A Grandfather's Tale: Chapter 9, THE GRAVEYARD

A GRANDFATHER'S TALE: LIVERPOOL SLAVE MERCHANT WILLIAM BOLDEN 1730-1800


Chapter Nine: THE GRAVEYARD

William Bolden's last decade was spent in withdrawing from the business partnership of Sparling and Bolden. It was a period of realising his assets and planning their destination after his death. Overshadowing this was depression. Not the economic recession of the early 1790s, but his own mental health.

The partners' last letter book, the subject of MM Schofield's invaluable study in 1964, is the best available source for describing this difficult time for the old merchant. Schofield writes that in 1793 "William Bolden decided to retire". In a letter dated 10 October 1797, John Lawrence received final notice "to close down the [Virginian] business as soon as possible". (1)

It is in another of those letters, dated 22 July 1793, that the extent of Bolden's personal struggle becomes apparent. Sparling in Liverpool writes to Lawrence in Virginia that,
...it would be very pleasing to us to have as many remittances made as you can as shortly as possible, and particularly as our W.B. has determined to retire from all business at the end of this year, for his state of health has been so very indifferent for these two years past, occasioned chiefly by a nervous complaint which he is fearful will be difficult to remove unless by changing the scene of life he has been so long accustomed to, which the medical people he has consulted advises him to do, as they think there's a probability of his health being in some measure restored by it. His nerves have been so very weak for a long time by past [sic] that very little writing, reading or hurry of business of any kind, affects him so much, as to make it very unpleasant to him to give proper attention to the last. (2)
Sparling wrote to Lawrence again on 20 September 1793. After explaining that he was writing "for self and W.B.", he added as a postscript to his letter that Bolden had "been at Blackpool these three weeks by past". (3)

Beginning from the middle of 1791 or thereabouts, it appears that William Bolden suffered from "a nervous complaint". This condition was aggravated by "the hurry of business". Doctors advised him that these symptoms "will be difficult to remove unless by changing the scene of [his] life". In fact, "his nerves had been so very weak" that it was "very unpleasant to him" to attempt to work "as he has been so long accustomed to". Medical counsel to him in 1793 was therefore to cease his business life and retire, if he intended "his health being in some measure restored".

The key phrase here is probably "the hurry of business". Constant exposure to the pressures of commerce generated inner tensions and anxieties. These built up over time until they could no longer be contained', erupting into what might be called a  
 'nervous breakdown'. William Bolden quite simply couldn't take it any more. The contemporary medical diagnosis is consistent with this 'modern'summary. The remedy was complete and ongoing rest, avoiding the pace and stress of his former occupation.

Bolden's retirement was thrust upon him. However, while it was inconvenient for his business partners Sparling and Lawrence, it did not cause any financial hardship for Bolden himself. His fortune was already made.

Bolden's Wealth

One reliable source for assessing financial success over a person's lifetime is their Will for dividing up their Estate. What, or how much, is someone able to pass on to the next generation after all outstanding liabilities have been met? Execution of the Will establishes the net position of wealth at the time of death, expressed in terms of the prevailing currency.

At his death on 3 January 1800, William Bolden Esquire left a Will on which the Prerogative Court granted Probate (on 12 June 1800) for a personal estate of 10,000 Pounds. (4) However, this was only part of the story. Probate records of the period were silent on the value of landed possessions. They did not take account of real estate. (5) 

In a legal notice published in The London Gazette in 1828, there is evidence that the total value of Bolden's estate, both 'personal' and 'real', was 30,000 Pounds. An "Order of the High Court of Chancery" refers to "the sum of 30,000 Pounds, directed to be laid out in lands by the will of William Bolden, of Liverpool, in the County of Lancaster, Merchant, deceased (who died on the 3d of January 1800)". This notice also indicated that the will's particular beneficiary "of 30,000 Pounds...to be laid out in lands" was his nephew "John Bolden (formerly called John Leonard)". (6) 

By logical extension, this means that the 10,000 Pounds on which probate was granted in 1800 was joined by additional assets, presumably real estate, worth at least another 20,000 Pounds. By any standards, William Bolden concluded his life a rich man.

