Britain’s Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker History

Nathan Law

The National Trust, more than any other institution, helped to create the idealized version of the English country house. Almost every historian I spoke to supported the charity’s decision to reinterpret its properties, but many also observed that it did not have a choice. “They didn’t decide to do those […]

The National Trust, more than any other institution, helped to create the idealized version of the English country house. Almost every historian I spoke to supported the charity’s decision to reinterpret its properties, but many also observed that it did not have a choice. “They didn’t decide to do those changes out of the graciousness of their hearts,” Otele said. “The National Trust was known by all minority communities as a white environment that was hostile—silently hostile—to people, simply in absentia.”

Given Britain’s changing demographics and the weight of recent decades of colonial history, the elisions of the past were no longer tenable. The National Trust has been forced to explode a myth of its own making. But many English people preferred the myth as it was. “It’s the country’s reputation—period drama, Churchill, country houses. So when you touch those things, it’s incredibly disheartening,” Otele said.

On July 19, 1934, the eleventh Marquess of Lothian addressed the annual general meeting of the National Trust, at the Inner Temple, in London. Lothian, a noted appeaser of Adolf Hitler, had inherited four country houses a few years earlier and could not afford to keep them. Between 1894 and 1930, inheritance taxes on Britain’s landed estates had risen from eight per cent to fifty per cent. For the first time in several centuries, the country’s aristocracy and great landowners struggled to pass on their magnificent houses and gardens. Lothian came to the Trust with an idea: that entire estates, intact with their furniture and paintings, could be left to the charity—and later opened to the visiting public—instead of breaking them up to pay the taxes. “In Europe there are many magnificent castles and imposing palaces,” Lothian told the Trust, which then had five employees. “But nowhere, I think, are there so many or such beautiful country manor houses and gardens, and nowhere, I think, have such houses played so profound a part in molding the national character and life.”

Lothian’s speech led to the creation of the National Trust’s celebrated Country House Scheme, through which hundreds of properties were later donated, with endowments for their upkeep, for the benefit of the nation—often with family members staying on as tenants, in a quiet wing. In 1936, the Trust hired James Lees-Milne, an enigmatic and deeply charming man, as the first secretary of the scheme, and his diaries of cycling through the countryside, coaxing dilapidated treasures from the hands of dowagers and elderly baronets, remain an unmatched description of the twilight of the English upper class.

The acquisitions transformed the Trust, which had previously focussed on preserving open land and humbler, historic places while opposing urban sprawl. “We all need space,” Octavia Hill, one of the Trust’s three founders, wrote in 1875. “Unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.” After the Second World War, the organization became more overtly conservative. It was run almost exclusively by Old Etonians. Membership rose, and grand manors and their art collections went from being totems of an unequal, class-bound society to representing a form of collective cultural achievement.

Saving them became a national pastime, punctuated by moments of panic. In 1974, the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted “The Destruction of the Country House,” a polemical exhibition in which visitors passed through a “Hall of Lost Houses,” where photographs of around a thousand manors, demolished in the twentieth century, were attached to pieces of broken masonry. A tape recording intoned their names. The curators described the country house as “England’s unique contribution to the visual arts.” In 1981, the television adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited,” filmed at Castle Howard, in Yorkshire, ached for the vanished lives of aristocrats, their gardens, and their picnics. (Castle Howard remains in private hands, along with at least a thousand other historic houses and castles in Britain—three times the number owned by the National Trust.)

Four years later, the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., staged “The Treasure Houses of Britain”—a show of seven hundred works of art from two hundred country houses—whose insurance costs were partly underwritten by the British government. In the space of five months, almost a million people attended, including the Prince and Princess of Wales. “In all humility,” Gaillard Ravenel, the gallery’s chief of design, told the Washington Post, “it is the most fabulous exhibition that has ever been done in any museum anywhere in the world.”

For many years, the National Trust’s houses were presented as their owners had left them. “Nothing is more melancholy,” Lothian argued in 1934, “than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums, swept, garnished, dead, lifeless shells, containing no children’s voices, none of the hopes and sorrows of family life.” The charity had neither the means nor the expertise to do much else. It was also a matter of politeness. Many donors were still alive. “One wouldn’t want to write things or present things in a way that they might think was tactless,” Merlin Waterson, who worked for the Trust from 1971 to 2004, told me.

Even so, the idea of the country house did not remain entirely static. In 1973, Waterson handled the donation of Erddig Hall, a sixty-five-room mansion outside Wrexham, in Wales. Erddig’s last owner, Philip Yorke III, had lived in two rooms, with a small generator, while the estate slowly sank into grounds that had been hollowed out by mining. But the house had an extraordinary collection. Since 1791, the Yorke family had commissioned paintings, and then photographs, of its servants. One of the oldest portraits was of Jane Ebrell, an eighty-seven-year-old housemaid and “spider-brusher” known as “the Mother of us all.” Edward Barnes, Erddig’s woodman in 1830, was also commemorated in verse: “Long may He keep the Woods in Order, / To weed a walk, or trim a Border.”

