National Trust details links to slavery and colonialism at 93 properties

Inclusion of Winston Churchill's home on list draws ire of culture secretary
Decolonising Museums Slavery
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Chartwell was the family home of Winston Churchill
Chartwell was the family home of Winston Churchill National Trust. Photo by Chris Jonas

Winston Churchill's home Chartwell is among 93 properties listed in the National Trust’s first comprehensive report on direct and indirect connections to slavery and empire at sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The report was commissioned a year ago to build on the organisation's ongoing Colonial Countryside programme. Consisting of contextual essays and an index of the 93 properties, it brings together existing knowledge about individual estates, as well as previously unknown connections uncovered by curators in the course of the project.

One new discovery was that the Anson family of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire had, through marriage, derived some of their wealth from a Caribbean plantation that used enslaved labour.

"The extent of these colonial links is not surprising, yet for us it is the first time we've gathered them together in one place," said John Orna-Ornstein, director of culture and engagement at the trust.

The report will inform interpretation at the organisation's sites and the trust hopes it will also be useful to external researchers. "We see it as a working document. We're under no illusions that it's finished," added Orna-Ornstein.

The research took on new significance this year as Black Lives Matter protests shone a spotlight on problematic heritage in the civic realm.

"The constant ongoing debate just made it feel more important to us to publish this foundation document," said Orna-Ornstein. "At a time when there is a debate it is our duty to support that debate - not to take a particular stand but to be as open as possible."

The report generated controversy when it was released earlier this week for including Chartwell on the list, with culture secretary Oliver Dowden among its critics.

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“Churchill is one of Britain’s greatest heroes . . . he rallied the free world to defeat fascism,” Dowden told The Daily Telegraph. “It will surprise and disappoint people that the National Trust appears to be making him a subject of criticism and controversy."

The report cites several reasons for putting the former prime minister’s property on the list, including his role as a secretary of state for the colonies in the 1920s, his help in drafting the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that led to the partition of Ireland, his tenure as prime minister during the Bengal famine of 1943 and his opposition to a bill granting dominion status to India.  

Orna-Ornstein acknowledged that there had been "concern and a challenge from some parts of the press that in some way we are trying to criticise all of the people in those places". He said: "Our role is not to make judgments about the past, it is to talk about it as honestly as possible."

In spite of criticism from some quarters, the trust has won praise from many in the heritage sector for its growing body of work on decolonisation. The West African Cultural Heritage Trust welcomed the report's publication, saying: "We would like to congratulate the [trust] on the remarkable work on this report.

"We deeply appreciate the fact that this work is not just a direct response to the current discourse but a further development on recent projects like the interesting Colonial Countryside.

"As West Africans, slavery and colonialism are both highly sensitive topics for us and we look forward to mutually enlightening engagements in the future through our networks."

Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, said: "We wholeheartedly support the work that the National Trust and many museums are doing to understand the links between their collections and buildings and transatlantic slavery and the British Empire. This report represents hours of detailed research and the findings make illuminating reading; we shouldn’t shy away from telling these stories and understanding the impact they have on who we are and how we live today. 

"At a time when many people are campaigning for equality and against racism, research such as this helps us understand where the structural inequalities in society have their foundations.

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"We welcome National Trust’s commitment to continuing its research in this area and its open and transparent approach to seeking new narratives and representing the stories and voices of those who have not been heard before."

Comments (2)

  1. Malcolm Fitzell says:

    Glad to see acknowledgement in the National Trust report of Winston Churchill’s role in drawing up the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. This treaty, which lead to the partition of Ireland, and to the Irish Civil War, was forced on the Irish people under threat of war by the prime minister at the time, Lloyd George. The report might also have referred to the fact that the infamous “Black and Tans” and Auxiliaries, British paramilitary forces sent to Ireland in 1919-21 that caused terrible atrocities including the burning of Cork city and the sack of Balbriggan, were sent by Churchill. I do acknowledge Churchill’s great role in WW2 and in fighting fascism in Europe. However a lot of heroes don’t have unblemished records.

  2. Toyin Agbetu says:

    It is disappointing that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden seems willing to apply undue pressure on the heritage sector. Hiding uncomfortable truths about British history and icons like the morally ambiguous Churchill does not negate them. For us to better understand the past we must see contentious heritage not as a weakness or weapon, but as a guide. When viewed as such we can then better navigate and learn from the challenging aspects of British history that profited from Maafa (African enslavement) and continues to create a culture willing to deny support for movements like BLM. Failure to do so not only undermines museology as an ethical practice, but in hiding eugenics, enables racism while in criticising truth, unforgivably allows facts and heritage experts to become demonised while emboldening ignorance. Well done National Trust and all those involved for starting this uncomfortable step towards a detoxified, decolonised future. We may not be as loud as those who oppose this work, but have no doubt, your efforts are noted.

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