Fifty Shades of Grey (Heritage)

Harewood House in West Yorkshire, in the nineteenth century - the house was built on the wealth generated by plantation and slave ownership in the eighteenth century.
Harewood House in West Yorkshire, in the nineteenth century - the house was built on the wealth generated by plantation and slave ownership in the eighteenth century.

Newsflash! I’ve just been watching the news.

Flying in the face of most scientists and psychologists who have convinced us that all of humankind is evil, some nice chap whose name has now escaped me has written a book about how humans are innately kind. “Aaaahhh…that’s nice,” I hear you breathe into a cup of tea as you look wistfully out of your window at lockdown Britain circa 2020. But is there some truth in that? Certainly our response to the Covid-19 crisis has brought out the best in a lot of people. Only this morning, Captain Tom Moore, the centenarian who walked 100 lengths of his garden for the NHS charities has been knighted. And tomorrow, we will all stand on our doorsteps and clap for the NHS and other key-workers who are basically the last line of defence between us and a horrible virus or starvation induced death. These are the kind people of which he speaks – real acts of kindness (although hopefully the many millions of small acts of kindness that I perform on a daily basis for my ungrateful family without recognition also count – not that I’m bitter or anything).

This got me thinking about dark heritage. There’s not a lot that’s kind about that. Dark heritage is heritage that has a troubled or dissonant history – think Auschwitz and twentieth century battlefields. Troubled sites whose interpretation is fraught with the complexity of telling difficult stories in a sensitive way, whilst simultaneously reflecting the full horror and poignancy of the events that took place there. Tricky. Some sites are so obviously in this category (see above) that we, the consumer, are in no doubt as to what we’re likely to experience and feel as a result of a visit.

An early twentieth century image of Speke Hall near Liverpool. The house was purchased with the proceeds of slave trading.

But…there is another sub-category. Let’s call it grey heritage. Grey heritage is somewhat murkier. The waters have been muddied. Sometimes this heritage disguises itself as something else. It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – dressed in finery, but something smells a bit whiffy underneath. Some of these sites have bravely acknowledged that, yes, perhaps things aren’t quite what they seem, but others have a long way to go. You’ve guessed it, I’m talking about the jewels in the heritage real-estate crown – our stately homes. Not all of them, just some.

Many of these grand houses were built on the proceeds of some pretty shoddy behaviour. Slavery being one of them. Imperialism being the other. Sometimes both. Obviously we need to remember cultural context – times were different then, blah blah. Yes, we’ve heard it all before and we know the script. No one is blaming the current custodians of these beautiful monuments. We can still admire their architecture, walk in the footsteps of history, marvel at their treasures (that’s a whole other thread right there) but it feels right to acknowledge that they too have a darker side. One that exploited other people and put a price on their head. Without the invisible contribution of these marginalised people, these grand houses wouldn’t exist. The sector has been a bit backwards in coming forwards about this issue – probably due to the shame attached to these acts. After all, some of these houses still have living ancestors in residence. I don’t think there is anything particularly disingenuous about this, but whilst we admire their ancestral pile, we need to be in full possession of the facts. In May 2019, the National Trust launched an initiative called ‘Colonial Countryside’ – the idea being that children from an minority ethnic background would form a sort of committee to explore the links that some of the Trust’s portfolio of stately homes have to the days of Empire. The project is mentioned in the latest Trust magazine, although they don’t mention explicitly anything that is particularly contentious. There is a short mention of Speke Hall’s links to the slave trade and a box-out about the East India Company. Instead they seem to have focussed on the craftsmanship element – where houses have taken inspiration from exotic destinations in their wallpaper (!) or have been refurbished or renovated by someone from a non-white British cultural background.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a cop-out.

It’s almost as if the sector is concerned that by revealing their true histories, these beautiful sites will suddenly become abhorrent or ugly to us as a result. This of course is ridiculous – I’ve known of the history of these grey heritage sites for a long time and I’m still able to enjoy their sheer magnificence and splendour. But I do so with a sense of the human suffering on which they are built, and I feel all the more enlightened for it. It’s the human story keeps us connected to our past - so tell it.