planter class, he became increasingly involved in Antiguan politics and in 1831 was appointed as the colony’s joint representative to petition Parliament against emancipation. Unsuccessful in their attempt to prevent the end of slavery, the slave-owners nonetheless secured compensation from the British government for their supposed loss of property. Owen Pell received £1,686: equivalent to his plantation’s annual income.
In 1839 Owen Pell married Elizabeth Mary Otto Baijer (born in St Johns, Antigua, 1810). She was from an established family of Dutch planters and had recently inherited the Pares Estate upon the death of her parents. As Elizabeth started a family, with one child tragically still-born, Owen continued to criss-cross the Atlantic. He spent much time in Northamptonshire as well as in London, where he gave evidence to Parliament on the fate of plantations in the post-emancipation period. The immediate concern for the planters was the shortage of labour, which was compounded in 1846 by the Sugar Duties Act which removed the West Indian tariff preference. Owen Pell noted that at first his ‘free labour’ cost him little more than slave labour, but that gradually this had crept up: ‘deprived of slave labour we are like a steam vessel with the engine taken out’, he said. Combined with the falling price of sugar, he had a dim view of the long-term prospects for sugar. By the end of the 1840s, the Pells had sold their six plantations in Antigua, covering 1,400 acres of land, and moved to Radford Semele on the outskirts of Leamington.
Active in Leamington society
Owen Pell had spent time in several English spa towns in the preceding years, including Leamington. Despite his advancing years, he became an active member of society, and in 1847 aged 60, took up a role as Magistrate. His experience in Antigua as an Assistant Justice for the Court of Common Pleas evidently served him well. By 1858 he was made Sheriff of Warwickshire and in 1861 was loudly toasted at Leamington’s Local Board Dinner for his ‘very active part in the Magisterial duties of the town and country generally’. Further embedding himself in local affairs, in 1862 he joined the Warneford Hospital Management Committee. Yet his transatlantic links did not dissipate. In the 1850s he still owned pasture land in Antigua, and in 1862 was part of a group that lobbied the government to send agricultural labourers to the colony.
Owen Pell died in 1867 at his Quarry Field residence in Augusta Place (now Vue Cinema). For the next 20 years, Elizabeth Mary continued to burnish the Pell’s good name through regular donations and society appearances. When she died in 1887 her obituary in the Leamington Spa Courier noted that: ‘Mrs Pell was known for many deeds of charity, and her loss will be severely felt by many of the deserving poor’. One such deed, which she first began with her husband, was to give winter clothing to the town’s street sweepers; men who would later carry her coffin to the train station in recognition of this tradition. Despite these and other, more substantial, gifts, Elizabeth Mary Pell still died a very rich woman. Her effects were valued at £131,756, making her a multi-millionaire in today’s money.
The Pells show how the history of Leamington is also an imperial history. They were one of many families who accumulated wealth through British (and Dutch) colonialism in the Caribbean and used this to fund their retirement or recuperation in the town. Their story also illustrates how the British slave economy was subtly disavowed in public discourse. Even in the mid 19th century, when anti-slavery sentiment was the moral norm, the most that Owen Pell’s obituary could mention was that he ‘possessed considerable estates’ in Antigua. Neither here, nor in any other English newspaper articles that this author could locate, is his slave ownership explicitly acknowledged.
Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Parliamentary Select Committee Report 1847-1848 on Sugar and Coffee Planting.
Various editions of the Leamington Spa Courier, The Antigua Observer and other English and Caribbean newspapers.
Wills, census data and slave registry entries from ancestry