The Greenes of Greene King and the West Indian slave trade

If you want to see how people will twist and squirm to try to find justification for a system that is morally disgusting but greatly suits their economic interests, Benjamin Greene, founder of the brewery that became Greene King, is a good example.

Greene was born in Oundle, Northamptonshire in 1780, the son of a draper. At the end of the 1790s he took up a post as a trainee brewer at Samuel Whitbread’s brewery in Chiswell Street, London: Greene’s father, another Benjamin, was originally from Ampthill in Bedfordshire, close to Samuel Whitbread’s ancestral home at Cardington, and doubtless the Bedfordshire connection won Benjamin the post.

Benjamin Greene, brewery owner and slave owner

By 1801 he had left Whitbread’s, and evidently settled in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, working, it appears, for a brewer named John Clark. This was the Bedfordshire connection at work again: Clark had acquired Buckley and Garnish’s brewery in Bury in 1792 when his uncle, “Morris of Ampthill”, bought it for him for £2,500 in 1792. The uncle was almost certainly John Morris, a member of a family of Quaker brewers in Ampthill that Benjamin’s father, a Nonconformist himself, would have known well.

Greene and Clark appear not to have got on, or so surviving family papers strongly suggest. But in 1805 Greene and a Bury St Edmunds businessman, William Buck, a member, like Greene, of the town’s Independent Chapel, though at 58 all of 33 years older than Greene, decided to go into business together at the brewery in Westgate formerly run by the Wright family. Doubtless Buck was putting up the capital, Greene, the brewing expertise. By the end of April 1806 Buck and Greene were able to announce to the public that as from the first week in June they would be able to supply table beer, and “as soon as possible” after that, ale, porter and old beer as well. (You’ll notice, incidentally, that this is rather different to today’s “official” Greene King history, which has Benjamin start his business in 1799, when he was 19, rather than seven years later.)

The brewery chugged along through the next couple of decades, but from 1819 Benjamin’s life took a sharp swerve away from the usual career of a country brewer. He had become very friendly with his elderly neighbour in Bury St Edmunds, Sir Patrick Blake, who was the owner of considerable sugar plantation holdings in St Kitts and Montserrat in the West Indies. Blake’s finances were in a mess, his estates lumbered with large mortgages. He asked Greene to manage his affairs, and after Blake’s death, and the death of Lady Blake, Sir Patrick’s wife, Greene became the manager of three estates in Basseterre parish on St Kitts and one on Montserrat, as well as the actual owner of an estate at Nicola Town on St Kitts and one on Montserrat that he had been left by Lady Blake when she died in 1824.

The first ever ad for what was to become Greene King, from 1806

Benjamin Greene’s circle in Bury St Edmunds included Catherine Buck, eldest daughter of his business partner, who was married to Thomas Clarkson, a co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and one of the campaigners  behind the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended the British trade in slaves. This did not stop Greene, when he became a slave owner himself, being an active supporter of slavery in the West Indies. He claimed that he found the traffic in slaves “abhorrent” but the institution itself “necessary”, and quoted Biblical passages in support of this argument. Astonishingly, the cognitive dissonance this must have induced did not make his head explode. In letters to the Bury and Suffolk Herald in 1828 Greene claimed that the slaves in the West Indies were “better clothed, better housed, and better fed, than the English agricultural labourer.” My own ancestors were East Anglian agricultural labourers in the 1820s: I do not believe they would happily have traded places with a slave on a West Indian sugar plantation.

1799 — ahhh, not so much, actually …

Greene bought more plantations in St Kitts, and ran others for the Molineaux-Montgomerie family of Norfolk. His support for slavery, promoted through the Bury and Suffolk Herald, which he actually bought in June 1828, became more and more vituperative in the run-up to the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, resulting in two libel actions and a wave of disgust locally at the way he conducted his pro-slavery campaign. In 1836 Greene left Bury to start a business as a West India merchant, based in the City of London, while his third son, Edward, remaining behind to run the brewery. Under the compensation clauses of the 1833 Act, Greene had been given £3,934 for the freeing of 216 slaves, equivalent to perhaps £370,000 today. For comparison, the net profits on the five Greene estates in St Kitts between 1838 and 1840 were more than £10,000 a year, equal to almost £900,000 a year today. The ex-slaves, of course, (a) received no compensation, (b) continued to work for their former slave masters, at wages that did not reflect the profits those former slave masters were making.

