Dunham Massey, East India trading and Africa

Bird's-eye View from the South, after a painting by Leonard Knyff, engraved by J. Kip, dated 1697 Inscribed 'Dunham Massie, the Seat of the Rt. Honble George Earle of Warrington/in the County Palatine of Chester. 1697'

Dunham Massey’s past connects with empire in specific but wide-ranging ways – an imperial fortune, an African emperor, and a story of racial prejudice that leads directly to the seat of government. These stories offer insight into how empire permeated society, reaching into the heart of the British establishment.

Dunham Massey’s imperial underpinnings were once obvious before even entering the house. For nearly 300 years until 2020, a sundial borne by a life-size, kneeling figure of an African man was sited outside its main door – a legacy of the enslavement of Africans and the objectification of Black bodies in British and European visual culture.

The East India Company

George Booth, 2nd Earl of Warrington (1675-1758), inherited Dunham Massey on the death of his father in 1694. He also inherited his father’s debt. With few resources to settle them, the threat to the financial ruin of the estate was real.

His problem was solved when, on 9th April 1702, he married Mary Oldbury (d. 1740). Mary was heiress of an immense fortune of £24,000 (over £5.5 million today), and their marriage enabled George to resolve all his financial obligations.

Mary had inherited her wealth from her father, John Oldbury, a merchant made immensely rich from East India trading.

An African emperor comes to tea

Haile Selassie was emperor of Ethiopia 1930-1974. He had expressed his concern about the rising threat of fascism to the League of Nations in 1936 but had been ignored. Selassie was forced to live in exile in Britain from 1936-41 because of the Italo-Ethiopian war (which justified his earlier plea).

Roger Grey, 10th Earl of Stamford, a member of the local League of Nations branch and sympathetic to the cause of Ethiopia, invited Selassie to Dunham Massey in 1938. This led to a lifelong friendship, and Roger flew the Ethiopian flag on the rooftop of the house on the emperor’s birthday each year until his death.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia at Dunham Massey, Cheshire
Photo of Haile Selassie and Roger Grey at Dunham Massey, Cheshire
Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Racial prejudice and the fight for an earldom

One of the most intriguing stories of empire associated with Dunham Massey is that of John Grey, the mixed-race son and heir of the eccentric Harry Grey, 8th Earl of Samford (1812-1890).

Harry, son of a parish vicar, took Holy Orders in 1836 though he was clearly not naturally disposed to a life in the Church of England. His first marriage was brief and considered unsuitable by his family. He developed a serious drink and gambling problem and was packed off by his parents to Cape Colony, South Africa.

Working as a miner and later a farmhand, it came as a shock to him when he inherited Dunham Massey on the death of his third cousin, George Grey, 7th Earl of Stamford, in 1883.

By this time, Harry had married for the third time. His wife was Martha Solomon, the black daughter of a freed slave. She and Harry had three children, the eldest two of which were born outside of marriage. Harry never returned to the UK.

On Harry’s death in 1890, his first son and heir John – born illegitimately – stood to inherit his father’s title, along with Dunham Massey. While this was possible under Dutch law (Cape Colony, a self-governing province, used a mix of English and Dutch legislation), it was challenged in the courts of England.  

A counter claim to the earldom and the estate was made by the nephew of the 8th earl. The Stamford Peerage Case, as reported by The Times on 4th May 1892, illustrates the racial prejudices prevalent at the highest level of British society at that time:

‘On the death of the eight Earl this mulatto [mixed race] son assumed his honours as ninth Earl of Stamford and proceeded to England with his mother to take his seat in the House of Lords… The peers did not relish the idea and were immensely gratified when a claim was put forward by a colonial school teacher named William Grey… and a protest filed against the succession of the mulatto.’

William Grey, a white Canadian teacher who had taught in Barbados, won the case. He became 9th Earl of Stamford in May 1892. Letters in the family archive confirm that the new earl maintained a warm relationship with his South African relatives.

After Harry’s death, Martha Solomon, now Dowager Countess of Stamford, was left financially secure. She founded Battswood School in Wynberg, Cape Town. This became a training college, which still educates young South Africans.

Harry and Martha’s third child, a daughter born within marriage, was able to style herself Lady Mary Grey throughout her life.

Roger Grey (1896-1976), the 9th earl’s son, was just thirteen when he inherited Dunham Massey on the death of his father. Roger spent much of his time bringing back to the house some of the family’s principal treasures, including the family portraits and Huguenot silver.

Never marrying, he left Dunham Massey to the Trust in 1976 – one of the biggest gifts received by the organisation.