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  • Writer's pictureEmma Gattey

The National Trust's Report

Updated: May 21, 2021

A report on colonialism and historical slavery, a divisive but essential reparatory history.

Some nine miles to the southwest of Cambridge lies one of the National Trust’s national treasures: Wimpole Estate, a working property with its 3,000 acres resplendent in all seasons, and a grand hall nearly 400 years old. Once it is lawful and safe to do so, Wimpole is definitely worth a visit. There are conservation projects afoot, a café, a Gothic-style folly — and now, thanks to the National Trust, a well-documented history of financial, legal and cultural connections with slavery and colonialism.

So, how did we get here?

Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire. (Souce: Wikipedia)

The report

In September 2020, the National Trust published its “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery”. A hefty title, to be sure, both in substance and form. Examining the histories of slavery and colonialism at National Trust sites, this compendious Report provides crucial historical nuance to visitors’ enjoyment and experience of these properties. Consisting of ten informative chapters, the Report boasts an expansive bibliography, links to online databases, and lists for further reading.

However, as its title suggests, this Report is merely interim: it is a starting point, a springboard, a spur to further research, reflection, and critical engagement with local and global histories. This is a revisionist history project on a large scale: some of the histories retold in the Report are “straightforward, while others are much more complex.” The latter narratives “challenge the familiar, received histories”, which both neglect “the vital role that people of colour have played in our national story and overlook the central role that the oppression and violence of the slave trade and the legacies of colonialism have played in the making of modern Britain.”

Recounting the appalling history of slave-owners’ compensation upon the abolition of slavery in Britain, the Report thus links this history with National Trust sites.

Connected to current scholarship and responding to changing public appetites for uncomfortable imperial histories, the Report draws deeply upon the research and database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) at University College London. The LBS project has identified all individuals who “received awards listed in the slave-compensation records of the 1830s.” Recounting the appalling history of slave-owners’ compensation upon the abolition of slavery in Britain, the Report thus links prominent figures and features of this history with National Trust sites.

In brief, the history is this: of the £20 million compensation paid to the owners of “slave property” pursuant to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, over 45,000 claims for compensation were made, relating to 800,000 enslaved people. (Crucially, no compensation was paid to the enslaved.) It is important to note that compensation payments “extended beyond plantation owners and the merchant class centred around the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol associated with slavery and the importing of goods from the West Indies.” Beneficiaries included absentee slave-owners who were financially dependent on slavery but had never stepped foot on a plantation, “including the descendants of slave-traders and merchants who had used family wealth to buy substantial property in the country, or families who had acquired an interest through marriage.”

Of these, the Report’s research shows that 80 successful compensation claims for slave-ownership were made by individuals “historically associated with” 29 properties in the care of the National Trust. An unsurprising conclusion, the co-authors note, given that “the practice of enslaving African people was a fundamental part of the British economy in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries”. Unsurprising, but still repellent.

The Folly at Wimpole Hall. ( Source: Flickr)

Moreover, in the Report’s opening chapter, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator of the National Trust, addresses the British country house through a global lens, examining these stately homes as “sites of cultural influence and political power.” This chapter offers a rich, accessible survey of the “relationship between the country house and histories of slavery, studies of colonialism and black presence in Britain”. Debunking the myth of “the supposedly passive backdrop of the properties, collections, gardens and parklands” of the British country house (spurred by Downton Abbey and its ilk), Huxtable recentres these estates and their material features as not merely the “epitome” of Britishness (especially Englishness), but as key nodes in global circuits and networks of trade, culture, politics, and so on. She examines the origins of wealth that founded such mansions, as well as the intricate “transnational influences” on all features of their design and décor.

Huxtable therefore explores these stately homes as “dynamic site[s]”, where “global and national histories played out in a local setting”. In particular, Huxtable recounts how certain members of the landed gentry were able to delay abolition of the slave trade and of slavery in the British Empire, and to prolong the fiefdom of the East India Company.

This brings us, uneasily, back to Cambridgeshire.

Uncomfortable History:

The Imperialist Pasts of Wimpole Estate

While Cambridgeshire’s Anglesey Abbey also features in the Report, Wimpole Hall merits close attention, for it provides what Huxtable calls a window into the “tangible legacies of slavery heritage” in Cambridge. An especially jagged shard of Wimpole’s challenging mosaic-history stems from its purchase in 1740 by Sir Philip Yorke, First Earl of Hardwick (1690–1764). During his time as Attorney General, Yorke co-authored the 1729 ‘Yorke-Talbot Opinion’ with Charles Talbot (1685–1737), then Solicitor General. In this legal opinion, responding to a petition from West Indian planters, Yorke and Talbot pronounced that “a Slave, by coming from the West-Indies to Great Britain or Ireland … doth not become free, and that his master’s property or right in him is not thereby determined or varied, and Baptism doth not bestow freedom on him”.

