National Trust will keep majority of artefacts linked to slavery

National Trust will keep the majority of ‘distressing’ artefacts linked to slavery and colonialism on show in its 300 stately homes in bid to inspire ‘debate’

  • National Trust will keep statues relating to slavery but ‘will put them in context’ 
  • The trust will publish a report linking a third of homes to colonial racism 
  •  Many of the homes’ original owners built the properties with the proceeds from sugar plantations in the West Indies and elsewhere in the empire

The National Trust has decided to keep displays in its country houses linked to slavery on show to ‘encourage debate’. 

The announcement comes as the heritage conservation charity said its in the process of issuing a report, which has taken over a year to compile, which reveals that almost a third of stately homes are linked to slavery, the Times reports.  

On the 21 September the Trust plans to make the report public on its website, highlighting the sometimes brutal origins or wealth of some of the country’s stately homes and castles.  

Pictured: A statue of a black man holding a dish on his head at Dunham Massey stately home in Altrincham 

Many of the homes’ original owners built the properties with the proceeds from sugar plantations in the West Indies and elsewhere in the empire. 

The Times reported that the trust has surveyed almost 300 homes for the report. 

‘Some of this is difficult stuff,’ Tarnya Cooper, who has been involved in linking the properties’ pasts, told the Times. 

‘Some of the objects are really distressing because they come from a time when slavery was very much a part of this country and we’re such a different society now. 

‘I very much hope we can interpret these objects effectively, and, for the most part, they stay in situ. 

‘If we marginalise these histories and we take things away and we don’t have the confidence to talk about them, then that shuts down debate.’ 

The existing Penrhyn Castle was built in the early 19th century for George Hay Dawkins Pennant, whose wealth was inherited from slave owners.

The National Trust does not gloss over the castle’s past and on its website says: ‘Behind the formidable architecture, Victorian grandeur and fine interiors, present day Penrhyn Castle’s foundations were built on a dark history. One of exploitation, Jamaican sugar fortunes and the transatlantic slave trade.’

The Pennant family’s links with slavery began in the latter half of the 17th Century when Gifford Pennant, from Flintshire, bought estates in Jamaica where workers were enslaved.

Gifford’s son Edward became chief justice of Jamaica and his sons Samuel, Lord Mayor of London, and John, swelled the family’s estates during the early 1700s.

Richard Pennant, born in 1739, later became the 1st Baron Penrhyn and by 1805 owned nearly 1,000 slaves across his four Jamaican plantations.

As an MP, he was vocal in his opposition to the abolition of slavery. In the early nineteenth century, when Penrhyn Castle was being completed, the Pennants received £14,683 – around £1.3million in today’s money – for the freeing of 764 enslaved people in Jamaica.

A spokeswoman from the National Trust said: ‘The National Trust looks after places and collections that are linked to legacies of colonialism and slavery.

‘We have a lot of work to do to ensure these are fully explored and we are working with partners to address this through projects like Colonial Countryside, through our channels and content and exhibitions.

‘We have a long way to go but we’re working to bring out the often painful and challenging histories attached to our places and collections through interpretation and exploration.’ 

The trust invited members of the public for a listening exercise in June, wherein it was initially decided that a statue of a black man at Dunham Massey, in Cheshire, would be taken down. The statue will be returned to its place once the organisation can figure out how to display it in context, they added. 

Members of the public walk in the grounds of the National Trust’s Dunham Massey Park on March 20, 2020 in Altrincham, United Kingdom

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the trust conducted a series of events with school-aged children to see how they felt about the structures remaining. 

At Penhryhn Castle in Wales, students were asked to write essays on their own links to 1st Baron Penhryhn, the owner of the home and a man who owned over a thousand slaves. 

In another exercise, two children were asked to decide whether a statue of an enchained black man should be on display at Dyrham Park in Bristol. 

Corinne Fowler, of the University of Leicester, told the Times that one of the children, who’d gone very quiet after the question, wrote an ‘amazing’ poem in the voice of the black man.  

‘The house is going to put that poem in front of it so people can see that and interpret it in a more dignified way,’ Fowler said, adding that it ‘makes sense’ to start with the opinions of children. 

The admission comes shortly around a month after Black Lives Matter activists called for the removal of 60 statues of slave owners and racists across Britain.

Top of their target list was the statue of Cecil Rhodes and petitions also exist to remove the statue of slave-trading West India Docks founder Robert Milligan, and the statue of former Home Secretary Henry Dundas who delayed the abolition of slavery and that stands atop a column in Edinburgh.

But on a website called Topple The Racists, set up by Black Lives Matter activists, members are invited to propose other statues that should be torn down across Britain. 

