Clandon Park's connections to slavery and colonialism

The house at Clandon Park, Surrey

The house and garden at Clandon Park have a number of direct connections to slavery and colonialism which we seek to better understand through ongoing research. This is an important part of our work as we shape our ambitions and plans following the 2015 fire.

Britain’s colonial activities and the transatlantic slave trade are an undeniable part of the history of buildings and landscapes across the UK. The slave trade was abolished over 200 years ago, but its aftereffects are still felt in Britain and around the world. The wealth created by the horrific industry of slavery has seeped into the buildings, streets, systems and institutions that surround us, often unseen and unacknowledged.  

The Trust cares for many places across the UK with direct and indirect links to slavery and has published a report which details each place in its care with a connection to these colonial histories.  

What we know so far

In 1708, Thomas Onslow, married Elizabeth Knight. Two years earlier, in 1706, Elizabeth inherited a great fortune, said to be worth at least four million pounds in today’s money, from her uncle, Charles Knight. Charles’s business activities included the transportation and trading of enslaved Africans. He owned an 1850-acre sugar and rum plantation called Whitehall in St-Thomas-in-the-East, Jamaica, which was reliant on the labour of enslaved people.  

Elizabeth inherited this plantation and Thomas and his descendants managed it remotely for over 120 years. The plantation and associated income was passed through the family until Arthur, 3rd Earl of Onslow, sold it in around 1832. Records show that during this time, between 87 and 150 enslaved people worked on the plantation at any one time, forced to produce sugar.  

Prior to the Knight marriage, the Onslow family had built strong connections, through commercial activities and marriage alliances, to merchants in the City of London, many of whom were engaged in England’s rapidly growing overseas trade. In this context, Thomas Onslow was also a founder of the Royal Exchange Assurance, which underwrote the financial risks of ships trading in enslaved people.  


One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall
One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall
One of the busts above the door that looked down on the Marble Hall

Rebuilding the house at Clandon Park  

In the 1730s, Thomas Onslow and wife Elizabeth completely rebuilt the house at Clandon Park - a project funded in part from money generated from enslaved labour and the trade in enslaved people.

They instructed the total demolition of an earlier Jacobean house to make way for their cutting-edge Palladian mansion. The house that they built was imposing and uncompromising, a jaw-dropping statement that left visitors in no doubt as to the family’s power and status amongst the day’s political elite. It featured a suite of state rooms including the impressive and imposing Marble Hall, a 40-foot-square white cube with an elaborate stucco ceiling and richly carved marble fireplaces. Two marble busts looked out onto this room. It was commonplace for English country houses of this time to feature imagery of black people and one of these busts represents an enslaved African, believed to be a conscious reference to Thomas’ associations with the slave trade.  

Connections to colonial New Zealand 

Clandon Park also has a unique colonial connection to New Zealand. William, 4th Earl of Onslow served as Governor of New Zealand from 1888-92. When returning from New Zealand, he purchased Hinemihi, a Māori meeting house and brought her back to England with him as a memento of his time there. Māori people believe that Hinemihi is alive and that she is a living embodiment of their ancestor, Hinemihi, who lived several centuries ago.  

A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera
A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera
A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera

Hinemihi now sits in the gardens at Clandon Park, where she is used by the UK Māori community for ceremonial events and cultural celebrations. The National Trust recently agreed in principle to a request by the Māori tribe who created Hinemihi that her historic carvings be returned to New Zealand. In exchange her tribe will create carvings for a new meeting house at Clandon to keep this relationship alive for current and future generations. 

Discover more about Clandon's colonial links

Our commitment

We are committed to better understanding these histories at Clandon Park and promoting an active and open discussion of them. We’re starting with the facts and conducting research so that we can better understand the history of the house and gardens and how they were shaped by slavery and colonialism.

The centuries when Britain colonised and controlled other countries have left their mark, influencing our identities and the way we treat each other, consciously and unconsciously. The deliberate differentiation between people based on ‘race’ which took place to rationalise the enslavement of black people continues to shape aspects of contemporary society today, both here in the UK and around the world. The legacies of slavery and colonialism are not just issues for the history books; they are something we must talk about and actively respond to today.

It is our responsibility to understand and effectively communicate these histories, as well as to enable open dialogue and responses to them.  We’re doing our own learning, but we know that there are people and communities who have been doing this for decades. We welcome any advice, ideas and information and will make sure that we listen and collaborate with care, without placing the burden of doing the work onto others.