Telling ‘difficult’ stories at historic houses

  • 02 Dec 2019
  • Article

Written by Daniella Briscoe-Peaple 

The custodians of Britain’s historic homes and gardens have a privileged opportunity to share stories that would otherwise go untold. Tucked away in a bookcase or hidden in plain sight, they are part of histories that are relevant and important to people today. Yet many heritage sites still only tell partial histories, contributing to misrepresentation and an erroneous understanding of the past. 

Gaps in the narrative 

Lacunae of that kind include the absence or misrepresentation of stories about gay, non-white, female or disabled people and their historical associations with rich or important families and their homes across the UK. The distortion of these stories can lead to the construction of a false narrative around a historic site, in which people appear to have been not only forgotten but deliberately erased from history.  

For over thirty years, the residents of Calke Abbey, a National Trust property in Derbyshire, were depicted as reclusive and socially isolated, characters in a tale of a decaying, ‘un-stately home’. HumanKind, a new exhibition at Calke, is reassessing their stories, showing how the family struggled with isolation, grief and disability but were never without love and compassion. The exhibition is paired with a programme of events and activities that aim to challenge the stigma around loneliness and foster human connection.  

Attendees at the Historic Houses 2018 AGM will remember Charlie and AJ Courtney, the Earl and Countess of Devon, speaking about making their home, Powderham Castle, ‘an educational role model by sharing resources and history in inclusive ways.’ This was one from a list of, ‘hundred-year goals,’ they have set as they explore the castle from ancient beginnings to modern business.  

Powderham is currently working with members of the LGBTQ community to retell the story of the third Viscount Courtenay, who was forced to live abroad for most of his life because he was gay. This project epitomises the Devons’ new set of values, which include community, authenticity, inclusivity and adventure. They stress that, ‘all of these houses... their heyday is right now – they are living, breathing homes. We're not just preserving the past; we're using these living institutions to make progress.’ 

Their words echo those of David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, who, after acknowledging that his ancestor Henry Lascelles profited from slavery, said, ‘I believe very strongly that we can change things in the present, but for better or for worse there is nothing that any of us can do about history and the past.’ 2007 marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. A wealth of research was conducted at that time to explore the connections between domestic British history, including Harewood’s, and slavery.  

Penrhyn Castle Historic Houses Colonial Countryside project

Children on the 'Colonial Countryside' project at Penrhyn Castle. Photography by Ingrid Pollard

Historian and Historic Houses member Dr Miranda Kaufmann said, in an issue of Historic House that year, ‘this is a story that needs to be told in full, for all the houses in this country, whether they are cared for by English Heritage, the National Trust or private owners.’ Twelve years on, this statement is even more pertinent as further research has brought to light the pervasiveness of links to the transatlantic slave trade throughout British society and its institutions.  

Dr Kaufmann is now the lead historian for Colonial Countryside, a child-led project conceived by Dr Corinne Fowler at the University of Leicester, which explored the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at eleven different National Trust properties to create, ‘history with fewer gaps.’ The project will offer practical guidance to staff and volunteers – for example through an upcoming ‘MOOC’ (massively online open course) on how to talk about the colonial provenance of objects commonly found in country houses. 

Some houses have more tangible links than others. Penrhyn Castle is an example of the many houses built or bought with the proceeds of slavery; Richard Pennant owned nearly a thousand enslaved people across his four plantations in Jamaica and spent vast amounts of the profits developing Penrhyn. But similar connections have been revealed by recent research that has identified the recipients of the nearly £16.5 billion (in today’s money) in ‘compensation’ given to former slave and plantation owners, including the ancestors of David Cameron, William Gladstone, Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for their ‘loss of property’ when slavery was abolished in 1834. The results are available to search on UCL’s public Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database (ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search), which includes listings of over four hundred houses, estates and gardens associated with the individual claimants. The Slave Voyages database (slavevoyages.org) can be used to identify country house owners who owned slaving ships. 

Other properties have less direct, but still important, colonial links that may not be immediately obvious. The owners may have been colonial administrators or investors in the sugar, coffee, cotton or tobacco trades. They may have employed African or Asian servants. Indeed, most houses contain objects that arrived on East India Company ships, from china crockery to ivory furniture and Chinese wallpaper. 

Telling the Full Story 

These are just a few examples of the work that is being done to tell the full stories of historic houses. As the Earl and Countess of Devon have pointed out, some stories can be challenging to address and share, especially where there is a close family connection. There can be a fear that telling ‘difficult’ stories will upset visitors or embarrass the families who are connected to them. But most instances of heritage sites bringing more ‘difficult’ histories to light have met with an overwhelmingly positive response.  

Charlecote Park Historic Houses Colonial Countryside project

Children at Charlecote Park. Photography by Corinne Fowler

Negative media coverage of the National Trust’s landmark ‘Prejudice and Pride’ project in 2017 suggested it had been poorly received. However, research by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), showed that while a minority accused the Trust of, ‘getting too political,’ (echoing the mainstream media), over 70% of visitors actually had a positive response. The Trust lost very few supporters as a result of Prejudice and Pride and gained far more from new interest amongst people who felt represented at last. The project’s success rested on careful collaboration and consultation – listening to the collective needs of staff, volunteers and visitors. 

It is a myth that heritage sites are, or have ever been, neutral and static. This is especially true for the living, breathing member homes of Historic Houses. Families in the past have made decisions, chosen sides, and lived certain lives, just as we do now. Their homes reflect the lives of all their occupants (both ‘above’ and ‘below stairs’) and their collections provide opportunities to better understand and interpret those lives. 

Filling the gaps in the narrative can seem like a monumental task, but it does not need to be done all at once. The process can start with one story, one object, or one person – what new dimension to the site’s story can be revealed? And ultimately, how can the history of the place be retold to make better connections with the present?  

The Historic Houses membership represents hundreds of homes and thousands of stories. Difficult histories are often written out of a place’s story, but it is important that we now write them back in to form more complete narratives that better serve the people who will live in, care for and visit these historic places for generations to come. 

Daniella Briscoe-Peaple is Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Heritage Alliance. A graduate in Classics from the University of Cambridge, she worked at Historic Houses in 2018 as part of Historic England’s Training Places programme, and is currently studying for a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. 

Further advice on presenting all aspects of your home’s history is available from the Historic Houses Learning Advice Panel, who can be contacted through Emma Robinson, Director of Policy & Public Affairs on emma.robinson@historichouses.org 

Main image: Children on the 'Colonial Countryside' project at Charlecote Park. Photography by Ingrid Pollard.


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