Drax Hall

Saint George, Barbados

Built in the 1650s by the Drax family, it is thought to have been constructed either by the brothers William Drax (1607-1691) and Colonel Sir James Drax (1609-1661), or by Sir James’ son, Colonel Henry Drax (1641-1683). Drax Hall is the oldest of only three Jacobean mansions remaining in the western hemisphere. Barbados is home to two of the three, the other being St. Nicholas Abbey while Virginia has Bacon's Castle. The Barbados Tourism Authority lists Drax Hall as one of the “Seven Wonders of Barbados,” but unlike St. Nicholas Abbey it is not a cultural centre and is not open to the public. It remains the property of the Drax family and certainly up until very recently they continued to make an annual visit to the still operational sugar plantation....
From 1642, Sir James Drax became the second man to cultivate sugar cane in the Caribbean, the first was Colonel James Holdip. However, it was Drax’s ingenuity that perfected a Dutch technique for processing sugar - a far more complex operation than processing cotton or tobacco - and so established the Drax family fortune.

The Drax family are the oldest of the sugar dynasties on Barbados. Sir James’ brother, William, took the art of sugar processing to Jamaica in 1669 and his brother-in-law, Colonel Christopher Codrington, took it to Antigua. Sir James' son, Henry, was said to be the wealthiest planter in 17th century Barbados and Henry’s first cousin, Christopher Codrington (1668-1710), founded the still extant Codrington College at St. John.

"The Greatest Estate of Any Planter of his Time..."

In his History of Barbados (2012), Sir Richard Schomburg wrote of Sir James Drax and his life at Drax Hall: "He appears to have lived in great style: Richard Ligon (1685-1662) tells us he fared like a prince, and killed now and then an ox, apparently a great piece of extravagance, as these animals were required for cultivating the soil... John Oldmixon (1673-1742) asserts that Colonel Drax, from a stock of £300, raised the greatest estate of any planter of his time, except Richard Walter (1636-1700), who was a merchant as well as a planter... Drax Hall forms the largest property, according to its superficial area, in the island; it contains 879-acres. The mansion-house is considered, with the one at St. Nicholas Abbey, the oldest in the island; it has not the cheerful aspect of the latter, and its appearance imparts a gloomy character to the whole landscape around."

Jacobean Architecture

The well-preserved coral-stone house that is Drax Hall is a fine example of classic Jacobean architecture. It has a steep red gable roof, coral-stone corner finials and casement gable windows. Its exterior is not as elegant as St. Nicholas Abbey, but it boasts spectacular original carvings in the grand three-story staircase and wide-arched doorway into the stair hall. Similarly to the Principal’s Lodge at Codrington College from the same era, Drax Hall has excellent stonemasonry detailing and balustrades on the upper landing. Two members of the American Anti-Slavery Society visited in 1837:

"Drax Hall is the largest estate in the island – consisting of 800-acres of land. The number of apprentices is not in the same proportion; those belonging to the estate do not exceed 250 – many others are hired in crop season. A portion of the land is leased in small sections for cultivation – some to whites and some to blacks. The mansion at Drax Hall is an old massive building with turrets, gothic windows, oaken casements, high stories, and wide halls. We were told the building was an hundred and twenty years old".

Drax Hall Today

The estate still produces sugar to this day and it is still owned by - though not home to - the Drax family. The previous owner, Henry Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax (1928-2017), lived at Charborough House, Dorset, and made a point of visiting the plantation every year. Both Drax Hall and Charborough (that came into their family through Mrs Henry Drax, granddaughter-in-law of Sir James Drax) are now the property of his son, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax (b.1958) who, continuing a long family tradition, was elected to the British House of Commons in 2010. Unlike St. Nicholas Abbey, Drax Hall is not a cultural centre and it is not open to the public. Nonetheless, the exterior is certainly worth seeing to gain an insight into Barbados’ long and rich heritage.

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 27/11/2018 and last updated on 15/12/2020.
Image Courtesy of Jonathan Smith

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