National Trust invites children to reverse-mentor staff on colonialism

National Trust invites children to ‘reverse-mentor’ its staff on colonialism as part of project probing link of country houses to slave trade

  • Colonial Countryside projects looks into links of 11 trust properties to slave trade 
  • ‘Child advisory boards’ set up to ‘assist’ the trust’s staff with their training so they can explain the ties of their properties to slave trade and British empire 
  • The project involves nine historians working with 100 primary school children
  • Last month, the trust was accused of bias over the team of historians it hired

The National Trust has come under fire after it was revealed staff and volunteers have been ‘reverse-mentored’ by primary school children to ensure they can explain the ties of their properties to the slave trade and British empire.

‘Child advisory boards’ have been set up to ‘assist’ the trust’s staff with their training to ‘ensure that British imperial history is fully represented’ in the organisation’s country houses, according to the charity.

The backlash comes after the National Trust was accused last month of bias over the team of academics it hired to investigate the ties of its properties to the slave trade and empire.

Pictured: Dyrham Park near Bristol is taking part in the Colonial Countryside Project since William Blathwayt, who built the mansion, was the foremost colonial administrator of his day who regularly accepted expensive gifts in the hope of gaining influence

The efforts are part of The Colonial Countryside project, which is looking at 11 country houses managed by the trust and investigating their links to Africa, the Caribbean and India.

Primary school children have formed the ‘child advisory boards’ where they ‘reverse-mentor’ National Trust staff and volunteers about colonial legacies, according to the University of Leicester, which is collaborating in the project. Children will also hold public talks and attend conferences. 

It was not compulsory for the staff and volunteers across the organisation to attend, the trust said. 

‘Child advisory boards’ have been set up to ‘assist’ the trust’s staff with their training. Pictured: Children learning about the history of Belton House in Lincolnshire

Left to right: Teresia Khan, Lady Shirley, 1622, by Van Dyck; Portrait of an unknown coachboy, late 18th century; Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, 1922 are part of National Trust collections on their direct and indirect colonial links

Reverse-mentoring ‘pairs people who might otherwise not come together,’ according to the government. ‘It ensures mutual benefit to both the mentor and mentee. The mentee gains new skills and perspectives, the mentor gains valuable insights.’  

The trust said 100 primary children, most of whom are of African, Caribbean and South Asian heritage, have visited 10 National Trust houses to craft fiction and short essays which are then presented to live, print and digital audiences.  

Conservative MP Sir John Hayes told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is a source of sadness that the National Trust are out of touch with the reality of militancy that they are explicitly endorsing, out of tune with their increasingly disillusioned members and running out of time to put these wrongs right.’

Another Conservative MP Andrew Murrison added: ‘Given recent concerns over the use of Trust assets to pursue an agenda by its leadership, I’m not entirely comfortable that the sensitive issue of children’s education is safe in its hands.

‘In my view the Trust should concentrate on looking after its sites for the benefit of the visiting public who by and large don’t want to be indoctrinated.’

The efforts are part of The Colonial Countryside project, which is looking at 11 country houses managed by the trust and investigating their links to Africa, the Caribbean and India. Pictured: One of the properties being looked at is Buckland Abbey, the Devon home of Sir Francis Drake

A National Trust spokesperson said: ‘Colonial Countryside is a project started in 2018 at 11 National Trust houses. 

‘The participation of the children, which has now concluded, has tested new ways of working with relevant staff at selected properties, enabling us to hear and reflect the children’s responses. It was not a compulsory exercise for staff and volunteers across the Trust.

‘Allowing children to explore history and nature, to think about their place in the world and create new responses is an important part of our work.’ 

The backlash comes as the trust faced accusations of bias over the make-up of its team of historians that are taking part in the four-year project. 

Nine historians are working with the 100 primary school children to study each National Trust property and its connections to slavery.

Corinne Fowler, a historian at the University of Leicester, who wrote the book Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections, is the leader of the National Trust academics

The academics recruited to probe National Trust buildings for links to slavery 

A team of nine academics were recruited by the National Trust to look into 11 locations and their links with the slave trade. 

They are led by Corinne Fowler, a historian at the University of Leicester, who wrote the book Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections. 

Another member of the team, Katie Donington, researches transatlantic slavery and created a video for the Museum of London Docklands last year highlighting the colonial history of a statue of the slave owner Robert Milligan.

A third member, Marian Gwyn, is a heritage consultant on the team, and specialises on how ‘assets and artefacts are connected to colonial atrocity’, according to her website.  

A fourth unnamed member previously announced ‘full solidarity’ with Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal for her ‘long-standing research in anti-colonial resistance struggles’. 

 The other members include Dr Misha Ewen, a University of Manchester fellow who specialises in colonial history.  Dr Florian Stadtler, a senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Literatures at Exeter University. Raj Pal, a freelance historian. Dr Joanna de Groot, a specialist in gender and religious history and Dr Sumita Mukherjee, a historian of the British Empire and the Indian subcontinent.

The academics are led by Corinne Fowler, a historian at the University of Leicester, who wrote the book Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections. 

Another member of the team, Katie Donington, researches transatlantic slavery and created a video for the Museum of London Docklands last year highlighting the colonial history of a statue of the slave owner Robert Milligan.

She has also shared articles about the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

One of the ones she shared said: ‘The statue is symbolic of a history which has entrenched inequality. Dismantling the statue should be a first step in understanding and dismantling structural racism. I don’t think it should be reinstated.’  

A third member, Marian Gwyn, is a heritage consultant on the team, and specialises on how ‘assets and artefacts are connected to colonial atrocity’, according to her website. 

