The Brights of Ham Green House – wealth and health, science and slavery

The Bright Family at Ham Green

This post accompanies  “Fortunes, Fruit and Fevers – a biography of an orchard. part 1”

The Bright family of Bristol was a tremendously important and wealthy one, having made its fortune in the slave trade, [West] India dealings and ultimately banking.” Quote from ‘Tempestuous teacups and enigmatic leaves’ Larry Schaff.

From Worcestershire farming to Apprentice Merchant, and success in Bristol

Henry Bright senior 1715 – 1777 came from Worcestershire, but the family weren’t ‘landed aristocracy’, their background was as yeoman farmers but Henry had been apprenticed at the age of 16 to Richard Meyler, a West India merchant. They later became business partners; “While living in Jamaica [Henry Bright] built up a successful trade with Richard Meyler in sugar, slaves, provisions and dry goods…During this final spell in the Caribbean [1748 – 51] he arranged sugar consignments for Meyler and was active in the slave trade, especially the illegal traffic with the Spanish American market….By the time of the American Revolution, all this activity meant that the Bright family was considered in higher credit than any other house in England: the Brights were know to be men of large fortune.” Quote from Google Book: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.

Henry Bright married his partner’s only daughter Sarah (who was also his heiress), and they lived at 29 Queen Square in Bristol, with a black servant called Bristol. During his lifetime Henry was Mayor, and Sheriff of Bristol, a founder of the Bristol Theatre Royal in the 1760s, and of one of the first banks outside London, known as the Old Bank.

Unitarians

They had only one child, Richard, born in 1754 and brought up as a Unitarian, attending one of the four Dissenting Academies where he developed a love of science inspired by teachers such as Benjamin Franklin, and Joseph Priestley who he came to greatly admire. Through the Unitarians he also met the Heywood family, one of whom, Sarah, later became his wife.  By 1777, both Richard’s parents had died and at the age of 23 he inherited substantial properties in Wales, Hampshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, along with plantations in Jamaica, and the 640 enslaved people who worked there. Ham Green House, that his mother had inherited from her father, also came into Richard’s possession.

Ham Green House

Richard married Sarah Heywood in 1782 and they had their first child in 1784, named Henry after his grandfather. By 1790 they had four children and the family moved to Ham Green House – a place Richard had known well as a child. An 1800 tithe map “indicates that Bright’s freehold amount[ed] to little more than 9 acres”, however,

“the Parliamentary enclosure of common lands Act in Portbury parish completed in 1806, provided him with considerable opportunities for expansion. As well as purchasing and enclosing Ham Green itself he was able to acquire by exchange with neighbouring properties a large block to the west of his house [including, I believe, ‘our’ orchard] … This process of acquisition was continued vigorously in subsequent years [and] … enabled several improvements to be made to his gardens and grounds. The former common grazing land of Ham Green was converted to parkland and partly enclosed by new plantations, shown on the 1844 tithe map.” Quotes from booklet “Mr Bright’s Pleasure Ground at Hung Road”, The Gardens of Ham Green House, by James Russell, Avon Gardens Trust and Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society 2000.

According to research by his descendant Pamela Bright, he was “an able farmer with progressive views…and an inspired horticulturalist” spending much time in his hothouses in his later years. He planted many specimen trees in the garden (some fine cedars are still standing) and grew olive trees in the hope of introducing them to his plantations in Jamaica, and experimented with “pomegranates, pepper, nutmeg and cloves…No visitor was allowed to leave without a full basket” of fruit, vegetables or flowers. By 1789 the garden had already been elevated in status – Samuel Hieronymous Grimm titled a drawing he made of a view toward the house from the opposite bank as “Mr Bright’s Pleasure Ground at Hung Road”. See end of post for further information about the Hung Road.

