Colonial Countryside project
Colonial Countryside is a child-led writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 of our properties. Collaborating with Dr Corinne Fowler at the University of Leicester, we hope to inspire a new generation of young advocates for talking about colonial history.
Country houses and empire
British country houses were influential centres of colonial wealth and bureaucracy. As historians take new approaches to British imperial history, utilising recent resources like the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database, less familiar and often newly discovered colonial stories of our places are being uncovered.
A team of Colonial Countryside historians is working with primary school pupils to explore 11 houses’ unique connections to empire.
Buckland Abbey was home to Sir Francis Drake, who depended heavily on an African circumnavigator named Diego to make successful voyages and take possession of substantial riches.
Dyrham Park reveals the seventeenth-century story of William Blathwayt. As Auditor General of Plantation Revenues, Blathwayt made colonies profitable and witnessed the British empire’s consolidation.
Penrhyn Castle was built with slave-produced sugar wealth from the Caribbean. The Pennants of Penrhyn received compensation from the British tax-payer for lost slave labour, some of this was spent on paintings on display in the castle.
Kedleston Hall was home to the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, who collected items from India and the Middle East. A large proportion of these objects are on display on the ground floor of the house in the Eastern museum.
Many National Trust houses also display paintings of black pages and servants. These point to Britain’s forgotten rural black presence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Interpretation and legacy
Funded by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery, Dr Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project is helping the National Trust to tell these stories to visitors. Colonial Countryside is a child-led history and writing project working with 100 primary pupils, 16 historians and 10 commissioned writers. The historical team includes:
- Dr Miranda Kaufmann
- Dr Madge Dresser
- Dr Marian Gwyn
- Dr Misha Ewen
- Dr Katie Donington
- Dr Florian Stadtler
- Raj Pal
- Dr Joanna de Groot
- Dr Sumita Mukherjee
There are 11 National Trust houses participating. Over the course of the project they will be holding exhibitions, running child-led tours and training staff and volunteers to communicate the colonial stories of National Trust places.
This work will ensure that robustly researched stories of empire are communicated accurately and sensitively to visitors. The project’s legacy will be to ensure that colonial connections are integral to the stories that audiences discover during their visit. Meanwhile, the Trust is providing 100 children with a unique opportunity to initiate and lead local and national heritage conversations on country houses’ links to colonialism.
Writers are working with the Colonial Countryside project to help bring these stories to life. Colonial connections are hard to spot and hard to trace. The history of colonial links is sometimes convoluted with lines of enquiry leading in several directions. This is because houses often connect to more than one aspect of empire, often involving different generations – and even families – of property owners.
Speke Hall near Liverpool, for example, has a connection to the East India Company and a connection to Caribbean sugar. So, while links to empire are sometimes direct and straightforward – landowners were plantation owners, East India Company men and colonial administrators – other houses link less directly to colonialism, through money earned from investment in slave-ships, or through figures attached to the houses’ involvement in lobbying for and against Abolition.
Creative writing humanises these stories for visitors and can address the trauma that underlies them. Working in close partnership with historians, 10 commissioned writers are producing an illustrated book of short stories and poems, to be accompanied by accessible historical commentaries.