Flawed Foundations: Britain’s Country Houses

by Adele A Wilby

Britain’s large country houses are original and distinctive, and they can be seen gracing the landscape from prime positions in the countryside. They are admired for their many features: their elegant architecture, the artistic treasures they house, the curatorial opportunities they offer, their landscaped gardens and grounds, and their representation of British genteel living. However, despite the obvious elegance of these houses, my response to them has usually been to view them in terms of, at worst, expressions of the British class system, and gross inequalities of wealth, power and privilege, and at best, as monuments to the skills of the tradesmen responsible for the construction of those houses. But Martin Belam’s article ‘Glasgow University to Make Amends Over Slavery Profits of the Past’ (Guardian Sept 17, 2018) was to change all that. It sent me on a reading journey that ended in me rethinking the representation of those iconic features of Britain’s countryside.

Belam’s article is a commentary on the ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ report (Mullen Newman 2018). The report acknowledges the University’s pride in its history of opposition to the transatlantic slave trade, the institution of slavery, and the involvement of many of its alumni in the abolitionist movement. However, the report concluded that ‘although the University of Glasgow never owned enslaved people or traded in goods they produced, it is nonetheless clear that the University received significant gifts and support from people who derived some or occasionally much of their wealth from slavery’, particularly in the West Indies during the 18thand 19thcenturies. The value of the financial endowments and prizes to the University runs into tens of millions of pounds, depending on how the amount is calculated in the present-day. The findings have prompted the University to commit to the implementation of a ‘Programme of reparative justice’.

The Glasgow University’s willingness to engage with the darker side of its history is admirable, and it is to be hoped that more institutions will follow suit and make known the origins of the financial contributions received during that period of British history, and embark on their own strategies of reparative justice should they need to do so. The findings in the report have also added to our existing knowledge of the relationship between wealth created from the enslavement of peoples and the establishment of institutions in Britain.

While it is common knowledge that Britain was a major actor in the transatlantic slave trade the real extent of that involvement, as Olusoga (2015) has pointed out, has, till recent times, remained buried to British public awareness. The distance between Britain’s involvement in slavery in the West Indies rather than on its territory, has made it easier to continuously underplay the full extent of its involvement in the slave trade and economy. However, the meticulous research by scholars (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/) in universities throughout the United Kingdom is progressively unravelling the depth of the Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. As their research reveals, individual and family wealth came either from direct trading in enslaved peoples, or indirect involvement in slavery through trade in cotton, sugar and tobacco. Establishing those links has not been straight forward, for, as Draper (2010:165) comments, ‘slave-owning… flowed and mutated across generations and sexes over time’. Archived data has proven to be crucial to the research.

One of the most important sources of information is the archive of the Slave Compensation Commission. The Commission published a Parliamentary Return which listed all the awards made as compensation by the British government to slave-owners by 1838 (Draper 2010:4) long after the abolition the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and the formal freeing of African slaves as property of British owners through the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The Return lists an astonishing 40,000 awards, detailing the claim numbers, the name of the awardees, the number of slaves owned, and the amount of compensation awarded based on slave-ownership on the date of 1 August 1834 (Draper 2010:4). The compensation, amounting to billions of pounds in today’s terms, was one of the biggest pay outs ever made by the British government. Ironically, while the slave owners received generous compensations for loss of ‘property’ by freeing enslaved persons, no financial provisions were ever made to compensate the enslaved (Draper 2010:271).

The compensation records therefore, have provided a useful map for where to start tracing links between slavery and country houses. We get a greater sense of the sociological distribution of Britain’s slave owners and involvement in slavery when Draper (2013:4) points out, ‘5 to 10 percent of the national elites in Britain were close enough to slavery to appear in the Slave Compensation Records. This proportion is fairly constant across the peerage, the baronetcy, sheriffs and MPs in the Commons between 1820 and 1833’.  Moreover, ‘across Britain as a whole, the slave compensation data suggest that in the 1830s 5 to 10 per cent of all British country houses would be expected to have been occupied by slave owners and that in some localities and even some regions the figure would be much higher’ (Draper 2013:4). Thus, for example, in her investigation into selected historic houses in England’s West Country and the slave trade, Dresser (2013: 12) established how wealth derived from slavery was the impetus behind the building of some of the country houses in the area. Similarly, Longmore (2013: 30) has revealed how, slave traders, plantation managers or merchants involved in slave-produced goods, in Liverpool, that ‘metropolis of slavery’ where over 1.17 million Africans were transported into slavery in ships belonging to the port, diversified their interests and invested their wealth in landed property also. Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire and Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire highlight the complexity of establishing links between the wealth accumulated through slavery and ownership of country houses. Peter Thellusson, owner of Brodsworth Hall, was explicitly linked to slavery, whereas establishing the links to slavery of the third Duke of Portland and his ownership of Bolsover Castle is more diffuse, through investment and political office. (Haggerty and Seymour 2013: 78-90).

