Issue date: 12 September 2013
The link between British country houses and the transatlantic slave trade is examined in a book just published by English Heritage. Co-edited by historian Dr Madge Dresser from UWE Bristol and Andrew Hann of English Heritage, the ground-breaking book is the first work to consider what one contributor calls 'slavery's heritage footprint'.
Slavery and the British Country House investigates an aspect of Britain's country houses that has long been overlooked – a consideration of how country houses are linked to Britain's imperial past and the extent to which they are linked to the wealth derived from African enslavement.
The new book examines British merchants and landed elites involved in the transatlantic slave trade who bought or built their own country houses with the profits of slavery. The way these great houses are presented by those who now care for them, such as English Heritage and the National Trust, is also a key consideration in the book.
Dr Dresser wrote the chapter entitled Slavery and West Country houses which uncovers the links to the transatlantic slave trade of houses such as Ashton Court, Clevedon Court, Dyrham Park, Cirencester Park, Badminton House and Frampton Court.
In the introduction the editors say, “The British country house, that symbol of refinement, connoisseurship and civility, has long been regarded not only as the jewel in the nation's heritage crown, but as an iconic signifier of national identity.
“Until recently, most studies of such properties took a 'connoisseurship' approach, focusing on their architectural features, the glories of their collections and the genealogies of the families who owned them. And while an increasing number of historians were interested in the wider significance of country houses, it is only in the last 20 years that the relationship between landed wealth, British properties and enslaved African labour began to emerge.”
Another chapter was co-authored by UWE Bristol senior lecturer Shaun Sobers and Rob Mitchell, giving an account of their work with the National Trust and community groups to re-interpret the South West's connection to this aspect of history, using creative media.
The book is the result of a research project which began several years ago to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. In 2007, English Heritage worked with Dr Dresser to research the links between transatlantic slavery and the families who had once owned properties now in its care. Two years later, it organised a conference on 'Slavery and the British Country House: mapping the current research' in partnership with UWE and the National Trust with assistance from the Economic History Society.