How we are challenging our history

Challenging Histories is a programme we’re running to explore some of the more hidden aspects of our places. We’re focusing on stories that reflect national anniversaries and wider debates about how we live now. We can understand our present day better by having a fuller understanding of our past.

This year we’re exploring women’s history and suffrage through the anniversary of some women gaining the right to vote. In 2019, 200 years after the Peterloo Massacre we’ll be looking at places where people have fought to express and contest their political rights.

In 2017 we launched the programme and marked the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales by exploring the Trust’s connections to LGBTQ heritage.

Tackling historic issues that resonate to this day

We look after hundreds of places, from stone circles and beaches to mansions, moors and workhouses. With millions of objects in our collection, from the everyday to the unique, and archives of photographs, maps and letters, we have an opportunity to tackle stories found at more than one place to show how they fit into our nations’ tale. By working with public anniversaries and commemorations, we want to play our part in a wider debate on issues that have their roots in the past but are of continuing relevance today. 

Help from academic experts

We’re working with academics and other specialists to uncover these stories. This new research will help explain our places better to visitors and we’ll also be sharing our findings through academic conferences and expert publications. 

Bringing our research to life for our visitors

Every year you’ll be able to experience these stories for yourself with new exhibitions and events, both at our places and elsewhere.  You’ll also be able to delve further into these uncovered tales through podcasts, guidebooks and specialist publications. 

Our work with Trusted Source, a partnership with Oxford University, will create new digital information that adds greater depth and background to our places.

2018 – Women and Power

This year we’re marking 100 years since women first gained the vote in the UK by exploring women’s history and the fight for suffrage at our places. 

Painting of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent

Campaigning for women's suffrage

Some of our places have strong connections to women who influenced the suffrage movement. Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire was home to the women’s rights campaigner Emily Massingberd. Cliveden in Berkshire was home to Nancy Astor, the first sitting female MP and Bodnant House in Conwy was the home of Laura McLaren, the founder of the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union.

Portrait of George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston

Opposing women's suffrage

We also have connections to some key figures on the other side of the debate: George Curzon of Kedleston Hall was president of the National League for Opposing Woman’s Suffrage.


We will explore places in our landscape which are important symbols of moments of protest or change to people’s rights.

Campaigning for greater representation

William Robert Hay read the Riot Act before the charge at Peter’s Field in Manchester, 1819 – which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Thousands of his political pamphlets are now preserved in our collections.

View of the Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede, Surrey

Magna Carta

We care for the meadows at Runnymede, the world-famous site where King John sealed Magna Carta in 1215. This was the first step on the road to modern democracy and the liberty of the individual under law.

Marking the formation of trade unions

In 1834, six land workers from Tolpuddle in Dorset met beneath a large sycamore tree and formed a trade union. We now care for the tree, which has become a place of pilgrimage for the labour movement in Britain.

Looking back to 2017 – Prejudice and Pride

At least 25 of our places were home to, and shaped by, people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality. 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, we explored our LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) heritage with a programme called Prejudice and Pride.

The art collection in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Art and exiles 

Kingston Lacy in Dorset was profoundly shaped by William Bankes, who fled England in 1841 to avoid prosecution for same-sex acts. He had no choice but to leave England and the home he loved but he continued to send back works of art and treasures – the collection which can be seen and enjoyed by visitors today.

West view of Knole House in Kent

Literary connections

Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando was inspired by the family history of her lover – Vita Sackville-West. Vita’s family owned Knole in Kent and the book tells the story of a gender-changing character whose life spans the 400 year history of the house.

The 17th century barn theatre at Smallhythe Place

A ménage a trois 

The story of Smallhythe Place in Kent was fashioned by the artists who shared a home there. Edy Craig, daughter of actress Ellen Terry, and herself an accomplished actor, costumier, director and producer, shared Smallhythe in a ménage a trois with two other women for over 30 years and, together, created the theatre which still thrives.

These places and others worked with University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries to better understand these stories. Staff and volunteers took part in a training programme looking at how and why to better acknowledge this LGBTQ history. This learning will be shared with the university and heritage sector in a conference in spring 2018.


More about our research

In line with our Research Strategy we engage in relevant, up-to-date, rigorous research into these topics. Every year we run several theme development symposiums that explore aspects of the topics above, and the following:

  • Legacies of slavery and colonialism
  • Class and social mobility
  • Exploiting the land