The Berners Family & the Slave Trade
On Friday 13th August 1773, William Berners bought the "Manor and Advowson of Woolverstone" for the sum of £11,440. The Berners family remained owners of Woolverstone Park until December 1937. This year, 2023, marks the 250th anniversary of that purchase. The village of Woolverstone was literally shaped by the Berners family.

We are celebrating the anniversary over the weekend of 8th and 9th July 2023. A host of events are planned; a detailed programme will be shared nearer the time. As part of the weekend, two illustrated talks will be offered: "The Berners Family of Woolverstone". These talks will explore the history of the family between 1600 and 1937. With increasing wealth through propitious investments, beneficial marriages and fortunate inheritances the original 350 acres expanded to some 6,500 acres, covering much of the Shotley Peninsula, by the time the Berners vacated Woolverstone.

If you would like to hear their story in the historic Berners Hall, you can reserve a place now. The talk will last around 2 hours with a break for refreshments midway.
Date: Thursday 6th and Friday 7th July 2023
Time: 7.30 pm - Tickets: £10.00 including a glass of wine
Tickets can be reserved now: tel 07825708171 or email:
They can also be bought at Orwell Stores, Chelmondiston, who are kindly supporting us. There are limited places available. Don't delay!

Steve Johnston - Johnstons 60-64: "You do realise of course that William was a slave owner and made all his money out of that lucrative business, or 'propitious investment' as they call it above. Maybe not the best time for a celebration and a glass of wine... Just saying."

Thomas Newsham - Johnstons 54-59: "I was under the impression that the Berners family made their money from the wool trade and the London properties."

Mark Frost - Hansons 70-77: "We can't rewrite history. I agree with you that some mention should be made of any slavery links. I suspect most of the Berners' money came from property speculation/investment. I am not seeking to justify what went on in the past, but it was a different world. It should be put in context."

Peter Warne - Corners 66-73: "His Wikipedia entry says he was an English property developer and slave owner. The UCL database has this:"
' Almost certainly the 'William Barnes' shown as co-owner of Wag Water or Wagwater in St Mary Jamaica in 1760. William Berners was the son-in-law of Henry Bendysh senior and brother-in-law of Henry Bendysh junior, both previous owners of the estate. He was the developer of the Berners estate in London, including Berners Street. Several of William Berners' grandchildren intermarried with members of the Jarrett family, also slave-owners in Jamaica. Wag Water was the name of the river that runs through the parish.'

Steve Johnston: "As we know, the industrial revolution was powered by slavery, and I guess they were all at it. I think I was more nettled by the evasive term 'propitious investments', as if Berners had just got lucky on the Stock Exchange, deliberately concealing the fact that he was a rich slave owner. A bit disingenuous, don't you think? I wrote to Simon Pearce, the organizer, and got this very interesting reply":

Simon Pearce - WHS Teacher 81-90: "Thank you for getting in touch. I had no idea that the advertisement for a talk in July had found its way to the WHOBA site, certainly not by my hand. I taught at Woolvestone Hall for ten years between 1980 and 1990, much after your time. I have remained living in Woolverstone since then, some 43 years now. Hence my interest in Woolverstone. A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the remarkable Mary Alice Berners, eldest daughter of Charles Hugh Berners. I come to the subject of the Berners family curious and interested.

William Berners was indeed wealthy but only a fraction of his wealth came from the abhorrent slave trade. From my research I find that his grandfather, Josias Berners, is the source of much of the wealth that led to Woolverstone Hall being built, on three counts.

  • Firstly, 4 shares in the New River Company bought by Josias in 1638, just as London was expanding, brought huge income to the family for a further 200 years. There were only 36 shares in the company initially. Berners family members had various roles in the company, including treasurer, over the following years. In 1773, the dividend alone was £1,191. 8s for that year. Over the following years the dividend continued to increase. In the next five years dividends added to £6,049. 14s 4d.
  • Secondly, the investment in 25 acres of farm land off the Tyburn Road turned into a gold mine as this was developed by William from 1740 onwards with, eventually, 208 houses and the Middlesex Hospital, each generating increasing income for the family through lucrative leases and fronting an increasingly commercial Oxford Street.
  • Thirdly, William and Henry Berners received half shares in Charles Gostlin's considerable fortune consisting of land in London and Norfolk and more shares in the New River Company on his death, without heirs, in 1767. Indeed, Henry lived at Hanwell Park for the remainder of his life.
William's connection with the slave trade came through his marriage to his wife Mary Bendysh whose brother owned land in Jamaica which was inherited from his father. On his death in 1753, the estate was divided between the two sisters. William Berners' name appears on subsequent accounts but there is no mention in his will of the Jamaican estates. I do not know what happened to them.
The "propitious investments" I referred to were the 4 New River Shares and the 25 acre Newlands Farm. Josias cannot have known how valuable those decisions were.

I shall not shy away from the family involvement in the slave trade as this is a small, but distressing, part of their story. If there is a more murky connection, it is through William Berners' grandchildren, Rev Henry Denny Berners, William Berners (banker) and Maria Berners, who each married into the Jarrett family who were owners of estates and slaves in Jamaica. This one is a quite complicated web involving another Ipswich family, including the Rev Capper. It will also be covered. Having said that, I think the Berners story is interesting and explains why the village and the estate is as it is. I am trying to share the whole story from 1600 -1937, warts and all.

I hope that helps allays your disquiet. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best wishes, Simon

Peter Warne: "Steve Johnston, thanks for this follow-up. The Berners family were beneficiaries of the Slave Compensation Act in 1837. It allowed for £20 million to be paid to slave owners in compensation for their losses. That is £16.5 billion today. The debt raised was finally paid off in 2015, which means that anyone who paid tax in the UK before then (including, of course, the descendants of enslaved people) contributed to the compensation paid to the slave owners. William Gladstone's father was the biggest recipient, at £106,000, worth £80 million today. The Berners descendants got, as far as I can see, something more in the region of £3,700, which was still a fat sum.

Eric Coates - Corners 57-64: "Most interesting! The Berners did, at least, appear to be competent landlords of most of the Shotley Peninsula. But, as you say, much of it thanks to slave trade “earnings”. Some slave owners were known to be less cruel than others. Let’s hope the Berners family were not the worst. However, it is my certain contention that they knew they were doing wrong - the human brain is very little different now than 200 years ago and even 2000 years. Surely they recognised that their slaves were actual human beings!"

Peter Warne: "It is quite likely that the Rev Henry Denny Berners never visited his interests in Jamaica. It is also likely that only two cultures never employed slavery: the Australian Aboriginals and the Inca. But fundamentally, slavery was (IMO) the worst crime against humanity. I don't think there are degrees of kindness in slavery. I can recommend virtually any book about the history of sugar for details about that.

There were some people who were against slavery in the 16th-18th century in Europe; Darwin on his way to the Galapagos stopped off in Rio de Janeiro and was reduced to tears on his way to the port to set sail by the screams of slaves being beaten, and gave thanks that he would never set foot in a slave-owning country again. But he still profited, even unknowingly, from slavery, as did all Britons, even if they thought that British air was too pure to support slavery, and any slave who reached Albion's shores became free by definition."

Mark Frost: "Whilst in no way seeking to lessen the cruelty of slavery it is entirely possible that most of the Berners' wealth came from owing the right bit of land (north of Oxford St) at the right time and then developing it. Sure, all part of the capitalist economy but preferable to slavery. In any event, I hope to be able to attend Simon Pearce's presentation on The Berners' at Woolverstone in July. If anything noteworthy arises I will report it here.

Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65: a personal reflection

WHS - the Berners Family & Slavery