Today Danson House in the London Borough of Bexley is home to a rather wonderful tea room and provides a stunning venue for weddings, but it was built on the proceeds of human misery and was not a happy place for its owner Sir John Boyd.
John Boyd’s father Augustus left Donegal in 1700 to run a sugar plantation on the island of St Kitts that had belonged to his uncle. The plantation was worked by African people brought as slaves from Sierra Leone. Augustus bought more plantations but gradually the business shifted to supplying luxury goods from London to the plantation owners. His son John Boyd was born on the island in 1718. By 1735 the family moved to London but rather than helping in his father’s business, John wanted to do what any young gentleman of the time did – study classics at university, then set off on the Grand Tour – visiting the ancient sights of France, Italy and Greece. After his travels John was forced to join his father’s company and he had a role in petitioning politicians to protect the rights of slave owners in the Caribbean, and was an ardent supporter of George III, advocating expansion of the British Empire.
This brought him the chance to be a director of the East India Company at a time when it was ruthlessly expanding its control of Bengal. Though successful in business John Boyd loved to collect works of art, and on acquiring the Danson Estate he commissioned a Palladian Mansion to be built by Robert Taylor to house his collection of paintings, sculptures and Greek vases. Capability Brown landscaped the park around the house.
Difficult years followed. His wife Mary died in 1766 and he was struck with grief. He married his second wife Catherine and they lived at Danson House but he never hid from her that Catherine was his first love. During the 1770s his estates in St Kitts were ruined by hurricanes, and then the island captured by the French. His shares in the East India Company crashed in value after a famine devastated Bengal, the company having made its money from taxing Indian farmers on the produce from their land. Boyd was left with huge debts that he was only able to pay off by going into business with a slave trader called Richard Oswald.
However, even trading in enslaved people was not enough to keep Danson House in its former glory, and Boyd was said to sit sobbing in one wing of the house, only speaking in monosyllables to his rare visitors. On his death in 1800 his son sold off the collection of artworks that he had spent so much time and money to acquire. It is hard to imagine how men like Sir John Boyd were able to enjoy the beauty of Palladian architecture, the music of Vivaldi , the paintings of Richard Wilson and at the same time run businesses that branded African children as their personal property and hanged Indian farmers who were unable to pay their taxes. Perhaps the best we can make of it is that Danson House and Park are now there for all Londoners to enjoy.