Drive into Dorset on the A31 and you roll past a high brick wall butted up tight to the road that seems to go on for ever. Every so often it doglegs at a monolithic gateway crowned by either a lion or a stag. This is the “great wall of Dorset” that runs for three miles, contains some 2m bricks and shields Charborough Park from the outside world. The wall creates an air of foreboding about what might lie inside. This is home to Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, who lives in the palatial Grade I-listed Charborough House, hidden from public view within the 283-hectare (700-acre) private grounds.
The park, with its outstanding garden and ancient deer park, is just a part of the 5,600 hectares of Charborough estate that makes Drax and his family the largest individual landowners in Dorset. The mainly 17th-century mansion, with its 36-metre (120ft) folly tower, is the model for Welland House in the Thomas Hardy novel Two on a Tower.
As well as being extremely wealthy, Drax is also an outspoken politician. After 10 years as a backbencher, he has become increasingly prominent among Tory Brexiters driving the government’s hardline position on Europe. And he has been vocal in the debate about Covid within the party, joining the Tory MPs who have rebelled against the government over its lockdown measures.
In June, he said of the Black Lives Matter protests: “The desecration of the Cenotaph by rioters two weeks ago, on the actual D-day anniversary, was beyond ironic.” He is vociferous on immigration, too. Voting to increase curbs in 2013, he said: “I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full.”
But for all his wealth and power, there is a dark shadow hanging over Richard Drax – his family’s historical links with slavery in the plantations of the West Indies, which are now prompting mounting calls from former Caribbean colonies for reparations.
The Drax fortune includes vast expanses of land and property in England but, as our investigation reveals, the family’s role as plantation owners in Barbados appears to remain key to the MP’s wealth. Richard Drax’s 17th-century ancestors James and William sailed to Barbados in the late 1620s, where they cleared lush land in the centre of the island and experimented with growing and processing sugar.
The Draxes devised a commercial sugar plantation model, worked by slaves transported from Africa, that was immensely lucrative and copied across the West Indies and the Americas. Such was Sir James’s wealth that, in 1650, he built the plantation house Drax Hall which still stands today and in which he lived, according to an eyewitness, “like a prince”. His brother William took their methods to Jamaica where the former plantation area is also still known as Drax Hall.
Later, the Draxes married into the Erle family that owned Charborough Park and the sugar profits helped to greatly extend the mansion and lands back in England. As a reminder of the links between Dorset and Barbados, a road that bisects the Charborough estate is called Sugar Hill. The TV presenter and historian David Olusoga says: “The Drax family are one of the few who were pioneers in the early stages of the British slave economy back in the 17th century and, generations later, still owned plantations and enslaved people at the end of British slavery in the 1830s.
“From the very early stages of the family’s involvement in slavery and the sugar trade, through the career of Sir James Drax in Barbados during the 17th century, the Drax dynasty were able to generate extraordinary wealth through the cultivation of sugar by enslaved Africans.”
The Barbados plantation was worked by up to 327 slaves at a time, with the death rate for adults and children high. Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the 20-state Caribbean Community Reparations Commission (Caricom) and the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, estimates that as many 30,000 slaves died on the Drax plantations in Barbados and Jamaica over 200 years.
Britain outlawed slave trading in 1807, and ownership of slaves was banned in 1833. About £20m – a huge sum – was then paid out to compensate slave owners. A database created by University College London showed that Richard Drax’s ancestor John Sawbridge Erle-Drax MP, who also lived at Charborough Park, received £4,293 12s 6d – a very large sum in 1836 – in compensation for freeing 189 slaves.
There has been speculation about whether the Drax family still owned the Barbados estate as absentee landlords, especially after the death of Henry Drax, Richard’s father, in 2017. The Drax Hall plantation is not referred to in Richard Drax’s register of members’ interests declaration, and the Observer could not find any family document referring directly to the plantations in the public domain since his great-grandmother’s will in 1916, when Lady Dunsany bequeathed her “estates and plantations in Barbados” to her son, Richard’s grandfather.
However, official sources in Barbados confirm that Richard’s father owned the plantation and had passed it on to his eldest son, Richard. Official documentation shows the MP now controls Drax Hall Plantation. He recently paid Bds$59,375 (£22,200) in annual land tax. Until 2008 the plantations covered 350 hectares, but the Draxes have sold more than 80, some for housing development. Barbadian authorities value the plantation and buildings at Bds$12.5m (£4.7m). Harvested sugar cane is no longer processed at the plantations but is taken to a central processing plant and then refined for export. The Barbados taxpayer subsidises the price and set it last year at about Bds$150 per tonne.
Asked about its absence on the parliamentary register of members’ interests, Drax said on Friday that he is still acting as executor of his father’s will and does not yet legally own the Barbados holdings “as these are still going through the probate process and have not yet transferred to my name.
“Once that process is completed, I will of course register it in proper accordance with the rules. I am keenly aware of the slave trade in the West Indies and the role my very distant ancestor played in it is deeply, deeply regrettable, but no one can be held responsible today for what happened many hundreds of years ago. This is a part of the nation’s history, from which we must all learn,’” he added.
