The aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matters protests has thrown a spotlight on historic figures who had links with the slave trade. Upminster has not escaped this scrutiny which has brought to light unpleasant local connections with the Branfills of Upminster Hall and a call for a road and a school in Upminster to be renamed to erase these links.
Six generations of the Branfill family owned Upminster Hall for over two hundred years, starting with Captain Andrew Branfill’s purchase in March 1686 of the Hall, manor and estate for £7,400 from Edward Noel, Earl of Gainsborough.
Captain Branfill’s grandson John Redman later wrote that his Dartmouth-born grandfather was said to be “bred of the sea” like many of his forefathers, and was a “captain of a Guinea man” – a type of slave ship working the middle passage between West Africa and the Caribbean. Andrew Branfill had been baptised at Dartmouth in 1642, and was the son of William, variously described as Brainfield, Brainfill or Brounfill, and his wife Johane Ford, who married there in 1629. It was later said that the family name was a corruption of Bampfylde, a prominent and well-documented Devon family. Both families certainly bore the same coat of arms but it’s uncertain whether this Branfill family branch was entitled to bear arms at all, let alone those of the Bampfyldes. By the time that he died, if not earlier, Andrew Branfill was certainly using the same design, with the motto “Not in vain”.
Andrew Branfill took command of his first ship in the early 1660s while still in his teens and in later years owned his own vessel, the Champion. A painting of this ship off Portsmouth, with a small boat in which the captain appeared to be going ashore, was said by Wilson in 1881 to be hanging on the walls at Upminster Hall. The published correspondence of the Royal African Company for the period from 1681 onwards, confirms that Andrew Branfill was engaged in the slave trade which, along with gold, was the company’s main and most prosperous business off the west coast of Africa in the 1670s and 1680s. A typical triangular voyage for these “guinea men” was to ship slaves from Africa in appalling conditions to the sugar planters in Barbados, with sugar from there shipped back to London, and manufactured goods from London to Africa. Ships’ masters like Branfill took a generous share of the Company’s large profits. This income undoubtedly provided the main source of the funds which enabled Andrew Branfill to buy the Upminster Hall estate.
Like many who bought estates in Upminster and surrounding villages, Captain Branfill’s purchase was probably intended as an investment as it provided a steady income from tenants’ rentals and the manorial dues levied when copyhold holdings changed hands. Indeed, Andrew Branfill was still a working sea captain who still lived close to fellow mariners near the Thames at Ratcliff, in the parish of Stepney. It was there that he had married Sarah Foster in 1671, and where their two children Sarah (1675-1719) and Edward (1677-1701) were born and baptised. Upminster Hall was leased out and farmed by Francis Seamer, who had taken the tenancy in 1676, reserving rooms and stabling for Andrew to use when he visited to Upminster, including holding the manor court in “the Hall and Parlour or any other convenient room” of the Hall. Seamer’s mother-in-law Mary Hoddesdon lived with him at the hall until her death in 1690. Other parts of Branfill’s estate, probably including Potkiln Farm, were farmed by Samuel Springham.
In 1681, after the death of his first wife Sarah, Andrew remarried. His second wife was Damaris Aylett of Kelvedon Hatch, granddaughter of the Royalist Captain John Aylett who had raised a troop of horse for King Charles I in the Civil War. Their home was still near the Thames and over the next 20 years Damaris gave birth to at least 11 children, all baptised and in several cases, buried as infants at Stepney’s parish church, St Dunstan’s.
Andrew Branfill died at his house in Mile End Green in July 1709, while Damaris survived him until 1722. She had erected a vault in St Laurence’s church where she was buried alongside her husband and their marble monument, mounted by a bust of the bewigged Andrew, and bearing the coat of arms of the Branfill and Aylett families, can be seen there. Damaris’ will indicates that the house she lived in at Mile End Green was leased, not owned, as was another house at Stepney Causeway.
Andrew’s eldest son Edward, a mariner like his father, had died in 1701 aged 24, and on his father’s death in 1709 Edward’s half-brother Champion (1683-1738), the eldest son of Andrew and Damaris, and the first to be named after his father’s ship, inherited the Upminster Hall estate. The road in Upminster that bears Champion’s name and another road and the school named Branfill has generated an attempt to visit the sins of past generations and project Andrew Branfill’s slaving links onto the present age.
