Speke Hall’s colonial connections

The north range of Speke Hall, Merseyside

Nestled among the trees, it's easy to forget that Speke Hall is not far from Liverpool, once Britain’s largest slaving port. This is no coincidence. Speke’s proximity to Liverpool enabled its owners to play key roles in the British empire for nearly four hundred years.

A glimpse into Speke’s past is a journey through a history of empire, where successive generations of Speke owners played their part in the East India Company, Atlantic slave-trading, plantation slavery and international politics.

During this time, however, Speke was owned by just two families, the Norrises and the Watts. Their stories show how imperial involvement enriched one already wealthy family and provided the other, a family of humbler origins, with a vast fortune and high social position.

The Norrises: politics and power

The Norris family owned Speke from the 13th century and had a seat in Parliament from 1324. By the end of the 17th century, as Britain’s colonial expansion accelerated,  the Norrises were already skilled in promoting their business interests in the Commons.

It is often suggested that Liverpool was little more than a fishing village before its explosive growth at the end of the 18th century, but it had been a significant trading port since receiving its Royal Charter in 1207. So too did the Norrises play an important part in the development of Liverpool.

" It’s a very rich trading town… There is an abundance of persons who are well dressed and fashionable... It is London in miniature as much as I ever saw anything. "
- A chronicler writing on Liverpool at the end of the 17th century

Three Brothers

William, Edward and Richard were the sons of Edward Norris (1618–87). Each, at some point, owned Speke and each played a part in trading with both the East and West Indies.

Sir William Norris, 1st Baronet (1658–1702), used his position as MP for Liverpool to protect the city's tobacco and sugar interests.

Stained glass displaying the initials of William Norris at Speke Hall
Set of four lozenge shaped panes of clear glass, decorated with WN (William Norris) initials below a black bird with wings outstretched.
Stained glass displaying the initials of William Norris at Speke Hall

In India, Norris was accompanied by over 60 Europeans and 300 Indians when he made a spectacular entrance to meet the Grand Mughal Aurangzeb (1618–1707), as head of a trade delegation for a ‘new’, parallel East India Company.  

His negotiations failed, however, as the Grand Mughal much preferred his existing deal with the well-established East India Company. William left India with 147,000 rupees, of which 87,000 were for him. He did not survive the voyage back and was buried at sea.

Edward Norris (1665­–1726) had accompanied William to India as company secretary. As MP for Liverpool he fought for his family’s interests and invested in schemes to improve road and canal routes to the city.

Richard Norris (1670–1730) traded not only in tobacco and sugar but also in enslaved Africans. Like his brothers, he represented Liverpool in Parliament and in 1709 was part of a committee to expand trading links with Africa. Richard was central to improvement schemes at Liverpool docks, ensuring berthing for ever-larger ships.

The Watts: rising fortunes

Richard Watt I (1724–1796), a former hackney-carriage driver, owned a plantation in Jamaica and acted as attorney (estate manager) on others. He returned briefly to Liverpool in 1769, where he set up a lucrative trading house for Jamaican goods.

Settling finally in Britain in 1782, he set himself up as a considerable landowner. That year, he bought Oak Hill House, Liverpool and Bishop Burton estate, east Yorkshire. In 1795, he purchased Speke but never actually lived there.

Although Richard expressed concern about the brutality of plantation slavery, he nonetheless went on to invest in three slaving voyages in the 1760s and 70s. In 1793, he bought a slaving ship which transported 549 Africans to Jamaica (539 survived the journey).

His ownership of slaves in Jamaica is detailed in his will of 1796 which lists ‘Negroes and other Slaves together with the issue offspring and increase of the Females of such Slaves.’

Abolition and compensation

Richard Watt III (1786–1855) was the great-nephew of Richard I. He was brought up at Bishop Burton to enjoy the advantages of wealth and privilege.

On inheriting Speke in 1807, he set about restoring it from the neglect of his Watt predecessors to ‘true Baronial Magnificence’, but he abandoned the work before completion.

Showing little interest in his slave-worked Jamaica estates, Richard was happy to leave them in the hands of attorneys. On the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, Richard was awarded £4,485 4s 9d (just under £600,000 at today’s value) for the manumission of 256 enslaved Africans.

This money was, through subsequent generations, spent on renovating Speke Hall as well as on the built heritage (often through philanthropy) of Liverpool itself.