St Arvans Church, 24 Wyndcliffe View, St Arvans, Chepstow NP16 6ET
A memorial to Nathaniel Wells in the ancient church of St Arvans is like most others commemorating a worthy local citizen, one who had even sponsored the church’s distinctive octagonal tower. It mentions that he was the Deputy Lieutenant for Monmouth and a magistrate, and that he predeceased his second wife, Esther. However, it doesn’t mention that he was born a slave and, through inheritance, had once been the wealthiest black man in Britain. Nor does it mention that he owned a large number of slaves, and received substantial reparations from the British government for loss of ‘property’ when slave ownership in British colonies was abolished in 1833.
The story of Nathaniel Wells is remarkable. His father, William Wells (1730-94), was born into a wealthy Cardiff family. He emigrated to St Kitts, where he became a very wealthy plantation owner and slave trader. His wife died shortly after they arrived in St Kitts, and he began to have children by his slaves, all of whom were said to have been well-treated and given manumission. Nathaniel, his heir, was born in 1779.
At the age of ten, his father sent Nathaniel to London to be educated and prepared for admittance to Oxford University. This all changed in 1794 when William died and left the majority of his estate to “my natural and dear son Nathaniel Wells whose mother is my woman Juggy”. His inheritance included three sugar plantations, £120,000, and 146 slaves.
Nathaniel never returned to St Kitts, but continued as an absentee landlord of his estates until his death. In 1801 he married Harriett Este, the daughter of George II’s former royal chaplain. In 1802, he bought the Piercefield estate in the Wye Valley for the considerable sum of £90,000, and thereafter became active in the life of Monmouthshire. His late father’s wealth and connections ensured that his colour and illegitimacy were apparently ignored. He was the church warden of St Arvan’s church for forty years and a respected magistrate. On 24 January, 1818, he became Britain’s first black High Sheriff when he was appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire by the Prince Regent. In 1820, he was commissioned as lieutenant in the Chepstow Troop of the Gloucestershire Yeomanry Cavalry, becoming the second black person to hold a commission in the Armed Forces of the Crown. He was active in breaking picket lines during the strikes by Welsh coal miners in 1822. Wells resigned his commission at the end of 1822 after the strikers were forcefully overcome.
No portrait of him survives. However, the landscape artist, Joseph Farington, wrote in his diary in 1803 that “Mr Wells is a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro”.
After the death of his first wife, Harriet, in 1820, he went on to marry his second wife, Esther, in 1823. Her sister married the eldest son of William Wilberforce. He fathered at least twenty children. In failing health, he moved to Bath to partake of the healing waters, and died there in 1852. Unfortunately, his grave does not appear to have survived. His considerable estate was divided between his numerous offspring. Piercefield House is now in ruins, and the extensive grounds lie under Chepstow racecourse.
It is not known what his attitudes were towards slavery. Although he did grant manumission to a number of slaves shortly after his father’s death, these were relatives of his mother, latterly known as Joardine Wells. When abolitionists drew attention to the extreme cruelty meted out by one of his overseers, it appears he made no effort through the courts to have these claims censored. Following the abolition of slavery in 1833, he was duly compensated by HM Treasury for 86 slaves.
To the memory of
NATHANIEL WELLS, OF PIERCEFIELD, ESQ.
Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant
of the County of Monmouth,
who died at Bath May 13th, 1852,
Aged 72 years.
Also of ESTHER, widow of the above, who died
on the 1st day of June 1871, age 67 years.