British towns fight over who had first black high sheriff

The installation of Peaches Golding as the next High Sheriff of Bristol was hailed a symbolic moment for racial equality in Britain. Mrs Golding, who will take up the ceremonial office of Bristol’s High Sheriff at a ceremony in March, was believed to be the first person of African descent to take up the post, which was created 1,000 years ago – until it emerged that Britain’s first black sheriff had been appointed in Monmouth nearly 200 years ago.

A Gwent politician has said Monmouthshire had the first black sheriff almost 200 years ago. David Davies said that Nathaniel Wells of Chepstow was appointed Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Monmouthshire in 1818. The mixed-race Wells served as a magistrate and was accepted in high society in the county. Mr Davies said: “I will be writing to Mrs Golding to congratulate her on her new role, but will politely point out that Monmouthshire was actually 190 years ahead of Bristol in appointing a black High Sheriff.

Nathaniel Wells was born in 1779 in St Kitts, the son of William Wells, a wealthy Cardiff-born merchant, and his black slave, Juggy. William Wells was a successful slave trader who became a plantation owner. Nathaniel was sent by his father to Wales to be educated. After finishing his schooling he stayed in Britain and seems to have been accepted without comment by other members of his class in the area around Chepstow, where he became a landowner in his own right thanks to his father’s wealth. Wells became a magistrate, sitting in judgment over white people at a time when most black people in Britain’s colonies would have had no right to a court hearing.

By 1801, Wells had property worth an estimated £200,000 and was married to the only daughter of Charles Este, a former chaplain to King George II. In 1802, he bought Piercefield House, on the site of what is now Chepstow Racecourse. He died in Bath, Somerset in 1852 at the age of 72. A memorial tablet to him is in St Arvans Church, near Chepstow.

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