A simple conversion of sterling currency into current values can be found on the UK National Archives Currency Converter. The sum of 30,000 Pounds in 1800 is the nominal equivalent of 965,000 Pounds (calculated at 2000 levels). To become a near millionaire in his lifetime is an impressive feat for a tanner's son in the eighteenth century. It should be noted, however, that this direct pound for pound conversion probably understates Bolden's achievement. The Napoleonic Wars caused a serious devaluation in the exchange rate for British currency. For example, the same 30,000 Pounds would have the value of 1,680,900 Pounds in 1790 (pre-war) and 1,257,600 in 1820 (post-war). (7)

The difference international currency fluctuations can make to the 'worth' of money is a small reminder that wealth can be measured against a number of 'values'. It is not always accurate to take it at face value. The number on the note is only a number. The above examples really only indicate what an English pound could purchase outside of Britain. But looking within the historical Britain of 1800, there are alternative ways of considering the spending power of any sum of money. 

The currency conversion site Measuring Worth 2015 provides a range of four distinct comparison methods to calculate contemporary currency valuations:

  1. The historic standard of living value of income claims to measure the purchasing power for a bundle of goods and services that an 'average' household might buy. By this measure 30,000 Pounds in 1800 could be 'worth' 2,184,300 Pounds in 2015.
  2. The labour earnings value of income considers units of money in relation to the earnings of an 'average' worker in the same historical period. In this case, the conversion from 30,000 Pounds in 1800 would be 32,580,000 Pounds in 2015.
  3. The economic status value of income places money against an income-index of per-capita gross national product (GNP), a sort of ranking against the earnings of others in Britain at that time. This method of estimating worth converts 30,000 Pounds in 1800 to 37,500,000 Pounds in 2015.
  4. The economic power value of income compares a sum of money to the total output of the entire historical economy. It is a conversion designed to reflect "the relative influence" of the owner of an amount of capital in 'controlling' the composition and volume of production in that era. This technique transforms 30,000 Pounds in 1800 to a staggering 151,290,000 Pounds in 2015. (8) 
Of course, the concept of 'income' is not an exact equivalent to 'wealth'. William Bolden did not earn 30,000 Pounds in each year. These estimates therefore intensify or exaggerate the extent of his achievement to a certain degree. Nevertheless, they are not entirely fanciful 'multipliers'. The Measuring Worth 2015 formulas remain a useful tool to bring money-value of the period into realistic context. The 'conditions' of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century industrialising society are brought sharply into focus. And the capitalist-investor is brought directly within his peer group of similarly powerful deal-makers. The point is made that in a dynamic, but much smaller, economic environment, the relative 'impact' of a wealthy individual, and his fortune, was consequently much larger.

This is not to say that William Bolden was at the top of a legacy 'league-chart' for Liverpool slave merchants. He was not. Others had far larger probated personal estates, or considerably grander real estate outside the township limits. But his financial position was still one of substantial prosperity. Like his partner John Sparling, Bolden had significant wealth to bestow. And, like Sparling, he spent the last decade of his life in coming up with an idiosyncratic way of bestowing it.

The Will

MM Schofield's concluding remarks in "The Virginia Trade of the Firm of Sparling and Bolden" give a precise summary of William Bolden's last will and testament. He writes,
Bolden's will is the best proof of his testimony; after small legacies to his stepchildren, he put the bulk of his fortune in trust for his nephew, John Lennard, on condition that he took the name Bolden. This was done, and the estate purchased was The Hyning, near Warton, north of Lancaster, which remained in the family until 1948...Here is yet another example of a business fortune providing for the entry of families into the landed gentry. (9) 
The specific circumstance underlying Bolden's choice of conditional inheritance was his own childlessness. This was despite marrying twice. His first marriage was on 17 November 1772 at St Thomas' Church, Liverpool, to Sophia Thompson, spinster of that parish. His second marriage took place six years later, to Mrs Agnes Raincock, widow of Ousby in Cumbria.

