Burned by political expedience
Clandon Park remains a shell after it was gutted by fire six years ago. Now the National Trust is telling a one-sided story about its past
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
It came as a shock when I received a call from a friend to inform me that some of my forebears from many, many moons ago have been named and shamed as profiting from the slave trade.
This wasn’t the result of the publication of new information, nor was it the product of assiduous research. It was, in fact, a declaration made by the National Trust, the charity to which Arthur Onslow, the sixth Earl, donated his home, Clandon Park, in 1956. At that time, his sister donated about £1 million in today’s money — the Onslows were too cash-strapped to come up with the resources that the National Trust required to take on the property.
I checked online, and sure enough, “Clandon Park: A House Built on the Profits of Slavery” is emblazoned across the Trust’s website for the property.
Six years ago, the Trust’s negligence resulted in the house being burnt to a cinder. That event sparked no emotional reaction in me, other than disappointment at the destruction of something beautiful. Which it was. Clandon was built in the early eighteenth century and designed by the Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni. It was big and imposing and symmetrical, encompassing some 40,000 square feet.
After it was gutted, the National Trust promised to rebuild the house. “This marks an exciting new chapter in the Clandon story, and will represent one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the National Trust,” said Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the Trust at the time. Six years later and the house has been draped in tarpaulin and left to sit empty.
For my grandmother, Teresa Waugh, who grew up at Clandon, the destruction of the house was a bitter blow. She wrote movingly about the experience in The Times shortly after the flames engulfed the building. Ghosh described the destruction as leaving Clandon “essentially a shell”. My grandmother remarked: “It is impossible to explain how one feels when one sees one’s childhood home engulfed in a ball of fire. The word ‘slain’ came to me as I looked with horror at the images of poor Clandon being gradually reduced to dust and ashes.”
Now the National Trust, into whose care her home was entrusted and which proclaims “we protect and care for places so people and nature can thrive,” has not only destroyed the house but made the proceeds upon which it was first built the focal point of the new narrative for it. The National Trust informs me that it did meet with Rupert Onslow, the eighth earl, to discuss the announcement before it was published online. Ellen Howells, the Trust’s communications consultant for Clandon, offered an anaemic explanation, “The legacies of slavery and colonialism are reflected in the nation’s places, buildings and collections, including those looked after by the National Trust, and we are committed to uncovering, exploring and sharing these histories at the places we care for.”
My purpose is not to defend the origins of the Onslows’ former fortune, for that cannot and should not be defended. Instead, Clandon’s story demonstrates the ever-increasing alienation between the Trust and the families and properties that it purports to protect. And this problem is surely ominous for the Trust.
Because of course it is right that the National Trust should explain any slavery links to its buildings and places. But this is not the only story worth headlining. When I emailed Howells, she assured me, “We are researching all aspects of Clandon’s history as part of our work to share the full stories of all the places in our care … We should all feel confident in seeking to understand both the positive and the negative chapters of our shared national histories.”
But the Trust could not explain how it was highlighting the positive “chapters”. As with many large estates, Clandon, was for two centuries after its construction in the 1730s, one of the largest employers in its area and the Onslows a prominent political family. These facts are acknowledged but overshadowed by the Trust’s preference for focussing on the slavery narrative not just as, rightly, a heinous sin but as one that trumps everything else that happened to the estate in the near three centuries between its construction and gutting.
The slavery connection came through marriage, when in 1708 Thomas Onslow married the the 16-year-old Elizabeth Knight. Elizabeth (below) was the niece of Colonel Charles Knight, whose fortune derived from his Jamaican slave plantation. Before his death in 1706, Knight made a will bequeathing his riches to her. The National Trust states that the later personal histories of Knight’s slaves are lost to us. But we do know more about Elizabeth. She was an active petitioner for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury for destitute and abandoned children — Britain’s first children’s charity. Thomas Coram, its driving light, described her as “a woman of the truest goodness of mind and heart that I ever knew”.
She never saw Clandon Park, dying age 39 in 1731, when work on it had scarcely commenced. In the surviving oil painting of her by Hans Hysing, she is unmistakably white. The story passed down the family is that she was, in fact, mixed race.
None of this can be found on the National Trust’s account of “Clandon Park: A House Built on the Profits of Slavery.”
The Trust claims a “responsibility to make sure we are historically accurate and academically robust when we communicate about the places and collections in our care”. Increasingly, though, it appears as if the Trust seeks to sever ties with the families who have generously entrusted their houses to it to an extent that goes far beyond scholarly detachment.
By contrast, English Heritage is acutely aware of the weight that historical narratives are given, and its duty to work with families that endow their properties to them. “We 100 per cent maintain relationships with families that donate properties,” Matt Thompson, its head of collections, tells me. “The families talk to us and tell us about their memories and that becomes the narrative of the place … We need to bring the families along with us in order to understand the past. You need to bring people along with you.” How do they achieve this? “Expertise and rigorous scholarship.”
A body that enjoys the benefits of charitable status pursues a political objective
But where is the expertise and rigorous scholarship at Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor? There the National Trust has commissioned a Welsh novelist, Manon Steffan Ross, to write twelve fictional stories as “her own response to the difficult history of the castle and its origins steeped in the Jamaican slave trade”.
It isn’t simply the telling — or fictionalising — of history that is undermining faith in the National Trust. Take, for example, Holnicote Estate in Somerset. Here the Trust consciously abuses its benefactors’ wishes. The estate was used as a hunting seat and home to North Devon Staghounds. The Dyke Acland family gave the specific provision that the land should continue to serve the hunt. The National Trust has gone far beyond the 2004 Hunting Act and has even banned trail hunting — where dogs follow an artificial, rather than animal, scent.
So a body that enjoys the benefits of charitable status pursues a political objective. A charity that seeks to preserve and maintain links to the past moves according to the winds of fashionable causes. In the meantime, the remnants of Clandon have been dozing quietly in a tarpaulin blanket for six years – longer than it took the Onslows to build the house. It awaits a phoenix-like resurrection, as promised by the National Trust.
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