Clandon Park: A house built on the profits of slavery

The Marble Hall at Clandon Park prior to the 2015 fire

Disclaimer: This article contains quotes from 18th-century historical sources where the term 'negro' is used. This term is offensive and is repeated here only when directly quoted from these sources.

Thomas Onslow (1679–1740) married the heiress Elizabeth Knight (c1692–1731) in 1708. In 1706, at the age of approximately 14, Elizabeth had inherited a fortune from her uncle Charles Knight, an enslaver and plantation owner. The inheritance included a plantation called Whitehall in St Thomas-in-the-East, Jamaica, and the enslaved workers who worked there, producing sugar and rum. 

In 1717, Thomas inherited Clandon Park, which had been bought by Richard Onslow in 1641, with a Jacobean mansion at its centre. He was a founder of the Royal Exchange Assurance, which underwrote the risks of ships trading in enslaved people. Underwriters referred to enslaved people being transported on such ships as ‘perishable goods.’   

We can't put an exact figure on the wealth Elizabeth inherited, but a writer at the time estimated it to be 400,000 crowns, which in today's money equates to at least four million pounds. Thomas's cousin Speaker Arthur Onslow wrote in his memoirs that she had a 'very great fortune.' He noted that this, amongst other income contributed to the 'noble house that (Thomas) built at Clandon.' 

Elizabeth Knight's fortune helped build Clandon. Here she's depicted by Hans Hysing in a portrait of c. 1700-15.
A portrait of Elizabeth Knight
Elizabeth Knight's fortune helped build Clandon. Here she's depicted by Hans Hysing in a portrait of c. 1700-15.

Who was Charles Knight?

The passage of time and lack of surviving documentation has left us with fragmentary knowledge of Charles Knight’s life and business activities. The University College London ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ project shares information about British slave owners across Britain, including Charles Knight. We know he was British, but for many years he lived and held significant business interests in Jamaica.  

He was co-owner of a ship called the Neptune, which is known to have transported enslaved people from Africa to Jamaica, and he owned the Whitehall plantation in St-Thomas-in-the-East and additional property in Port Royal and Kingston.

Charles Knight's legacy

Charles left almost everything to Elizabeth. You can read parts of his will on the University College London Legacies of British Slave Ownership website.

The document makes clear that enslaved people were considered property, like cattle or other commodities to be bought and bequeathed:

‘All the rest, the residue and remainder of my personal Real Estate Lands, Tenements plantations Negros or other hereditaments in the Island of Jamaica Kingdom of England or elsewhere I give devise and bequeath unto my beloved niece Elizabeth Knight the daughter of my late brother John Knight’. 

Enslaved people were left to friends and family members like objects, referred to as ‘Negroes or other merchandise’ and referred to as possessions: ‘Negroes, Slaves, Cattell and other stuff.’ 

An 18th century map of Jamaica including, in the bottom right corner, Whitehall in St Thomas-in-the-East
An 18th century map of Jamaica
An 18th century map of Jamaica including, in the bottom right corner, Whitehall in St Thomas-in-the-East

In his will, we can see the names of some of the enslaved men, women and children who Charles Knight gave to his family and friends. Charles names ‘Tom, a Negro man now or late in the possession of Thomas Grey of the Parish of Port Royal.’  

He names ‘Manny, Marina and Sabilla with Sabilla’s child’ and gives two women named Venus and Carabow to a woman named Lucia Mitchell, to ‘have and enjoy.’  Finally, two men named ‘Tom and Orange’ were bequeathed, along with furniture and a boat, to Mary West who was living with Charles at the time of his death.  

We do not know what happened to these people. It is very difficult to trace the lives of enslaved people at this time as they were not always recorded by those who traded or gave them to others. We would like to find out more about their histories and lives and to begin to tell their stories. We have started this by sharing their names here, but there is much more to do. 

Building the house at Clandon Park

Elizabeth is recorded as the owner of the Whitehall plantation from 1706. In the 1730s, using wealth in part derived from her inheritance and Thomas’s work in marine insurance, they commissioned a new house at Clandon Park, in fashionable Palladian style, demolishing the old Jacobean house which stood before.   

The new house was intended to impress friends and fellow politicians, as well as to cement their social and political influence around Guildford and Surrey. Its most famous room was the Marble Hall, an elegant and imposing white cube imitating marble, with an elaborate stucco ceiling and richly carved marble fireplaces by leading sculptors of the day. A pair of carved marble busts were given prominent positions in the Marble Hall above the doorways. One of these busts appears to represent an enslaved African. 

One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall
One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall
One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall

Continued profits

Through Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas, the plantation and its proceeds came to be passed through generations of the Onslow family. Records show that at any one time, between 87 and 150 enslaved men, women and children worked on the plantation, forced to produce sugar.  

The ‘Return of Proprietors and Properties’ in the Jamaica Almanac shows that:  

  • In 1810 George 1st Earl held 135 enslaved people 

  • In 1815 Thomas 2nd Earl held 141 enslaved people 

  • In 1828 Arthur 3rd Earl held 110 enslaved people 

The last entry showed that in 1832 Arthur, the 3rd Earl held 87 enslaved people. Around this time, he sold the plantation to Charles Hodgson, two years before the bill to abolish the slave trade passed in Britain in 1834. 

In 1836, Charles Hodgson claimed compensation for 1700 pounds 17 shillings and 9 pence, for the 82 enslaved people who were freed. This was only a partial freedom as these men and women then became ‘apprenticed’ for up to four years, before being freed unconditionally in 1838. We have no record of what happened to them after they were freed, and they received no compensation.