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Speke Hall's colonial connections

The timber-frame exterior of Speke Hall, Liverpool on a sunny day
The North Front of Speke Hall, Liverpool | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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

Speke Hall’s close proximity to Liverpool, once Britain’s largest slaving port, enabled its owners to play key roles in the British empire for nearly four hundred years.

Who were Speke’s owners?

During all this time, 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 Norris family: politics and power

The Norris family were the owners of 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 Norris family were already skilled in promoting their business interests in the Commons.

The growth of Liverpool

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 Norris family 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

The three Norris 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.

A view of the interior of the Great Hall at Speke Hall with a large portrait and a suit of armour
The Great Hall at Speke Hall, Liverpool | © National Trust Images/Geoffrey Frosh

William Norris

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

In India, Norris was accompanied by over 60 Europeans and 300 Indians when he made an 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

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

Richard Norris (1670–1730) traded not only in tobacco and sugar but also in enslaved African people. Like his brothers, he represented Liverpool in UK 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 (1724–96), a former hackney-carriage driver, owned a plantation in Jamaica and acted as an estate manager – then known as an attorney – 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.

A view inside the Oak Bedroom at Speke Hall, Liverpool, with a large wooden four poster bed
The Oak Bedroom at Speke Hall | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Watts and slave ownership

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 African people to Jamaica. Of these, 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.’

Richard Watt III

Richard Watt III (1786–1855) was the great-nephew of the first Richard Watts. 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’, however, he abandoned the work before completion.

Abolition and compensation

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 African people.

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

A visitor is standing in front of Speke Hall, Liverpool, holding her phone up and smiling as she takes a selfie with the building in the background.

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