One by one, they tackle the steeply winding path to Penrhyn Castle, pausing halfway to admire the view over a sparkling blue sea. Extended families grapple with pushchairs and picnic cool boxes; there are dapper older gentlemen in panama hats, and panting labradors. A blackboard at the entrance advertises traditional games every Thursday, while the gift shop is a soothing vision of gardening tools, tea towels and jars of chutney. As Eleanor Harding, the National Trust’s thoughtful young assistant curator for Wales, enters the castle’s ornate library, a volunteer guide says brightly: “No negative comments today!”
Over the past year, the trust has attracted its fair share of those. An institution best known for stately homes, scones and bracing walks has found itself plunged into an unlikely culture war over how the history it is charged with preserving for the nation should be interpreted.
Years of minor grumbling about its efforts to move with the times – or, as a leaked internal document last summer put it, improve on an “outdated mansion experience” – erupted into a full-blown row in September last year over a report tracing its properties’ connections to colonialism and slavery. Published in the aftermath of a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, which saw the statue of a slaver pushed into Bristol harbour and Winston Churchill’s statue on Whitehall boarded up for its protection, it brought together three years’ work exploring the histories of 93 estates. Some were built on the proceeds of slavery – Penrhyn’s original owners made their fortune from sugar plantations in Jamaica – while others had been home to abolitionists. Powis Castle on the English-Welsh border made the list for holding spoils of war brought back by the military commander Clive of India, while Rudyard Kipling’s former Sussex home earned its entry for his writings on empire. But it was the inclusion of Churchill’s home at Chartwell, Kent, on grounds including his early opposition to independence for India, that really put the cat among the pigeons.
“A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image,” thundered 28 members of the Common Sense Group of Tory backbenchers, a rightwing grouping founded to counter what it regards as “woke” thinking, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph accusing the trust of having “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons”. The then chair of the Charity Commission, former Conservative cabinet minister Tina Stowell, promised to investigate whether the trust had strayed from its charitable purpose (the commission later cleared it of doing so). Even Oliver Dowden, then culture secretary, declared that roping in Churchill would “surprise and disappoint people”. Claims that the trust was haemorrhaging members and purging dissenting staff followed, many under the byline of the influential Spectator columnist Charles Moore. A group called Restore Trust – a rebel alliance of disgruntled members seeking to oust senior National Trust leaders – has now tabled a series of resolutions for the charity’s annual general meeting later this month, including one demanding the trust consult its army of volunteers before changing the way a property is presented.
The trust has weathered public controversies before, over everything from demands to ban foxhunting on its land in the 1990s to lowering the sugar in its flapjack recipes three years ago. But this feels uglier, and more intense. The trust’s director general, Hilary McGrady, received at least one death threat following the report. Corinne Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, who co-authored it with the trust’s head curator, Sally-Anne Huxtable, and others, was advised for her own safety not to go out walking alone. The charity seems to have become a lightning rod for the boiling emotions of a nation in flux, racked by arguments over national identity, social justice, pride and guilt.
Yet presiding over it all is McGrady, whose manner is as calm and soothing as a stroll round a herbaceous border. Having grown up on a smallholding not far from Belfast during the Troubles, she is perhaps more used to navigating conflicting histories than most.
“It’s been the perfect storm in many respects, hasn’t it?” she says resignedly down a phone line from rural Somerset. “People have had to get used to what’s going on with Brexit, people having to get used to Covid, the political agenda, levelling up – there are so many things in the mix that are creating this febrile atmosphere. I think we did fall foul of a period of time in the last year when the world was going slightly bonkers.”
But why should the trust be a target? “I think it’s one of the steadying reminders of what’s good about life – people like the consistency,” she says. “And then they were reading this stuff, going: ‘Oh my goodness, they’re changing this thing that I absolutely love.’ That’s what frustrated me, because actually I’m not changing anything. What I’m trying to do is improve and constantly build – take nothing away but just add more interest.”
