Hidden History of the Dales

2 October – 8 November 2007

The Hidden History exhibition explored the untold stories of Black and Asian people in the Yorkshire Dales. It was created in 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Act abolishing the British trade in enslaved Africans.

The Dales Countryside Museum and North Yorkshire County Council Record Office began to look at this long-hidden part of our history.

We researched many of the people and places of the Dales that have been connected with Africa, the Caribbean and India, whether through slavery or for other reasons. We found out about people who came to live in the area and encouraged people to think about the impact that the transatlantic slave trade had upon the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas.

African and Caribbean Hidden History in the Dales

Over the years, people from all over the world have travelled to or settled in the Dales for a huge number of reasons. The same applies to people who originated from the Dales, but then travelled to live or work abroad.


Over the centuries people living in the Dales have made connections with countries throughout the world. Some such as William Hillary (1697–1763), born at Birkrigg near Hawes, moved to Barbados in 1747 to work on climate and disease. He wrote a tropical medicine book on his return, Observations on the Changes of the Air, and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbado (1759).

Slave Traders, Merchants & Ships’ Captains

For centuries, profits from transatlantic trading contributed to the development of the Western European economy, including that of the Dales. There was direct trade between Britain and Africa, the West Indies and the Americas. Knitted stockings and ‘bump caps’ made in Dent were exported to the West Indies and sugar and other goods were imported to England.

Planters & Plantation Workers

Several Dales families owned plantations in the Caribbean. Property names such as Grenada House in Askrigg and what was known as ‘Africa House’ in Sedbergh, provide tantalizing clues to the history of their past owners.


For some, the experience of living in other countries had a profound effect. On their return from the Caribbean to the Dales, some individuals chose to stand against slavery and to support the right for freedom and respect.

Robert Boucher Nicholls (c.1744-1814), Dean of Middleham, was born in Barbados and together with several other Dales people, gave evidence in 1791 to the House of Commons Select Committee which was enquiring into the slave trade. In 1787 he wrote a letter of support to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which they considered important enough to be printed.

Eastern Connections: Merchants, Traders and Politicians

Links between the Dales and the wider world, in particular Asia and the East, have existed for centuries.  People from the Dales and North Yorkshire as a whole have travelled across the globe for a variety of reasons, as merchants or traders, in the cause of religion and in support of global politics.  

The East India Company

The East India Company was established in 1600 and since that time, families such as the Jackson family of Richmond and the Wray family of Aysgarth have been connected with the company in various ways. 

George Clifford, third earl of Cumberland (1558-1605), one of the founding members of the company spent his early years on his father’s estates in Westmoreland and at Skipton Castle.

Eastern Influences

The trading of products from the East began hundreds of years ago. The East India Company dealt in silk, tea and porcelain, but their employees also bought fabrics, ceramics, lacquer ware, fans, wallpaper and ivory, shipping them home as “private trade”. Few of these items ever made it on to the open market but it is likely that they helped fire an interest in styles and products from the East which at the time was seen as one entity.

Eastern Connections in the Dales

Asian people have come to live in Yorkshire and the Dales for a variety of reasons. The activities of the East India Company in China and India resulted in a number of Asian people arriving in Britain.  Some came as servants with returning officers or their families while others came as part of the workforce.

In the 1881 census, 737 people living in Yorkshire had been born in India.  Although the majority had European surnames, this highlights the links that existed between Britain and Asia at this time. 

Yorkshire’s Hidden History by Audrey Dewjee

[This is a reprint of an article written for Now Then, the annual magazine of the Friends of the Dales Countryside Museum, 2019.]

A truly comprehensive history of Yorkshire has yet to be written.

The “Hidden History” of the Dales which was revealed in the two exhibitions held at the Museum in 2007 and 2009 is not some mere interesting sideline: it is a fundamental and major part of Yorkshire’s past, a history that is seldom spoken about, and never included in mainstream books. It is difficult to know whether this is the result of deliberate “forgetting” or whether it is due to ignorance on the part of historians but, either way, the effect is the same: few Yorkshire men and women really know their county’s history.

