Alton Towers? That's racist, according to 'report' by Historic England
Want to go to Alton Towers? That’s racist! New report written by woke academics at Historic England names and shames hundreds of Britain’s best-loved places for being built on slavery and it was paid for by YOU
Even if we don’t yet know whether we’ll be able to jet abroad for our holidays this year, many of us are looking forward to a post-lockdown break.
And for a perfect family day out, what could be more fun than a visit to Britain’s largest theme park, Alton Towers in Staffordshire, with its thrilling water rides (once memorably enjoyed by Princess Diana and her sons), vertiginous rollercoasters and fear-inducing runaway trains?
Would anyone begrudge families a few hours of pleasure after endless months at home?
Well, yes, some people apparently would: the well-paid and ‘woke’ officials, academics and bureaucrats on the public payroll at Historic England, the quango charged with looking after and conserving the country’s heritage — and which received almost £90 million of public money in the last financial year alone.
What does it do with this largesse? Officially, it aims to identify historic buildings at risk and distribute grants for their upkeep. Yet it appears also to engage in increasingly niche projects, such as an examination of the history of public lavatories.
Alton Towers’ owners — who have recently offered the site pro bono as a Covid testing centre — reacted angrily to news of the theme park’s inclusion in Historic England’s roster of shame
Entitled ‘Spending A Penny’, it was described as ‘an exploration of our sanitary heritage’ and included a collection of photographs of public toilets, referred to as a ‘compendium of conveniences’.
And though, on its website, Historic England claims to ‘champion historic places’, at times it appears to be doing exactly the opposite.
A recent taxpayer-funded report names and shames Alton Towers, of all places — along with hundreds of other much-loved tourist attractions, village greens, country pubs, cherished private homes and even a vicarage — for being built on the proceeds of slavery.
The report’s authors claim the theme park is built on land bought in the 19th century by Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, who received compensation for two plantations in Jamaica that were owned by his wife’s family.
The report also alleges that the East India gentleman’s club (pictured) in London’s St James’s, founded in the 19th century, is linked to slavery because its premises were originally built as a home for merchant Edmund Boehm
Alton Towers’ owners — who have recently offered the site pro bono as a Covid testing centre — reacted angrily to news of the theme park’s inclusion in Historic England’s roster of shame.
A spokeswoman told the Mail: ‘Alton Towers Resort has no links with the historic owners of the house and gardens, the Earls of Shrewsbury, who sold the estate in 1924. Since then, the estate has been owned by a number of different entities and is now leased to Alton Towers Resort by its current owners . . . everyone is welcome.’
Many other people and organisations whose properties are cited in the report have serious questions about its accuracy and the seemingly cavalier way it has been cobbled together — while its more forthright critics question whether it should exist at all.
The veteran Tory MP and former minister Sir John Hayes told me: ‘It’s quite simple: Historic England should put the report in the dustbin.’
Pencarrow House is a fine Grade II*-listed mansion near Wadebridge in the West Country. It’s owned and run by one of Cornwall’s oldest families, the Molesworth-St Aubyns, who in normal times welcome visitors to their beautiful gardens
Another private home shamed in the report is Dodington Park (pictured), a magnificent Grade I-listed estate in Gloucestershire with gardens designed by ‘Capability’ Brown
The 157-page publication, cumbersomely entitled The Transatlantic Slave Economy And England’s Built Environment: A Research Audit, has been produced by two academics who are well versed in the now-modish discipline of ‘slavery studies’.
Having tapped into this lucrative field, their report reads like a rogues’ gallery of historical exploitation and injustice.
It sets out to identify properties and locations with alleged links to slavery — and makes uncomfortable reading for any who find themselves unwittingly living or working in buildings, or even on land, with supposed links to a trade outlawed centuries ago.
The bulky report was put together in just two months last year by Dr Mary Wills and Dr Madge Dresser, at a cost of nearly £16,000 of public money. Dr Wills is an honorary fellow at the University of Hull and her previous research includes a project called The Antislavery Usable Past.
Dr Dresser is an honorary professor at the University of Bristol. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year, she helped arrange a project that displays the history of ‘protest art’ in Bristol. This Lottery-funded effort cost £150,000.