Sprawling across acres of estate, Britain’s grand country houses attract millions of tourists each year eager to gain a glimpse of how the landed classes used to live.

But magnificent exteriors and rooms stuffed with riches often masks the murky history of the buildings and the people who owned them.

Many of the UK’s country residences were owned by or built for slave-owners or people profiting from colonial trade. 

Some of the houses do not gloss over their foundations, but many of the tourists who pour in through their doors will likely leave unaware of the building’s ties with slavery.

Following the recent Black Lives Matter protests, a debate has exploded over whether statues of controversial figures should stand or fall.

Nearly a decade ago, historians contributed to a Historic England project which examined the links of country houses to slavery.

The National Trust and English Heritage, which manages many of these houses, have both committed to giving visitors a rounded grounding in their history.

Below are some of the houses with historic links to the slave trade: 

Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire

Owner: English Heritage

The stunning Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire is a jewel in English Heritage’s portfolio of old country houses.

The existing Victorian building was erected in 1861 for Charles Sabine Thellusson, but the original estate was constructed in 1791 for merchant Peter Thellusson.

Thellusson’s family were originally financiers in Switzerland, but he moved to England in 1760 to oversee the family’s banks.

This role saw him provide loans to slave ship and plantation owners. As these slave owners defaulted on debts, Thellusson amassed interests in Caribbean plantations, according to the English Heritage website.

In 1790, just before Brodsworth Estate was built, he married the daughter of Antigua slave owner Sir Christopher Bethell-Codrington.

The Thellussons continued to own slaves in Grenada and Monsterrat until 1820.

The existing Victorian building of Brodsworth Hall was erected in 1861 for Charles Sabine Thellusson, but the original estate was constructed in 1791 for merchant Peter Thellusson

Ashton Court, Bristol

Owner: Bristol City Council

Ashton Court was until the 1950s owned by the Smyth family, which lived on the estate since it was purchased in 1545 by John Smyth, the former sheriff and mayor of Bristol.

Some historians reckon the Smythss involvement with the slave trade was as early as the 1630s, before Bristol became a focal point of colonial trade.

Jarrit Smyth, MP for Bristol in the mid 1700s was a member of the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers – the elite body which actively lobbied on behalf of Bristol participants in the African, American and West Indian trades.

The renovation of the house into the grand palatial home which stands today came about after the marriage of John Hugh Smyth to Rebecca Woolnough, the Jamaican heiress.

A £40,000 marriage settlement included a portfolio of properties in both England and Jamaica, such as the Spring sugar plantation.

From the sale of sugar at these plantations, John Hugh raked in over £17,000 between 1762-1802, according to experts.

Ashton Court was until the 1950s owned by the Smyth family, which has owned the estate since it was purchased by 1545 by John Smyth, the former sheriff and mayor of Bristol

Some historians reckon the Smythss involvement with the slave trade was as early as the 1630s, before even Bristol became a focal point of colonial trade

Northington Grange, Hampshire

Owner: English Heritage

The magnificent Grange at Northington, built in the mid 1660s, is a symbol of Greek revivalism in England and resembles an Athenian temple.

Throughout much of its history, the house has been owned by two political dynasties – the Drummonds and Barings – which historians from Historic England say root the Grange in ‘significant social and economic connections to Atlantic slavery’.

While the Drummonds, who purchased the Grange in 1787, and Barings, who owned the house from 1817, did not directly own slaves, the historians claim much of their wealth derived from slavery, because some of their banking clients were slave owners.

Caribbean plantation owners held accounts with Drummonds bank and Henry Drummond was Paymaster to the armed forces in North America and the Caribbean.

As an MP, Alexander Baring was an advocate for the free trade of cotton and sugar – then harvested by slaves on plantations – and he also opposed the immediate abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

Much of Alexander’s wealth was also sourced through his marriage into the Bingham family who had gained substantially through trade with the French Caribbean colony, Martinique.

As a partner of Baring Brothers bank, Alexander also profited from the expansion of slavery across the American South through funding of the Louisiana Purchase in 1802.

The magnificent Grange at Northington, built in the mid 1660s, is a symbol of Greek revivalism in England and is likened to a Athenian temple

Leigh Court, Abbots Leigh, Bristol

Owner: Events venue

Now a conference centre and wedding venue, the Palladian mansion was originally built in 1814 for Philip John Miles.

Miles inherited his father Williams Caribbean plantations to become Bristol first sugar millionaire and largest West India merchant, according to Historic England academics.

Hundreds of Africans were enslaved at plantations, including the ones at Vallay and Rhodes Hall, according to family business papers in the mid 1700s.

