On a short holiday up to North Yorkshire, I’ve been eager to start using my National Trust membership again. For non-British readers, the National Trust is one of the main heritage charities in the UK that cares for hundreds of buildings, gardens, wildlife areas, coastline and historic houses across the country. It has recently been subject to controversy in British media for daring to explain that the history of some of its collections in English houses and stately homes have historic links to slavery and other less salubrious characters and activities in British history.
It amazes me that any of this should be controversial. It is a simple matter of historic fact that a significant number of the collections, houses, gardens and parklands in the National Trust’s care were created or remodelled as expressions of the taste and wealth, as well as power and privilege, that derived from colonial connections and in some cases from the trade in enslaved people. How do people really think 18th and 19th century industrialists and entrepreneurs afforded their country piles without the generation of wealth and capital, including other forms of what we would now consider exploitative labour in the UK in factories, mills and mines for white people as well? The past is sometimes messy and complex; there is good, bad and the ugly for the historian to inquire into and the National Trust has been extremely diligent in its research into the sometimes-uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history since the sixteenth century or even earlier.
Perhaps some people just want a rose-tinted view of their country’s history and you can see why this might be a problem if a simplistic flag waving view of historical figures and their buccaneering exploits is hijacked by malign forces, or media and politicians with an agenda. Or you just don’t want your world view and brain challenged. However if you are genuinely interested in history and study it as a discipline, you hopefully have an inquisitive mind, interested in the context as well as the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ with the aim of learning from the past and understanding it. You should be interested in evaluating evidence, conducting research, and seeing what conclusions about an event that evidence can support and making your arguments for and against.
But I think the joy of the National Trust’s work is that it is prepared to explain all sorts of contexts to the places in its care including the histories of place, architecture, families, estates, staff, communities, artisanal practice as well as art, furniture and fashion collections told from a variety of perspectives. You only have to see the popularity of television dramas like Downton Abbey (set here in Yorkshire) and Netflix’s Bridgerton (perhaps these are to blame?) to realise there is a deep fascination with the English country house, and the social-economic situations of the people who serviced these estates and their aristocracy. Especially so if like many British people your ancestors worked the land, including the estates of the gentry; and then as the agricultural and industrial revolutions progressed, those ancestors or their children moved to industrial towns and cities to serve a new bunch of masters busy producing manufactured goods for the Britain and its empire. Delve into your family history and a common occupation in the 1841 census for the English is an agricultural labourer, but towards 1900 other trades, occupations, including in factories become common in census records.
Yet, as if emphasising the complexity of this history, the Trust’s own research shows that interesting evidence exists about the presence of African, Asian and Chinese people working on English and Welsh estates. It has also shown that a number of properties can be connected to support for the abolition of the slave trade, including Peckover House, Mount Stewart and Sudbury Hall – or for the campaign against colonial oppression, as at Lyveden. So full credit to the Trust for challenging perceived wisdom and assumptions about the making of modern Britain. This is also what history is about.
Today I have been to Nunnington Hall, and one of its past occupants, Colonel Fife had the dubious pleasure of shooting lots of wildlife, elephants and rhinos in Africa. For evidence of this just look at all the tusks and antelope heads on the walls! This man contributed to a degradation of wildlife that means some species that he shot for sport and trophies are now massively endangered, if not close to extinction. Lots of people today are rightly concerned about the environment and the impact of human beings on wildlife – so the National Trust in drawing attention to this in an exhibition at the property is highlighting relevant history in the harm some British gentry did to the environment in one part of the British empire. They also explain the other history and biographies of other occupants of this place, so visitors get a rounded complete view of the property’s history.
The National Trust says, “Nunnington Hall was purchased in 1839 by William Rutson (1791–1867). William was the main beneficiary of his father’s will, and his personal wealth can be directly connected to his father’s business activities. The family of William’s wife, Charlotte Mary Ewart (1803–1881), were linked through business to the Rutsons. Rutson’s grandfather, who was also called William Rutson (1738–93), was a cotton merchant and slave-trader who operated from Liverpool as a partner in the firm Backhouse and Rutson, described as ‘African traders’. Between 1780 and 1793, William the Elder was involved in financing, or part-financing, at least 42 voyages transporting enslaved Africans. William Rutson’s father, William Calton Rutson (d.1817) and Charlotte’s father William Ewart (1763–1823) were partners in Ewart Rutson & Co. (later Ewart Myers & Co.), which traded in goods produced by enslaved labour, particularly sugar and cotton. It also acted as a consignee for slave-owners and in 1807 was party to power of attorney to William Barton of Liverpool ‘to obtain possession of estates on Barbados’. In 1817, at least two of the partners had a claim for £15,000 as lenders of mortgages secured on Saddle Hill, a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. In September 1835, Ewart Myers & Co., which included several members of Charlotte Mary’s family, were mortgagees-in-trust at Long Lane Delp’s sugar plantation in Antigua, receiving £2,790 8s.8d. as compensation for the land and 213 enslaved people (following abolition).”
I think two things can be true. It is entirely possible to view a British country house as embodying a way of living and a certain kind of (middle/upper class) Britishness (and most often, Englishness). This ‘English history’ is a history of grand architecture, interiors, collections, landscapes and gardens that located the country house as a site of precious heritage. There is nothing wrong with that view. But the country house is also a dynamic site, in which global and national histories played out in a local setting and cannot overlook the origins of the wealth that helped fund those places, spaces and collections nor omit the complex sets of transnational influences that lay behind the design of buildings, gardens and parklands, and so many of the plants and collections that filled them.
But please don’t feign surprise, as part of a 21st century culture war, when you learn some National Trust properties have an ugly history too. The practice of enslaving African people was a fundamental part of the British economy in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Large numbers of landowners and members of the wealthy middle classes invested in commerce that was linked directly to the slave trade, including sugar production in the Caribbean, and many people with surplus funds had investments in merchant companies involved in the slave trade, such as the South Sea Company and the Royal African Company. If this was a surprise as you rotted your brain reading the pages of the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph busy criticising the Trust’s impeccable research and experts, perhaps you need to invest in a National Trust membership?