Passion for Science

Richard Bright was also dedicated to the pursuit of science, the family were friends with many of the pioneering scientists of their times – Humphry Davy, James Watt, William Smith and Dr. Thomas Beddoes of the Pneumatic Institute in Dowry Square, Bristol – so the children (girls and boys) grew up with enthusiastic and enquiring minds, “He brought up his children in the idyllic surroundings of Ham Green and imbued his young son [Richard Bright junior, b1789] with a keen sense of observation coupled with an eye for detail and accurate documentation.” (From J Campbell MacKenzie).

Richard senior had a laboratory built in the grounds of the house as an extension to the gazebo for the family to conduct scientific experiments. At some stage in the early 1800s the mineral celestine (used in flares and fireworks) was discovered ‘under the pastures of Ham Green’, either by Richard senior or one of his scientific acquaintances, and “the sight of the way the crystalline mass of blue, when subjected to heat, turned the flame into ‘indescribable scarlet’ was to remain with the Brights forever”[PB], and the discovery was responsible for initiating geological collecting for some of the children that lasted a  lifetime.

This broad education led several family members to become accomplished and highly regarded amateur scientists in the fields of geology, mineralogy and botany; Richard Bright junior became an eminent Doctor, pioneering a new approach to diagnosing and treating illness that relied on the close and careful observational skills he’d developed as a child.

 

Henry Bright – Geologist, Whig MP, Collector, and, Eccentric?

The 1841 Ham Green orchard owner, Henry Bright (first child of Richard senior and Sarah), continued the family interest in the sciences with a particular focus on geology, and was also a friend of Thomas Wedgwood. an early experimenter with photography. He went to Cambridge University and although he was suspended (because of a ‘little fracas’ in a shop) went on to become a barrister and then represented Bristol as a Whig MP from 1820 – 1830.

Henry seems to have been a little eccentric and at some stage of his time in Parliament, his contemporary, and opposition MP George Canning (also briefly Prime Minister) compared “the snapping, barking, cur-looking Member for Bristol to a dog tied by a string under a pedlar’s cart”. From History of Parliament.

In later years his nephew recalled a ‘very polished and refined old gentleman and a keen geologist’ who ‘always dressed with extreme shabbiness’ and ‘was arrested in his own garden as a suspicious character by a zealous member of the then newly-established police force.’ (Quoted in L Schaaf post)

Henry Bright’s self portrait, right, and his portrait of his father Richard Bright senior, left. From https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/06/19/tempestuous-teacups-and-enigmatic-leaves/

In addition to his varied occupations and scientific interests Henry was also an amateur artist and a collector, and in the year of his death, 1869, he compiled a scrapbook of watercolours, prints and photographs. Included in the scrapbook were some paintings of Ham Green House by one of Henry’s sisters, Sarah Anne Bright (1793-1866), an accomplished artist and keen botanist who had helped her brothers with their geological collections – another member of the family to follow both scientific and artistic pursuits.

Painting of Ham Green House by Sarah Ann Bright (date not known) from https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/06/19/tempestuous-teacups-and-enigmatic-leaves/

The Leaf – one of the earliest photographs

Some of the photographs contained in the scrapbook – very early ‘photogenic drawings’ of leaves dated to 1839, see image below) – were unattributed in the book but later assumed to have been made by William Henry Fox Talbot, founder of the negative/positive photographic process. However more recent research provides evidence that at least one of these prints, a negative image known as ‘The Leaf’, was made (possibly along with the other leaf images) by Sarah Bright at Ham Green House, making her one of the world’s early photographers.

Pages showing the leaf photographs, and ‘The Leaf’ image that Larry Schaff tracked down to being created by Sarah Anne Bright. From his post https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/06/19/tempestuous-teacups-and-enigmatic-leaves/

The end of the Bright’s residence at Ham Green House

Henry did not marry and died in March 1869 dividing the bulk of his property between various nephews and Ham Green House eventually passed on to the neighbouring Miles family.

