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How I found out Perry Barr's dirty secret - a direct link to slavery
Posted on the 24th Jan 2018 in the category sport



You always seem to find something important or something you’ve lost when you are looking for something else.

I was trying to write a fascinating local history feature about the area I love and ended up finding out my beautiful darling had a dirty dark secret - slavery.

I know how UKIP leader Henry Bolton felt when he found out his beloved lythe politics obsessed glamour model (how hard are they to find) was a racist knob who would lose him his job. Well, kind of, my penis hasn’t staged a stunning coup-de-te-at over my brain, heart and career, but you know what I am getting at.
My obsession did not have tits but was about the two Perry Halls, one in Perry Barr and another in Baltimore, Maryland.  This story was years in the making as to do it properly I needed to get into the American Perry Hall Mansion to do it justice, it is fair to say I was not trying to beat anyone else to this tale because I’m the only hack whose from Perry Barr and gives enough of a shit to go to any kind of effort to get it.

 

I grew up on the Perry Hall estate in Perry Barr, Birmingham.

The huge cheshnut and oak trees I can see from my bedroom window were part of the tree lined avenue that led to Perry Hall, the ancestral seat of the Gough family.
Perry Hall Park is now where the majestic Perry Hall stood, built in 1649 complete with its own moat and sunken Chinese gardens, kings stayed there and it was on a par with Aston Hall.

In 1928 Birmingham Corporation did a very Birmingham thing and pulled the f***r down.

The council could not afford to keep both Aston Hall and Perry Hall open so erased hundreds of years of history with a pen-stroke and started building houses on the land, including my family home.

Now only the moat (where Chalky the Swan was murdered) and the sunken gardens remain from the glory days of Perry Hall remain. They used to have boats on the moat but the boathouse got burned down in the 1980s.

The footprint of the hall is now grassed and as a kid I lost fights, won a couple, played plenty of football and caught sticklebacks in the sun.As a teen I did a bit of Thunderbirds Blue fuelled snogging and feeling up on the benches, and as an adult I’ve sat many an hour watching the world go whilst thinking about whatever is preoccupying my mind.

 It is one of my favourite places on earth.

However, when I was working for the Great Barr Observer I found out there was another Perry Hall, not in a parallel universe but in Maryland, a Gough had emigrated in the 18th Century and built Perry Hall Mansion and founded a thriving town.

I rang the Perry Hall, Maryland, librarian and she said: 'What state is your Perry Hall?' 'Oh we pulled it down in 1928'. Her shock matched my embarrassment.

Fast forward to a press trip to Baltimore about ten years ago; I saw a sign for Perry Hall Mansion and after begging the driver to do a U-turn I was outside, well by a sign for Perry Hall anyway.  The know-it-all driver was happy to say it was gated and closed to the public. I got someone to take a photo, which I never saw again, I cursed myself for forgetting all about the two Perry Halls and not asking for a visit beforehand, would I ever be that close again?

I'd be in Maryland again, three years ago, but I had forgot all about the other Perry Hall again, and had no chance convincing the PR to organise a three hour drive to the mansion.

I had unfinished business in Baltimore, Fells Point is one of the greatest places to drink anywhere on the planet, I'd been there but on a ghost tour, walking past brilliant bar after brilliant bar as locals shouted 'they’re bullshitting about ghosts' and then we were whisked back downtown for a meal at our hotel, a classic case of press trip 'look what you could have won'. 

But in 2016 I was going over for the election and heading to Philadelphia, New York and most definitely Baltimore. And I had six months to organise hotels and to get into Perry Hall Mansion.

I contacted the British PR company for Baltimore and asked them to get me into Perry Hall Mansion. So they asked their counterparts in the Charm City. And I kept on asking, but kept on getting no reply. Obviously Baltimore had a journalist coming to town and wanted them to write about the harbour area, museums, Fells Point and all the other attractions. They did not want to send him to Perry Hall Mansion which was not open to the public.

But I wanted to go. So I kept on asking, and luckily the president of the Perry Hall Mansion Inc. Jeffrey Smith works in local government in the same building as the PR team and heard about this British journalist from the original Perry Hall who wanted to come to the historic building he has spent decades trying to preserve, so the date was set.

When day came (the Saturday before the election) my meeting clashed with a Democrat rally in Philadelphia with Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden Katy Perry and Bill Clinton. who I have always wanted to see in the flesh.

Do I see my political hero or meet Jeff? Thankfully I met Jeff. My mate ordered an uber for me and off I set to Perry Hall, about an hour out of Baltimore to be the first Perry Barrican to see Perry Hall Mansion since the Gough in the 18th Century.

My phone was dying and the Uber driver had no idea where the mansion wanted to dump me in the middle of nowhere. I had to get there, how I would get back god knows, but my travelling motto is always: Just get there, worry about getting back later, but get there.

I persevered and after a few U-turns and directions from locals I ended up by a metal fence with Perry Hall Mansion behind it.

My heart sank, the grand old mansion had seen better days and had been empty since the last owner, who was a recluse, let it go to wrack and ruin. We knocked down our Perry Hall and it looked like the American one was on its last legs.

To lose one Perry Hall is unfortunate but to lose two is downright careless.

Now if the American Perry Hall Mansion was in Britain under the control of a local council then its days would be numbered, the place would burn down and be destroyed if it was not turned into flats, look at Great Barr Hall, and Corngreaves Hall, and Rookery Hall.

However, after a fascinating tour of the grand old mansion from Jeff, a friendly guy with a tache who is the archetypal decent, kind and history-cherishing American, I knew Perry Hall Mansion will survive. There are older buildings in Birmingham all over the place, but in American terms the mansion is prehistoric. George Washington even discussed its fixtures and fittings when it got built and it is on the list of important U.S historical sites.

