How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach

IN Kelloe church five or so miles north of Sedgefield, there is a plaque which commemorates the birth nearby of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, it says, was “a great poetess, a noble woman, a devoted wife”.

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Elizabeth was one of the greatest romantic poets of the Victorian era, famed for her Sonnet 43 which begins as above, and her great romance with her husband, Robert Browning, an even more illustrious man of words.

What the plaque doesn’t say is that Elizabeth was a child of the North-East family that profited most from slavery – a business of which Elizabeth herself deeply disapproved and some biographers suspect that she herself might have carried some of the slaves’ genes.

The Northern Echo: Elizabeth Barrett BrowningElizabeth Barrett Browning

Historian John Graham analysed the region’s involvement in slavery in his 2008 book Hidden Chains in which he says: “West India merchants were common in Bristol, Liverpool and London but in the North-East only one seems to merit the description. He was hardly a minor figure, though, with his extensive interests in Jamaica and the North-East and Yorkshire.”

West India merchants were men who had slaves. The North-East merchant was John Clarke-Graham, and he was Elizabeth’s grandfather.

He rose from ordinary beginnings to own a brewery, a flax-mill and some ships in Newcastle. When he married his second wife, Arabella from London, in 1782, he acquired a large estate in Northumbria and slave plantations in Jamaica – when he died in 1818, he had an interest in 13 plantations.

As his interests grew, his ships, including The Rebecca, brought sugar and rum from the plantations direct into the Tyne.

His contacts in the Caribbean included the Barrett family, who had emigrated to Jamaica in 1665 to start the first slave plantations, and who came to own 84,000 acres and 2,000 slaves. One of the Barretts, Richard, treated his slaves so sympathetically his house was the only one not to be torched in a slave rebellion; another Barrett, Edward, was known to ruthlessly whip his slaves to work.

In 1792, when another of the Barretts, George, died, his six illegitimate children were sent to Newcastle to be brought up by John Clarke-Graham. George had never married. The children’s mother was Elissa Peters, a “mulatto”, a mixed race slave.

George, though, said in his will that his children should be freed from slavery and be brought up in a country where there was no “distinction respecting colour”. Newcastle must have fitted the bill, and for John Clarke-Graham, although he had the inconvenience of the children, he was now tied to the most fabulously wealthy family in the West Indies.

It worked. In 1806, his daughter Mary married Edward Barrett (grandson of the notoriously ruthless slaveowner). He owned 10,000 acres of sugar plantations, which earned him about £50,000-a-year – nearly £5m-a-year in today's values.

But he didn’t have a home in England, and the Barretts were beginning to see how the wind was blowing – they needed to reshore their wealth before the Caribbean exploded.

The Northern Echo: Coxhoe Hall, which was demolished in 1952Coxhoe Hall, which was demolished in 1952

With John Graham-Clarke’s help, the Barretts acquired Coxhoe Hall, between Sedgefield and Durham.

It was regarded as the finest country home in County Durham, built in a 1,000 acre estate in 1725 by John Burdon on top of a Tudor manor house. It was designed by super-fashionable architect James Paine (Raby Castle, Gibside and Alnwick Castle, to name just a few of his local works). It had 20 bedrooms, with castellated towers on the outside and magnificent internal plasterwork by Giuseppe Cortese.

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However, after about 20 years, Burdon had tired of Coxhoe as he had bought an even more sumptuous estate at Hardwick, near Sedgefield, on which he lavished his fortune.

So, in 1805, the newly-married Mary Clarke-Graham of Newcastle and Edward Barrett of Jamaica moved into Coxhoe Hall, and the following year, on March 6, their first child was born there. They named her Elizabeth.

There is a suggestion that Edward had some mixed race genes in him from his family’s long stay in the Caribbean. In later life, Elizabeth described herself as having “dark skin and full lips” and even said that, at 5ft exactly, she was “little and black”.

Whatever her genetic make-up, she vehemently opposed slavery. She regarded her family’s background as “a curse”, and one of her biggest hits was a poem called The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, published in 1846 in a fundraising magazine for the abolitionist cause. She wrote it after gathering information from her Jamaican relatives, and it deals shockingly with gender and race from the point of view of a female slave is who is whipped and raped by her owner, runs away when she finds herself pregnant by him, and then kills her “too white” baby.

The Northern Echo: Elizabeth Barrett BrowningElizabeth Barrett Browning

In truth, Elizabeth’s connection with Coxhoe was very short, although it is known that when she was two, her family was visited at the hall by Thomas Peters, the eldest of the six mixed race children sent over from the Caribbean (his brother, Samuel, poor fellow was incarcerated in Newcastle’s House of Lunacy from 1806 until his death in 1851).

She was baptised at St Helen’s Church, Kelloe, in 1809 – the congregation was very proud of the 18th Century font at which she was baptised, but investigation in 2019 revealed the font was probably from the early 20th Century and so had missed her by a century or so.

A few months after the baptism, the family left County Durham for a 500-acre estate in the Malvern Hills in Herefordshire which her father had bought and which was far more glamorous than coal-streaked Coxhoe.

Her father considered that the emancipation of slaves in 1833 ruined the family, but Elizabeth rejoiced at it. The schism became permanent when in 1846 she married poet Robert Browning, who had fallen in love with her through her words on a page before he had even met her. She was disinherited by her father and went with Browning to live in Rome.

She died in Florence on July 29, 1861 – as the plaque in Kelloe church records.

WHEN the Barretts left Coxhoe Hall, it was sold to Anthony Wilkinson of Durham and then, in 1850, to mining engineer Thomas Wood. His family kept it until 1938 when the East Hetton Colliery Company acquired the estate for the coal which lay beneath it.

During the Second World War, it was used as a barracks and then as a prisoner of war camp for Germans and Italians.

With post-war nationalisation of the coal industry, it became the property of the National Coal Board, which declared it unsafe. The 225-year-old country house was demolished in August 1952.