Richard Drax and the Drax Dynasty – from Barbados to Dorset

Paul Lashmar talks to Dorset Stand up to Racism, 19 May 2022

Grafton Straker, Co-Chair of Dorset Stand up to Racism, introduced Paul Lashmar, Dorset resident, investigative journalist, and academic at City University, London, to an audience of over 100, hailing from all over the United Kingdom as well as from Barbados.

Grafton was born in Barbados, moving to England as a young man, and lives and works in Dorset.

Grafton reminded us that Richard Drax is the wealthiest landowning MP in the House of Commons, owning thousands of acres of land in Dorset and elsewhere.

The Drax story – from past to present

Paul began his talk by saying he was “coming from the 17th Century” – he was researching the history of the Drax Dynasty and uncovering the origins of its wealth and property.

Paul entitled his talk: “Charborough and Drax Hall: Control, Ownership and Resistance”, and said that he intended to make clear the links between those two Drax Properties – one in Dorset, one in Barbados.

We saw a photograph of Drax astride a powerful BMW motorbike (“I believe he owns more than one”) and sharing an ice cream with Rees-Mogg.

“Doesn’t he know something about Slavery”?

Paul said he first began thinking of Richard Drax at the time of Black Lives Matter. He drove past the estate wall of Charborough Park (“the Great Wall of Dorset”) and thought: “doesn’t he know something about slavery? Doesn’t his family have something to do with it”?

This spurred on two years of investigation with a journalist colleague, Jonathon Smith.

Paul said he had started by looking at Richard Drax’s entries in the Register of Members’ Interests – there was hardly anything there.

This further provoked Paul’s interest – why was this?

Drax Hall

Jonathon discovered in Barbados that Richard Drax was the owner of Drax Hall.

This Paul, said, was significant for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there was the fact that in 1627, one James Drax, Richard Drax’s ancestor, arrived in Barbados to set up a sugar plantation – one of the first on the island.

James Drax also, very significantly, said Paul, “was involved in the invention of Chattel Slavery” – an evil which “has reverberated down through the years”.

Paul and Jonathon published their findings in The Observer and The Guardian. The Drax Hall Plantation has been in the hands of the Drax family for 400 years. Other stories published related to the extent of Richard Drax’s wealth, although a plethora of private trusts made this difficult to accurately ascertain.

Paul made the point that the Drax family is the only British family still retaining ownership of a plantation established in the era of Trans-Atlantic Slavery.

For the last 18 months, Paul said he had been uncovering the story of the Drax family. He was now writing Chapter 5 and had reached the 17th Century.

Resentment building

Paul made the point that if Drax thought that the issue of restitution and reparation had gone away, then he was sadly mistaken. Paul referred to the recent visit by Prince William and his wife to Barbados. Images from that trip were “reminiscent of the 1950s”. School children were having their hands shaken through a wire fence: the royal couple were pictured standing at “the back of a land rover in full regalia”.

Paul visits Drax Hall

Paul recently went to Barbados, to see his colleague, Jonathon, and took the opportunity to see Drax Hall, which is located in the parish of St George.

Paul was soon made aware – through talking to Barbadians – that there was “growing sense of resentment” over the issue of reparations. There was determination that this issue be addressed. There was resentment, too, over “the role of the British Empire in Slavery”.

Paul had “a very interesting conversation” with a hundred-year-old man who was born on the Drax Hall estate. He was told that the “the apartheid in Barbados was worse than that in South Africa”.

We then saw a photograph of Charborough House, built 1655-60, by Sir Walter Erle.

Paul noted that Richard Drax’s full name is Richard Grosvenor Plunket Ernle Erle Drax.

Paul said how in the 17th Century there was “this enormous estate in Dorset”, with the land worked mostly by tenant farmers. The landed gentry, Paul pointed out, “rented out” their land – they didn’t work it themselves.

A cruel history

In Barbados, around Drax Hall, “there were sugar plantations”, worked by enslaved peoples from Africa. They had been taken from their homes, had crossed the Atlantic shackled in slave ships, been branded, were subject to “appalling” conditions on plantations, and were chattel slaves, owned “in perpetuity”.

Chattel Slavery was an “extraordinary barbaric notion” – the offspring of any slave, from generation to generation, would remain a slave.

The working life of a slave on a plantation was 3 – 5 years – “they were then replenished”. The work was demanding and dangerous – especially in the Sugar Boiling Houses”. Paul said that in March, when he visited Barbados, the temperatures were already such that he would be unable to tolerate working in a cane field.

Slaves were beaten, sexually abused and executed for minor infractions in cruel ways – as documented in detail by the work of historians such as Sir Hilary Beckles.

Any form of resistance was punishable by death.

Paul summarised the factors at play, in Dorset and Barbados, as those of racism, class, gender, economics, politics, religion, morality and the law.

Racism, Paul said, enabled the slave owners to say that their slaves were “subhuman”. “There were bans on allowing African slaves to become Christians” – if they became Christians, then they “would be raised to the level of human beings and have to be treated as such”.

The Erles

Paul showed us a map showing the location of the Charborough Estate in Dorset. A separate detailed map showed the land owned by different Drax Family Trusts. The precise details of ownership and beneficiaries are obscured because of the nature of these Trusts.

Richard Drax owns, in total, 23 square miles of Land in South Dorset.

