The Church Commissioners for England is the financial arm of the Church of England and manages its £10 billion endowment fund. In 2019, the Church Commissioners became more conscious of the fact that the transatlantic slave trade played a significant role in shaping the economy, society and Church of today. 

Fast facts

A purple icon showing a hand holding a stack of coins

The Church Commissioners is the Church of England’s financial arm

pound icon

It manages an endowment fund currently worth £10 billion

 purple icon showing a map with a magnified

Established in 1948 by combining assets of Queen Anne’s Bounty (QAB) and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners

building dome purple icon

QAB was a fund established in 1704 for the relief of poor clergy

icon showing puzzle pieces

To do this, the QAB invested in various assets, including annuities issued by the South Sea Company

The challenge

The Church Commissioners appointed Grant Thornton to investigate its links to transatlantic chattel slavery. 

The project needed to establish three things:
1 whether the Church Commissioners had any links to the transatlantic slave trade and, if so;
2 to quantify the nature and extent of those links; and
3 to determine the extent to which the origins of the endowment fund may have been derived from the profits of the slave trade, and whether any associated assets were still held in the endowment fund today.

How we helped

On the face of it, this was a highly unusual and complex assignment. In part, this was because we had to rely on contemporaneous documentary records – these were the handwritten financial ledgers of Queen Anne’s Bounty that dated from 1708 to the mid-19th century.

These ledgers contained the details of thousands of transactions but had been the subject of little academic research by scholars. Added to this, the transactions were recorded in the old £-s-d currency that was not compatible with modern accounting programmes.

However, while these factors did present unique challenges, we were able to help our client by deploying fundamental forensic techniques: detailed transactions analysis, account reconstruction and asset tracing.

The first step was to analyse the ledgers. To help with this, Grant Thornton’s forensic data analytics team created a formula that allowed us to record and analyse the transactions in their original £-s-d denomination.

We recorded the details of around 12,000 transactions, spanning nearly 150 years. Once a transaction in the ledgers had been recorded, it was categorised based on several factors. For example, whether it was an item of income or expenditure, or whether it was an investment in a known slave trader.

Relying on these categorisations, we then constructed a series of rudimental financial statements. This allowed us to develop a comprehensive picture of Queen Anne’s Bounty’s financial operations and identify and contextualise material investments in slave trading entities. 

“The legacy of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people is complex, emotional, sensitive. It was essential for us to be data-driven and evidence-based when analysing the historic links through our predecessor fund. We were saddened by, and ashamed of, what we learned, and we are deeply sorry for these links. We recognise that this work enables us to set an example of moral leadership, rigorous scholarship and meaningful action that other organisations committed to a better, fairer future could also follow.”

The Church Commissioners for England

The results

We found that Queen Anne’s Bounty, had purchased investments in an entity called the South Sea Company, which is known to have transported over 34,000 enslaved persons across the Atlantic.

The South Sea Company ceased trading in enslaved people in 1739, at which point the bounty had invested £443 million (in today's terms). The bounty continued to invest in the South Sea Company until the late 18th century. In total these investments generated income of £1.4 billion (in today's terms) for the bounty.

We also found that the bounty received many donations, known as benefactions, from individuals who had links to transatlantic slavery. This includes well-known individuals such as Edward Colston (whose statue was famously toppled into Bristol Harbour during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020).

The money from benefactions was used to purchase land and property. We traced a sample of these assets to determine whether they were still held in the Church’s endowment fund today. Based on this sample we concluded that it is likely that most, if not all, of the property assets, are no longer held by the Church.

In response to our findings, the Church Commissioners decided to make the information public. They did so in the Church Commissioners' research into historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery a report released in January 2023. This report gives credit to our team and explains the work in more detail. Alongside the report, an exhibition was opened at Lambeth Palace Library to showcase the historic records.

The Church also pledged £100 million over the next nine years to “invest for a better and fairer future for all” and focus on “opportunities for communities adversely impacted by historic slavery”.

"This was one of the most unique, significant and sobering assignments of my career and I am proud to have been involved in it. Although we faced many challenges, our team did an outstanding job of distilling and analysing financial records, some of which had not been looked at in over 200 years! In so doing, we were able to bring clarity to a complex and emotive issue for our client. I also hope that we have played a small role in increasing society's understanding of this part of history."

Tristan Yelland, Director at Grant Thornton UK LLP

This project is an example of the value that forensic accountants can bring to complex problems.

The Church Commissioners approached us with a sensitive assignment that appeared highly unusual at its outset, due to its subject matter and its source material. However, by drawing on our team's core forensic skillset we were able to pilot a robust forensic, data-driven approach that gave our client deep insights.

For more information please contact Tristan Yelland or Kathryn Milward.

About our team

Our investigations team helps clients by analysing and distilling large and diverse datasets and presenting our findings in a clear, methodical way. This provides boards, with the information they need to assess situations and make decisions that are data-driven and evidence-based.

Tristan Yelland

Tristan Yelland