Thomas Place, Freed Jamaican Slave


Most of us, in the course of our research, will have encountered someone’s name in the records and wished to know more about them and the life they led. Therefore, it is a true pleasure when items discovered among a collection shed considerably more light on circumstances and events experienced by a person or persons. A small, neat bundle of documents within the Jervaulx Abbey Estate collection [ZJX I 2/27] does just that – with some significant revelations.

ZJX I 2/27/1-9  ‘Bundle 41’ Title deeds relating to property in Newton-le-Willows

A conveyance of land in Newton-le-Willows, 1849

The original handwritten label adorning bundle “41” simply reads “3 acres, 1 rood, 6 perches at Newton-le-Willows; Place to Ailesbury Trustees, 1769-1849”. Enclosed is a copy of the conveyance of 1849, together with other deeds relevant to the title for The Garth, Smithy Garth and Hawkeswell Garth.

ZJX I 2/27/9 Conveyance for £500: Thomas Place to the Marquis of Ailesbury, 23 October 1849

A memorial (short summary) copy is also lodged in the North Riding Registry of Deeds, stating the vendor is Thomas Place, a farmer at Sunderland Bridge (4 miles south of Durham), selling to the Marquis of Ailesbury (Charles Brudenell Bruce) for five hundred pounds.

What is impossible to glean from the conveyance and the deeds registry enrolment alone, however, is that Thomas Place was a former slave from Jamaica, whose freedom is purchased.

T Newton-le-Willows tithe apportionment and detail from the tithe map, 1838, showing Thomas Place as the owner of areas numbered 4, 5, 7 & 9 (these lands were held in trust, as Thomas was then aged only 14 years)

T Newton-le-Willows tithe map, 1838

Thomas Place

This incredible part of Thomas’s life story is revealed in the bundle’s additional paperwork accompanying the official title deeds for the property in Newton-le-Willows. These additional items appear to consolidate the vendor’s legal status, regarding completion of the transaction.  They comprise:

  • Copy certificate of the baptism of Thomas Place on 8 August 1824 at St Mary’s, Jamaica,
  • Copy certificate of the marriage of Thomas Place with Maria Coulson on 28 May 1846 at Brancepeth, County Durham.
  • Agreement for sale at £500 to Charles, Marquis of Ailesbury, of a messuage and closes in Newton le Willows, signed by Thomas Place.
  • Copy of the requisitions on title made between the Marquis of Ailesbury and Thomas Place.
  • A signed declaration made in 1849 by Thomas Robson of Oaks Row near Bishop Auckland, cousin of Thomas Place, concerning the latter’s parentage and circumstances.
  • Abstract of title, which includes a transcription of William Place’s will and testament citing his son Thomas.
  • ZJX I 2/27/3 Copy of baptism of Thomas Place, St Mary’s, Jamaica, 8 August 1824
  • ZJX I 2/27/4 Copy of the marriage entry for Thomas Place & Maria Coulson, 28 May 1846, Brancepeth, County Durham
  • ZJX I 2/27/6 Agreement for sale at £500
  • ZJX I 2/27/7 Copy of the requisitions of title: queries and replies

The declaration made by Thomas Robson in 1849 is particularly valuable for the personal details it contains relating to Thomas Place. In it, Robson states that his uncle, William Place, is the father of Thomas Place who was born a slave on the Greencastle estate in Jamaica. Thomas’s mother was a slave named Sherry Ellis, living on one of the neighbouring St Mary’s plantations to where William was a planter (born in Spennithorne, he was a spirit merchant in Bedale prior to moving to Jamaica). Though it is rich in detail regarding Thomas Place, the declaration unfortunately contains no further details of Sherry Ellis or her circumstances.

ZJX I 2/27/8   Declaration by Thomas Robson concerning his cousin, Thomas Place (30 August 1849)

Thomas Robson relates that when William Place had returned to England to live with his sister and brother-in-law at Birtley, he frequently discussed his desire to purchase the freedom of his son. William Place instructed Messrs Heslop and Stennet in Jamaica to arrange Thomas’s freedom, as well as his onward passage to England.  Young Thomas set sail to London on the ship Rawlins, though unfortunately William died before he could meet his son again. Upon arrival, Captain Marr contacted the Robson family and they next arranged for him to travel up the east coast in a steam vessel, whereupon his elder cousin, Thomas Robson (declaring), met him at Stockton-on-Tees. At the time, Thomas Place was just ten or eleven years old.

Robson describes how Thomas Place lived with his family on their farm for around 10 years. The rents and profits from the Newton-le-Willows land purchased by William in 1820 and bequeathed to Thomas, were assigned to the Robson relations for “..the maintenance, education, support and advancement in the world of his (testator’s) said son Thomas Place..” until he inherited these lands at the age of 21.

ZJX I 2/27/5  Abstract of title (1849), showing final page which states details of the will of William Place

After selling his lands at Newton-le-Willows in 1849, Thomas Place’s later years are traceable to some extent via the census returns for England and Wales. The 1851 return reveals his farm at Sunderland Bridge comprised 155 acres and he employed one man, whilst later returns record him in Bishop Auckland as variously a proprietor of horses and groom, a commission agent and a greengrocer. He and his wife Maria had at least three children: two daughters, named Sherry Ann (1848) and Maria Ellis (1849), in remembrance of Thomas’s mother, a son William Thomas who died in infancy (1852-53),* and another son James Henry Harrison (1860). Thomas is a widower at the time of the 1871 census but has remarried to someone named Jane by 1881. He died before the collection of the 1891 census, and was buried on 16 February 1891 at St Andrew’s, Bishop Auckland. Sisters Sherry Ann and Maria Ellis, who were milliners, never married and continued to reside together. Their brother James moved to Darlington and then to Hammersmith, working as a chemist’s assistant. The 1901 and 1911 census returns record him in Chiswick, Middlesex, having the same occupation and married to Edith, with two young children.

Greencastle estate, Jamaica

During Thomas Place and his mother Sherry Ellis’s time as slaves, the large coastal Greencastle estate, with its holdings at St Mary’s and St Catherine’s, was owned by the Ellis family – inherited from their Nedham relations in the mid-1730s. The principal crops were sugar and rum, although molasses, ginger, cocoa, pimento and livestock were also produced. Child slaves could start working from as young as 6 years old.

It was common practice for slaves to be assigned the surname of their owner – hence Sherry Ellis. Thomas, however, had his father’s surname from baptism, as testified by the handwritten copy of the entry in St Mary’s parish register provided by Rector William Girod.

The Ellis family dominated sugar cultivation in Jamaica until the mid-1800s, with John Ellis junior holding the three St Mary plantations from 1781 to 1839. Towards the end of his ownership, the estate ran into financial trouble – especially as the movement in England to abolish slavery gathered momentum. The Bill for the Abolition of Slavery became effective on 1 August 1834, and slaves on British-owned plantations assumed new status as ‘apprentices’ to the same masters. Not surprisingly, this system was seriously flawed, and it too was later abolished – though it was not until 1 August 1838 that slaves finally attained unrestricted freedom.

Documents consulted:

Jervaulx Abbey Estate collection: Title Deeds, Bruce family purchases

ZJX I 2/27/1-9   Property in Newton-le-Willows, purchased by Charles Brudenell Bruce from Thomas Place in 1849

* Thanks to Audrey Dewjee for supplying details of William Thomas.

Further reading:

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL – webpages on the Greencastle estate, Jamaica

Jamaican family history

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