Published: 06:00, 25 October 2020
An extraordinary act by a vicar from Kent to ensure he profited from the slave trade reveals an incredible secret hidden for decades.
Rev Benjamin Winston, who was vicar in Farningham for 30 years during the 19th century, inherited hundreds of slaves on the plantation his grandfather owned in the Caribbean.
New research investigating extensive links to slavery has found the reverend changed his name to make sure he benefitted in his grandfather's will.
Records in 1823 show the family's two estates, Bath and Rose Hill, in Dominica owned 179 slaves.
Nine years later, in 1832, the year before slavery was abolished, this had fallen to 144. Records note six slaves had escaped and were presumed dead.
The shocking story - unveiled as part of a history project in Wales - is just one example of one of the biggest misconceptions in British history.
For decades, the perception slave ownership was only connected to the aristocracy and upper classes is being broken down as more research uncovers just how many members of society were in fact slave owners filtering to the middle classes.
But records in the national archives show thousands of regular people - even widows - made money on the back of selling and owning people's lives.
When slavery was abolished in 1833, the government drew up lists of every slave owner in the country who unbelievably were able to claim compensation for their loss of property.
The books outline 40,000 people from a wide cross-section in Britain who were entitled to payments totalling £20 million - the equivalent to £1.5bn in today's money - when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1837.
Born in Liverpool in 1786, Rev Winston was educated at Harrow School and clearly from a wealthy background. But the fact he was a clergyman shows how widespread across society slavery was embedded in British society by the 1800s.
He was known as Rev Benjamin Sandford when he was priest in Farningham from 1816 to 1846.
But three years before moving to Kent, he had changed his name from Benjamin Sandford to Charles Winston on the request of his maternal grandfather of the same name, a former attorney-general of Dominica who died in 1802, in order to accept his inheritance.
The estates passed to his mother, Rebecca, until she died in 1813 when Sandford changed his name.
Despite his faith, the vicar saw no irony in making money from slavery which conveniently was not recognised by the church as contradicting Christian values.
He appears not to have adopted his new name during his ministry in Farningham.
Records refer to Rev Benjamin Sandford in many documents from his time in Kent including a sermon from April 1825 on the "vice of gaming".
In an entry from parish records of the same year, the reverend praised the efforts of villagers following a fire in Button Street after "raising a subscription for five labourers" after their homes had been gutted by a fire on Saturday despite it being the Sabbath as it was "in the cause of charity".
On the reverse of the appeal, the reverend later wrote: "By 11 o'clock on Sunday morning the subscription amounted to £32.18.5!!! Well done, Farningham. Farningham for ever! Huzza!!"
'It's unlikely that many vicars went as far as changing their names in order to inherit estates with slaves...'
In 1830, the reverend's concerns during riots showed a disdain for farm workers in comments urging the government to "take the lead and sanction the arming of the Bourgeois classes" before pointing to revolutions throughout Europe that year.
From Kent, Rev Winston moved to Rhyl in north Wales where he died in 1866, aged 81. He is buried with his mother in the graveyard at his former parish church in Farningham.
Historians working on a project in Wales telling the stories of buildings and the people who lived there say Rev Winston changing his name was a rare incident.
It's also believed it was a dark secret which had not been talked about for generations.
There was no mention of slaves in Rev Winston's obituary or that of his son, Thomas, who earlier in his working life was a clerk for his uncle's business which owned further plantations in St Kitts, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands. His other son, named Charles Winston per the demands in Rev Winston's grandfather's will, became a successful barrister.
He had become a local celebrity as the Rhyl's first railway station master who supported many local charitable causes and died "a gentleman".
The vicar's past is part of the HistoryPoints and Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave Ownership research telling stories of the places which still exist today and paid for by slavery.
Rhodri Clark, editor of the HistoryPoints website, said: “Rev Winston was far from alone as a member of the clergy who preached the Gospel while benefitting from ownership of slaves, but it’s unlikely that many vicars went as far as changing their names in order to inherit estates with slaves.”
The team took an interest in Winston because he lived in the Welsh town and the reverend became a revered part of the community during his latter years.
Census records from 1851 show 64-year-old Winston living in Rhyl with his wife Ann, whom he married five years earlier - the same year he left Farningham.
In 1861, records show he had moved to a house called Bodannerch. He was the first owner of the house which remained his home until he died.
The house, which was largely demolished in the 1990s, is now used as a foot clinic.
New QR codes compatible with smartphones takes people to the website which tells Rev Winston's background.
Rachel Lang, from the Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave-ownership, added: "The legacies of colonial slavery are all around us, from the houses built using the proceeds of slave ownership to the challenges we face today in overcoming the deep-rooted racist policies we upheld for so long.
"This is a history we have all been shaped by, albeit unequally.”