When Erddig opened to the public, in 1977, the Trust displayed the servants’ quarters and the kitchens with as much care as its formal apartments. Waterson oversaw the restoration. “It did make a stir at the time,” he recalled. “And that really was because of the way it presented the lives of the people living in the house, and didn’t just concentrate on the very fine furniture.” You can draw a line from Erddig Hall winning Britain’s Museum of the Year prize in 1978 to the success of “Downton Abbey,” in the twenty-tens, for their accommodation of class into the story of the country house. Almost every National Trust house now “tells the upstairs-downstairs,” as one manager put it, and it is often the most popular part of the visitor experience. “It’s the relevance,” the manager said. “The average visitor might come and say, ‘I’m probably more likely to descend from the chauffeur or the groomsmen than I am to be from the lady.’ ”

Recognizing the existence of working people on great estates helped to shore up the idea of the country houses as places of shared memory. “Yes, we acknowledge that there are tensions . . . but, ultimately, everyone was on board, because class could be assimilated into the project of Englishness, right?” Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of post-colonial studies at the University of Cambridge, said. “Race doesn’t allow that.” The spoils of enslavement and colonial power, and how they were fashioned into perfect English settings, posed harder questions, which the Trust took longer to appreciate.

In the two-thousands, a group of researchers at University College London began digitizing the names of nineteenth-century slaveholders. Under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British government had agreed to pay twenty million pounds, the equivalent of forty per cent of its annual budget, to compensate plantation owners, and absentee investors, for the loss of their human property. Dividing the money involved a complex series of simultaneous equations: to work out the price of a driver in Barbados compared with that of an enslaved child in St. Kitts. The British government finished paying off the debt in 2015. Some of the paperwork had already been seen by historians. Eric Williams, a scholar and a former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, whose book “Capitalism and Slavery,” from 1944, argued that slavery provided the capital to finance the Industrial Revolution, consulted a version of the records in the thirties. But the data had not been properly analyzed. When Nick Draper, a retired banker who led the U.C.L. team, requested the first of six hundred and fifty Treasury files from the National Archives, at Kew, many of the original silk ties around the documents were still in place. “It was clear to me that they hadn’t been touched,” he said.

Cartoon by Harry Bliss

The Legacies of British Slavery database, which went online in 2013, contained the names of around four thousand slaveholders based in Britain who claimed compensation in 1834. (The project has since grown to trace twelve thousand estates in the Caribbean, the Cape of Good Hope, and Mauritius back to 1763, and some sixty-two thousand owners.) For the first time, there was an accurate—and undeniable—view of the prevalence of slaveholding in Britain at the moment of its abolition. Eighty-seven Members of Parliament (around one in eight) were involved in the compensation process, either directly or as relatives of claimants, along with a quarter of the directors of the Bank of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury received nine thousand pounds for the loss of four hundred and eleven slaves. “We do not maintain that the slave-owners created modern Britain,” Draper, Catherine Hall, and Keith McClelland, the other leaders of the project, wrote. “But we do not think that the making of Victorian Britain can be understood without reference to those slave-owners.”

It was no surprise to see that compensation money—and, by implication, the economic proceeds of slavery before that—had also reached Britain’s country estates. In November, 2009, Draper gave a paper at “Slavery and the British Country House,” a conference held at the London School of Economics, estimating that in the eighteen-thirties between five and ten per cent of country houses were occupied by slaveholders. The building of the database coincided with the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, which had prompted a range of related research projects across the heritage industry. (Sobers and Mitchell presented their work on Dyrham Park at the same conference.) In 2007, the Lascelles family, the aristocratic owners of Harewood House, in Yorkshire, invited historians to study its collection of plantation records and slave registers, from across the West Indies, some of which had been discovered next to a coke boiler. English Heritage, an organization that manages such sites as Stonehenge, commissioned research into thirty-three of its properties with potential links to slavery.

In 2014, Stephanie Barczewski, a professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina, enlarged the field by considering the interaction between estates and the colonial project as a whole. In her book “Country Houses and the British Empire, 1700-1930,” Barczewski estimated that up to one in six manors were bought with the proceeds of imperialism, with at least two hundred and twenty-nine purchased by officials and merchants returning from India.

The National Trust and its leadership were slow to engage with either the slavery or the colonial-research agenda. “We had low-level conversations with them for some years,” Draper recalled. (He retired from the database project two years ago.) “But nothing happened.” Part of the reason was structural. The Trust has always had a small team of central staff, with properties given considerable autonomy—and limited budgets—in order to mount their own exhibitions. The charity’s volunteers tend to have fixed ideas about the stories that they like to tell. It was left up to individual curators, who sometimes worked with external academics, to alter interpretation panels in houses, or to pitch small-scale projects. In 2018, the Trust agreed to host Colonial Countryside, a series of workshops for children and writers at eleven of its properties, led by Corinne Fowler, a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Leicester. Fowler was assisted by Miranda Kaufmann, a historian who had helped carry out English Heritage’s slavery research, and Katie Donington, who spent six years working on the U.C.L. database.

One of the houses involved in Colonial Countryside was Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, in North Wales. At the end of the eighteenth century, Richard Pennant, the first Baron Penrhyn, plowed his family’s wealth, which came from sugar plantations in Jamaica, into the Welsh slate industry. Pennant never met or saw the thousand people whom he owned. When his father fell ill, a live turtle was boxed up and sent across the Atlantic to be made into soup to help him feel better. “Why would you not be interested in a story like that?” Fowler asked me, the first time we met, on Zoom. “This is the kind of detail of it that really brings that history to life, but which is also refreshingly unfamiliar.” In November, 2018, the Trust hosted a meeting of researchers to discuss a possible national program that would address its properties’ connections to transatlantic slavery and colonial rule. Kaufmann suggested that the charity start with an audit.

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