A report laying bare the extent of connections that National Trust properties have with colonialism and slavery is just the beginning of a process to better examine history that is often “complex, nuanced and messy”.
The trust on Tuesday published research it commissioned a year ago to explore in more detail than ever before what are sometimes less palatable links to the past.
It includes a gazetteer listing 93 properties and places, around a third of the total, that have a link to colonialism and slavery.
They include Winston Churchill’s country estate Chartwell, because of his political roles and opposition to self-governance in India, Lundy island in Devon, where convicts were forced into unpaid labour, and Hare Hill in Cheshire, whose owner bought and sold slaves on a huge scale.
The report lists 29 places, including Clandon Park in Surrey, that have links to successful compensation claims for slave ownership following abolition.
Tarnya Cooper, the trust’s curatorial and collections director, said the report was just the beginning of work to understand the links with colonialism and begin to “integrate that into our narrative. It is also to raise awareness about the complexity of history in relation to place.”
She added: “In the past we’ve told probably really straightforward stories, possibly from one particular direction. We want to be able to tell more nuanced stories so that we can provide open, honest, accurate and fair assessments of places without feeling anxiety that ‘Gosh … is that the right thing to be saying?’ In some ways the report is to provide greater confidence about talking about history.”
She said the trust was not making judgments about the past. “We are not doing anything more than present the historical facts and data. Not everyone feels comfortable talking about this,” she said. But it was important for “people to draw their own conclusions and make their own minds up about things”.
Many of the stories gathered are well known but seeing them together was a “remarkable” thing, said Cooper.
The gazetteer includes Winston Churchill’s country retreat Chartwell, bequeathed to the nation in 1946. Churchill, the report says, was secretary of state for the colonies from 1921 to 1922 and was prime minister during the devastating Bengal famine of 1943, “the British response to which has been heavily criticised”.
He also opposed the Government of India Act in 1935, which granted India a degree of self-governance.
The properties with links to successful slave-ownership compensation claims include Hare Hill, a country estate in Cheshire built by William Hibbert, who with his son were the claimants or beneficiaries of 13 separate claims for 2,654 enslaved people.
The wider Hibbert family received around £103,000 in compensation for their slavery loss, equivalent to almost £7m in 2020.
Cooper said it was not possible to yet know if slavery compensation money was spent on houses or estates themselves.
“History is complex, it’s nuanced, it’s sometimes undocumented … sometimes we know about it but don’t talk about it,” she said. “You would need an economic historian and wonderful documentation at every site to know how that money was spent.
“We can’t be too literal in this area because history is pretty messy.”
The report highlights individual histories of former owners of its properties. For example, Richard Watt (1724-96) who owned Speke Hall, Merseyside. Watt traded in slave-produced rum and sugar and purchased a slave ship in 1793 that trafficked 549 Africans to Jamaica. A total of 539 survived the journey.
The survey tells stories of shocking behaviour related to some of its most idyllic places, such as Lundy, the beautiful, unspoilt island off Devon.
In the mid-18th century, Thomas Benson, the sheriff of Devon and MP for Barnstaple, won a contract to ship convicts to Virginia and Maryland but instead shipped them to Lundy where he employed them as slave labour. In a subsequent court case he successfully argued that shipping them to Lundy was no different from transporting them to the Americas.
Rudyard Kipling’s home in East Sussex, Bateman’s, is in the gazetteer because “the British Empire was a central theme and context of his literary output”. Thomas Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, London is listed because of his pro-slavery writings.
The existence of the survey leaked out over the summer and led to stories that the trust was facing an exodus of unhappy members, angry at the “wokeness” of the organisation.
“It’s curious,” said Cooper. “I’m sure some people have but we haven’t noticed a massive drop-off in membership. There was chatter online but we just haven’t seen that. Most of our members join because they care about history and beauty and heritage and they are interested in this work. They want us to do it responsibly.”