House by the River

“A rich and very well researched account of a Devon country house and the fascinating people across three and a half centuries who have lived in it. In this highly readable study, Malcolm Cross comprehensively explores three successive families’ historic links to slavery in Jamaica, to antisemitism in Britain and to British high society and politics.”

Gad Heuman Professor of History, University of Warwick, and editor of Slavery & Abolition journal

A House by the River

West Indian Wealth in West Devon: Money, Sex and Power over Three Centuries

Malcolm Cross

Maristow House in West Devon has a rich, remarkable yet little-known history. In the seventeenth century two sons from a family of Exeter merchants helped establish the sugar plantations of Jamaica and the resulting trade in African slaves. One became the island’s governor while the other married the daughter of a Civil War hero and one of the first owners of the house. His Jamaican grandson took over the estate in the 1730s and produced an heir who rebuilt the mansion to reflect the style and architecture of Georgian England. 

These changes were paid for largely by the proceeds of slave plantations, even though this family never visited the source of their wealth. Instead, they frequented he fashionable salons of Bath and London arranging the marriages of their four daughters. The eldest, Sophia, married off against her will to an immensely rich but boring husband, spent all her adult life in the fashion-conscious court of the Prince of Wales. Another sister helped to save the life of a distant member of the family indicted as a mutineer on the infamous HMS Bounty. 

Finally, the house and its thousands of acres were bought by another West Indian, this time from a family of successful financiers and traders. Their Jewish heritage placed obstacles in their path but despite widespread antisemitism the buyer created an astonishing political career in the House of Commons and played an important role in the career of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Equally remarkably, Manasseh Lopes, despite having no children of his own, founded a dynasty of successful men and women who to this day are close to Britain’s royal family. 

Slave-generated wealth impacted both urban and rural areas of Britain. Many of the country’s finest country houses owe their origins to this wellspring of money. What this book reveals is that even in one house, this wealth fuelled an extraordinary range of political and cultural activity. Maristow House, as Malcolm Cross explains, remains a portal through which to appreciate economic and social change on a much larger canvas.  

Malcolm Cross is a social and economic historian whose early research was on the Caribbean where he taught at the University of the West Indies. More recently he has specialised in writing on the West Country where he lives. 

£25 hardback

Buy now

320pp, 50 colour illus

March 2022

ISBN: 9781838463007