Culture wars in country houses: what the National Trust controversy tells us about British history today

We invited Charlotte Lydia Riley to write this blog essay reflecting on one of the current hot issues in debates over Britain’s history: the attack on the National Trust’s ‘Colonialism and Historic Slavery Report.’ The National Trust is one of many British institutions that have taken seriously the work of addressing difficult aspects of their histories through an engagement with relevant archives including our LBS database. Some of the others include the National Trust for Scotland, the Church of England, the Bank of England, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, University College London, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the University of Glasgow, King’s College London and City University. A great many well-known businesses have also demonstrated their commitment to the importance of confronting, rather than avoiding, the multiple historic links between their institutions and the business and politics of slavery and empire. Reckoning with Britain’s slavery past has been a governing principle of the work of LBS and we welcome the interventions made by these various bodies. But when their efforts are regrettably subjected to public invective for their findings, it is a concern for all of us committed to historical truth. Far from being congratulated, the ‘Colonialism and Historic Slavery Report’ has been attacked for its honesty and determination to broaden the histories they make available to their visitors and provide more exploration of the complex pasts of the properties they curate and the people who occupied them. Responses to the report are discussed in Charlotte Riley’s insightful piece, which we are glad to present here. Riley’s article reinforces how crucially important rigorous scholarship is for how we present stories of the past. Whatever the discomfort of these stories, their telling is our obligation to the public and we must always take it seriously.

Culture wars in country houses: what the National Trust controversy tells us about British history today

by Charlotte Riley

In September 2020, the National Trust (NT) published on their website a report that represented a significant body of research and an important milestone in the history of the organisation. The Colonialism and Historic Slavery report, was edited by Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Dr Christo Kefalos and Emma Slocombe — all NT curators — and Professor Corinne Fowler, a historian at the University of Leicester who heads the Colonial Countryside project. It brought together the work of eleven authors, and represented a collaborative process that had drawn on expertise from a large number of academics and NT staff.

The report set out to establish the colonial connections of NT properties, with a particular focus on connections with the transatlantic slave trade. Some of the work in the report draws directly on the research done by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, and the work to trace slavery and empire back to the metropole sits more widely within the “new imperial history” approach to British history, which explores how empire impacted on the metropole as well as vice versa.

After a series of interesting accessible pieces that explore the intersections between colonial history with the history of the country house and heritage properties, the report includes a gazetteer of key properties that have connections to the histories of colonialism and the slave trade. Speke Hall in Merseyside was variously owned by a pro-slavery MP, Sir William Norris, and a plantation owner and rum and sugar trader, Richard Watt, who financed slave-trading passages and purchased his own ship to trade in enslaved peoples himself before passing the hall and plantations to his descendants, who received compensation following the abolition of slavery in 1834. This is a house that is deeply implicated in the violent and exploitative history of slavery.  But the report includes a number of properties where the relationship to colonialism or slavery is slightly different. For example, John Aislabie of Studley Hall (an NT property with Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire) was a key figure in the South Sea Bubble, and it is for this reason that these properties appear on the list. Allan Bank, in Cumbria, was home for a time to William Wordsworth; he and his sister Dorothy were vocal in their opposition to the slave trade, although their brother was a commander in the East India Company. Bath Assembly Rooms was funded by subscription, including by people who profited from slave-ownership, but the entry also notes that Jane Austen, the niece of one of the subscribers, wrote positively about a black servant working in Britain, and that William Wilberforce made an ‘animated and effective’ anti-slavery speech in the hall. This nuanced work seeks to thoughtfully establish the texture of the connections between empire and metropole.

Speke Hall, Merseyside (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this, the report was immediately controversial among certain sections of the press and the British political establishment, not least for the inclusion of Chartwell in the gazetteer because of Winston Churchill’s vote against the 1935 India Bill that would have granted the colony dominion status. The first Telegraph headline on the report was ‘Churchill’s Home on BLM List of Shame’; the Daily Express reported that Jacob Rees Mogg had called the NT ‘shamefaced’ and that Ann Widdecombe had ‘raged’ against the ‘smearing’ of Churchill. The Spectator called the report a ‘shameful manifesto’; after its first story, the Telegraph ran a series of pieces decrying the report as ‘woke nonsense’, ‘self-flagellation’ and ‘depthless virtue signalling’.[1] National Trust members were encouraged to complain to the organisation; many of them also sought out individuals, particularly Hilary McGrady (the Director General of the National Trust) and Professor Corinne Fowler, to target with complaint and abuse. Both women have been called upon to defend themselves and have done so eloquently; they have pointed out that this is not a simplistic attack on British history but is an attempt to tell stories that reflect, as McGrady put it, the ‘true complexities of our past’ as a nation.