While it has to be acknowledged that not all country houses have been built from the profits of slavery, my brief excursion into the literature on the relationship between Britain’s deep involvement in slavery and country houses has been sufficient to generate a healthy scepticism in me as to what those elegant structures perched on a hillside overlooking vast acreage of land might truly represent. A recent ramble along the river Thames to Twickenham, took me through the grounds and past an imposing and elegant house, and I slowed my pace and paused to look at it on my way. It is commonly known as Marble Hill House. It was to me, just another big English house. However, Brown’s (2013:91-101) research has uncovered a history of the house not nearly as grand as the house appears.

Although one of many big houses built along the Thames in the eighteenth century, Marble Hill House is renowned for its particular style, designed by the Italian Andrea Palladio. But apart from its architectural uniqueness of the times, the house is significant for its ownership by Henrietta Howard, the then Prince of Wales’ mistress. Howard’s insecure marital and social status compelled her to invest in Marble Hill House as a form of financial security, and it was her investments in the transatlantic slave trade that partially enabled Henrietta to secure ownership of Marble Hill House (Brown 2013:91-101). But the wealth she gained from slavery is only one part of the story. The unique features of the house: the mahogany used in the structural design, carved staircase and floor boards in the great room, were also made possible by the labour of enslaved people. The heavy mahogany logs imported from such places as Belize, were harvested by the labour of the enslaved. Thus, Henrietta Howard enjoyed a comfortable living from the wealth earned through her trading in slaves, while the cultural embellishments in the house, such as the mahogany features, are also the product of the brutal exploitation and the oppression that characterised slavery.

Scholars involved in researching Britain’s involvement in slavery are to be commended for the added information they have revealed concerning the history of Britain and its involvement in slavery. As such, their research findings go to the heart of Britain’s national identity, calling into question the narrative of Britain, its ‘whiteness’, and its ‘greatness’. As Bressey (2013) argues, Britain has, and continues to exclude, the history of black people in its narrative, particularly their contribution to the creation of the English countryside. For example, considerable significance is given to the English abolitionist William Wilberforce. Likewise, on the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom in 2007, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair expressed ‘deep sorrow’ over Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. However, while the commemorations provoked a flurry of interest regarding Britain involvement in the slave trade, the impetus faded with the end of the events, and since then, Bressey argues, nothing of any great significance has been done to challenge the narratives that surround English heritage, its great estates, and country houses, and to accord recognition of black people’s contribution to the creation of that heritage. For example, during the 2007 commemorations of the abolition of slavery, Kenwood House, a large house set in the landscaped parkland of Hampstead Heath, was a focus of attention. The black presence in the history of the house is through paintings, one being a large portrait of a black boy, but unlike the paintings of the cousins who lived in the house, the name of the black person in the painting is omitted, and he becomes anonymous, an ‘adornment’ in the painting. This failure to recognise the black presence in English history is perpetuated in tourist shops at these country houses. Paintings of black people employed or in different relationships with the owners can be found in the houses, as for example, Queen Victoria’s retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. The names of the painted figures are missing, and hence so too from the post cards. The history of the role of black people in that country house, and hence their contribution to British history, is unrecognised, and thus their presence and contribution to the history of black people in the United Kingdom is also omitted.

Thus, my rambles into the English countryside have become a time and a place of opportunity for me to challenge and revise my understandings of the many dimensions of the life and history of Britain. I have been exposed to scenes of outstanding natural beauty, peaceful environments, and the diversity of life opens up a curiosity about living forms and their habitats. But so too have they evoked a critical eye of the country houses that form part of Britain’s landscape. The country houses are elegant and stately, and could be said to ‘compliment’ Britain’s countryside. But unlike the openness of nature, which reveals its secrets to those who linger amongst it and engage with it, lurking behind the beauty of many of Britain’s country houses is the possibility of them being a structure of deception, obscuring the flawed foundations of the sources of wealth required to build such country houses.


Belam, M. (2018) ‘Glasgow University to Make Amends over Slavery Profits of Past’, in Guardian, 17 September.

Bressey, C. (2013) ‘Contesting the political legacy of slavery in England’s country houses: a case study of Kenwood House and Osborne House’, in: Dresser, M. and Hann. A, Slavery and the British Country House.  Swindon: English Heritage. pp. 121-131.

Brown, L. (2013) ‘Atlantic slavery and classical culture in Marble Hill and Northington Grange’, in: Dresser, M. and Hann. A, Slavery and the British Country House.  Swindon: English Heritage. pp.91-101.

Draper, N. (2010) The Price of Emancipation.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

————– (2013) ‘Slave Ownership and the British Country House: the records of the Slave Compensation Commission as Evidence’, in: Dresser, M. and Hann, A. Slavery and the British Country House. Swindon: English Heritage. pp.1-11

Haggerty, S. and Seymour, S. (2013) Property, power and authority: the implicit and explicit slavery connections of Bolsover Castle and Brodsworth Hall in the 18thCentury, in: Slavery and the British Country House.  Swindon: English Heritage. pp78-90.

Longmore, J. (2013) ‘Rural Retreats: Liverpool slave traders and their country houses’, in: Dresser, M. and Hann, A. Slavery and the British Country House. Swindon: English Heritage.       pp. 30-45.

Mullen, S. and Newman, S. (2018) ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ University of Glasgow.

Olusoga, D. (2015) ‘The History of Slave Ownership has been Buried: Now Its Scale is Revealed’, in Guardian, July 11.


Legacies of British Slave Ownership:  http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/