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‘We Need to Have New Conversations About the Colonial Realities of Our Rural Past’ 

‘Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain’ reveals fascinating connections between colonial history and British rural life – but it isn’t expected to go down well with everyone

Academic Corinne Fowler was subject to hundreds of hostile newspaper articles and lots of hate mail after co-editing a report about the colonial links of National Trust properties in 2020. Photo: Osbourne Photography

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One of the questions most often asked of me when I talk about British colonial history is why I don’t talk more about the sufferings of British agricultural or factory labourers during our four centuries of colonial rule.

Though this question is sometimes used to shut down discomforting conversations about British colonialism – particularly our long involvement in transatlantic slavery – it also makes me reflect on my own thin school education about British labour history.

So I decided to learn more about it. I began with E.P. Thompson’s 1963 classic historical study, The Making of the English Working Class. Reading through this weighty volume, I noticed that colonial figures and events kept cropping up, but were mentioned in passing. Exploring further inspired me to write my new book, Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain. 

The book features 10 walks that reveal many fascinating connections between colonial history and British rural life.

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The walks include a cotton walk through East Lancashire, a labourers’ walk through Dorset, and a copper walk through Cornwall to trace a variety of links between distant colonial activities and the lives of rural Britons during the 18th and 19th Centuries – encompassing such issues as large-scale land purchase with slavery profits and hard labour in penal colonies to which horse thieves, union leaders and political prisoners were sent.

Colonial history affected many domains of country life.

My wool walk follows a footpath along the sides of Foel Cynwch hill, with a yawning precipice below and incredible views of Snowdonia. It’s hard to believe now that the coarse woollen cloth produced amid those sheep-filled landscapes have anything to do with the Caribbean. Yet, from the 18th Century to the 1830s, the region’s coarse woollen fabric was mainly purchased to clothe enslaved people on plantations in the West Indies and North America.

Combining local history with studies like Slave Wales by Chris Evans, I learned that this homespun cloth was produced by local people and also incoming wool workers – as production grew in the mid-18th Century – who made two million yards of the fabric each year to clothe some 279,000 enslaved people. Production increased to eight million yards by 1812.

Local sheep shearers, wool carders, spinners and weavers all worked to produce this cloth. Not that it made them rich. On the contrary, the money was being made by people far higher up the economic ladder: landowners who collected rent for sheep pasture, and cloth traders in Shrewsbury and, later, Liverpool. 

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I found important links, too, between colonial wealth and the enclosure of common land once used by people to graze livestock, collect firewood and catch rabbits. Between 1750 and 1820, more than 21% of England was enclosed by parliamentary decree, a period which coincides with colonial expansion.

This is no coincidence, however, since land purchases were often made using the profits of transatlantic slavery and East India Company officials. This realisation inspired my enclosure walk along the Norfolk-Suffolk border, which begins in the small town of Bungay and leads to Earsham Hall, once home to Sir William Windham Dalling.

Sir William had inherited Donnington Castle plantation in Jamaica from his father, a former governor of Jamaica. The Jamaican estate was profitable: between 1799 and 1840, it produced a profit of £150,000.

Shortly after moving into Earsham Hall, in 1810, Sir William set about enlarging his Norfolk estate with this Jamaican wealth. He enclosed land around his estate, including parts of Outney Common. Local people protested to no avail – they received small allotments for which they now had to pay rent. Old footpaths were also closed off and diverted around Sir William’s expanded estate. The old shortcuts across the estate ceased to exist and, even today, ramblers have to walk the long way around, just like 19th Century locals were forced to do.  

Although my book is evidence-based and fact-checked, I nevertheless expect push back. In 2020, I co-authored a report on the colonial history of National Trust houses, an audit of published academic research published during the last two decades.

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The report’s contents were unsurprising for colonial historians, but vast new audiences were, for the first time, introduced to the research detailed there. Its publication was welcomed by universities, museums and heritage organisations, but prominent politicians and influential columnists protested in the strongest terms.

In a parliamentary speech, Jacob Rees Mogg argued that the National Trust had maligned British history and the report became a major media story, focused almost exclusively on the upset caused rather than the history related in the report itself. Hundreds of hostile newspaper articles triggered waves of public alarm – and lots of hate mail. 

Nonetheless, the National Trust report opened up the colonial histories of country houses, encouraging the rest of the heritage sector to do the same. Soon afterwards, English Heritage published its own report, ‘The Impact of Transatlantic Slavery on England’s Built Environment: a Research Audit | Historic England’. The National Trust for Scotland published its own review of published academic research about the slavery links of its sites. 

It is hard to address, or even acknowledge, our colonial past unless we know what it is in more detail. My hope is to venture ever deeper into the countryside to continue resourcing evidence-based conversations about the colonial realities of our rural past. 

Corinne Fowler is Professor of Colonialism and Heritage at the University of Leicester. The co-author of the 2020 National Trust report on its properties’ colonial links, her latest book is ‘Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain’, published by Penguin Allen Lane

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