Anthony Gambrill | Tharp sharp as sugar baron
Arguably one of the wealthiest planters who rose to prominence during Jamaica's era of slavery and sugar, John Tharp was not born in Britain, but in the island.
Of English stock, his forbears probably took part in Penn and Venables' invasion of the island. He was born in 1744 to Joseph and Margaret Tharp in the parish of Hanover. His father owned Bachelor's Hall and Pedro estate, which he was to inherit.
Like other sons of rich planters, he was educated at Eton and Trinity, Cambridge.
At age 22, he married Elizabeth Partridge, an heiress to the Potosi estate in western St James, where he had been employed upon completion of his education. He sold Bachelor's Hall, and with the assistance of his wife's inherited land holdings, bought Good Hope, Lansquinet, and Wales.
By the end of the 18th century, Tharp eventually owned 10 plantations and pens in the newly formed parish of Trelawny, Westmoreland, and St Ann.
His purchase of a thousand acres at Good Hope allowed him to harness the water power of the Martha Brae River, with which to run its sugar mill, an advantage also utilised by several of the other estates he owned. He was an early investor in Falmouth, owning one of its principal wharves, and built a town house - still standing - to watch his sugar being loaded.
John and Elizabeth had five children who survived into adulthood, but she died in 1780 after 15 years of marriage. Two years later, one of his slaves, Hannah Phillips, bore him a daughter out of wedlock. Mary Hyde Tharp became his favourite child. In his will, his "reputed daughter" was to receive two thousand pounds at the age of 21. Tharp died when she was only 16, but she had been granted an annuity of a hundred pounds a year until she came of age. She later "married well" in England.
At the age of 50, Tharp remarried, this time to a widow, Ann Gallimore, a woman much younger than he, who was also the heiress to valuable sugar estates. In what might be described today as a prenuptial agreement, she was guaranteed an income of £2,000 a year if she outlived her husband. She must have been keen to enjoy her new status because a year later, the newly-weds took up residence in a fashionable town house at 41 Portland Place in London.
Marital problems were to emerge following his purchase for £40,000 of Chippenham Park near Newmarket in Cambridgeshire, in 1791. The park had been largely the creation of Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford, and was used for hunting and shooting, possessing no substantial buildings.
Tharp rebuilt an enclosing wall - reputed to have been the work of Jamaican slaves - and commissioned the design of a residence and landscaping for the park, but neither came to fruition in his lifetime. He restocked the park with deer, and the principal activity henceforth was hunting, as well as fishing in the waterways that Tharp and others created.
John's daughter, Elizabeth, from his first marriage, had married a wealthy clergyman, Richard Phillipson, and lived near Chippenham Park. Tharp discovered that his wife, Ann, had carried on an illicit affaire with the reverend and was now pregnant. He obtained a legal separation, which gave her an annual settlement of £1,200, describing her in his will as "utterly unworthy of my affection". Daughter Elizabeth was also granted an annual sum if she "shall find it expedient to live separate and apart from her husband".
Disappointed and discouraged by this turn of events, Tharp returned to Jamaica in 1802, dying two years later at Good Hope. At the time of his death, his estates, said to comprise 25,000 acres and more than 3,000 slaves, were being managed by another illegitimate slave offspring, John Harwood, sired before his first marriage. He apparently fell out with his children, and in his will, he left Chippenham Park in England to his grandson, with his son, also John, and later his uncle, to care for the boy until he became 24. Three years before he was to reach that milestone, John Tharp VI was married off by his mother to Lady Charlotte Hay. A short while after the nuptials, he was declared insane. Confined for the rest of his life, he died at age 45 at The Palace, Much Hadham Lunatic Asylum in Hertfordshire.
John Tharp VI's death in 1869 led to a contentious lawsuit, with an assortment of relatives, associates and creditors hoping for further financial gain, although immediate family members had benefited from annuities granted when the patriarch died in 1802.
By the time Emancipation was declared, the slave holding of Tharp's estates had declined significantly. Four slaves on Pantrepant, which borders the Cockpit Country, who were executed after Sam Sharpe's rebellion were among those absent. Compensation for 2,375 emancipated slaves was fixed at close to four million pounds in today's currency, certainly substantial at the time. However, Tharp had been known to have made much of his fortune from slave trading, trading, and distilling rum.
The elegant Georgian estate house at Good Hope in Trelawny provides an enduring reminder of John Tharp's wealth. Built originally in 1742, Tharp was responsible for the many fine features he built between 1782 and 1800 that you can see today. It was here that he died and both his grave and that of his first wife, Elizabeth, remain side by side on the property.
Chippenham Park in Cambridgeshire has passed down through several generations of Tharp descendants to today. Anne Crawley is the present owner, living in an elegant Queen Anne Revival red-brick country mansion built in the 1880s. The substantial wooded area, to which John Tharp contributed with his enthusiasm for planting trees and gardens, is open to the public on occasion.
The village of Chippenham still contains evidence of a Tharp presence. There is an inn, Tharp Arms, the family coat of arms displayed on the sign outside. On it is surmounted "the mysterious Tharp lady with a blue sash who, legend has it, comes down and dances on New Year's Eve."
At nearby St Margaret's Church are four neglected family gravestones and two plaques mounted inside the Anglican chapel. A painting of John Tharp, 'a hugely successful sugar baron', in the Chippenham Park estate house, continues to be a reminder of the legacy in Britain of Jamaica's slavery and sugar.
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.