A year on, the trust still has more than 5.4 million members, numbers that no political party can dream of matching. During the pandemic, many drew comfort from walking its peaks and fells, holding outdoor family reunions in its parklands, or holidaying in its beauty spots. But the row hasn’t gone away. At its heart lies a tug of war between people who don’t want politics intruding on a nice day out, and those arguing that politics were there all along, for those who cared to look.
The vast dining table at Penrhyn Castle is set for a banquet, groaning with crystal and family silver. Gazing down from the wall, as if surveying his bounty, is an enormous oil painting of Richard Pennant, the first Baron Penrhyn and an 18th-century MP for Liverpool.
But something is amiss. The middle of the table is bare, apart from a battered box labelled “Jamaica papers”. And just below the painting stands a bouquet of white chrysanthemums, whose handwritten card dedicates them to the enslaved people “whose blood and sweat and tears contributed to the wealth that built this castle”. The effect is as if someone has burst into a dinner party and thrown down a bloody gauntlet to the hosts.
This is the heart of the What a World! exhibition, Eleanor Harding’s attempt to foreground a history unusually well preserved in the family archive that Richard Pennant’s descendants gave to Bangor University in the 1930s, including records of prices paid for slaves on its six plantations. Built in 1820, the castle sits in what the heritage consultant Dr Marian Gwyn (who has researched the archive for the trust) calls a “slave landscape”. The family’s plantation wealth, plus compensation received when slavery was abolished, was ploughed into a vast estate stretching from Bangor on the north Wales coast into Snowdonia.
That money bought fine art and furniture for the castle. But it also built houses and pubs, roads and railways, chapels and schools; it drained farmland and industrialised the family’s slate quarry near Bethesda, bringing jobs and prosperity but leaving a new legacy of bitterness.
The Great Penrhyn Quarry Strike of 1900-3, called after the Pennant family rejected workers’ demands for better pay and conditions, became the longest-running industrial dispute in British history. Strike-breakers, known as bradwyr or traitors, were ostracised for years afterwards by their neighbours; families were torn apart or driven away. Some local people still refuse to enter the castle, which was seen as symbolising oppression. Six years ago, the trust began devising a strategy to entice them back and introduce tourists to this richly complex story.
The Jamaica box was always part of the exhibition, which features local children’s poems responding to objects found in the house. But the flowers arrived unexpectedly this summer via a young black academic named April-Louise Pennant, seeking answers about her family history.
Pennant remains a common surname in Jamaica, although, as Harding explains, it’s unclear why. “Is it that after emancipation the British said, ‘You need surnames’ and the slaves were either given or picked the surnames of the people they worked for? Of course, another possibility is rape.”
Pennant, a newly graduated PhD student whose research has focused on black feminist ideology and critical race theory, says going to the castle was both “a professional and a personal journey”. Her grandparents came to Britain from Jamaica with the Windrush migration, and she remembers being told their name was Welsh in origin. But it wasn’t until she moved to Wales recently, to work for the devolved government, that she made the connection with Penrhyn. Where once only one line of Pennants was represented in the dining room, now there are two. She laid the flowers because, to her, Penrhyn is a monument: “There would be no castle without slavery, there would be no quarry without slavery. I just thought that my ancestors had not been honoured.”
The estate was given to the trust in lieu of inheritance tax in 1953, but the family retained some of the land, and visiting it evoked raw emotions that Pennant is still struggling to process. The trust promised that her card would remain displayed when the flowers died, but she wonders if that is enough. “I’d like to see more scrutiny of why these places were given to the National Trust and the fact that there’s this huge reparations movement – it’s not just about money, it’s about justice. How is it that the slave owners got compensation whereas someone like myself didn’t get anything, and we can’t even get acknowledgment?” Several of her friends, she says, are now keen to trace their own roots; ultimately, she wants to know which part of Africa her own ancestors were taken from.
