Connections with Britain’s colonial history

Connections with Britain’s colonial history

The history of Orleans House began in the 18th Century at a time when the newly formed United Kingdom was beginning to extend its power across the globe.  At this time with the support and direction of the Government and its military, traders and colonisers sought wealth and new markets to exploit, imposing their language, culture, and economic system on the communities they came upon, often through violence and with disastrous results for those communities. British colonialism transferred resources to Britain as a whole and made some people very wealthy. Orleans House was built by people who benefitted from this wealth.

The house built on the site in 1710 was commissioned by James Johnston. Johnston was a Scottish politician and diplomat who was at the heart of the creation of the United Kingdom and the centralisation of power in London. He assisted the transfer of power in the Glorious Revolution and then later at the Hanoverian succession. Johnston was also involved in Scottish plans to develop new colonies, promoting the failed African Company Bill, which planned a Scottish settlement in Panama to control the transatlantic and pacific trade routes.

After Johnston’s death, George Morton Pitt bought the house and gardens. Pitt was born in 1693 in Madras, now called Chennai. After his education in England he returned to India, joining the East India Company, a trading company that grew to control large parts of the Indian subcontinent through economic and military power. He rose to be President of Fort St George in Madras, a very lucrative position, from which he retired in 1735. Pitt returned to England, bought the house in Twickenham and became MP for Pontefract. When he died in 1756, he left the house to his stepdaughter, Sophia Dent.

In 1763 Sophia Dent married George Pocock. Pocock had been a successful naval commander fighting against the French in the Indian Ocean and later in the Atlantic, convoying ships on the first leg of the slave trade triangle. The ships carried the British goods which would be bartered for enslaved people on the West African coast. Pocock gained fame and fortune at the Battle of Havana in 1762, which led to British dominance in the Caribbean and an increase in the number of enslaved people trafficked from Africa.

Orleans House derives its name from the French King, Louis Philippe, Duc D’Orléans who lived in the house during his time of exile between 1815 and 1817. Louis-Philippe became King of the French from 1830-48, during this time his government promoted colonial expansion in North Africa and occupied much of Algeria.

Orleans House was demolished in 1926. The site became a gravel pit throughout the 1930s, with only the outbuildings and Octagon room remaining. These were saved by a local woman, Nellie Ionides, an art lover and the daughter of Lord Bearsted, the founder of the Shell Transport and Trading company. She left the site and buildings along with her art collection to the borough. 

These excerpts from the House’s past illustrate how colonialism is ingrained in our history. Being aware of this global history is an important first step in understanding what we can do to address contemporary inequalities rooted in the past.