With this week’s blog and I’m cheating a bit as it starts with a trip I made with a friend during last year’s heritage open days in September, rather than during lockdown. It looks at Dukinfield’s unique role in the history of English non-conformism, but it also takes us on a journey from Dukinfield to Jamaica, and shows some of the intersections of history.
Tucked away on an industrial estate in Dukinfield is a ruined chapel. The 2* listed remains are in desperate need of repair, but they are also of great historical significance – they are all that is left of the first independent church in England. The chapel was once part of Dukinfield Hall, and in the middle of the C17, the lord of the manor was Robert Dukinfield. At the age of 24, Dukinfield (1619-1689) was a leading commander in Parliament’s forces against Charles I in the Civil War. Before he reached 30, he had served as a colonel, as MP for Chester and as a member of the Council of State. Robert was also a fervent non-conformist and patron to radical preachers. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers preached his first sermon at Dukinfield, but it was particularly Samuel Eaton who was associated with the hall.
Samuel Eaton, the son of the vicar of Great Budworth in Cheshire, followed his father into the Church of England. However, both Samuel and his father were dissenters. Samuel was suspended as rector of West Kirby in 1631 and imprisoned for his beliefs in before fleeing to Holland on his release. In 1637, along with most of his family, Eaton left for Massachusetts and established the settlement of New Haven (Connecticut) after “buying” the land from the local Quinnipiack Nation with 13 English coats. Samuel’s brother, Nathaniel, served as the first teacher and built the original school in Cambridge, Massachusetts – later to become Harvard University.
Samuel returned to England in 1640, and came to the attention of Robert Dukinfield because of his charismatic preaching at the siege of Chester. He then became priest in residence at Dukinfield Hall, where he served for several years. Eventually he seems to have been replaced by some other “gifted brethren” and withdrew to Stockport. After the restoration of Charles II, Samuel was imprisoned on a number of occasions and excommunicated. When he died in 1665 he was buried in Denton Chapel.
The journey from Dukinfield to Dukinfield Hall in Jamaica is a complicated one, but worth following, as it shows just how closely the history of the slave trade and English history are connected. Robert’s son (also Robert – 1642-1729) prospered after the monarchy’s restoration, despite his father’s active involvement in the war that led to Charles I’s execution – he was appointed High Sheriff of Cheshire and was awarded with a baronetcy. Robert junior’s son, John (1677-1741), moved to Bristol and became a prominent member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, and an active slave trader. Organising about 23 voyages, he transported roughly 6,448 slaves to the Caribbean – horrifically nearly 1,300 died on the journey. An older and more established member of the Society was a certain Edward Colston, who has featured in the news recently…
John Dukinfield established a slave plantation growing sugar in Jamaica, and his son, Robert (the great grandson of Colonel Robert Dukinfield) settled in the colony at Dukinfield Hall. Robert was a member of the Jamaican Assembly and had a relationship with Jane Engusson, described in the parish records from Kingston, as “a free Negro woman”. Robert and Jane had three children together – two sons, William and Escourt, and one daughter, Elizabeth, all described in the baptismal register as “mulattos”. In 1747 a private act, brought by Robert, was passed by the Assembly, granting them the same rights and privileges as children born to white parents. This eventually passed into law after a lengthy legal process by the Lords Commissioners of the Board of Trade and Plantations in London in November 1752. Jane and all three children were then baptised – this presumably was symbolic sign of their acceptance into free society.
When Robert died in 1755 he left Jane and their three children with considerable property. Jane was left £300 for a house and a chaise, 101 acres of land and 14 slaves. William and Escourt both received £500, 400 acres and 4 slaves. Elizabeth was left 417 acres, 7 slaves and a dowry of £1000 – but she would only receive her dowry if she married a white man. Translating the legacies into modern money, Jane received about £54,000, her two sons £90,000 each and Elizabeth’s dowry would be worth about £180,000 – all four were left relatively well to do.
Robert’s actions show the very strange contradictions of the time. Robert’s father John was a ruthless slave trader, and Robert was a plantation and slave owner, but he didn’t see it as contradictory to grant Jane and their children ownership of slaves. In fact it was common custom at the time to reward the “mistresses” of white plantation owners by granting them slaves. The passing of the act in the Assembly is, however, a much more unusual move. His family with Jane was clearly very important to him and he appears to have taken active steps to have them accepted into Jamaican colonial society.
There some further twists to this story. William, the slave owning son of a plantation owner and an ex-slave, was part of the migration of white planters to Virginia a few years later. But, ironically, the son of an English gentleman and an ex-slave was himself enslaved in Virginia. In 2019, William’s direct descendant (and a direct descendant of Colonel Robert Dukinfield), Thomas Duckenfield, a successful US attorney, paid a visit to his ancestral home in Dukinfield, pledging to help with the restoration of the chapel.
So, although the slave trade and the slave plantations may seem distant from England, in Jamaica and Virginia for example, they are a crucial part of English history. The colonies were under English rule, English merchants provided and financed the ships, established and managed the plantations, and reaped the financial rewards. Colonel Robert Dukinfield was not involved himself but his grandson was very active. In a final irony, George Fox, who preached at Dukinfield Hall in the 1640s and was actively promoted by Robert Dukinfield, established the Quaker religious movement which by the 1750s was one of the first groups to criticise and campaign against slavery in the colonies.