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Colonial Countryside Project

View of Buckland Abbey, Garden and Estate, Devon with blue skies and wispy clouds above
Buckland Abbey was home to Sir Francis Drake | © National Trust Images/ John Millar

Colonial Countryside was a child-led writing and history project that explored the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 of the properties we care for. Collaborating with Dr Corinne Fowler at the University of Leicester, the project inspired a new generation of young people to advocate 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 about the places we care for are being uncovered.

A team of Colonial Countryside historians worked with primary school pupils to explore 11 houses’ unique connections to empire.

Buckland Abbey
Buckland Abbey was home to Sir Francis Drake, who depended heavily on an African circumnavigator called Diego to make successful voyages and take possession of substantial riches.
Dyrham Park
Dyrham Park reveals the 17th-Century story of William Blathwayt. As Auditor General of Plantation Revenues, he made colonies profitable and witnessed the British Empire’s consolidation.
Penrhyn Castle
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
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 of the ground floor of the house in the Eastern museum.
The east front at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire
The east front at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

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 the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, Dr Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project helped the National Trust tell these stories to visitors. A child-led history and writing project Colonial Countryside worked with 100 primary pupils, 16 historians and 10 commissioned writers.

Eleven National Trust houses participated. Over the course of the project, they held exhibitions, ran child-led tours and trained staff and volunteers to communicate the colonial stories of National Trust places.

This work ensures that robustly researched stories of empire are communicated accurately and sensitively to visitors. The project’s legacy is to ensure that colonial connections are integral to the stories that audiences discover during their visit. During the project, the Trust provided 100 children with a unique opportunity to initiate and lead local and national heritage conversations on country houses’ links to colonialism.

The west front of Penrhyn Castle and Garden on a sunny day in Gwynedd, Wales.
The west front of Penrhyn Castle and Garden in Gwynedd. | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Writing history

Writers working with the Colonial Countryside project helped 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.

Volunteer examining a book as part of conservation work in the library at Greyfriars' House and Garden, Worcestershire

Research at the National Trust

We're an Independent Research Organisation recognised by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our research takes place in many forms – from the PhDs we sponsor and practical testing of new conservation techniques to the hundreds of research projects we collaborate in or host at places in our care each year.

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Heritage Fund

Inspiring, leading and resourcing the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

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Arts Council England

Arts Council England invest public money from government and the National Lottery to make sure everyone's creativity is given the chance to flourish and we all have access to a remarkable range of high quality cultural experiences.

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