For a perfect family day out, what could be more fun than a visit to Britain’s largest theme park, Alton Towers in Staffordshire, with its thrilling water rides (once memorably enjoyed by Princess Diana and her sons), vertiginous rollercoasters and fear-inducing runaway trains
We might even pause to remember that day in 1994 when Princess Diana took William and Harry on one of the log flumes and they all got soaked
Also involved in Historic England’s report was Corinne Fowler, a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Leicester, who has done similar work combing through National Trust properties for their supposed links to slavery. Her project, Colonial Countryside, was funded by Lottery grants, to the tune of £160,000.
Historic England’s report has caused huge consternation among innocent individuals, families and organisations who now find themselves accused of benefiting from the evils of the slave trade.
For many, the first they heard of their inclusion in the survey was when the Mail contacted them: bizarrely, the researchers appear to have made little effort to approach those who might own or work in these properties beforehand.
Sir John Hayes said: ‘It’s quite simple: Historic England should put the report in the dustbin’
Take Pencarrow House, for instance: a fine Grade II*-listed mansion near Wadebridge in the West Country. It’s owned and run by one of Cornwall’s oldest families, the Molesworth-St Aubyns, who in normal times welcome visitors to their beautiful gardens.
Gillian Molesworth-St Aubyn, who lives in a house in the grounds of the property with her husband James, told me the audit — which describes the family as having ‘Jamaican interests’ (presumably slavery) — left out crucial parts of the family’s history.
‘Times change and so do families,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t write any history on Britain’s former colonies without Sir William Molesworth, the 8th baronet and a vigorous social reformer at the beginning of the 19th century . . . A great advocate for the rights of all men, he campaigned vigorously for colonial self-rule and saw slavery as barbaric. Obviously, today we all feel slavery is reprehensible. But history cannot be erased.’
The report also alleges that the East India gentleman’s club in London’s St James’s, founded in the 19th century, is linked to slavery because its premises were originally built as a home for merchant Edmund Boehm, whose wife owned slaves and received compensation upon abolition.
Club secretary Alex Bray is keen to correct the record: ‘There is no link to slavery. There was a different owner between Boehm and the club moving in, in 1849.’
The academics behind the report are keen to point out that it’s not just grand country estates that have been tainted by the proceeds of slavery. Take St Mary’s Church (pictured) in Hampton, close to the Thames in south-west London
Another private home shamed in the report is Dodington Park, a magnificent Grade I-listed estate in Gloucestershire with gardens designed by ‘Capability’ Brown (himself cast in the report as a villain who grew rich on the profits of slavery after being commissioned to design the estates of wealthy families).
The report reveals that Dodington was built by the Codrington family in the 1880s — long after the slave trade had been abolished — who had indeed been historic slave-owners and planters. It is now used as a family home by the richest man in Britain, vacuum cleaner tycoon and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.
The Dyson family refused to comment. However, the Mail has established that Sir James did not buy the property from the Codrington family. It should hardly need saying, moreover, that the Dyson family has never profited from the slave trade.
Annabel Stretton-Denham is the owner of Earsham Hall on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, originally built in the 17th century. Some 100 years after it was built, the property was purchased and enlarged by Sir John Dalling, a former governor of Jamaica and plantation owner.
It later passed to Sir William Dalling, who, according to Mrs Stretton-Denham, had no desire to run his forebear’s Caribbean estates. ‘I have seen records in the Norwich Archive Office that state that he did not want to inherit the plantation,’ she told the Mail. ‘And it is not to correct that any specific improvements were made to the Hall during his time here.’
She added that her husband’s family bought the house less than 50 years ago.
The academics behind the report are keen to point out that it’s not just grand country estates that have been tainted by the proceeds of slavery. Take St Mary’s Church in Hampton, close to the Thames in south-west London.
A recent taxpayer-funded report names and shames Alton Towers, of all places — along with hundreds of other much-loved tourist attractions, village greens, country pubs, cherished private homes and even a vicarage — for being built on the proceeds of slavery
According to the report, money accrued by the British governor of a West African slave fort was used to build a new vicarage. When I asked the soft-spoken vicar, Rev Ben Howell, about this, he was rendered almost speechless. His modest vicarage, he told me, was built in 2005. He added: ‘St Mary’s Church, Hampton, is committed to inclusion and diversity.’
And there were more examples of the academics involved in the project apparently getting the wrong end of the stick.
