Charles was the son of Paget and Amy Wade – the owners of several inherited sugar estates in the British West Indies. This unconventional figure created this eclectic house and garden nestled near the Costwold village of Broadway in the Gloucestershire countryside.
St Kitts, sugar and slavery
Until the 1860s the Wade family lived on the island of St Kitts, then a British colony in the West Indies. Charles’s grandfather, Solomon Abraham Wade (1806–81), was born on the island and built a career as a dry-goods merchant. On the abolition of slavery he received compensation through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. In 1844 his first child was born with his unmarried partner Mary Jones (1817–1914), a black woman thought to be his housekeeper, but recorded as a huckster. They married in 1855, having purchased the first of several sugar plantations in 1850, but moved to Kent, England by 1861. In 1879 Solomon gifted his son Paget Augustus (1849–1911) money to purchase sugar estates in St Kitts, and further established his own business as a ‘West India Merchant’.
Black and white postcard of Frigate Bay, St Kitts
Black and white postcard of Frigate Bay St Kitts from Snowshill collectio. In 1882 Paget Wade married Amy Blanche Spencer (1858-1943), and the following year their only son Charles was born in Kent. At the age of seven Charles went to live with his grandmother, known as Grannie Spencer, in Great Yarmouth.
Grannie Spencer lived a spartan existence, and was strict with Charles, but she also owned many interesting artefacts and curiosities kept in an exquisite 18th-century lacquered cabinet. Every Sunday she would allow Charles to open the cabinet with its ‘magic key’ and to marvel at its collections, hidden within drawers and recesses. The cabinet contained old ‘family treasures’, like a little wax angel with golden wings, musical boxes, shells, compasses, butterflies and silver spoons.
‘Grannie's Cabinet' was of great sentimental value to Charles and was the inspiration for his own collecting. His first acquisitions, bought with 18 weeks’ worth of pocket money, were three small bone-carved shrines of St Michael and two of the Virgin and Child.