A fourth previously announced ‘full solidarity’ with Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal for her ‘long-standing research in anti-colonial resistance struggles’. 

‘National Trust properties reveal a range of colonial links, including slave-produced sugar wealth, East India Company connections, black servants, Indian loot, Francis Drake and African circumnavigators, colonial business interests, holders of colonial office, Chinese wallpaper, Victorian plant hunters and imperial interior design,’ academics from the University of Leicester wrote.       

One of the properties being looked at is Buckland Abbey, the Devon home of Sir Francis Drake. 

It is listed in the review because the explorer ‘depended on the help of an African circumnavigator named Diego to make successful voyages and take possession of substantial riches’. 

The backgrounds of members of the investigation have led to criticism.

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen told the Times last month: ‘It’s about time that the National Trust got their own great house in order. The vast majority of the public are just losing confidence in their management and direction. 

‘This confirms our worst fears that they’ve been overtaken by divisive Black Lives Matter supporters. In what way do they feel that is attractive to the average person who wants to visit a National Trust property?’


Katie Donington (left) researches transatlantic slavery and created a video for the Museum of London Docklands last year highlighting the colonial history of a statue of the slave owner Robert Milligan. Marian Gwyn (right) is a heritage consultant on the team, and specialises on how ‘assets and artefacts are connected to colonial atrocity’, according to her website

A National Trust spokeswoman said it ‘has high standards when it comes to political impartiality among its employees including in their social media output’.

She added: ‘We often work with independent people who bring a range of expertise and their own perspectives. 

‘Colonial Countryside is a creative writing project where children can explore aspects of history and make their own responses. 

‘National Trust staff worked alongside academics, including those from the University of Leicester, to enable them to explore National Trust properties.’

It comes after the trust hired a strategic advisory firm headed by a former-Vote Leave boss in November in a bid to ‘de-woke-ify’ itself.

The trust was accused of ‘woke virtue signalling’ after it published a 115-page report on several of its properties links to colonialism and slavery earlier this year. 

In an apparent bid to save face, the trust hired strategic advisory firm Hanbury Strategy for fee understood to be worth tens of thousands.

The firm’s ‘about us page’ on its website states: ‘The world is changing. We can help you understand it, navigate it, shape it’.

The group’s co-founders are the Vote Leave campaign’s former communications director Paul Stephenson and David Cameron’s director of strategy Ameet Gill.

Its website states it works ‘at the intersection of business and politics’ and reads: ‘Whether you’re an investor who wants to measure political risk, a CEO facing a difficult communications challenge, or a political leader who wants to better understand public opinion, we bring unparalleled experience to your most complex and challenging problems.’

Some of the National Trust properties being reviewed by ‘biased’ academics, including Buckland Abbey, the Devon home of Sir Francis Drake

Buckland Abbey 

One of the properties being looked at is Buckland Abbey, the Devon home of Sir Francis Drake

Buckland was originally a Cistercian abbey founded in 1278 by Amicia, Countess of Devon and was a daughter house of Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight. 

It remained an abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.

In 1541 Henry sold Buckland to Sir Richard Grenville who, working with his son Roger, began to convert the abbey into a residence.

Roger died in 1545, leaving a son, also named Richard Grenville, who completed the conversion. He eventually sold Buckland to Drake in 1581.

Drake lived in the house for 15 years, as did many of his descendants until 1946, when it was sold to a local landowner, Arthur Rodd, who presented the property to the National Trust in 1948.

The abbey has been open to the public since 1951. It was given to the National Trust in 2010

Dyrham Park

William Blaythwayt built this large mansion house for himself at Dyrham Park near Bristol

The mansion was created in the 17th century by William Blathwayt.

William Blathwayt was an English diplomat, public official and Whig politician who sat in the English and British House of Commons between 1685 and 1710. 

He established the War Office as a department of the British Government and played an important part in administering the colonies of North America.

Blaythwayt built a large mansion house for himself at Dyrham Park near Bristol, which he decorated with numerous Dutch Old Masters and sumptuous fabrics and furnishings.

His descendants sold a large part of his art collection in 1765, but some have been purchased back or remain at Dyrham Park.

 Penrhyn Castle

Owned by the Pennant family, the trust claims that Penrhyn is an example of how wealth derived from slavery shaped the built environment of Wales

Built in the early 19th century, its architecture, opulent interiors and fine art collection lean on a long history of sugar and slate fortunes, social unrest and the longest-running industrial dispute in British history, according to the National Trust.

Owned by the Pennant family, the trust claims that Penrhyn is an example of how wealth derived from slavery shaped the built environment of Wales. 

A staunch anti-abolitionist, Richard Pennant’s fortune – acquired from sugar plantations in Jamaica that used enslaved labour – funded roads, railways, schools, hotels, workers’ houses, churches and farms in North Wales. 

The Penrhyn Slate Quarry and Port Penrhyn, established by the Pennants, dominated the Welsh slate industry for almost 150 years. 

Kedleston Hall

Kedleston Hall in Kedleston, Derbyshire is the inherited home of the Curzon family

Kedleston Hall is a ‘temple to the arts’ designed by the architect Robert Adam. 

It was commissioned in the 1750s by Nathaniel Curzon whose ancestors had resided at Kedleston since the 12th century. 

It was inherited George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905. 

It houses objects he amassed during his travels in South Asia and the Middle East, and in his role imposing British rule in India. 

His ‘Eastern Museum’ displays religious, military and domestic objects, arranged from the perspective of the coloniser, along with ceremonial gifts  

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