It is true, as the report claims, that a state boarding school near Reigate in Surrey stands on the site of Gatton Park, once a slave-owner’s estate. But its authors ignore the fact that the current school, The Royal Alexandra and Albert, has strong links with the great abolitionist Sir William Wilberforce. School spokeswoman Mrs Helen Pollard, told me: ‘Slavery connections? The school is much more famous for its role in the anti-slavery movement.’
Another school, Ashdown House in East Sussex, was also shamed in the report for having ties to a West India merchant. This was Boris Johnson’s old prep school, which was finally put out of business last year as a result of the Covid crisis. It was a controversial institution and its demise was not mourned by some of its alumni.
Nicholas Coleridge, now chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a former pupil. Almost uniquely among the people I spoke to, he had some warm words for Historic England’s audit, telling me: ‘I think it’s entirely appropriate that the school was founded on slavery. After all, we pupils were treated like slaves.’
A child wears a mask as he has his temperature checked at the entrance to Alton Towers on July 4, 2020
Such is the febrile atmosphere around the report, a group of MPs recently held an emergency online ‘deputation’ to confront the bosses of Historic England, including chief executive Duncan Wilson, who enjoys a taxpayer-funded pay packet of around £200,000 a year, including pension.
The audit was reportedly discussed at length during the meeting, with Historic England saying it was needed because the slavery issue was ‘out there’. The MPs insisted the timing is unfortunate, given the global pandemic, and that it is wrong to dwell on slavery with the UK so divided.
Another ‘summit’ was organised last month by the Department for Culture to address the increasingly political direction of certain Government-funded heritage organisations, although some observers believe it will be hard to slow the trend.
Tory MP Dr Andrew Murrison told me: ‘Historic England should focus on being clerk of works for our national treasures, not churning out gazetteers suggesting the first major country to abolish the slave trade is a repository of unmitigated wickedness.’
Another MP, Tom Hunt, said the report was ‘incredibly divisive’. He and other MPs told me they had demanded the meeting because Historic England and other major custodial institutions, such as the National Trust, are devoting significant time and resources to fringe projects such as this.
Slavery was declared illegal in the British Empire in the 1830s, so why does it appear to be dominating the agenda of our cultural custodians today?
Historic England told the Mail that neither Dr Wills nor Dr Dresser was available for interview. A spokeswoman said they had ‘moved on from this project’.
In a statement, the organisation added that, as a public body, it has a ‘mandate’ to ‘address the lack of diversity within the heritage sector’. It went on: ‘We are fully aligned with government policy on this. England’s heritage is for everyone and our role is to ensure that all the many different aspects which helped to shape it are fully understood.’
As the wrangling continues, at least we can all look forward to the re-opening of Alton Towers and other theme parks when the Government’s planned easing of restrictions comes to an end this summer
Sir John Hayes insists that Historic England is not aligned with government policy, and his Common Sense Group of Tory MPs are due to meet Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss this.
‘We recognise that patriotic, hardworking Britons expect this Government and our party to stand for them and by them,’ he told me. ‘And that means not capitulating to a lot of bourgeois liberal claptrap about political correctness. Unfortunately, Historic England seems to have fallen into that category.
‘[The quango] told us they are struggling financially because of the effects of the lockdown . . . So this is money they spent at a time when they could well do with making savings.’
Whether the parliamentarians can exert any influence remains to be seen. Several respected academics I have spoken to are deeply worried that, at many universities, history is simply becoming an exercise in collective groupthink.
One Oxford don told me that few students actually learn anything or even debate any more.
‘At some of the poorer universities, they just sign up to the standard orthodoxy — and the study of slavery and colonialism has become very fashionable and well-funded,’ the academic said. ‘It’s not such a surprise that groups like the National Trust and Historic England are helping to pay for that.’
As the wrangling continues, at least we can all look forward to the re-opening of Alton Towers and other theme parks when the Government’s planned easing of restrictions comes to an end this summer. We might even pause to remember that day in 1994 when Princess Diana took William and Harry on one of the log flumes and they all got soaked.
In those days, the young Harry was conspicuously less ‘woke’ than he is now — and he might not have cared a jot about the estate’s alleged connections to slavery. Like thousands of others, he was simply enjoying a day out with his mum.
And what’s wrong with that?
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