Llanelli and the Slave Trade

Sir John Stepney Cowell

This summer [2007] sees the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The anniversary is being marked by a series of major exhibitions and events all over the country, by a film about the life of William Wilberforce, and by apologies from the government for the pain caused by the trade. There has been particular angst in Bristol and Liverpool, both of which owed their prosperity to the profits from the trade. Llanelli would seem to be untouched by all of this, but in fact, the town does have an indirect connection to the grim days of slavery.

Sir John Cowell Stepney, owner of the Stepney estate (which covered much of the present-day town centre) from 1857 to 1877, was one of the men largely responsible for the development of Llanelli into a major industrial town. His father, General Andrew Cowell – whose portrait hangs in Park Howard museum – was the son of Benjamin Cowell, a London surgeon, and his wife, Ann Arcedeckne (pronounced Archdeacon). The Arcedecknes were an Anglo-Irish family who had settled in Suffolk, but in the middle of the eighteenth century they owned extensive estates in Jamaica, which inevitably meant that they also owned large numbers of slaves there – over 500 in the 1750s. Benjamin Cowell was a close business associate of his brother-in-law Chaloner Arcedeckne, whose main plantation on Jamaica was coincidentally named Golden Grove, and Benjamin seems to have arranged much of the insurance for the sugar cargoes that Chaloner was shipping from Jamaica to England. Benjamin Cowell also owned slaves of his own. His will makes this clear, as he states that ‘I am possessed of several negro and other slaves, men, women and children, in the island of Jamaica’. The mansion that he had purchased in Berkshire must have been paid for in part by his Jamaican income, and a Llanelli street and former school are named after the village where it stood: Coleshill. When he died in 1780, Benjamin bequeathed his slaves firstly to his wife Ann, who died in 1823, and then to his son Andrew, the general, so at least some of the inheritance that eventually descended to Sir John Stepney must have come from the proceeds of slavery. Sir John was a keen genealogist and was well aware of who his ancestors were, so he must have been equally aware of how they had made their money. That he was not ashamed of this slave-owning past is suggested by the fact that he named a Llanelli street after the Suffolk home of the Arcedecknes, Glevering Hall. So even though Llanelli may have had few direct connections to the slave trade, it was certainly not unconnected to an episode in history that remains very controversial to this day.

Picture by courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museum Service

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