Most visitors have welcomed the exhibition, Harding says, and some have been deeply moved. But she estimates every castle volunteer has fielded at least one angry outburst. “We have people who are frustrated at the way the world is going and changes to the status quo, who are coming to Penrhyn, knowing what they’re going to see and almost needing it as a place to vent their anger,” she says. Others let rip anonymously on TripAdvisor, where “Shropshire Lad” from Shrewsbury complains of “an amazing building, gardens and history ruined by an unremitting display of wokeness”, while Alan M compares “the narrow (and oh so fashionable) angle taken to present a complex subject” to communist rewritings of history. Mike from Tonbridge rages: “Give us what we visited for and paid for – History!” But whose history, exactly?
Corinne Fowler, co-author of the colonialism and slavery report, first began collaborating with the trust five years ago on her Colonial Countryside project, which saw children producing creative writing reflecting on properties linked to empire. She is evidently scarred by last September’s backlash, but agrees to answer questions by email. Her report argues that grand country houses are innately political, thanks to a 1711 law limiting House of Commons membership to men with a significant income from the land, which made estate ownership key to legislative power for more than a century. Have we had an overly cosy view of these properties in the past?
“Country houses have become places where you go to switch off, walk your dog and admire designed landscapes,” Fowler says. “Nobody’s going to worry about learning familiar facts on their visit – that the house belonged to an MP.” But being confronted with history you didn’t learn at school can, she argues, feel threatening. “It’s not surprising it feels alien, because we know more about 1066, the Great Fire and steam engines than we know about four centuries of British colonial activity. But just because our education system didn’t really prepare us for this, that doesn’t mean that British history is under attack.”
Fowler anticipated some hostility towards her report but was nonetheless “shocked” by the press coverage and the ensuing waves of bile (one online comment below a newspaper article discussed how she should be murdered). What most angers her, however, is the charge that historians were stoking a culture war simply by discussing the evidence-based research that the National Trust exists in part to do.
The charity was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill, a Christian socialist who was evangelical about giving the urban working classes fresh air and green space, working with two like-minded colleagues. “She used to walk children out of London into Epping Forest because she believed that if you gave them God’s nature, it would inject magic into their lives,” says Ivo Dawnay, the trust’s former director for London (and Boris Johnson’s brother-in-law), who tweeted this summer appealing for critics to stop treating it like a political football. “Alongside Hill, there was Hardwicke Rawnsley, a radical vicar in the Lake District who was fighting the railways – your Swampy type. The final one was Robert Hunter, a campaigner for common land.” Funded by wealthy establishment figures, their mission of acquiring land for free public access was nonetheless radical from the start, Dawnay argues: “I’m sure in 1895 there must have been a lot of people thinking it was outrageous.” Their first acquisition was four and a half acres of gorse-covered hillside at Dinas Oleu on the western Welsh coast, donated by a wealthy philanthropist friend of Hill’s named Fanny Talbot in hopes that it would go to “some society that will never vulgarise it, or prevent wild nature having its way”. The stately homes the trust is famous for, however, were a surprisingly late addition.
After the first world war, the aristocracy found itself squeezed by high death duties and a dearth of estate workers, many of whom had been killed in the trenches. Historic estates risked being carved up or crumbling into ruins. “The fabric of the landscape was starting to break down,” says Liz Green, the trust’s lead curator in Wales. “You read about this in novels all the time: the young heir comes along, has to flog the family silver off and break apart these great estates.” The solution was the National Trust Act of 1937, allowing estates to be given to the Treasury in lieu of inheritance tax and held by the trust on behalf of the nation in perpetuity. (The trust occupies an unusual position, independent of government but answerable to the nation; technically it doesn’t “own” its assets, but cares for them on Britain’s behalf.) What followed was effectively nationalisation on a scale of which socialists might only dream, albeit in exchange for some hefty tax avoidance, leaving the trust with a new coalition of members: some who joined to walk the land, others interested in “worshipping the aristocracy, or in pictures and furniture and china”, as Dawnay puts it.
By the 1960s, that coalition was cracking, with complaints that the trust was becoming a cosy club for the gentry. It was saved by a unifying campaign to rescue the English and Welsh coastline from developers, reflected in the 775 miles of coastal path it owns today, which was so popular that membership soared from about 50,000 in 1960 to a million by 1981. Yet efforts in recent years to broaden the membership have strained that coalition once more.
