Richard Tollemache is the scion of a landowning dynasty that presides over almost 18,000 acres of Lincolnshire which lie around a neo-Georgian stately pile called Buckminster Park.
He is the son of Sir Lyonel, the seventh baronet, and his family estate includes a vast portfolio of farmland and forest, plus hundreds of properties, along with businesses that run equestrian events and host weddings in their pleasant part of rural England.
He has, as the saying goes, drawn top prize in the lottery of life. But there are occasions when even this 54-year-old aristocrat fails to land a winning ticket.
In 1948, Richard’s great-grandfather Sir Lyonel Tollemache decided to give the National Trust his family’s ancestral London home, Ham House, above, an opulent 17th-century mansion in Richmond. Yet while the Trust has profited considerably from the Tollemache bequest, the researchers responsible for completing this year’s slavery audit have apparently decided the family history is something to be ashamed of
Take the email that arrived in his inbox at 4.29pm last Wednesday. It was from Dr Tarnya Cooper, the collections director of the National Trust. And it contained an unexpected piece of bad news.
Dr Cooper was emailing to inform Mr Tollemache that he belongs to one of about 100 landed families who, in just over a week’s time, will be formally accused by the charity of having derived a significant proportion of their wealth from the slave trade.
This imminent public shaming will take place on September 21, with publication of what the Trust calls a ‘gazetteer’ detailing the supposedly unsavoury origins of some of its stately homes and the treasures within them.
In a press statement, Dr Cooper then declared that at least 95 Trust homes have so far been declared tainted, including Croft Castle in Hertfordshire, pictured above
The Trust unveiled the naming-and-shaming project in June, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed George Floyd’s death.
Newspapers were briefed that the NT was in the throes of a year-long ‘audit’ to establish which of its 300-odd properties were built using proceeds of slavery or colonialism. A similar exercise examining the source of each of the Trust’s 1.5 million antiques and artworks is also under way.
From the start, this audit was controversial, provoking complaints from Tory MP Andrew Bridgen among others that the Trust was ‘playing the woke tune’.
Dr Cooper conceded that many of the charity’s 5.6 million members might feel uncomfortable about the project, which seeks to apply contemporary morality to events that occurred hundreds of years ago. But, she insisted, ‘you can’t deny the history of a place just to please some visitors’.
In a press statement, Dr Cooper then declared that at least 95 Trust homes have so far been declared tainted — including the ancestral home of the Queen’s late cousin Lord Lichfield, Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, as well as Croft Castle in Herefordshire and the Bath Assembly Rooms.
She added that the number ‘could very well rise’ as the families that built them were placed under the microscope.
One such family is that of Tollemache, whose cousin Lord (Timothy) Tollemache is one of Prince Charles’s closest friends.
Why so? Well, because in 1948, Richard’s great-grandfather Sir Lyonel Tollemache decided to give the National Trust his family’s ancestral London home, Ham House, an opulent 17th-century mansion in Richmond.
Over subsequent decades, the imposing property, filled with superb collections of paintings, furniture and textiles and surrounded by ornamental gardens, became one of the Trust’s most visited locations.
Yet while the Trust has profited considerably from the Tollemache bequest, the researchers responsible for completing this year’s slavery audit have apparently decided the family history is something to be ashamed of.
Which is why Dr Cooper’s email to Richard contained a draft of the sobering ‘gazetteer’ entry relating to Ham House.
Dr Cooper (above) was emailing to inform Mr Tollemache that he belongs to one of about 100 landed families who, in just over a week’s time, will be formally accused by the charity of having derived a significant proportion of their wealth from the slave trade. This imminent public shaming will take place on September 21, with publication of what the Trust calls a ‘gazetteer’ detailing the supposedly unsavoury origins of some of its stately homes and the treasures within them
This claims it was built largely thanks to the fortunes of two of Richard Tollemache’s distant ancestors: a Sir Lionel Tollemache who died in 1669 and one John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, who died in 1682. Both men, it states, ‘had close involvement with the Atlantic slave trade’.
What’s more, the draft alleges, a further tranche of tainted cash was injected into the Tollemache coffers in the next century, when a male heir married one Grace Carteret, whose family owned slave plantations in North Carolina.
In her note, Dr Cooper informed Richard Tollemache that her team of ‘academic partners and specialists’ would be publishing these ugly findings in less than three weeks’ time in the gazetteer. If he wanted to stop them, he had nine days to send any corrections or suggested amendments.
Which seems rather unjust.
First, the Tollemache family have been great supporters of the National Trust. ‘They gifted a priceless asset and have supported and regularly visited Ham House for many years,’ explains a family acquaintance. ‘To dredge through history to publish such a negative text that essentially calls them slave traders is an extraordinarily ungrateful way to repay that generosity.’
