Harewood’s bottled treasures raise a fortune for charity

A dozen bottles of 18th century rum recovered from beneath a thick layer of cobwebs and dust at the back of a West Yorkshire wine cellar have raised almost £80,000 at auction - with a large portion of the proceeds donated to charity.

Rum bottles found in the cellar of Harewood House in Leeds. Pictures: Ross Parry Agency
Rum bottles found in the cellar of Harewood House in Leeds. Pictures: Ross Parry Agency

Rum was once known as ‘demon water’ and was doled out as daily liqueur rations to members of the Royal Navy following the British fleet’s capture of the island of Jamaica. Historical evidence points to the spirit being first distilled on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century.

The valuable rum uncovered in Yorkshire was found tucked away, almost invisible to the eye having lain hidden on a top shelf of the wine cellar at Harewood House.

It was not until 2011 when the bottles were rediscovered by wine trade professionals Mark Lascelles and Andy Langshaw during an inventory of the cellar.

Rum bottles found in the cellar of Harewood House in Leeds. Pictures: Ross Parry Agency

The bottles are thought to be linked with the slave trade. Rum was used as a medium of exchange in the supply of slaves between Africa, the Caribbean and colonies to satisfy labour demands in the production of sugar from Europe 300 years ago.

A paper trail tells of the origins of ‘Harewood Rum’. Described as Cane Spirit, it was first recorded in a cellar book entry dated July 1805, which lists ‘226 bottles, dark and light 1780’ stored in two bins in the stately home’s vaulted cellar.

At a time when Harewood House frequently hosted lavish gatherings, cellar records show how the rum was among large quantities of wines and spirits bought and consumed. However the rum was sampled sparingly; only one or two bottles a year were drank, except on one day in December 1805 when some eight bottles were drunk.

But the story of the Harewood Rum begins even earlier. In 1711, Henry Lascelles, aged 21, travelled from Yorkshire to the West Indies to pursue the family business of sugar, cotton, tobacco – and rum.

By 1780, the bulk of the Lascelles’ West Indian property was in Barbados, including the estates that now belong to one of the best-known Bajan rum producers Mount Gay. It is believed that the Harewood Rum came from that island.

By the start of the 20th century the rum seems to have been more or less forgotten; the bottles still stored in the same bin numbers, but stashed away at the back of the cellar.

Having been recovered, the bottles sold for £8,225 each, surpassing pre-sale estimates of £600 to £800 per lot by more than six times and raising a total of £78,255. The bottles were auctioned by Christie’s in their Finest and Rarest Wines and Spirits sale and the 8th Earl of Harewood, David Lascelles, has donated £66,000 from the proceeds to the Geraldine Connor Foundation, a charity to help disenfranchised young people in the performing arts.

Mr Lascelles said: “I thought it would be very apt for the proceeds from the rum to go towards a charity which benefits the West Indian community. The rum would have been made from sugar from Barbados, so for it to benefit that country’s heritage is very appropriate.

“Geraldine, who died in October 2011, was a good friend and a major figure in Yorkshire’s West Indian community, creating magnificent musical theatre with the Carnival Messia which was performed at Harewood in 2007.

“I’ve always thought that apologising for something that happened a long time ago was a bit pointless, because you can’t turn back the clock, it doesn’t change anything, it’s not ‘Back to the Future’. It’s a bit of a politician’s gesture in my opinion. I think it’s much more important to engage with that legacy.

“As a result of what happened in West Indies, the African’s shipped over to work on the plantations, there’s now a vibrant, but often troubled West Indian community in this country. I think that the best thing to do is to work with the legacy of the past and work together to try to make good things happen.”

The funding for the Foundation will go towards workshops and summer schools, aimed at young people with artistic talent.

The Foundation is currently looking for a Director to spearhead its work in the local community.