It is the parish records of his first marriage to Sophia Thompson that are most suggestive of the eventual, particular, terms of his will. There were two official witnesses to this ceremony -- his longstanding and trusted business partner John Sparling signed first, followed by his younger, as yet unmarried, sister Alice Bolden. (10) 

The inclusion of Sparling is perhaps predictable, but it is also interesting from the perspective of the remarkable similarities to be found in both merchants' last testaments. It appears the partners remained close throughout their lives, respecting one anothers judgment not just in business, but it personal matters as well. Their shared opinions are evident right down to the final arrangements of their individual affairs.

In 1773 John Sparling purchased the San Domingo Estate, just outside and overlooking Liverpool, for 3,470 Pounds. This was a curiously designed mansion erected by former slave merchant George Campbell, named for the large West Indies plantation-island (now Haiti and Dominica) which was the destination for many of his slave ships. Sparling kept the name, but in 1793 he began remodelling the house on imposing classical lines. One part of his 'retirement project' was to also erect a handsome burial vault in the nearby Walton churchyard, which he ensured was in plain sight from the main windows of his reconstructed residence. (11) 

Sparling was clearly enamoured of San Domingo as a lasting monument to his commercial prowess. So much so that he made a special proviso in his will that "the St Domingo estate should be occupied by no other than a 'Sparling' by name". In 1800 he died and was duly interred in his specially prepared Walton tomb. However, so "inconvenient" did this part of Sparling's legacy prove to his heirs that the effect of "the will was set aside, in 1810, by an act of Parliament to nullify the clause and enable the executors to sell the property". (12) 

William Bolden's attempt to determine the direction of his heirs was more successful. The key to his strategy lies in the identity of the second witness at his first marriage, his sister Alice. The terms of Bolden's will imply that an affectionate relationship with his younger sister lasted for his lifetime. Alice Bolden married a Liverpool merchant called Samuel Leonard, with whom she had a son named John Leonard. It was to this John, his nephew, whom William elected to leave "the bulk of his fortune". But he would only inherit if he adopted the surname 'Bolden' for himself and his heirs. (13) 

The clause expressing the deceased's requirement proved no barrier to John Leonard, nor it might reasonably be assumed, his mother Alice. They moved with some speed to comply. Barely a month after William died the following notice was published in The Gazette:
Whitehall, February 8, 1800. The king has been pleased to grant unto John Leonard, of Liverpool, Esq; Son of Samuel Leonard, late of Liverpool aforesaid, Merchant, deceased, by Alice Leonard his Wife, formerly Alice Bolden, Sister of William Bolden, late of Liverpool aforesaid, Esq; deceased, his Royal Licence and Authority that he and his Children and Grand-children may assume, take, and use the Surname of Bolden only, in Addition to their Christian Name; and also to order that His Majesty's Concession and Declaration be registered in his College of Arms. (14)
In 1801 John (Leonard) Bolden married Mary-Ann Satterthwaite. In 1803 their first son was born. As if to make doubly sure of their new lineage, they named him William Bolden Bolden. Another seven sons and two daughters were to follow, most of whom were baptised at St Oswald's, Warton, the parish church nearest to their newly acquired estate of Hyning Hall. (15) 

In its original form, Hyning Hall was 246 acres of land with a grand home of three stories; the central section built in the Palladian style in 1786, with two Georgian wings added around 1800. It was transferred into John Bolden's name in 1809. (16) The manor of Warton was added to the property in 1819, and the manor of Warton-with-Lindeth in 1825. (17) 

Acquisition of rural land enabled the Leonard/Boldens and their descendants to enter a strictly stratified society as minor gentry. By virtue of this 'respectable' status, John Bolden, and then his son William Bolden Bolden, became Justices of the Peace and Lords Demesne, automatically recognised as the 'natural' leaders of local and county community. John directed his energies towards the 'suitable' occupation of breeding quality "Short-horned stock", conducting stud cattle sales at Hyning Hall and serving as President of the Lancaster Agricultural Society.