Paul then told us the results of his research into the Erles. The Erles were a Devon family originally, and moved into Charborough in the 1540’s. We saw a statue of Thomas Erle, which adorns the church at Morden, within the Charborough Estate.

Paul showed us a map illustrating the seats of the Erle family in Devon and Dorset.

The Erles consolidated their power in Dorset with what they termed “public duty”.

Walter Erle I (c1520 – 1587) was a servant in the court of King Henry VIII. 3 Early Music Historians said Paul have written about him. He was assigned to the courts of Henry’s various Queens, and to the court of King Edward VI – somehow surviving all of the changes in religion.

Walter, was, apparently, a “very good player of the virginals”. He bought land in Devon and Dorset and established himself at Charborough.

Sir Walter Erle II (1588-1650) was a Puritan and served in his younger years as a soldier in the Low Countries. His fundamentalist approach to religion had a later echo in the staunchly Anglican sentiments of his descendants.

From Sir Walter Erle II’s time we see the Drax family embedding its power and control in South Dorset – members of the family are MPs, JPs, militia officers, commissioners and Lords of the Manor. They appoint the clergy to the Livings they hold. These clergymen uphold and justify the authority and privilege of the Drax family.

Control and entitlement

As landowners, the members of the Drax family have “tremendous control” over working people in the Dorset countryside.

The landed gentry were at the apex of the social and economic system. As MPs, the Drax’s legislated and voted for their own interests.


This was seen especially in the matter of “enclosures”. Landowners enclosed the “common land” which previously had been exploited by the rural working population. They would gather timber, for example, on common land, or graze livestock there.

Sir Walter Erle II probably inherited 11,000 acres in Dorset and Devon. He was sufficiently wealthy enough by 1665 to rebuild and extend Charborough House, which had been burnt down in the English Civil War by Royalist Forces.

Sir Walter, therefore, was a local magnate of very significant interest and power.

Enclosures started nationally in the 16th Century, not without resistance from those who lost access to land which their ancestors had enjoyed for hundreds of years – for example, in the “Western Rising”, which took place from 1626 to 1632.

The History of Parliament notes that one of the offices held by Sir Walter Erle II was to effect the suppression of Enclosure Riots in Dorset in 1643.

Deprived of their use of Common Land, rural working people were let completely dependent upon the low wages they earned working on the land.

Paul explained how Enclosures were a factor in the English Civil War.

Paul then gave some examples of Enclosures carried out by the Drax’s – for example, that at Morden in 1695.

James Drax and the Slave Code

Paul then took the story back to James Drax (1609-1662). James and his brother were on the first settler ship to Barbados. They cleared land and established the Drax Hall Plantation. At its peak, the Plantation comprised 1,000 acres – it now comprises 621 acres.

The Plantation still grows sugar. The house is the oldest residential building in the Americas, dating back to 1640. We saw a map of the Plantation, and photographs of the house and its outbuildings, taken by Jonathon.

Sir James Drax was one of the leading planters on the island behind the formulation of the 1661 Barbados Slave Code (although by that time he had returned to England) – which established the principle of “Chattel Slavery”.

By 1640, the work force in Barbados is one of enslaved people. The status of slaves as “property” was reinforced and established by the 1661 Code.


The Drax’s owned slaves from 1630 to 1834. They were absentee owners in Barbados after the 1690s. They owned another, larger, Plantation in Jamaica for 100 years. In their absence, their Plantations were run by Attorneys, estate managers and overseers.

The Drax’s distanced themselves from the source of their wealth.

In 1807, the Slave Trade was abolished within the British Empire. The owner of Charborough Hall at that time was Richard Erle Drax Grosvenor MP, who is reported to have been against the abolition, and to have funded was termed “The interest”. He died in 1820.

The Drax family by this time had married into the Erle family.

Rebellion in Barbados

There was resistance in Barbados to Slavery – Bussa’s Rebellion of 1816 being still remembered and commemorated there.

The Rebellion stared on Easter Sunday Night, April 14, 1816, in St Philip Parish. It quickly spread to neighbouring parishes. Sugar cane fields were set alight. In the first days of the Rebellion, over 70 estates were affected, white owners and overseers taking refuge in Bridgetown, the capital.

One white civilian and one black soldier were killed during the fighting – 50 enslaved people were killed and 70 were executed in the field, with 300 being taken to Bridgetown for trial.

Sir James Leith, the Governor, reported that by September 1816, 144 enslaved people had been executed.  70 people were later sentenced to death, and 170 deported to other British colonies in the Caribbean.

An 1818 Report into the Rebellion shows that 69 Plantations on Barbados (there were over 400 in total) suffered damage. Drax Hall was one of the ten plantations which suffered most damage. It sustained damages valued at £4084. The greatest damage sustained by a Plantation was £10,000.


Paul asked what the “cross-over” was between Dorset and Barbados. Paul answered by saying the Plantation owners “amplified” what they were doing in England – and the Drax’s in Dorset – “to the point of a barbaric system”.

Paul would now be looking at “Captain Swing”, the rural riots of the 1830’s.

Paul pointed out that in 1834, with the Abolition of Slavery itself, the Drax family received a “considerable” sum in compensation for their 189 slaves.

There was no compensation granted to the slaves or any reparation made on behalf of those generations of slaves who had suffered and died on the Plantations.