“You go into properties now and it tells you the difference between the Stuarts and the Tudors. The old guard thinks everyone should know the difference, and if they don’t they shouldn’t be there,” Dawnay says. “It’s a small proportion of members, but they have undue influence because they have access to the columnists of the Telegraph and Times and Spectator.”
Restore Trust is certainly well-connected for a small protest group, enjoying extensive media coverage for its claims to have attracted thousands of supporters or forced the resignation of the trust’s long-serving chair Tim Parker this summer. (The trust insists Parker’s departure was planned, and that Restore Trust demanded he quit the day after stakeholders were confidentially told he would be leaving.) It is backed by an unusually high-powered team, including PR executive Neil Bennett (an ex-journalist who worked at the Sunday Telegraph under Charles Moore’s editorship) and the millionaire Tory donor Neil Record. Its slickly designed website is currently pumping out information on how National Trust members can vote at the AGM for a change in direction, either in person, online or by post.
After a fiery launch, Restore Trust has seemingly tempered its rhetoric. A spokesperson emails that its chief concern is a shift of power from expert curators to managers charged with boosting visitor numbers, leaving properties “peppered inside and out with signage in poor taste and lacking any coherent design, greatly detracting from the aesthetic impact”. Offending examples apparently include signs encouraging children to “pretend to be a bee and waggle along this path”. Worse still, she adds: “There are labels at Stourhead [a Wiltshire stately home], in one of the great libraries of England, on round tables in white gauze – no understanding of the grandeur of the house.” (Museum-style labelling is a surprisingly big bone of contention among members nostalgic for the days when the rooms of country houses were assumed to speak for themselves.) This rather esoteric crusade against dumbing down has, however, been amplified by a cruder rightwing backlash against social justice movements (or what the Common Sense Group calls “cultural Marxism”), plus a post-Brexit push for more “patriotic” history dwelling on past glories, not old wrongs. All three strands of opposition are converging on the AGM.
Stephen Green of the virulent rightwing pressure group Christian Voice – perhaps most notorious for speaking in defence of a Ugandan law threatening to impose the death penalty on HIV-positive gay men who had sex – is standing for election to the trust’s governing council on a pitch accusing the trust of becoming “obsessed with LGBT issues” and “woke virtue-signalling”. Green, who is endorsed by Restore Trust, has over the years opposed abortion, the criminalisation of marital rape, compulsory sex education in schools, performances of the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera (which he regarded as blasphemous) and above all the “sinful” practice of homosexuality. He particularly resents the trust’s outing of Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the owner of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk until his death in 1969, as gay. “There’s absolutely no evidence that this quite unobtrusive man was some prototype Peter Tatchell, but because he was single and adopted a funny pose outside Felbrigg Hall, he had to be gay,” Green says indignantly. He doesn’t expect to win, he adds, but wants the trust “not to see itself as a vehicle for social change”.
Perhaps more typical of grassroots unease is Andrew Powles, chair of Wellingborough civic society, also standing for the council on a platform questioning the trust’s direction. A member for 40 years, he says he was saddened by the bitter divisions evident at last year’s AGM, held virtually due to Covid. “We all logged in and were left feeling: ‘Does it really have to be like this?’ When you see things on the chat box, some people saying, ‘I’m going to resign now’ – they won’t visit, they won’t go to the shop, they won’t have a cup of tea in the cafe, and all that stuff is so crucial.” Powles sees nothing wrong in saying an estate was built on slavery, although he thinks the right place for that information may be the website: “It shouldn’t necessarily spoil the enjoyment of the house.”
The Tory MP and former Foreign Office minister Andrew Murrison, who led a parliamentary debate on the trust last autumn, predicts “a great groundswell of members’ opinion” coming to a head at the AGM. A former naval surgeon whose Wiltshire constituency includes Stourhead – named in the colonialism and slavery report because its 18th-century owner inherited money made partly from trading shares in the South Sea company, which supplied slave labour to central and southern America – Murrison regards the report as historically poor, underplaying Britain’s role in abolition. “It’s worthwhile just reflecting on where Britain actually was in the 19th century in relationship to slavery and the progress this country was able to achieve. None of that is really of particular interest to those behind this report and I think that’s wrong, wherever you stand politically.”