Beckles told the Observer that historically “the Drax family has done more harm and violence to the black people of Barbados than any other family. The Draxes built and designed and structured slavery.” Beckles says Richard Drax should: “One: apologise to African people and the people of the Caribbean. Two: show remorse and participate in reparatory justice. Three: we would like to talk to you about how [you should repay these debts].”
David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to Caricom, says of the Drax family: “You can’t simply walk away from the scene of the crime. They have a responsibility now to make some effort to help repair the damage. We are establishing a fund into which families, corporations and establishments like universities that were implicated in some way in the crime of enslavement can pay.
“It’s always intrigued me that Drax Plantation is still functioning. You drive in and it looks like a plantation might look back in the 17th century. A plantation like this could be used to help teach us about our history – it’s a must that we do this if we are not to put it out of our minds.”
Back in England, Richard Drax lives the traditional life of the landed gentry, reminiscent of the TV series Downton Abbey, articulated through noblesse oblige, the military, hunting, shooting and farming. Drax’s grandfather, Reginald, was an admiral and a friend of Ian Fleming and the inspiration for the character Sir Hugo Drax in the author’s James Bond novel Moonraker. Born in 1958 and Sandhurst-trained, Richard Drax joined the Coldstream Guards, rising to the rank of captain a year before he left the army. He then spent 17 years as a journalist.
In 2006 Drax was placed on the candidate list for the Conservative party. Six previous Draxes had been local MPs for the now-abolished constituency of nearby Wareham. He was selected against 30 applicants, including two A-list female candidates, for South Dorset and was elected in 2010. Drax can be seen around the constituency on one of his BMW motorcycles, among them a £14,000 R1250GS model.
The MP’s family wealth and business interests are vast, but difficult to quantify precisely. The register of members’ interests is not hugely helpful. MPs are required to say if their land and property is worth more than £100,000 and whether residential and commercial rental income is valued over £10,000 per year. Drax says yes to both, declaring: “Woodlands, farmland, residential and commercial property, including land used for renewable energy projects in Dorset.” From the estate he declares: “Some income received directly, some received via family trusts either to me or to family members.” But he is not required to detail his exact holdings or income or his total wealth.
He is paid £82,000 by the taxpayer to serve as an MP. He is also the figurehead and beneficiary of the substantial multifaceted family business across farming, forestry, rental, shooting and location rental.
This includes a property empire of 125 farms, homes, rentals and businesses owned by him directly, or by the trustees of the Richard Drax 1987 Accumulation and Maintenance Settlement Trust. The main Drax farming entity is called ACF (Drax Farm) and is listed by analysts Dun & Bradstreet as an independent proprietorship. Farming nearly 1,600 hectares, ACF does not publish any accounts as it is not a company. ACF (Drax Farm) has had at least £7.5m worth of EU grants since 2000.
His late father bequeathed to Richard Drax all his “rights and benefits” as a member of Lloyd’s of London and of Equitas Limited (a debt holding company for Lloyd’s). However, what happened on his father’s death in 2017 is not clear. MPs are required to declare income from Lloyd’s even if they have resigned from their insurance syndicate. We asked him to say whether he is a Lloyd’s “name” but he did not respond to our request.
Drax’s declaration in the shareholdings section of the register appears to contain omissions and errors. Abbotts [sic] Court Farm Company (Holdings) Limited is declared as a holding company for family businesses. There is no company of that name registered in Companies House, but there is an unlimited company called Abbot’s Court Farm (Charborough). The last annual return says it is owned by a holding company, which it turns out is dormant.
The second company Drax declares is AMF Holdings Ltd, which has been dormant since registration in 2009. Not mentioned in the register is a further unlimited company, Anderson Manor Farm. Now the sole director, Drax took over all shares from his late father. His use of unlimited companies is unusual, as these are a type of company that does not provide limited liability, but does not require the company to publish accounts.
The third company he lists is a property management company, Morden Estates Company Ltd, of which he is the sole director and shareholder. It files minimal accounts, but has a curious function. According to the register, the company provides Drax with accommodation worth £47,500 per year (that will be the family trust-owned mansion and park) in return for 10 hours’ work a week.
Another oddity is that Richard Drax was bequeathed a 890-hectare farming estate in Swaledale, North Yorkshire – the Ellerton Abbey estate – by his late father in 2017. The land is unregistered with the Land Registry and is farmed by a tenant. The estate is not yet mentioned in the register of members’ interests and neither is the Copperthwaite Allotment, a 210-hectare grouse moor above the Ellerton estate that was also bequeathed.
The register of members’ interests is there to prevent any perception that there might be a conflict of interest. The Charborough estate has many complex dealings with national bodies, local authorities and businesses and that raises questions as to why Drax’s register declarations seem incomplete.
The Drax wealth may be hidden by a great wall of secrecy and unanswered questions away from prying eyes. But it is Richard Drax MP’s inheritance in Barbados, amassed over centuries by his ancestors’ ownership and appalling treatment of African people, which drags him into the spotlight.
Their descendants now press for a redistribution of what they see as the proceeds of a terrible crime, committed centuries ago by long-dead Draxes, leaving the family with the longest continuous link to the exploitation of the plantation system in Britain’s colonies.