Title: Hall-from-frontB&W | Credit: Sanger Institute/Genome Research Limited

Hinxton Hall: From the East India Company to the Caribbean

Various | Hinxton Hall Estate: Georgians, Jet Engines and Genes

As these pages illustrate, there are some aspects of Hinxton Hall that we know quite a lot about. The main part of the Hall is Georgian, and was built in the mid-1700s. It was extended in the 1800s, including a dining room decorated with ancient Roman-style frescoes inspired by those that had been unearthed in Pompeii. In 2022, we commissioned author and specialist researcher Melanie Backe-Hansen to investigate the history of Hinxton Hall, with a focus on the sources of wealth which enabled its creation and expansion. Here are some of the key findings around the Hall’s links to the East India Company; the transatlantic slave trade; and the abolitionist movement in this region.

The Holdens and the East India Company

We had originally thought that the Hall was built by local landowner John Bromwell Jones, but this is not quite the full story. John Bromwell Jones was a wealthy man, but a large part (and perhaps all) of this wealth came via his wife Mary Holden. The Holden family were deeply involved in the East India Company. The East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600 to undertake trade in India, South East Asia, and China. Its business was mainly focused on cottons, indigo, porcelain, tea, and silks, with these products then appearing in affluent households across Britain.

At its height in the 1700s the EIC was probably the most powerful corporation in history. It supported its domination of trade in the region with its own army and navy, setting up its own ports and factories in India, and creating its headquarters in Calcutta (todays’ Kolkata). It ultimately conquered and colonised modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as the precursor to the British Empire.

Richard Holden, Mary’s father, was a captain in the East India Company. He sailed for the Company for almost 20 years, from 1711-1730, as captain of the Mary(6) and Mary(7); and also undertook his own private trade and business. Sea-faring in the early 18th century was a perilous venture, but the rewards were proportionately impressive. At the time of his death in 1731 Captain Richard Holden was reported to have a fortune upwards of £20,000. This has a value of around £3.5million today; equivalent to an income value of around £60million.

Mary Holden inherited around £12,000 from her father, along with a range of goods and furniture from India. The approximate value of her fortune in terms of what it might buy today was £30million. In 1736, at the age of 16, a few years after the death of her father, Mary married John Bromwell Jones. And as was usual at the time, her personal wealth was passed to her husband. The Jones family, now including their daughter, moved to Hinxton sometime in the late 1740s with their new home, Hinxton Hall, being completed at around the same time.

Mary was left an Indian bureau, an Indian card table, six Indian chairs, and two Indian dressing boxes” by her father, reflecting the large quantities of carved and decorated Indian furniture made of ebony which were brought back to Britain by East India Company officials.  Although we don’t know what happened to these items, they may well have furnished her new home in Hinxton.

The de Freville family and generational wealth from the transatlantic slave trade

Almost one hundred years after the Holden family financed the building of Hinxton Hall, the Greene de Freville family set about expanding the Hall in accordance with the fashions of the early Victorian era. Edward Humphrys Greene de Freville added a range of features, including the highly decorative Pompeiian Room. On his marriage to Julia Flower in 1846, she brought with her substantial wealth from her own family connections. Julia was the granddaughter of the 1st Duke of Cleveland, who owned 233 enslaved people on the Lowther plantation in Barbados.

Following the abolition of slavery within the British empire in 1833, he received £4,854 16s 9d in compensation from the British government. This equates to around £6 million today. The generational wealth inherited by Julia and held within the de Freville family enabled them to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle in the countryside, with several servants; as well as a home in Mayfair in London. Their wealth also enhanced village life in Hinxton through economic and social philanthropy, repairs to the village church, and Christmas gifts for local children.

Olaudah Equiano and Joanna Vassa

At the time the extended Holden-Jones family were living in Hinxton Hall in the late 1700s, many people in England and in the local community in East Anglia were questioning how enslaved people on British plantations were being treated.  Despite Britain’s leading role in transatlantic slavery, many people in the UK felt strongly enough to actively campaign against it. Saffron Walden and Cambridge, both within a few miles of Hinxton, were significant centres of anti-slavery, abolitionist activity, with many campaigners from established nonconformist and Quaker communities in this region. In addition to these local abolitionist campaigners, others in the movement were formerly enslaved people, who told their own stories through books and public speaking events.

Olaudah Equiano was one prominent figure associated with the campaign to abolish slavery. He was probably a member of the Igbo community in today’s Nigeria, and was captured and transported to North America, as a child during the 1750s. Here, Equiano was bought by Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and renamed Gustavus Vassa. He was bought and sold by a number of owners over the course of around 10 years, working as part of a ship’s crew on voyages between Britain, Europe, and the Caribbean. In 1766, at the age of about 21, he was able to buy his freedom for £40, equivalent to around £6,000 today. As a free man, Equiano continued to work as a sailor, including on an expedition to the North Pole.

He eventually settled in Britain in the 1780s, and wrote about his life and experiences of slavery in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, which was published in 1789 and became a bestseller. The financing of this publication was supported by the prominent abolitionist campaigner, Peter Peckard, the Master of Magdalen College at the University of Cambridge, and by others including Reverend Joseph Gwennap, a Baptist Minister in Saffron Walden.

In 1792 Olaudah Equiano married Susannah Cullen, a woman from Soham in East Cambridgeshire. The couple lived in the area and had two daughters. Sadly, Susannah died aged 34 in 1796, and Equiano died a year later in 1797. Their older daughter Anna Maria, also died that year at the age of four.  The only surviving member of the family, Joanna, inherited her father’s estate when she was 21. Joanna married Reverend Henry Bromley in 1827 and they moved to Clavering near Saffron Walden where Henry served as a minister at the Congregational Church until 1845 when he retired. In many ways, the presence of Joanna Bromley, living within 12 miles of Hinxton, represents the significance of this region in both the history of British slavery, and its abolition.

By delving deeper into the colonial history of Hinxton Hall, we can see how this rural part of South Cambridgeshire had a complex range of connections. From its direct relationship with the East India Company and the British Empire, to its location within a centre of abolitionist activity, Hinxton Hall was a witness to some of the major social and political movements that took place in the UK through the 1700 and 1800s.

Acknowledgements: With huge thanks to Melanie Backe-Hansen, the House Historian, for original historical research on Hinxton Hall; and to the many academic researchers and writers, and the National Trust, who prompted some of our thinking on this topic.