What I found inside is the subject of a feature I will write sooner or later, along the lines of A Tale of Two Perry Halls. I now work for Metro.co.uk and it is not the type of tale our audience would appreciate, I pitched the story but was rightly told it was too niche. It would be perfect for the Great Barr Observer, but that fine organ has been taken over by Trinity Mirror, and its website is no more and its stories are published on the Birmingham Mail's website, and my byline is about as welcome there tape recorder in Trump's Oval Office.

Knowing Jeff is the custodian of the mansion means it is in safe hands, he is not going to have his head turned and become a ‘consultant’ for developers like what happened in Great Barr.

 About an hour into the tour, we both at the same time thought about taking the conversation into a bar, he took me his local dive bar and we had a riproaring day on the booze, one of my favourite days in America in fact, he ended up being a listener to the radio show and now a firm friend.

But, a house is a home. A home has people, and the best stories are about people. Jeff showed me a picture in the mansion of Francis Asbury being made a bishop with the owner of Perry Hall sitting in the front row.

Francis Asbury was born on the Newton Road in the 18th Century and emigrated to America to spread the Methodism. I know a lot about Francis, because my mom's church is Perry Barr Methodist, my nan's maiden name was Asbury and I included him in my local history talk 'Brummies and Black Country folk who helped transform the New World (£50 cash if you want me to do it your group, the Halesowen History Society was impressed).

 

I looked at the picture and had them old hard news butterlies started to fly around in my stomach, two men born a couple of miles apart meet in America as the new country was being forged by men like themselves - a pious Christian and slave owning plantation owner. 

Yep, the Perry Barr family who started a new life in America made their fortune on the backs of slaves, now that is what I call letting the side down. I wonder what Harry Dorsey Gough, and Francis for that matter, would have thought if he saw a picture of me and my mates in the Perry Barr Methodist Church Boy's Brigade in 1987, me being the only white boy in sea of black faces?

I did some digging and the human story I found was fascinating. I pitched it to my bosses for a Christmas feature and it was accepted under the headline - 'How two Brummies helped turned the tide against slavery in America.'

Give it a read, even if you are not from Perry Barr, I am quite proud of it.

 

 Harry Dorsey Gough and Francis Asbury

 

When two Brummies met over dinner for the first time in America, thousands of miles away from home,they had a lot to talk about.

Number one on the list was – why did one of them own slaves?

The year was 1774 and Harry Dorsey Gough had done well for himself in Baltimore, Maryland. He had completed his manor house and named it after his ancestral home Perry Hall in Birmingham, where his family had moved from decades before.

He was coining it in – on the backs of slaves. He was one of the biggest slave owners in Maryland, enslaving more than 70 people. Whilst he had boisterous parties, plenty of wine and gambled big on the horses, his wife Prudence started attending Methodist Church meetings and living a more pious life.

Although Harry and his pals first went to meetings to ridicule the new religion, he ended up being converted. He built a chapel on the side of Perry Hall and fitted the first bell ever to adorn a Methodist church in America, every day it would ring and he, Prudence and his slave families would worship.

The founder of the American Methodist Church, which now has over 60 million members, was Francis Asbury – who had grown up two miles away from Perry Hall in Birmingham, England.

He criss-crossed the New World on his horse trying to convert everyone he met, and was delighted with the chance to meet someone from the same part of the world as him. Not one to be impressed by worldly possessions and grandeur he even allowed himself to compliment Perry Hall Mansion.

He said: ‘Perry Hall was the largest house I had ever seen, and all its arrangements within and without, were tasteful and elegant. ‘Yet simplicity and utility seemed to be stamped upon the whole. The garden, orchards, and everything else, were delightful indeed, and looked to me like an earthly paradise.

‘But what pleased me better than anything else, I found a neat chapel next to the house and a small cupola and bell, which could be heard all over the farm.’ What did not delight him, however, was Harry’s slave ownership.

Harry’s conversion had been accelerated when he had seen slaves convert to Methodism and give thanks to the Lord for basically having nothing. He was not impressed enough to free his slaves though. They were making him money on his farmland. 

The slave quarters at Perry Hall Mansion 

Again and again Francis raised the issue of slaves, but still they remained anything but free. The Goughs were there when Francis Asbury was ordained a bishop of the church. It would be nearly 100 years and one civil war later until slavery was abolished for good in America, but in northern states like Maryland slaves were being made free men in the 1790s.

But not Harry Gough’s slaves. They continued being forced to work for free, were prevented from leaving the county and unable to make decisions about their lives that we take for granted now.

Prudence, whom the bishop would later describe ‘like a daughter’, and Francis kept on trying to convincearry to set them free.

President of Perry Hall Mansion, Inc Jeffrey Smith, who wrote the official history of the mansion, told Metro.co.uk: ‘It would be a nice end to the story if Harry had relented and freed his slaves.

 ‘However, all those conversations were not in vain, because he freed his slaves in his will – so when he died in 1808, the slaves were freed and their children went on to live free lives, something that Southern slaves could only dream of for decades.

‘Francis Asbury went on to be one of the most important missionaries in American history. Methodism is one of our country’s biggest religions and counts several presidents amongst their number, including both Bushes.’

He added: ‘Gough’s decision to free his slaves was part of a larger movement promoted by Asbury and a host of other Methodist preachers that led to freedom for African-Americans throughout the Mid-Atlantic states.’ Over 2,000 people attended Harry’s funeral in 1808 and Bishop Asbury presided over the ceremony.

He said: ‘Harry Dorsey Gough was a man much respected and beloved. His charities were as numerous as proper objects to a Christian is likely to make them.’

And at the end of the service, his slaves went home free men and women.



 

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