Siân Davies (Edinburgh) on the Pennant family and the labour history of their estates in North Wales and Jamaica c1780-c1900

The Pennant family owned and managed sugar plantations in Jamaica, worked on by enslaved, indentured and later free labourers. From the 1780s onwards the family also ran Penrhyn Quarry in North Wales.

The Penrhyn Quarry lockout from 1900-1903 is notorious in the area. I knew from a young age that members of the community still resented the Pennant name for their treatment of the quarrying community. It was not until university that I learnt about the family’s exploitation of enslaved, indentured, and free labourers in Jamaica. My ESRC funded PhD project looks at the Pennant family and the development of these disparate but connected sites of labour together, focusing on the period from the end of the eighteenth century, when Richard Pennant, with the profits of slavery invested in North Wales’s industrialisation, to the beginning of the twentieth century. Using a global approach to labour history, my research considers the impact developments in Jamaica and North Wales had on each other to present the reality of an entangled history.

Landscape of green fields with sugar cane growing. In the middle distance are a few trees, and in the background green hills.
Sugar cane near Thomas River, Pennants, Clarendon.

I have been to Penrhyn Quarry many times, walked in the surrounding area and, with the benefit of my parents living forty minutes from Bangor University, conducted archival research looking at the family’s papers held there. These papers relate to the family’s management of their plantations in Jamaica and Penrhyn Quarry in North Wales. However, many documents related to the Pennants are held in Jamaica.

With a generous bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History I was recently able to stay on in Jamaica for an extra week following my participation in the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Leicester’s (UoL) fantastic international summer school. SSLH’s funding allowed me to visit the National Archives, the National Library and some of the locations of my PhD research in Clarendon.

To the left is a modern-looking two storey building, and to the right a white cupola style building with tiled roof. There is a large palm tree in the centre of the image, and blue skies.
Spanish Town Archives.

Unfortunately, just a week before my departure the Island Record Office, which houses government records including wills and deeds, closed its doors to researchers as a precautionary measure in the face of rising COVID-19 cases.

However, at the National Archives in Spanish Town, I was able to consult manumission records, inventories, records of land grants and the official crop accounts and returns for the Pennant plantations. Looking at the crop accounts in conjunction with accounts held at Bangor University I have been able to consider the changing rates of production on the Pennant family’s plantations. In 1807, when Richard Pennant had consolidated the old and new works into one larger plantation, around 350 enslaved workers made 301 Hogsheads of sugar at the Denbigh site. In 1882, 96 indentured labourers and 250 free labourers produced 386 Hogsheads of sugar at Denbigh. Following emancipation, the Pennant family eventually benefitted from production rates like those during the period of slavery by undercutting the wage demands of those freed and their descendants with the re-introduction of indentured labour on their plantations. I am hoping to continue working with these records to track the changes taking place in Jamaica alongside developments at Penrhyn Quarry.

As well as looking at archival material I also felt it was important to visit the locations where the labour I am studying took place. I was able to visit the Denbigh Show Ground in Clarendon, which once made-up part of the Pennants’ Denbigh plantation. I am grateful to Estelina Campbell, the grounds manager, who told me about the history of the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the Denbigh Show. I then travelled to Pennants, north of Denbigh also in Clarendon parish. Seeing the Pennant name on road signs, shop fronts and churches in this area was extremely powerful.

At the centre of the picture is a bus shelter with the words ‘Pennants Square’ painted along the top. In the background there are palm trees.
Pennants, Clarendon.

The time I spent in Jamaica was invaluable not only for the information I was able to access in the archives, but also because of the impact it has had on me as a researcher. Jamaica is no longer a place that I can only consider from a distance, but a place I am lucky to have experienced in person. I hope to return in the process of my PhD to visit the IRO, go back to the National Archives in Spanish Town and spend more time in this place so deeply connected to the labour history of North Wales and Britain.

Many thanks to the extremely helpful and kind archivists at Spanish Town Archives, and to the SSLH for their bursary which made this research trip possible.

Siân Davies is an Economic and Social History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

Find out more about bursaries on offer from the Society for the Study of Labour History.