Champion was the first of four successive male Branfill descendants of that name to inherit Upminster Hall and its estates and it’s therefore necessary to distinguish between them by giving them numbers. Champion I’s marriage in 1711 to Mary Braund, the “Belle of Essex”, was a productive union, not least because she brought a dowry of £2,500 from her father Benjamin Braund, a prominent merchant in the Portugal trade. They clearly had good connections in the City of London, where the Branfills lived. It was also productive as she bore him 14 children, although only five survived into adulthood. Surviving documents written in Champion I’s neat handwriting suggest that he was well-educated and he went on to become the first of the family to hold high office, being appointed High Sheriff of Essex in 1734.
We know very little more about Champion I’s life. He died in 1738 and in his will bequeathed to Mary a life interest in his Upminster estates, including a house and lands bought from one Joseph Foster where it was noted that he had built a new house, barn and stables. His will reveals other possessions, which included seven houses near Tower Hill, freehold land in Walthamstow, the manor and farm of Gobions in East Tilbury and Mucking, as well as other premises in Buttsbury and Stock, all of which he left to his sons and other family members. During her long widowhood Mary was the Lady of the Manor and seems to have lived at Upminster Hall throughout that time. After she died in 1760, she was commemorated with her late husband on a marble monument near that of his parents in Upminster church. This monument also bears a coat of arms of the Braund family and, like the Branfill arms, no evidence has come to light that these arms were ever formally granted to the family.
The second Champion Branfill II, born in 1712, was the first to receive a university education.
He entered training as a pupil at the Inner Temple in 1725 before matriculating at Merton College, Oxford in March 1730 and going on to complete his training as a barrister-at-law. He was called to the bar in July 1736 and in February 1740 bought his own legal chambers at Fig Tree Court. Before he became Lord of the Manor after his mother’s death in June 1760 Champion had served a long apprenticeship, acting as his mother’s manorial Steward, following his father’s death in 1738.
Some letters written between 1745 and 1758 by Champion II to Sir Thomas Drury (1712-59), his contemporary at the Inner Temple and Merton College, give us a brief insight into his life. He seems to have access to events in Parliament and passes on news of the Jacobite Forty-Five Rebellion, and also some scurrilous gossip about society names. In November 1750 Champion reported that 10 horses in his stables at Upminster were very ill with violent coughs and runny noses, which he described as a “distemper which has got among the horses everywhere” and in February 1758 he wrote that he had steered clear of gout this winter and drinks “as little tea and port wine” as he can.
On New Year’s Day 1761 Champion married for the first time, aged 48. His wife Elizabeth James, at 23 under half his age, was a daughter of Robert James, Secretary of the East India Company. This union added to the Branfill family’s close links with the Company as Champion II’s sisters, Charlotte and Amelia, had already married husbands with strong EIC connections; he also had business links with his mother’s brothers, William and Samuel Braund who specialised in the Portugal trade. He may well have had business links with the EIC himself because his eldest son and heir Champion Branfill III was said to be born at East India House in 1764.
Sadly, Champion II and Elizabeth’s marriage was short-lived, as Champion died intestate in April 1770 leaving Elizabeth a widow at 33 with three infant children; their eldest son Champion III, was heir to the Upminster Hall estate and Lord of the Manor at not yet six years old. Two years later Elizabeth remarried to Matthew Howland Patrick of Marks Tey, who is credited with making a success of the Upminster brickfield on Potkiln Farm to the north of Upminster Hall. But in 1777 Elizabeth was widowed for the second time, with Champion III still a minor of 13 attending Charterhouse School. Champion (III) went on to study at Clare College Cambridge, and took his BA in 1786 before embarking on a military career as a Cornet – a cavalry second lieutenant – in the 7th Light Dragoons. In October 1788 he married Charlotte, daughter of Edward Brydges of Wootton Court, Kent at Canterbury Cathedral. A son and heir, Champion Edward IV was born nine months later in July 1789 and a daughter Jemima followed in January 1792.
Champion III was just 28 when in October 1792 he met a premature and unexpected death when staying at his mother-in-law’s home in Kent. According to Wilson this was “occasioned by a violent cold and inflammation of the lungs brought on by incautiously sitting near a window in a state of perspiration.” Wilson described his manner as “artless and unaffected and his conduct was marked by a uniform mildness and good nature which made him universally respected and beloved.” A monument in the north aisle of St Laurence church, erected by his widow “in grateful remembrance”, refers to his “integrity of heart and rectitude”.
Champion III’s widow Charlotte became Lady of the Manor and in 1794, two years after her husband’s sudden death, she married her late husband’s cousin John Harrison (1755-1818), who was another EIC employee. The terms of her late husband’s will indicated that Charlotte’s remarriage should end her life interest in the Upminster Hall estate, and her three-year old son Champion Edward IV, should have succeeding her, but she appears to have remained as Lady of the Manor, presumably held in trust for her son.