One of the — what shall we say? — stranger strands of the Greenes’ involvement in plantation ownership involves Benjamin Greene’s fourth son, Charles, who was sent out aged just 16 in 1837 to run the family holdings in St Kitts. He was, apparently, a highly able young man, even though only a teenager, but died just before his 19th birthday in 1840 of yellow fever — though not before fathering 13 illegitimate children. Hugh Carleton Greene, the Director General of the BBC, and a great-nephew of Charles, visited St Kitts in 1970, and discovered there were dozens of descendants of Charles Greene, thanks to his offspring being as fecund as the teenager from Bury St Edmunds: one grandson, Arthur Greene, alone had 30 children, legitimate and illegitimate. Many of those black Greenes are now scattered, across the United States, Canada, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere.

The Greenes continued to own sugar plantations in St Kitts for another 50 or so years, finally disposing of them in the 1890s. While the brewing side of the family prospered, the former slave-owning side appears to have mostly faded away, though it did give us not only the former BBC DG but Graham Greene, the novelist.

When we study Britain’s involvement in the crime against humanity that slavery was, and is, men like Benjamin Greene show us, first, that involvement in slavery was not limited to people in places such as Bristol, Liverpool and London, and second, that men found it appallingly easy to be blind to the evils of the system they were involved in, when that evil was to their economic benefit. Greene came from a deeply religious family, his prosperity in the brewing business cane through his partnership with someone he met through his church, whose son-in-law was a leading abolitionist, Greene was able to admit that taking people into slavery was wrong, but he could not step up and admit that slavery itself was evil, and he could not stop himself from profiting from the ownership of slaves.

(Most of this, incidentally, is nicked from the excellent book on Greene King’s history written by Richard G. Wilson, to whom a massive hat-tip.)

7 thoughts on “The Greenes of Greene King and the West Indian slave trade

  1. Well done, Martyn. This is a timely article, which deals with a topic that very much needs addressing, with objectivity, and without undue empty sloganeering.
    We all need to acknowledge this dreadful part of Britain’s history, but taking extreme positions, left or right, will not help us, as a society, to come to terms with what members of our historical community did to their fellow human beings.
    The fact that many of the people who profited greatly from this inhuman trade saw themselves as pious religious people, and even philanthropists, makes it even worse, to my mind.
    Of course, the whole brewing industry in those days made use of enormous quantities of slave-produced sugar.

  2. Greene claimed that the slaves in the West Indies were “better clothed, better housed, and better fed, than the English agricultural labourer.” My own ancestors were East Anglian agricultural labourers in the 1820s: I do not believe they would happily have traded places with a slave on a West Indian sugar plantation.

    Yes – and we can see now that there’s something a bit off about the way Greene constructs his comparison; even if all of those things were true (which I suspect would require some fancy footwork around the word ‘average’), the part about not being literally another person’s property would have weighed quite heavily in the balance! Worth remembering.

  3. The life of agricultural labourers in England would be better than that of slaves but remember that a year after the Abolition Act, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia for trying to form a trade union. Their wages had been reduced from ten shillings to seven shillings a week. I suppose the slave owners and land owners would be the same families.

  4. Good work, Martyn. Great beer investigative journalism!

    However, I for one, would much rather that Greene King invested in St Kitts where the plantations were, than made me-too wokey statements and invested here where we have a welfare state, well developed charities and First World infrastructure.

    I would find it much more believable, and evidence that they had thought things through and were going to do something which would have a tangible result where the harm was done.

    1. Thank you, although the actual investgating was done by Richard Wilson almost 40 years ago – I added very little. You’re absolutely right, of course, about how help should be going to places like St Kitts, and even more so Montserrat, which has been wrecked since the volcanic explosion of 1995, and is one of the forgotten nations of the world.

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