The Bright’s shadows – dissenters and philanthropists, but not Abolitionists

To quote from my related post, “the Brights were well respected and remembered (by their tenants as well as those of their own mercantile background) for their kindness and philanthropy. The biography of Dr Richard Bright builds a picture of a very close family of enthusiastic individuals who were generous and genial company”. As mentioned above the family were Unitarians, a number of leading members of this faith were Abolitionists, including Richard Bright senior’s mentor, Joseph Priestly, who was a Unitarian minister and wrote, in 1788, a ‘Sermon Against the Slave Trade’. The Bright family had close acquaintances among Quakers such as the Harfords of Blaise Castle Estate, and other non-conformists in Bristol like Hannah More who were all strong supporters of the Abolition movement.

So, given the positive impression of the Brights, it’s baffling, and disappointing, for us to look back at the family in that period and wonder how they could reconcile their benevolent conduct, Whig (liberal) outlook and strongly held religious beliefs with their deep involvement in the ‘West India Trade’ – “the Brights were know to be men of large fortune”; they owned plantations in Jamaica, trading very successfully in rum and sugar while the earlier generation were active slave traders, but after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 several members of the family were still owners of enslaved people.

When Richard Bright senior died in 1840, Henry’s inheritance included compensation paid by British taxpayers (up until 2015, yes 2015) to slave owners for the loss of their ‘human property’ when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833. No money went to the ‘freed’ slaves (they were to become largely unpaid ‘apprentices’ for several years), but five years before his death Richard Bright senior had received £11,972 16s 9d (equivalent of about £1,357,768 today) for the 640 enslaved people mentioned above. I found this quote in a letter that he wrote from Ham Green House on 4 July 1826 to Edward Smith (his attorney in Jamaica) making very clear his stance on the matter:

Transcript: “….My correspondence cannot fail to have conveyed to you what my wishes & desires are, I am no abolitionist, but I am desirous to introduce a system of encouragement and of instruction which shall prepare the Negro population for a greater degree of liberty, and even prospect of freedom whenever their knowledge, or that of their children, shall render them capable of enjoying it as civilised Men and informed Christians”.

It is thought that at least half of the £20 million pounds (that’s the original 1835 value) made in compensation payments to slave-owning families remained in Great Britain. These families’ investments were, it is suggested, a significant factor in the rapid expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Another of Henry’s brothers, Robert became an original shareholder in the new Great Western Cotton Factory in Barton Hill in Bristol in 1838 after receiving compensation related to ‘human property’ in Barbados. The Bright’s wealth certainly allowed the family to follow their scientific interests, and paved the way for Henry to become a barrister and MP, and his brother to pursue his medical training, through which he benefited hundreds of people.

It’s a vast topic that’s problematic for us to comprehend and asses from 200 years on, but discovering details about individuals of that time does shift the perspective and reveals a very different structure to a once familiar past .

The Bright papers and a Biography of Dr Richard Bright

Over the course of two centuries or so the Bright family produced numerous letters (both personal and business), documents and books many of which have been preserved. Drawing on these papers a descendant of the family, Pamela Bright, wrote a biography of Dr Richard Bright in 1983. She examines his own accounts of his medical career with others’ reports of his work, achievements and dedication; a working life that spanned the reign of four monarchs in which we learn of Bright visiting the military hospitals in Brussels a few days after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, to giving guidance and advice on caring for the wounded soldiers at the Crimean War in 1854. And in between these significant events his groundbreaking work on diagnosing and treating kidney diseases and improving working practices in hospital care.

Alongside this we read about his perilous journey to Iceland to undertake a geological study, and medical and social research visits to Hungary and Austria; his wide ranging interests, and his relationships with a socially diverse circle of friends and colleagues. He is devoted to his work but also very close to his family and through their copious letters the character of this remarkable man and other close family members are brought to life. The book also provides a vivid insight into the social and political history of the first half of the 19th century and is well worth reading.