Champion Edward IV was at Eton College in 1805 and soon matriculated to Trinity College, Cambridge. However, in July 1807 he was commissioned as a Cornet in the 3rd Kings Own Dragoon Guards and served throughout the Peninsular war in Portugal, Spain and France. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1810 and Captain in October 1813 before leaving military service after the war ended in 1816. In November 1818 he married Anne Eliza, daughter of the Rev Antony Egerton Hammond, a family which like those of his mother Charlotte Brydges, could trace their descent back to royalty.
It seems that after his marriage Champion IV took over the Upminster estate and became Lord of the Manor, returning to Essex to live the life of country gentleman, being appointed as a JP and a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Essex. He became the first member of the family to farm his own Upminster Hall estate himself, instead of leasing it to tenants. He expanded his estate, buying the 44 acre farm known as Cullumbers or Durrants in 1817 for £2,000 from the executors of William Pinchon, adding this farm to Pot Kiln Farm to the south. In 1821 he acquired Martins, on the west side of Hall Lane, after the previous owner John Yeldham, a Collector of Taxes, forfeited his properties were to the Commissioners.
Champion Edward Branfill IV was a colourful and controversial figure who was a liberal at a time when almost all other farmers were Tory. He stood for Parliament as a Liberal candidate three times, but each time, not surprisingly, finished bottom of the poll.
He was not a typical Anglican of his era and he had strong personal views about the tithe, the local taxation which provided the main source of income for the Rector at St Laurence’s. There had been tithe disputes in Upminster as early as 1799 and there was a great deal of individual haggling, bad feeling and resistance to the annual payment of tithes. In 1834 Branfill published a pamphlet expressing robust opinions about the unfairness of how the tithe system operated. Three years later Parliament passed an Act which provided for parishes to be surveyed and for a consistent agreement on the basis for the amount each owner or occupier paid. This led to a survey of Upminster recorded on a Tithe map, which is one of the largest in Essex and an assessment by the Tithe Commissioners in 1842 for a reasonable annual payment of £1052 to the Rector Revd. John Rose Holden.
As Lord of Upminster Hall manor, Champion IV had nevertheless regularly attended services at St Laurence’s Church but in 1837 he fell out with the staunchly Tory curate Revd. James Bearblock after the clergyman preached a violently anti-Liberal sermon. Thirty years before Bearblock had written a strong defence of the tithe system so the pair’s differences were no doubt of long-standing. On hearing the sermon. Branfill promptly left the church with his family, never to return during Bearblock’s curacy, joining the congregation at the Nonconformist chapel on the hill instead.
Another area where Branfill’s views differed from most farmers concerned the Corn Laws. These protectionist measures designed to support British landowners made it illegal to import foreign corn in quantities, especially from North America. This resulted in bread prices higher than they might have been, which Champion felt was “unjust in principle” and “injurious to the working classes” and as a supporter of free trade, he supported the repeal of these protectionist laws.
Champion IV is without a doubt the outstanding character among the generations of the Branfills. Upminster must have been a sadder place when he died in 1844 aged only 55. His widow Anne Eliza succeeded him and was Lady of the Manor for almost 30 years until her own death in November 1873. Her annual diaries from 1822 to 1873, preserved at the Essex Record Office, record her family and social life in Upminster and surrounding places. She was the undoubted matriarch of the family, presiding over her children and their families, and as Lady of the Manor for nearly three decades.
Mrs Branfill’s heir was not her eldest son Champion V (1820-1887) as, when he was just eight in 1828, he had been made the heir of his uncle Joseph Russell of Stubbers, and required to take the surname Russell to prevent the family line dying out. The Lordship of the Manor and ownership of the Upminster Hall estate passed instead to her next youngest son Benjamin Aylett Branfill (b.1828). He attended Forest School in Walthamstow before joining the Army aged 18 in 1846 as a Cornet in the Prince of Wales’ Own Hussars. He served with them in India and went with the regiment to the Crimea in 1855, returning to England the next year and he was promoted to Captain in the 86th Foot in 1857. From 1859 to 1864 he was Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General in Ireland and later travelled widely and served overseas, reaching the rank of Major in 1870 and Colonel in 1877. In 1857 he had married Mary Anna Miers, the daughter of a Welsh colliery owner and raised a family of seven in South Wales before returning to Upminster to live at Upminster Hall after his mother’s death in 1873.