But why should a report, based on diligent academic research, cause such outrage? The answer is that British history has become a battleground in a culture war that seeks to carve out two sides on every topic. One side values patriotism, tradition, common-sense; they see British history as a story of victories to be celebrated (indeed, the group within the Conservative Party that seeks to defend this position has named itself the Common Sense Group).  They mass themselves against the side of the ‘woke’, a term that has been appropriated from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to attack any attempt to explain the complexities of British history, or to recognise the grim legacies of imperialism and racism (or, indeed, the histories of class inequality or gender oppression). One familiar ‘common sense’ argument is that we cannot judge people from the past by ‘modern standards’, implying that we have come so far that we cannot exercise any critical analysis of the actions of our ancestors. And yet somehow a whiggish narrative of progress is not enough; in fact, we must never call attention to the elements of British history that might seem shameful in comparison to the present. As far as these culture warriors are concerned, British history is a pageant of spectacular successes, of humanitarian concern, of tolerance and diversity, but also military might, economic prowess, imperial power (but never violence), and cultural greatness. In this telling, we can remember Britain proudly as the nation that abolished the transatlantic slave trade, without ever being asked to think about its history as a slave-trading nation or as consumer of commodities produced in its colonies by unfree labourers.

The NT report was also received in the context of a much wider reassessment of Britain’s imperial heritage. Museums, galleries and other heritage sites have come under increasing pressure to be explicit about their colonial connections, and the ways that their collections were either funded by, or comprise, spoils looted from imperial spaces and peoples. People like Alice Proctor, who runs the Uncomfortable Art Tours in which museum visitors are given an alternative commentary on the politics of display in these institutions, or Subhadra Das, who has been a key figure in the work to force UCL to face up to its historic connections to Eugenics and race science, or Dan Hicks, whose recent book The Brutish Museum held his institution, the Pitt Rivers museum, to account for its role in the looting of the Benin Bronzes, are increasingly demanding that institutions work towards ‘decolonising’ their collections. They are also working around institutional structures to speak truth to heritage audiences about the complex colonial histories that have hitherto been left out of official accounts.

As well as these shifts in the world of heritage and academic history, the NT produced its report against a backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, which coalesced in Britain around the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol harbour. This act was so threatening to many commentators because it challenged their simplistic, celebratory view of British history. This is why they criticised these activists for trying to ‘rewrite’ history, and argued that pulling down statues is not only destroying British heritage but also preventing people from learning about the past. The fact that historians rewrite history for a living, the fact that statues are not effective means of educating the public (and are designed to resist attempts at contextualisation) is irrelevant, because these arguments are not being made in good faith. Instead, they are intended to delegitimize the work of experts in the field and to monster the actions of activists who are, in fact, engaging with history as they should: in a nuanced and complex manner.

Left to right: Teresia Khan, Lady Shirley, 1622, by Van Dyck (Petworth); Portrait of an unknown coachboy, late 18th century (Erddig); Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, 1922 (Polesden Lacey) © National Trust

The National Trust received a disproportionate amount of criticism for a report that simply set out the historical facts about imperial connections between colonies and metropole. Professor Corinne Fowler has experienced ridicule and anger from newspapers such as the Daily Mail, who have made her into a target, denigrated her work and set her up to receive more abuse. (Academics who take up a place in the culture wars battleground increasingly need to be prepared to experience this sort of abuse, and it is worse for women and worst for people of colour.)

Perhaps even more worryingly, the government itself has colluded in this culture war. A week after the NT report was released, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, warned museums that they ‘should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics’, hinting that if they removed ‘contentious’ artefacts they might find their funding cut in the upcoming Government Spending Review. On 13 February 2021, he announced to the Telegraph that he had summoned 25 heritage organisations to a summit at which they will be told ‘to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’. The same story said that the Colonial Countryside project would receive no further government funding, because ‘public funds must never be used for political purposes’. This is a chilling assault on academic freedom, all the more ironic for being revealed in a story that also announced that the government is creating a ‘free speech champion’ for university campuses.[2]

All history writing is political, and the work of uncovering Britain’s colonial connections might not be to the current government’s taste, but it is vital to our understanding of our nation’s past. The idea that the government can shut down historical research that tells stories that they do not want to hear should be resisted by all historians.