The Hung Road (a slight excursion down the Ham Green House garden path to the river)

The Hung Road (a Road, in nautical terms is a place where ships commonly ride at anchor while being serviced by lighters or awaiting their turn at a pier or jetty) on the River Avon between Crockerne Pill and St Katherine’s Pill is a “natural deep water wharf at high tide, but [because of the vast tidal range in the Avon, up to 40 ft difference] at low tide the ships were ‘hung’ by their masts to rings and stout chains embedded into the the rocks. This was to make sure the vessels remained upright and did not roll. Some rings still remain but during the First World War many were removed for salvage”. Glinda Hooper

The Adam and Eve – the watergate to Ham Green House on the hill above.

This stretch of river is beneath Ham Green House and there is a mid 18th century folly here known as the Adam and Eve (because of the male and female statues, now much eroded, at each end that have given rise to some colourful stories about two forbidden lovers being separated and locked in the towers and left until they died), which was built by the Bright / Meyler family as a watergate for the house, allowing their ships to stop at high tide for the disembarkation of passengers and unloading of goods.

The eroded statues can just be seen on each side of the central arch in this pair of photographs from the 1990s, kindly loaned by Stuart Cox.

A wonderful imagining of the Bright family enjoying the moonlit snow and a boat trip in 1847. Reproduced with permission of the artist (also historian), Stuart Cox. He, and his seafaring family have lived in Pill for generations.

Further colourful tales are told regarding the use of the alleged underground passages leading up to the house from the folly for smuggling; true or not there was certainly evidence that smuggling was common around here and in 1798, eight years after Richard Bright senior and family had taken up residence at Ham Green House, Customs Officers seized ‘no less than twenty ankers [1 anker = 10 gallons] of brandy and rum … found hidden along the banks of the river near Hung Road’. This is just one example, although the skill of the pilots (if, one should add, it was they who were responsible) and speed of their specialised cutter vessels meant they perhaps often evaded capture. This clearly is the reason there is a Customs Watchhouse in the village!

Other things were to be found in the woods and precipitously steep banks of the Hung Road; for generations local children have feared the Oakum, or Hookem or Hooky Boys who allegedly lived either in what were once the Bright’s woods above Hung Road, or, depending on the version told, in the river – these water-dwellers were the vindictive ghosts of bad boys from Bristol. These monstrous creatures were reputed to either devour wayward children or the aquatic version would drag them into the river with their hooked hands (their own had been cut off as a punishment) and drown them.

The three black figures to the left of the jug (local Ham Green ware from the 15thC), are how present-day children from Pill school imagine the Hookem Boys. Interpretation board designed by Peter Milner.

They seem to have been based on “boys who lived rough at Ham Green who made a poor living by picking oakum [loose fibre obtained by untwisting old rope] for the caulking of ships” (Gerald Hart). Whatever they were these spectres provided a good deterrent to straying into genuinely hazardous terrain. After 1867 when the Bristol to Portishead railway was built, which runs close to Hung Road but under Watchhouse Hill, further terrors awaited those who tried to enter the tunnel – they might see the ghost of the Grey Lady, a legend still alive in the village today.

In the early days of the fever hospital at Ham Green, the Adam and Eve was probably the landing stage at which some patients would arrive by boat. A sad tale from the 1920s tells of two nurses from the hospital who one summer’s day had gone to sit on the folly during a break and paddle their feet in the water. The tide was high and the wash from a passing steamer swept them off the platform and they drowned.

The once white (now much grafittied) folly would have served as a useful marker on the river for shipping and still bears a navigation light named Adam and Eve. It’s hard to imagine how busy this river once was with dozens of ships like the 1847 Jeanie Johnston shown in the photograph below, passing the Adam and Eve on the Hung Road in 2006.

The 1874 ‘Jeanie Johnston’ passing the Adam and Eve on the Hung Road, River Avon, in 2006.

Sources:

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