In other words, runaway enslaved people coming to Great Britain or Ireland from the West Indies were not automatically free, nor could they become free through baptism. This gave slavers the legal right to enforce their return to the plantations. In a chillingly casual detail, the Yorke-Talbot opinion is said to have been delivered over coffee at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four professional associations for English barristers, while the judges were in conversation with the planter-petitioners.

This “opinion” was no paper tiger; it was tantamount to an executive order, directing government policy for decades. Indeed, as historian Madge Dresser notes in “Slavery and West Country Houses,” this casually rendered opinion “deeply influenced legal opinion” until 1772.

Stable block, Wimpole Hall. ( ©Copyright Chris Morgan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Twenty years later, having ascended to the role of Lord Chancellor, Yorke clarified his position in a 1749 judgment of the High Court: “a Negro slave … is as much property as anything else”. In historian Michael Taylor’s words, “[c]ontent with the import revenues that swelled the coffers of the government, as well as with the strategic advantages of a Caribbean Empire, eighteenth-century Britain accepted the slave trade and slavery as facts of national life.” Moral condemnation of slavery did not really start to build until the 1770s, when “the morality and policy of the slave trade were widely questioned by Britons”. For most of the eighteenth century, legislation incentivised and protected the slave trade, while the opinions of the judiciary “gave legal sanction to the odious commerce” and recognised the legitimacy of colonial legislation relating to chattel slavery in the metropole. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does not mention the Yorke-Talbot opinion in either man’s biography. Until now, their pro-slavery stance has scarcely merited public reflection or discussion. Thus, it is so important that the National Trust is squarely confronting this uncomfortable history, and encouraging its visitors to do so, too.

Other owners of Wimpole had connections to the East India Company, an organisation that enslaved many people. For the full genealogy – including family, financial, and directorial connections to the East India Company, Muscovy Company, Virginia Company, South Sea Company, and South American and Caribbean slave plantations – you’ll have to read the Report’s précis. For now, suffice it to say that Wimpole illustrates what Huxtable concludes with regard to British country houses generally: we should not underestimate the “influence of the inhabitants of country houses, their power to affect world history, and the ways that owning country houses helped them to consolidate that power”.

Interestingly, the Report omits a fascinating literary connection between Wimpole Estate and one of the foremost propagandists of the British Empire: Rudyard Kipling. The Nobel laureate’s imperialist persuasions, strengthened through the passage of time and his association with Cecil Rhodes – who gave him a house in South Africa – were “bound up with a genuine sense of a civilizing mission that required every Englishman, or, more broadly, every white man, to bring European culture to those he considered the heathen natives of the uncivilized world.” Elsie Bambridge, Kipling’s youngest daughter, and her husband, Captain George Bambridge, started renting Wimpole in 1937 and bought it in 1942. They used Elsie’s inheritance from her father, as well as the substantial royalties from his books, to refurbish the house. Moreover, of some 6,000 books in the Wimpole Library, some belonged to Elsie and came directly from her father’s library.

Public Responses

To pre-empt any sense of national shaming, the Report’s co-authors reminded readers that “[n]o one alive today is responsible for the iniquities of the period in question and consequently, we should feel confident in acknowledging the positive and the negative factual evidence of the past as part of our shared histories.” This disclaimer has not proved sufficient. It has been controversial, partly because of many Britons’ sentimental, patriotic, and nationalist connections with heritage sites.

In November 2020, a band of Members of Parliament and peers from the recently established “Common Sense Group” wrote to the Culture Secretary and the Daily Telegraph recommending a review of the National Trust funding applications to public bodies in light of the Interim Report. Concerned that the National Trust has been seized by “elitist bourgeois liberals”, their principal mission is “to ensure that institutional custodians of history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” or the “woke agenda”. In particular, the Group was repulsed that the Report has “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons, Winston Churchill, by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism”. The Group ominously suggested that the National Trust “could face an official investigation”, decreeing that “History must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit ‘snowflake’ preoccupations. A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image.”