In effect, the money from William Bolden's slaving was 'laundered', washed clean, in a generation. The grand east window of St Oswald's at Warton, five tall panels depicting Christ and the four Gospel writers, was erected to the memory of John and Mary Bolden in 1859. The transformation of wealth from its source of 'unsavoury trade' into the dynastic buttress of 'landed gentry', was now sealed in stained glass and holy stone.

This transition may not have been uncontested. The Chancery Court Order, already referred to, also contains indications that the Raincock step-children were dissatisfied with the "small legacies" that were their share of the merchant's estate. The Order mentions a series of "causes" or claims on William Bolden's will -- Wilding vs Bolden, Bolden vs Wilding, and Bolden vs Raincock. By this published notice, the Master of the High Court of Chancery appears to be calling on "any person or persons claiming any charge or incumbrance [sic] upon the said sum of 30,000 Pounds" to "forthwith, by their Solicitors...come in and establish their claims before the said Master, at his Chambers". (18)

These claims in 1828, even if successful, cannot have resulted in too great a drain on the Leonard/Bolden family's resources. In 1838 the Boldens, apparently well established and still financially secure, sent forth four sons to the Australian colonies to become 'squatters on a big scale'. Accompanying the brothers was the 400 Pound stud bull Musselman, three stud cows, and investment capital of 8,000 Pounds (at least). The idea was to found a Bolden 'branch-line', a colonial dynasty based on vast holdings of land, great herds of purebred cattle, and the 'ancestral heritage' of Hyning Hall.

The Bolden Brothers' confidence, bordering on arrogance, was founded on a 'gloss' of convenient half-truth. In the end, however, the truth or otherwise of their origins were no longer the issue. By the end of 1843, in five short years, their dreams of rural dominion had well and truly foundered in a sink-hole of economic recession, over-priced cattle, and rising debt. The details of their dramatic demise are, as the saying goes, another story. Character deficiencies, remarkably poor timing, and sudden deaths, all no doubt played their part. Perhaps though, it is not altogether unfitting that some of the ill-gotten gains of one generation's slaving could so rapidly disappear in the ambitiously expansionist phase of the next.


NOTES
(1) MM Schofield, 1964, 'The Virginia Trade of the Firm of Sparling and Bolden of Liverpool, 1788-99', The Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol. 116, pp. 117-8
(2) As above
(3) As above
(4) David Pope, 2007, 'The Wealth and Social Aspirations of Liverpool's Slave Merchants of the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century', in Richardson, Schwarz & Tibbles (eds.), 2010, Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, Liverpool University Press, p. 208
(5) Jane Longmore, 'Rural retreats: Liverpool slave traders and their country houses', in Dresser & Ham (eds.), Slavery and the British Country House, Swindon UK, English Heritage, p. 43
(6) The London Gazette, July 1 - Dec 30, 1828, [1444]
(7) The National Archives Currency Converter (2015), <www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/results.asp#mid>
(8) Measuring Worth 2015, <https://www.measuringworth.com/calculator/ukcompare/relativevalue/php>
(9) MM Schofield 1964, pp. 162, 165
(10) Lancashire Online Parish Clerks, St Thomas Parish register, Marriages 1754-1775, page 138, entry 5, <www.lan-opc.org.uk>
(11) Jane Longmore, p. 47
(12) Gomer Williams, 2000 [1897], History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque, With an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, p. 93
(13) Sir Bernard Burke, 1879, The Landed Gentry: A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, 6th edition, Volume 1, p. 15
(14) The Gazette, Feb 8, 1800
(15) Burke's Landed Gentry, p. 15
(16) Ed Benis, 2015, 'The Hyning Research Report', Lancashire County Council, p. 10
(17) Edward Baines, 1836, History of the County-Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster, at <www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol18/pp161-165>
(18) London Gazette [1444], as above
 



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