As trust properties have been either in lockdown or limiting visitors due to Covid since March 2020, it’s impossible to be sure how all this has affected visitor numbers – although Marian Gwyn says a 2007 exhibition she staged on Penrhyn’s connections to slavery boosted visitor numbers by 12.5%. There are, she argues, commercial as well as ethical reasons for telling stories new to visitors.
Membership fell from a pre-pandemic peak of nearly 6 million to 5.4 million by this spring, but began rising again as lockdown restrictions lifted. The trust’s director of communications, Celia Richardson, says the numbers closely track whether properties were open to visitors or not (most members are recruited on a visit). The rate of existing members renewing their subscriptions fell by only 1%, while small donations trebled. “What characterises some of this culture war campaign is campaigners completely exaggerating the effect they’re having. We’re recruiting members at the moment every 25 seconds,” says Richardson, who suspects most trust members aren’t enormously interested in the row. “People don’t join a conservation organisation to argue about political theory.”
Yet the attacks on an institution she calls “about as Marxist as a cream tea” take their toll. “When there’s a mainstream media story, we will see quite a lot of abuse starting to hit us via social media, via our call centres, direct threats coming into the director general’s inbox. There are culture warriors out there looking for these stories,” Richardson says. Recently she filed a formal complaint with the Spectator over a Charles Moore piece that quoted an employee who allegedly claimed that “at interviews people are asked how they voted in the Brexit referendum, and rejected out of hand if they voted to leave”. (The Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, declined to comment for this article beyond noting that: “Charles is a pretty well established journalist and biographer with a track record that speaks for itself.”) Some of the social media abuse seems to come from bots or from overseas, Richardson says. But she worries about the chilling effect on other charities and cultural institutions, anxious to avoid similar attacks.
At her lowest point, Hilary McGrady admits she considered leaving. “There were lots of days when I thought, ‘Why am I putting myself through this? Would it be better for the trust, would it make life easier if I was to go?’” Yet she has, she says, emerged more convinced than ever that the charity should hold true to its beliefs and purpose. Work on slavery and colonialism will continue, but it’s only a “tiny part” of what the trust actually does.
The single biggest issue preoccupying her is the trust’s role, as a major landowner across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in tackling the climate crisis. “We need to be active on our land, working to try to save nature – this is really important right now, just as the survival of the country house was the thing to focus on in the postwar period.” Once again, that means moving with changing times.
From the top of Holly Purdey’s Exmoor farm, you can see right across the valley – a lush patchwork of forest, moor and meadow, beneath a cornflower-blue sky. But Ben Eardley, riverlands project manager here on the vast trust-owned estate at Holnicote, isn’t here to show off the view. We are, instead, gathered expectantly around a cowpat.
“Look at the holes!” Eardley says, pointing at the dung. And soon, a tiny black beetle crawls out. You rarely see holes on cowpats now, he explains, because they’re made by dung beetles to whom cattle-worming drugs can be lethal, even once excreted. But Purdey is a rewilding enthusiast, seeking to take her land back to a more natural state, and her cows aren’t chemically wormed. That makes their dung safe for the beetles, who in return break it down, fertilising the soil and improving the grass for the cows. “That cowpat is an amazing habitat. It’s not as exciting as a wildflower, but it’s really important,” Eardley says.
When 33-year-old Purdey took over the tenancy of this trust-owned farm three years ago, she planted trees, rested exhausted pastures and used water management techniques to stop heavy rains from washing away topsoil. Now she calculates that her sheep, goat, cattle and chicken farm is finally carbon neutral, absorbing more carbon than it emits.
