We can’t trust the National Trust’s history

How on earth did the National Trust hire a non-historian to do an historian’s job?

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Olive branches in the culture wars are rare and should be welcomed. So, when Corinne Fowler, lead author of the now infamous National Trust report on the Colonial Countryside, offered one recently in her Daily Telegraph article headlined “Let’s Not Weaponise History”, I was predisposed to receive it warmly.

But, alas, it turns out there is a fundamental problem of authorial self-description. History is written by historians. But Fowler is not an historian, not in any sense of the word. Her first degree is in English; her doctorate is in English and her post, Assistant Professor of Post-Colonial Literature, is in the Department of English at the University of Leicester.

So how on earth, in what seems a staggering example of managerial incompetence, did the National Trust come to hire a non-historian to do a job that only an historian could do? It is a story of classic drift. It appears that she was first brought in to supervise the Colonial Countryside Project. This, according to the National Trust website, “was a child-led writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 of our properties”.

At Woolsthorpe, the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, the children sent up a weather balloon; at Sandham Memorial Chapel they “created a series of dances inspired by the imagery” in Stanley Spencer’s First World War murals. And so on.​

Fowler’s professional qualifications no doubt suit her well to this kind of thing. But, as St Paul said, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” The Trust, alas, forgot this dictum and Fowler’s project, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appears to have “just growed” into a 115-page report and gazetteer. These are intended for adults and must be judged by adult standards.​​

But, to return to shared ground, I am broadly sympathetic to her approach in the report. For treating the country house — à la Sir Roy Strong and the rest — simply as an aesthetic phenomenon or the fragile quintessence of Englishness is not the be-all and end-all.

The pioneer and paradigm of what we can call the functional rather than the aesthetic approach to the country house was Mark Girouard in his magnificent book, Life in the English Country House (1978). His thesis is set out in the first chapter. “What were country houses for?” he begins. “They were not,” he replies, “just large houses in the country in which rich people lived. Essentially they were power houses — the houses of a ruling class.” ​

Wealth, always considerable and often huge, was of course their foundation. But the country house was above all about the deployment of that wealth to political ends: to consolidate, perpetuate and, supremely, to project political power.​

The basis of upper-class wealth, from the Norman Conquest to the beginning of the twentieth century, was land. But the English aristocracy was unusually unsqueamish about other sources of riches, like the law (the Cokes of Holkham), war-profiteering (the fourteenth-century builder of Penshurst Place) or the fruits of office (like Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall). So naturally, as eighteenth-century Britain became the hub of a world-wide empire, imperially sourced wealth came to figure on the list too, as returning West Indies plantation owners or East India Company nabobs built their country piles.​

No one doubts this. Nor, as Fowler rightly insists, have former slave-owning families like the Lascelles at Harewood House or ex-nabobs like the Sykes at Basildon Park been shy about where their money came from. 

But how typical were they? The answer is buried on page 32 of the report: “5-10 per cent of national elites in British society can be connected to slavery, and the same percentage can be linked to the built heritage of country houses.” 

Between a twentieth and a tenth. It’s a substantial number. But it’s far from the fantasies of those like Kehinde Andrews who believe that British prosperity was (and indeed still is) “largely produced off the economic system that extracts wealth by exploiting Africa and the underdeveloped world”.​

The charge against Fowler, and it is a grave one, is that she consistently fudges the facts to inflate that 10 per cent (let’s be generous) into Andrews’s majoritarian fantasy. 

I don’t think this is a result of deliberate dishonesty. Rather it’s a product of the Topsy-ism I identified at the beginning. Since nobody, least of all Fowler, has bothered to think clearly about what they were doing, the adult report is (de)formed by its childish origins. Its grown-up title is “Colonialism and Properties now in the care of the National Trust”.  But its actual contents remain the “African, Caribbean and Indian connections” which the dancing children explored.

The modest house of General Wolfe does not appear at all since the French Canadians were white

And there is a gross misfit between the two, because the colonies, aka the British Empire, consisted of whites as well as people of colour. Indeed, before the loss of the American colonies, which were the original jewel in the imperial crown, it was an overwhelmingly white empire.

The absurd consequences of this confusion show most clearly in the little Kentish town of Westerham, which has two National Trust properties. Up on the hill is Chartwell, house of Winston Churchill, whose supposed end-of-empire misdemeanours and misspeakings, because they involve Indians, figure largely in the report; down in the town is the modest house of General Wolfe, whose capture of Quebec, which altered the balance of world power, does not appear at all since the French Canadians (natch!) were white.

Chartwell (left) and General Wolfe’s house, both in Westerham and owned by the NT, get very different treatment

The report likewise exaggerates the original sin of English imperialism. For the English were johnny-come-latelies to empire. Thanks to Henry VIII’s failure to continue his father’s investment in Sebastian Cabot’s voyages, it was Portugal and especially Spain who, by papal edict, divided up the Atlantic world between them and established huge slave-powered empires to extract its mineral wealth. Then, as Spanish power declined, its hulk was fought over between England and France. This was the great duel of empire: it shapes Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples; it is not even mentioned in the report.

With bizarre consequences, since it is the rivalry with France which gives the essential context to the imperial history of Georgian Britain. It was Britain’s victory over France in the War of Spanish Succession which gave it the Assiento, or contract to supply slaves to the Spanish empire, in 1713; it was John Law, the Scottish speculator’s earlier Mississippi Bubble in France which triggered the stock-market frenzy of the South Sea Bubble in England in 1720; while in the Seven Years War of 1756-63 defeat for Robert Clive in India would not have left the sub-continent self-governing but merely delivered it to the French.

But finally an audit of empire depends on a proper handling of figures. Here Fowler and her report are consistently misleading. First, about the sources of wealth: the fortunes that were made from the South Sea Bubble came not from the company’s trade in slaves, who were black, but from the greed and folly of fellow stock-market speculators, who were white. 

If you are a Marxist the weighty Norman-revival architecture of Penrhyn rests principally on the labours of the white working class

And second, and even more seriously, about magnitude. The sums paid in compensation to former slaveowners on Abolition in 1833, which amounted to about 40 per cent of the government’s annual expenditure, were indeed large. But they were not the equivalent of “well over £100 billion” in 2007 prices, since government expenditure in the 1830s was only about 10 per cent of GDP whereas in the twenty-first century it is a whopping 40 per cent.

This last point is crucial since the grossly inflated relative figure is the fuel of the incendiary “Hidden Histories” section of the report. This claims that the reinvestment of the compensation payments left a concealed legacy of slavery which is “embedded in our cultural, political, social and material heritage”. We all, it is implied, benefit from this and we all bear the guilt.

But did it and do we? Once again the figures alone don’t bear out the claims. Take an extreme case, the Pennants of Penrhyn Castle. They received about £15,000, one of the largest compensation payments, which they invested mainly in the Welsh slate industry. But, within a few decades, they were making £100,000, that is almost seven times their compensation payments, in a single year from their slate mines.

The conclusion is clear. If you are a Marxist, which I am not, the weighty Norman-revival architecture of Penrhyn rests principally on the labours of the white working class and not black West Indian slaves. As does the collective wealth of modern Britain. 

The working class did not live in country houses. Or own slaves. Or build monuments. Or rule Britain, much less the empire. And, since they did none of these things, they and their descendants, who are the vast majority of us, have no guilt, nor should they have. 

This should not need saying. But — thanks to the calculus of this report, which pits race against race — it does. The history is bad and the divisiveness deplorable. But worst of all is the fact that it has been done in the name of an organisation which dares to call itself “national”.

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