The National Trust’s report into connections between historic houses in its care and the slave trade has come at one of the most turbulent moments in the charity’s 125-year history.
In Britain, this summer saw protests which defaced Churchill’s statue and chucked that of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston into the cold waters of the River Avon. Meanwhile, a 60-group of Tory MPs launched the Common Sense Group to confront “the woke agenda”.
Amongst the institutions in their sights was the National Trust. They condemned its report as “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma”. Britain’s historic heritage has rarely been so tussled-over – or contentious. But what does this document actually say, and what does it recommend?
Who wrote the report?
The report has 11 joint authors, most of whom are academics and curators. And it is edited by four prominent figures in the world of curation: Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator of National Trust; Professor Corinne Fowler from the University of Leicester; Dr Christo Kefalas, World Cultures Curator at the National Trust, and Emma Slocombe, Textile Curator at the National Trust.
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, a former trustee, provides the foreword. He writes: “What we do is not just about beautiful things, it has the potential to operate as the glue that meaningfully binds us as a people.”
Hayford cites the “founding aspirations” of Octavia Hill, the Victorian social reformer who established the Trust. Hill, he claims, saw the role of the Trust as “to constantly push at boundaries, to never be complacent, but to have the conscious aim to be ever more inclusive”. He concludes that the Trust should therefore “thoughtfully prune, pollard, train and graft to remain healthy, sensitive and relevant”.
What is its scope?
The Trust commissioned the 115-page report to “do justice to the true complexity of the past, present and future, and the sometimes-uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history since the sixteenth century or even earlier”.
This sweeping remit continues: “We intend to work with individuals and communities in order to share stories that have been forgotten, obscured, overlooked or insufficiently explored at many of our places.” The report identifies 29 properties with links to successful compensation claims from the slave trade. And it finds that “one-third of properties can be directly connected to colonial histories”.
But it also explores “the presence of African, Asian and Chinese people working on English and Welsh estates”. And it tips its hat to more enlightened owners, such as those of Peckover House and Sudbury Hall, who fought for abolition – “or for the campaign against colonial oppression, as at Lyveden.”
Buried in its introduction is a brief admission that this sleuthing might not be to all its members’ tastes: “these histories of slavery, legacies of colonialism and the lives of people of colour are not the only stories that we will tell.” Instead, it will continue to interpret “our remarkable collections told from a variety of perspectives”.
What does it say?
The report consists of 10 essays, ranging from an investigation into the legacy of the British Raj after 1857 to role of cotton and industrialisation. Along the way, the usual landmarks – and villains – are namechecked: the East India Company, the slave-trading roots of the Bank of England, and Downton Abbey.
Dr Huxtable, an expert of textiles and design, establishes the tone in the first essay. She dismisses the view that the “the British country house was frequently perceived as embodying a way of living and a certain kind of Britishness”. And she pours scorn on the success of Julian Fellowes’s barnstorming soap. The “so-called ‘Downton Abbey effect’” has, she writes, had the consequence of de-contextualising these properties; they’ve become a “supposedly passive backdrop of the properties, collections, gardens and parklands”.
She wants something more vigorous: the country house should be seen as “a dynamic site, in which global and national histories played out in a local setting”. Out with Austen’s cloistered drawing rooms, then, and in with “complex sets of transnational influences that lay behind the design of buildings, gardens and parklands”.
The other essays in the report largely follow her lead. There are few shades of grey: for the most part, there are heroes and villains, oppressors and the exploited. The Trust’s properties are read as instruments and representations of power – and, in particular, of economic clout. “The influence of the inhabitants of country houses, and the ways that owning country houses helped them to consolidate that power, should not be underestimated.”
The other aspects of these properties that might appeal to members – their aesthetic beauty, or even the scones – fade into the distance.
Which properties are investigated?
The history of slavery is “still writ large on the British landscape”, the report argues. Many of the properties under consideration will be familiar. The owner of Millcombe Villa on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, William Hudson Heaven, for instance, was awarded £11,739 in compensation after abolition. George Hay Dawkins-Pennant received £14,683 – funds which he partially used to construct Penrhyn Castle in north Wales.
Meanwhile, Basildon Park, a solid pile in Berkshire, was purchased by Francis Sykes, one of the “nabobs” who returned to England having made his fortune with the East India Company. He also came back with an Indian servant – to whom he left seven shillings a week in his will.
The Bath Assembly Rooms are singled out. James Leigh-Perrot, Jane Austen’s maternal uncle, helped fund their construction. And his wife, Jane Leigh-Perrot, was heiress to her father’s Jamaican plantations. But the Assembly Rooms played a part in the Abolition movement, too. In 1830, William Wilberforce spoke at an anti-slavery meeting there.
As has been widely reported, Churchill’s country house of Chartwell comes under scrutiny. He was not guilty of involvement in the slave trade, the report admits. But it nonetheless quotes the historian Robert Rhodes James: “Churchill lived ‘an exceptionally long, complex and controversial life’”.
The report also traces less tangible legacies. The “extravagant” collection of Richard Grenville, a vast hoard of prints, books and manuscripts, was partly financed through inherited compensation from his family’s part in the slave trade. It was sold off in 1848 – the “great Stowe sale” – to pay his debts, and now can be seen in the British Museum and British Library.
The report builds upon a handful of separate papers and conferences, begun in 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. It is earnest and deeply researched – each essay bristles with footnotes and the bibliography stretches over four pages.
What is less clear is exactly what it hopes to achieve. The report demonstrates forcefully that the 29 country houses surveyed were inextricable from the fabric of British history – good and bad. They hosted abolitionists and slave traders, vigorous campaigners and feckless landowners.
But no clear path is suggested through these entangled legacies. Instead, there is a promise to set up “an independent external advisory group of heritage and academic experts”, in order to chart a course and “communicate the histories and stories we share in a sensitive and thoughtful way”.
In other words, another report is not off the cards.