Benjamin Branfill is perhaps better known as the talented engraver who worked tirelessly on the illustrations for Wilson’s 1881 Upminster history. He seems to have lived a separate life to his wife, who lived in Paddington and remained in London when he emigrated to New Zealand in May 1881. He continued as an artist there, where he is remembered especially for his enormous founding contributions and pioneering influence to the art scene in the late nineteenth century in Nelson, New Zealand. Some of his works are in the collection of the National Library of New Zealand and his extensive papers are held by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, Canada. He died in January 1899 aged 70, and his tombstone is in the Wakapuaka Cemetery in Nelson, New Zealand.
Their son Champion Edward Branfill VI died aged just 32 in August 1890, nine years before his father, and under Mrs Branfill’s will when Benjamin died in 1899, it was his baby grandson Champion Andrew Branfill VII (b. October 1889) who inherited, with the estate being run by family trustees. Like several of his ancestors Champion VI also had a military career, joining the Derbyshire Yeomanry before the Great War and rising to Major and decorated with the Military Cross.
The developer Peter Griggs and his company W P Griggs and Co in 1906 agreed to buy 150 acres of the Upminster Hall Estate from the Branfill Trustees for £20,000 in order to develop the Upminster Garden Suburb. This left the Branfill family with the ownership of the Hall, and 61 acres nearby, and the Lordship of the Manor, selling up in July 1921 to Major Godfrey Pike, another Army veteran who had served in the Royal Army Supply Corps during the World War. This sale ended an amazing 235 years of the Branfill family’s ownership of Upminster Hall and their involvement with Upminster, which the current “cancel culture” is now seeking to erase.
Unfortunately, we have no images of the Branfill family to remember them, apart from the memorial bust of Andrew Branfill in St Laurence Church and Benjamin Branfill’s 1880 engraving of the portrait of Mary Branfill, the Belle of Essex, a modern version of which hangs upstairs in Upminster Hall. Wilson recorded a long list of 23 portraits of the Branfill family and other relations which hung in the dining-room, drawing-room and staircases of Upminster Hall in 1881. The list included Andrew Branfill (d.1709), his children Champion (d.1738), John (d.1724) and Andrew (d.1750).
Among the others was a portrait said by Holbein of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (c.1484-1545) and his third wife, Mary Tudor, formerly Queen of France which was exhibited in 1866 at the South Kensington Museum, as was one of Jacob, Lord Astley. What became of these paintings after the Branfill family sold the Hall in 1921 sadly remains unknown.
Although the family’s ownership of Upminster Hall may initially have been financed by the proceeds of the slave trade, the family’s continued presence in Upminster and strength of character outweighs these now unsavoury beginnings.
Thanks to Tony Fox for his comments on the draft of this item.
Main Printed Sources:
The Upminster Local History Group: The Story of Upminster: Book 5 The Branfills of Upminster Hall (1958)
Thomas Lewis Wilson: Sketches of Upminster (1856) pp110-116
Thomas Lewis Wilson: History & Topography of Upminster (1881) pp84-85, 182-189
Tony Fox: Upminster Hall, its barn and estate (2002)
WR Powell: “Upminster” in A History of the County of Essex: Vol 7 (1978) pp.143-163
Ged Martin: “Upminster Squire Branfill made his money as slave trader” Romford Recorder 29 April 2017
Champion Edward Branfill: The right of the tithe-holder to his present exemption from the burthens of national taxation considered, in a reply to certain strictures upon a proposition contained in a letter to the Rt. Hon. Lord Althorp (1834)
R.A. Roberts (Ed.) A Calendar of the Inner Temple Records Vol IV: 1714-1750 (1933)
Main Archive Sources
Essex Record Office:
- Manor of Upminster Hall – Court Books 1653-1862 – D/DEc 9/1 & 9/4
- Deeds of Upminster Hall 1686 – 1711 D/DM T83
- Deeds of Upminster Hall 1686 – 1701 D/DCq T1
- Sale Catalogue – Upminster Hall: 1927 SALE/A421
- Letter from Champion Branfill I to Rev William Holman 1720 D/Y 1/1/38/1
The National Archives:
Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills: Mary Hoddesdon (1609) PROB 11/398; Andrew Branfill (1709) PROB 11/510; Damaris Branfill (1722) PROB 11/584; Champion Branfill (1738) PROB 11/690; Andrew Branfill (1750) PROB 11/780; Mary Branfill (1760); Champion Branfill (1793) PROB 11/1227; Champion Edward Branfill (1844) PROB 11/2004.