The wealth that came to Yorkshire from the slave economies of the Americas and exploitation in India enriched the county. It fuelled industrialisation, by providing both capital and huge markets for the goods produced from colonial raw materials, it transformed lives and even shaped the landscape. Admittedly not everyone got rich on the proceeds of colonial trade; nevertheless these two sources of great wealth to Britain had an impact on every one’s lives.

In 2006, I was invited by the Museum to become lead researcher for their exhibition, Hidden History of the Dales, which was to be held in 2007 to coincide with the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Fiona gave me a map of the catchment area of the Museum and said, “Look in this area for all types of connections with the trade in enslaved Africans”. Friends of the Museum and members of the local community were also asked to contribute to this research.

The different types of connections we found, and the sheer number of them, were a surprise to me. People were drawn to the West Coast slave trading ports such as Lancaster and, later, Liverpool, as these were places where money could be made, and from there some went on to the West Indies or America to further their business interests. Charles Inman from Pateley Bridge went to Lancaster where he was active in the slave trade along with the Satterthwaite family before becoming a merchant in Jamaica. John Sill from Dent went to Liverpool where he had business with merchant, David Kenyon, and then he too went to Jamaica where he acquired a plantation named Providence.

Others went directly to various places in the Caribbean to find employment. Henry Coor, a millwright from Settle, went to Jamaica. George Kearton from Oxnop Hall bought a sugar and arrowroot plantation in St. Vincent. Matthew Terry from Askrigg was first a bookkeeper and overseer in Dominica, and then became a land surveyor in Tobago and Grenada. John Terry, also from Askrigg, was a plantation overseer then manager in Grenada for 14 years. Both men returned to Askrigg.

Others found employment on board slave ships as captains and crew. Christopher Bowes from Richmond became a ship’s surgeon. His log from his voyage on the Lord Stanley in 1788 reveals the numbers who died on the “middle passage”. Thomas Pratt, commemorated on a plaque in Askrigg church, was master of the Hibernia, one of the massive slaving ships sailing out of Liverpool in the final years before abolition of the trade.

It is distressing to realise how many Africans died or had their lives ruined by the horrendous conditions revealed in documents such as shipping and business records and to realise that Yorkshiremen were deeply involved in these practices.

Retiring planters and slave traders returned to their roots, or decided to settle in our county. The most well-known example is that of Henry Lascelles whose enormous fortune enabled him to build Harewood House and stuff it full of art treasures. As James Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York, asked some years ago, “Who would walk through the grounds of Harewood House today and imagine that the splendours of that stately home and its lavish setting derive directly from sugar and the sweat of African slaves?”

Harewood House is the example most often used in television programmes about transatlantic enslavement. I suppose this is inevitable given that the house is still in the hands of the same family, and because the family makes no effort to hide where it obtained its fortune. But other families and individuals, who came back with fortunes with which they bought or built houses in Yorkshire, remain unknown. Some of these houses were relatively modest, such as Grenada Hall, acquired by Matthew Terry in Askrigg and Rigg House built by George Metcalfe at Appersett. (Incidentally, George Metcalfe is buried in Hawes churchyard.)

The Drax family built a “shooting box” at Ellerton Abbey in Swaledale. Several members of the Haynes family returned to Britain from Barbados with massive fortunes after receiving compensation for their enslaved workers in 1838. They settled in many parts of the country, but those members of the Haynes family who settled in Yorkshire alone, received as much compensation as did the Lascelles family.

While researching, my biggest interest lay in the people of African descent who passed through or settled in the area as a result of the slave trade. The story of Black Jenny and her daughter at Sedbergh was already fairly well known, as was the fact that Thomas Anson ran away from the Sill’s farm at Dent. But several others came to light in the course of our investigation.

Despite the fact that plantation owners and overseers were so very cruel to enslaved Africans who worked in the fields, many of them took local mistresses who were sometimes relatively well-treated. Some of the fathers of the mixed-race children who resulted tried to make provision for them, by sending them to Britain for education or apprenticeship and/or by leaving them legacies.