Chapel at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. (Wikipedia Commons)

More hostile critics took to social media to denounce the Report, its co-authors, and the National Trust itself. Despite its decolonising methodology and well-intentioned efforts to educate the public about British imperial and colonial history, the Report has thus been hugely controversial. This is part of a larger war over collective memory, history, and national identity.

Against the background of anti-British Museum sentiment expressed in August 2020, historian David Olusoga has written that such research projects are being “presented as existential threats to the nation and one version of national identity,” with participating academics “denounced in newspapers as enemies within for merely doing their jobs.” This is a new, more dangerous and divisive version of cancel culture: “what is under assault here are not just individuals but academic curiosity itself, the lifeblood of scholarship that is now being portrayed as a form of cultural treason or misrepresented as political posturing.” Olusoga writes that “recent attacks on museums, universities and the National Trust were launched not to win arguments or influence the shape of historical debates but to intimidate other institutions and encourage them to cancel projects”. Rather than a so-called “common sense” position, this is “a war against facts”, one which is “culturally corrosive but politically expedient.”

This public outcry prompted the Director-General of the National Trust, along with one of the Report’s co-editors, to post online videos and blogs explaining the aims of the publication. In a moving blogpost by John Orna-Ornstein, Cambridgeshire local and the National Trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement, the Trust has defended the Report as “a continuation of – not a departure from – the work we already do. That is, to explore and share histories, whether they’re comfortable or hard to hear.” Orna-Ornstein states the painfully obvious: “the Wimpole that I love had a part to play in the history of colonialism and slavery. But the report we’ve published this month is not intended to make judgements about the past. We’re presenting information based on research, allowing people to explore and draw conclusions for themselves.” As the National Trust keeps feeling pressed to emphasise on multiple fronts, he underscores that they are not accusing visitors or any living individuals of complicity: “No one alive today can ever be held responsible for the wrongs of the period when slavery took place, but we can seek to understand this better.”

Orna-Ornstein concludes that Wimpole, and other National Trust sites are so much more than scenery; they also tell “myriad stories” about “our past and who we are”. And these stories must be told, he argues, for the National Trust can only have a “strong future” if it succeeds in “telling clear and open stories about its places, sharing its research more widely and also inviting people to comment and be involved.”

In short, the National Trust has gone into partial damage control mode, but thankfully has not shown signs of retracting the Report or reneging on its commitment to provide further reports and work with communities to decolonise its institutional practices and knowledge. Public educational projects such as this Report – what we might call decolonising processes of “reparatory history” – are of crucial importance in today’s ostensibly post-truth intellectual and popular media climate.

Reparatory History and the Heritage Sector

Aligned with a new, distinctly twenty-first century understanding of professional ethical responsibilities for historians, LBS has declared that “doing reparative history charges us to explore and understand the past in order to address the ways in which injustices may be acknowledged and set right”. Professor Catherine Hall, chair of LBS, has also written at length about this concept and its vision, suggesting that reparatory or reparative history emphasises the importance of “reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present.”

Of course, this type of history “begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss,” but it “must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress”. For reparatory historians, “the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.”

Thus, amongst a growing cohort of historians, Hall argues for “the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.” This “different understanding” will begin to close gaps between different groups of society, which experience and remember history in disparate ways.

As Hall writes, collective memory “constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating.” Research like the National Trust’s Report can help to diminish spaces of loneliness and alienation, generating greater historical understanding and compassion by generating a more closely shared sense of history.

Like LBS, the National Trust is undertaking an educational and research project which is “building, with many others, a new understanding of the past and its life in the present.” This is not a wounding project but one that will heal — promoting both understanding and discussion of the unjust past, divided present, and shared future.

By encouraging more research and community engagement, the National Trust and its allies are working towards answering important questions. How can we most productively decolonise important sites of public education and recreation? How can we generate collective memory that is honest, deeply reflective, and reparatory? Their interim answers echo Hall: plumbing the depths of collective memory, reflecting on contestations over memory, “the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair.”

Although the National Trust is establishing an independent external advisory group of heritage and academic experts, this panel is not their sole sounding board for this project. From the outset, the National Trust has sought ongoing community engagement, input, and dialogue: it “cannot uncover and share these histories alone”, because “they belong to everyone.” Broad community participation and critique are crucial. Revisionist history, especially the reparatory kind, is a deeply collaborative process.


Emma Gattey [2020] is a History PhD candidate, writer, and literary critic from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work focuses on twentieth-century Māori activist-intellectuals, their transnational anticolonialism and transformative radical revisionist history. Emma is also a Research Fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law. (Twitter: @adjectivallyEMG)


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