Who Owns Dorset?

“The Wall”

When our children were young, every year we’d drive to Devon or Cornwall for a camping holiday. On our way west, we’d pass what I called “the wall” as we drove from Wimborne to Bere Regis.

I’d marvel at the length of this wall, and at the high archway with its statue of a stag – I’d wonder who lived behind that wall, and what was to be found there.

I could see the tops of trees, and through another grand gateway, just before the one with the stag, I could sometimes, if I was quick enough, catch a glimpse of a driveway flanked with statues of classical figures.

I now know that this wall is the boundary of Charborough Park, the estate owned by Richard Drax – whom Nick Hayes in his recent book, “The Book of Trespass”, (1) describes as the “current MP for South Dorset and serial hoarder of syllables, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle Drax”.

The Barbados connection

Richard Drax’s family derived its wealth from sugar plantations in Barbados worked by black slaves. His ancestors pioneered the use of African slaves rather than white indentured servants – one of them wrote a manual entitled: “Instructions for the management of a plantation in Barbadoes (sic) and for the treatment of negroes”.

In 1836 his ancestor John Sawbridge Erle Drax was paid the equivalent of £3m for his 189 slaves following, the 1833 Act abolishing slavery.

The University College London Slave Owners Legacy Website (2) sets out in detail the extent of the Drax family’s slave holdings in Barbados, also providing information about family members, their marriages, and the offices they held on the island.

In 2010, during the General Election Campaign, The Mirror wrote that Richard Drax’s ancestors had earned their fortune on slavery.

In response, Drax replied in the Dorset Echo that: ‘I can’t be held responsible for something that happened 300 or 400 years ago. They are using the old class thing and that is not what this election is about, it’s not what I stand for, and I ignore it…I think it shows how desperate they are if all they can do is pick at bits of my family history.’ “(3)

Nick Hayes notes, however, “(Richard Drax) still owns the original sugar plantation in Barbados, and visits his Jacobean manor house there every year”

One sixth of Dorset owned by 10 landowners

Perhaps, therefore, it should come as no surprise that Richard Drax is a very substantial Dorset landowner, Number 2 in the Top 10 landowners of Dorset, his Charborough Park Estate comprising 13,870 acres.

The website: whoownsengland.org (2020) lists the 10 landowners who between them own 103,901 acres out of the total 655,570 acres which comprise Dorset.

Among these landowners are: Viscount Rothermere (4,700 acres): the Pitt-Rivers family (7,500 acres): the Marquess of Salisbury (7,796 acres) and Crichel Dorset Holdings / Richard Chilton, American billionaire, CEO Chilton Investment Company, a global investment management firm (7,932 acres).

In sum, these ten landowners own 15.8% of Dorset.

Gary Shrubsole in his book, “Who Owns England”, argues that landowners still play a major part in British Politics. He makes reference to Richard Benyon, current owner of the Englefield estate (in receipt of £278,180 taxpayer funded farm subsidies), the richest of “the current crop of Conservative MPs”, with an estimated wealth of £110m.

He also makes reference to Richard Drax. The Guardian reviewer of Gary Shrubsole’s book writes:

“Another competitor for this title (of being the richest Conservative MP) is Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle Drax … an ardent Brexiter … (who) owns the Charborough estate … bounded by the longest wall in England, made up of 2m bricks; the public get to look beyond the wall for two days a year, when tea and cake is served to locals”. (4)

Richard Drax in 2017 received £411,000 in farm subsidies. (5)

Nick Hayes climbs the wall

In 2016, the writer and activist, Nick Hayes did something I have always longed to do – he climbed “longest wall in England” (6) and ventured into the 7,000 acres of Charborough Park.

Nick Hayes points out that Charborough House was built by Richard Drax’s ancestor, John  Sawbridge, who married into the Drax family, and was able to finance the build following a wind-fall from his sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean.

Charborough House as not the only country house built upon the profits of slavery: it is estimated that one sixth of all Britain’s country houses were bought from the ill-gotten gains of enslavement. (7)

Neighbours of the Drax’s included families similarly enriched by slavery: the Beckfords (8) at Fonthill, 35 miles away from Charborough, and the Codringtons at Doddington Park.

Wealth accrued from slavery enabled the Drax family to consolidate its position in through strategic marriages in Jamaica and England – hence the swelling of the surname, which Nick Hayes comments upon – to become one of the major dynasties in the south west of England.

The big picture

The picture of landownership in Dorset is replicated on a national level. Half of England is owned by 25,000 landowners – less than 1% of its population.

A third of Great Britain is still owned by the aristocracy: 24 non royal dukes own almost 4m acres. Offshore companies in 2015 owned 490,000 acres of England and Wales. (9)

A long shadow

At the Tolpuddle Festival in 2018, I bought a T shirt commemorating The Diggers – a group of radical thinkers who emerged from deference and silence during the English Civil War, along with another group of equally radical thinkers, The Levellers.

Both groups poured scorn upon the ownership of land, power and privilege by aristocratic landowners.

Their ideas, surely, are still resonant today.

I think of what Thomas Rainsborough said in the Putney Debates in 1647: “I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee”. (10)

(1) “The Book of Trespass”, Nick Hayes, Bloomsbury, 2020, Sunday Times bestseller

(2) Legacies of British Slave Ownership: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

(3) See Note 2

(4) The Guardian, 28 April 2019

(5) The Guardian, 27 January 2019

(6) Nick Hayes, Daily Telegraph, 19 August 2020, article, “A Very English Theft: How the Countryside was taken from the public, using profits from slavery” (a summary of the article can be found here)

(7) The Guardian, 9 August 2020, Rachel Cooke, “Forgive us our trespasses: forbidden rambles with a right to roam campaigner”

(8) See Note 6

(9) See Note 7

(10) Putney Debates Record Book, Worcester College, Oxford, MS 65


Chris Bradey, October 2020