Slave Compensation Records also show Miles claimed over £36,000 for the 1,700 African slaves at plantations in Jamaica and Trinidad in 1830s.

Now a conference centre and wedding venue, the Palladian mansion was originally built in 1814 for Philip John Miles

Marble Hill House, Twickenham

Owner: English Heritage

This sprawling Palladian home, set in 66 acres of land, was built in 1724 for Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk.

It is described by the English Heritage as the ‘last complete survivor of the elegant villas and gardens which bordered the Thames between Richmond and Hampton Court in the 18th century’.

Howard was a notorious mistress of King George II when he was Prince of Wales, and received a windfall from the Crown when she left the court in 1722.

The bulk of this settlement was £11,500 of stock, of which over two-thirds were shares in the South Sea Company, according to Historic England research.

South Sea Company was heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which historians say ‘was therefore crucial in funding both the acquisition of the land and the building of Marble Hill House.’

Later owners of the house also had strong links to the slave trade, and the use of mahogany material for the interior, including the grand staircase, was being harvested by slaves during the 1720s.

This sprawling Palladian home, set in 66 acres of land, was built in 1724 for Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk

Ham Green House, Bristol

Owner: Penny Brohn Cancer Care Centre

The home was originally built in the early 18th century by West Indian slave trader Richard Meyler before being passed through marriage to Bristol MP Henry Bright, who opposed the emancipation of slaves.

His son, Richard Bright continued his father’s business in Jamaica and owned the Meylersfield, Beeston Spring and Garredu plantations.

In 1818 the plantations were given to his younger son Robert, who profited from slave compensation.

Ham House still has a mooring for the Bright ships which voyaged regularly to the West Indies, according to researchers.

The home was originally built in the early 18th century by West Indian slave trader Richard Meyler before being passed through marriage to Bristol MP Henry Bright, who opposed the emancipation of slaves

Clevedon Court, Somerset

Owner: National Trust

Clevedon Court is a 14th Century manor house which was bought and restorated by parliamentarian and Mayor of Bristol Sir Abraham Elton in 1709.

But Historic England researchers say his role as Master of Bristol’s Merchant Venturers and investment in the brass industry ties him with the Guinea trade.

Records from 1711 also list Abraham Elton as an investor in the Jason Galley slave ship, although it is murky whether this was him or his son.

His son, Abraham, also invested in slave ships along with brothers Isaac and Jacob, according to the research, which found the siblings lobbied Parliament in their role as traders against slave duties in 1731 and 1738.

The Elton family was still profiting from slave-produced sugar in the late 18th century, but were not listed as claimants at the time of emancipation.

Clevedon Court is a 14th Century manor house which was bought and restorated by parliamentarian and Mayor of Bristol Sir Abraham Elton in 1709

Kings Weston estate, Gloucestershire

Owner: Norman Routledge

The grand Kings Weston Estate in Gloucestershire is now a wedding venue, but centuries ago in the 1600s was owned by merchant and MP Sir Humphrey Hooke, who had ties with Barbados and Virginia.

The present house was built in 1708 by Sir John Vanbrugh for Bristol MP Robert Southwell, who bought Kings Weston in 1708.

Southwell and his son Edward were government officials in the administration of West Indian affairs, and Edward’s son, also Edward, promoted the interest of Bristol’s merchants in Africa and the West Indes during his spell as an MP.

In the 19th Century, Kings Weston was bought by Philip John Miles, the slave owner who also owned Ashton Court in Bristol.

The grand Kings Weston Estate in Gloucestershire is now a wedding venue, but centuries ago in the 1600s was owned by merchant and MP Sir Humphrey Hooke, who had ties with Barbados and Virginia

A spokeswoman for English Heritage said: ‘The British country house is often seen as symbol of refinement and civility.

‘However, it is only in the last 20 years that the relationship between landed wealth, British properties and enslaved African labour has begun to be fully explored.

‘English Heritage has actively commissioned research into the links between slavery and its properties, in an effort to help communicate this difficult history.

‘For example although not a slave trader himself, Peter Thellusson at South Yorkshire’s Brodsworth Hall, invested in wide varieties of slavery-related commodities and land.

‘Marble Hill in Twickenham and Northington Grange in Hampshire both historically had financial ties to Atlantic slavery.

‘While at Kenwood House in London, owner Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice, presided over a number of court cases that examined the legality of the slave trade.

‘He ruled in 1772 that slavers could not forcibly send any slaves in England out of the country, a significant point along the road to abolition.

‘English Heritage is committed to telling the full story of the sites in its care, including those elements that are painful today.’

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