Purdey, who grew up on an organic farm on Exmoor, admits her methods initially met with some local scepticism. But she’s determined to prove the changes can be economically viable, while reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to extreme weather. “Me and my husband just feel that we’ve got to bring about change, and if that means going against the status quo, then we’ve got to make that stand and showcase how we can do it while still producing food,” she says.
Further down the valley, the trust has reintroduced the first pair of beavers to roam this land in hundreds of years. Yogi and Grylls have dammed the shallow streams flowing through their enclosure, creating a lake that teemed with tadpoles in spring and which Eardley hopes will create rich new wildlife habitats. The beavers (and now their newborn kit Rashford) complement a river management system aiming to get water spilling up over the land where it’s safe to do so, reducing the flood risk downstream while creating a carbon-sequestering wetland home to dragonflies, birds, bats and insects.
Here, at least, the trust shares common ground with the government. The environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, is a rewilding enthusiast and Boris Johnson unexpectedly pledged in this month’s party conference speech to “build back beaver” in British rivers. Reducing carbon emissions from farming, meanwhile, could help Britain meet its net zero targets.
Yet McGrady insists this focus on the land doesn’t mean neglecting the houses; if anything, she sees exhuming their hidden histories as a means of revival. “Time and time again I’ve spoken to visitors who said, ‘I love this place, I haven’t been in the house for quite a long time because nothing has changed, but I love the garden.’ Actually what I want is to get more people back into the houses to really learn a bit more, so that every time they come there will be something different that will shine a light on a new bit of the collection.”
In hindsight, McGrady admits she wouldn’t have published the colonialism and slavery report while she was still busy managing the consequences of Covid, leaving little time to prepare stakeholders for what was coming. But she doesn’t regret the work itself, rejecting suggestions that it was released under pressure from social justice campaigners. “I never did this piece of work to appease one community or annoy another. I genuinely did it because I think it’s a fascinating story – it adds more interest, more complexity, a depth of history that we haven’t told before. Why is that not a good thing?”
What if it exposes the trust to demands for reparations, or repatriating colonial treasures currently in its collections? The shape of a fledgling British reparations movement is still emerging, although so far it has emphasised acknowledging and atoning for past injustices as much as money. McGrady can’t yet say what it might mean for the trust, suggesting it would follow a national policy lead: “We would be absolutely falling in behind the people who are responsible for that, like the Arts Council or English Heritage.” But relations with donor families remain a delicate subject. The two surviving Pennant heirs – one of whom still lives in north Wales, while the other is a poet living between the UK and Cyprus – have donated to charities in Jamaica, but a source with knowledge of the family says they have faced criticism over its past actions. “I know several families who have connections to slavery and have the same sort of paperwork the Pennants have, and no way will they share it because they’ve seen what’s happened.”
McGrady’s Northern Irish upbringing has helped convince her that openness is crucial to reconciling conflict. “I understand the complexities of history and different people’s perspective on history and why these are sensitive,” she says. “But my attitude, partly because I come from Northern Ireland, is that I think we need to talk about it.”
Over summer, there have been signs of the culture wars cooling. Oliver Dowden visited the trust-owned Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and publicly praised its work there; ministers pointedly defended the RNLI after Nigel Farage criticised it for rescuing drowning refugees from the Channel. Does McGrady sense a change in the political weather?
“I’d certainly like to think the nation’s being a bit kinder to itself,” she says, noting the way England rallied behind its football team this summer despite initial protests over players taking the knee. “What the England team did was bring a huge sense of celebration and pride to the nation. I thought it was amazing, and to undercut it with all this sort of nastiness was just such an own goal. I think the nation did realise: we’ve got something here that’s really valuable – why are we giving it a hard time? In a way I think that’s a little bit similar with the National Trust.” With a potentially turbulent AGM approaching, she professes herself “hopeful but not complacent”; the lesson she has drawn from the past year is that conflict is unlikely to go away, but that leaders can become more resilient in the face of attack.
A few days later, the charity’s official Twitter account posts a soothing picture of late-flowering roses and lavender, with the caption: “A stroll through a well-appointed garden is where you can find your calm.” But only, perhaps, after the storm.