William Place, born in Spennithorne, became a planter in Jamaica. With an enslaved women on a neighbouring plantation named Sherry Ellis, he had a son called Thomas. After William returned home, he arranged for his son to be manumitted and organised his travel to join him in England. The process took a long time and William was dead before his young son arrived. However, Thomas was looked after by his aunt and uncle and eventually inherited his father’s land at Newton-le-Willows. Parish records reveal the presence of African servants dotted around the county, and occasional records of their marriages and the birth of their children.

Perhaps the most exciting revelation in respect to the exhibitions came when Jenny Thornton contacted the Museum to tell the story of her ancestor John Yorke, “a Negro Servant belonging to Mr. Hutton” of Marske, near Richmond. John was given a cottage as a reward for rescuing someone from a fire on the moors and as a result he was able to marry and raise a family in the village. There are now over 130 of John’s descendants living around the country. Jenny continues to research her family tree and still makes exciting new discoveries about John’s descendants.

Although we tried very hard, we failed to establish whether there was any truth in the old stories passed down about enslaved Africans who were supposed to have lived in Dent at some unspecified time between 1750 and 1840. It is possible that the stories, widely written about and still used to tantalize tourists, may have been nothing more than old tales about slave owning families in the area that became exaggerated and distorted in the repeated re-telling. There are similar stories in circulation about farms and houses in Sedbergh and, despite the help of a member of one of the old Sedbergh families, we failed to find anything to confirm their veracity. But, even if the well-known stories are untrue, there are verified stories about people of African descent in both Dent and Sedbergh, and research at the Dales Countryside Museum is ongoing.

Two years later, the Museum decided to look into Yorkshire connections with India and China and the findings were shown in the second Hidden History of the Dales exhibition in 2009. No Asian settlers were discovered close to Hawes, though we found the marriage of a Chinese woman and the baptisms of her son, and the baptism of an Indian servant at Ripon Cathedral.

We discovered evidence of people leaving the area to seek their fortunes in India and of others who settled here on their return. Men from the area joined the East India Company’s army as ordinary soldiers, and even more joined as officers. Members of the Wray family who lost their lives serving in India are commemorated in Aysgarth church (including Anne Fraser, née Wray), while Randolph Marriott, a former Deputy Governor of the East India Company, survived his period of service in India and settled at Leases Hall, in Aiskew near Bedale.

Alexander Nowell built his shooting lodge at Netherside Hall, near Grassington, while his main palace was Underley Hall in Lancashire. After nine years as a soldier, Nowell quitted the East India Company’s army to engage in making indigo. He made his fortune by discovering the secret of how to fix indigo dye – so that it didn’t run when wet. It is unknown whether he obtained this by fair means or foul, though probably the latter, as Indians did their best to keep secret their advanced technological skills.

Many grand houses in the area were decorated using Indian and particularly Chinese designs – for example a fine staircase with Chinoiserie balustrades can still be seen at Swale House, in Frenchgate, Richmond and there is spectacular Chinese wallpaper on view at Harewood House.

Luxury goods from the West Indies and India, such as mahogany and exotic textiles, graced the homes of the rich, while poorer people were exposed to Eastern designs in “Paisley” patterns on shawls and Willow Pattern crockery. Tea brought from India and China and coffee grown in the West Indies became national drinks for all classes. Generations of children may have played Snakes and Ladders, without realising it had its origin in India, and everyone now uses words such as bungalow, chutney, cot, ginger, gymkhana, ketchup, pyjamas, shampoo – which are just some of the hundreds of words that have come to us from Asian languages.

The effects of our involvement in the Indian sub-continent continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, after the Second World War, when India and Pakistan gained their independence and the huge Indian army was no longer at the disposal of the “mother country”, compulsory National Service had to be introduced in Britain to make up for this loss of manpower. Between 1947 and 1963, most young men aged between 17 and 21 had their lives disrupted (and, in some cases, ended) by eighteen months in the forces, at times on active service.

Research into all aspects of this “Hidden History” is ongoing at the Museum and records of all previous finds are stored in the Museum’s Research Room. The Museum continues to collect information and would welcome any additional information that anyone can supply.