Chronicles:  The Sewell Family 2 – Henry Sewell of Jamaica and Steephill Castle

Last week I described how Thomas Sewell arrived in the Isle of Wight and raised a family who grew up to become clergymen, politicians and teachers.   This week we tell the story of Thomas’s nephew, William, who made his fortune in Jamaica and whose son, Henry, bought Steephill Castle in 1887.

William Sewell was orphaned at an early age, and left Cumberland for the West Indies around 1820, possibly to join his cousin Robert Moses;   Jamaica in the early eighteenth century was a place where a young Englishman could make a fortune, and William found work on sugar plantations as an overseer, and later as a book-keeper on the Knocklava Estate. But the climate was punishing; few women made the journey from England, and William, like many other Englishmen, formed a liaison with a local Creole woman, Mary McCrea, a former slave. When his employer, Colonel Neil Malcolm, ordered him to end the relationship, William walked out, taking Mary and their two children, Elizabeth and Henry, and opening a shop in a small town nearby, selling rum along with other supplies.

Although reputedly a forceful and short-tempered man, William clearly had a good head for business.  Jamaican slaves had been emancipated in 1838 (the year his son Henry was born), and many plantation owners believed that with the ending of slave labour the glory days of fortunes made from Jamaican sugar were over. Estates, often owned by absentee landlords, could be bought very cheaply, and William raised money to buy one after another, establishing an empire based on his own financial acumen rather than slave labour.  By the time his son Henry was twelve he was being educated at a private school in England, his father a very wealthy man. William Sewell died in Jamaica in 1872 having spent his life amassing a fortune – which his son Henry then spent his life pleasurably spending.

Henry married Margaret Crowther, the daughter of a wealthy Cumberland businessman, and they had six children.  The family spent their time between Britain and their Jamaican estate, Arcadia.  They had a large house in Wales, on the edge of Snowdonia, where some of the children were born but in September 1887 they bought Steephill Castle from Major Dudley Hambrough, who was moving to the mainland. The sale of Steephill Castle included all the fittings of the castle and grounds, and also many of the important pieces of furniture in the drawing room, library and dining room – it was a very well-appointed residence.

But although Henry was distantly related to the Sewell family of Bonchurch, they seem not to have met or socialised – perhaps they had lost touch – Montague Owen in his book The Sewells of the Isle of Wight suggests that there was an old family rift over a will.  Or perhaps Henry’s Jamaican heritage had something to do with it.

The photograph here of Henry Sewell and his family was probably taken in the early 1890s at Steephill Castle.  It is curiously posed, with Henry looking down at his son Horace and wife Margaret looking out of the picture, while the children stare straight at the photographer. Henry died in Arcadia in Jamaica in 1906; he was described then as Henry Sewell of Steephill Castle, Isle of Wight and Arcadia, Jamaica although Steephill had been sold to John Morgan Richards in 1903.

His children were well provided for, although only Horace (standing beside his father in the family group) had a notable career.   Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, in 1900 he  joined the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, where  his regimental nickname was ‘Sambo’; the youngest British cavalry general in the Great War, as well as one of the most distinguished, he was mentioned in dispatches five times, awarded the DSO as well as the Légion d’Honneur, and in WW2 served as a Brigadier General attached to the British Information Service in New York.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society, with thanks to James Rayner, whose book The Isle of Wight’s Missing Chapter includes the story of Henry Sewell, and is available to buy in the Ventnor Heritage Centre. Other sources  include information in our archives, The Sewells of the Isle of Wight  by Montague Charles Owen, and for family history information and photographs.