Secondly, the ‘gazetteer’ will drag their name through the mud at a time when slavery is a toxic topic. ‘For the Trust to put it out there when people are marching in the streets is reckless,’ adds the source.
And thirdly, the Tollemache family believe the document is riddled with factual errors.
‘Its central claim, that Ham House and the Tollemache fortune were built on the proceeds of slavery, is to their mind simply untrue,’ my source stresses.
The Tollemaches are not the only aristocratic clan who find themselves about to be subjected to what they see as a deeply unfair public monstering at the hands of the Trust.
I gather dozens of members of Britain’s upper-crust families have received similar communications. ‘It’s the biggest witch-hunt since the French Revolution,’ is the weary verdict of one blue-blooded recipient. ‘The flimsiest pretexts have been used to accuse families of great crimes against humanity. It has echoes of McCarthyism.
‘If your distant ancestor married one of 15 granddaughters of someone who invested in a sugar company 400 years ago, they are suggesting you have benefited from slavery. It’s a grubby, politically correct stitch-up.’
Rumblings of discontent have even reached Prince Charles, the Trust’s president, who happens to be godfather to Lord Tollemache’s eldest son. I gather that at least one angry letter about the so-called witch-hunt has landed on the heir to the throne’s desk.
‘The Trust has dredged through history to find reasons to smear its former benefactors,’ adds another high-bred source. ‘And they’ve been given almost no time to raise objections.
‘Tolly [Tollemache] was told he had nine days. That’s not enough time to do proper historical research, especially when much of what they are claiming is basically untrue.’
Critics say the Trust — whose modern leaders were once described by the aesthete and historian Roy Strong as being obsessed with ‘ticking the boxes of the disabled, the aged, LGBT and ethnic communities’ — has approached the hugely sensitive issue of slavery with casual Left-wing bias. They also say the Trust’s claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.
They point out, for example, that modern historians generally accept that roughly one great house in six built in Britain between the 17th and early 20th centuries was financed by colonial trade. The figure is accepted by the BBC, detailed in a 2017 study by Cambridge University and cited in the 2014 academic hardback Country Houses And The British Empire.
But the National Trust’s gazetteer will assert that about a third of its 300 properties have links to slavery or colonialism.
‘Either, by some amazing coincidence, the Trust has come to own twice as many houses built on the proceeds of slavery as one would expect, or its woke so-called experts are so desperate to find links to slavery that they are drawing them where none really exist,’ says one historian.
Of course, the Trust does own some properties that have been shaped by slavery. For example, Penrhyn Castle in North Wales was once the home of Richard Pennant, the 1st Baron Penrhyn, who owned 1,000 slaves and four plantations in Jamaica. But other great houses to be named in the ‘gazetteer’ are less easy to pigeonhole.
‘It seems to me that as part of this process of liberal self-flagellation, the Trust has decided to lump a whole lot of blameless families in with real baddies and whack them into the published report when in truth they have nothing to be embarrassed about,’ adds the historian.
The quality of the Trust’s research certainly has its critics.
One is Tony Adler, a retired history lecturer and expert on Ham House, where he has worked for years as a Trust volunteer. In this capacity, he was asked by Richard Tollemache to examine the email from Dr Cooper.
Adler believes every claim the draft document makes to link the family fortune to slavery is untrue.For example, the Trust alleges that in the 17th century, ‘Sir Lionel [Tollemache] signed a charter granting a British monopoly on transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas’.
Adler responds: ‘Where is this document? The only organisation authorised to trade in slaves during his lifetime was the newly formed Royal Adventurers — but their charter of 1663, which is available to view on the British Library website, does not include the name Tollemache.’
The Trust’s document also alleges that another man who married into the family — John Maitland, the Duke of Lauderdale — ‘had close involvement with the emerging Transatlantic slave trade’.
However, Adler says: ‘Unlike Sir Lionel, the Duke of Lauderdale’s name certainly appears on the Royal Adventurers charter. However, the venture was not a commercial success and effectively ceased operations well before Lauderdale had any connection with Ham House.’
Elsewhere, the Trust’s document claims Grace Carteret’s marriage into the family ‘brought more wealth’ tainted by slavery to Ham House.
Adler reckons that is also untrue. ‘Once again, where is the evidence? Her father did indeed hold slave- owning land in North Carolina. But Lady Grace predeceased him, so how much of the profit actually flowed to Ham House? The family certainly did not inherit any of the land in North Carolina.’
He concludes: ‘In short, there is nothing to substantiate that the Ham House building we see today was funded from any slave trade profits and I believe the entire entry should be removed from the planned gazetteer.’
It seems that none of the Trust’s ‘academic partners and specialists’ bothered to travel to Buckminster Park, where the family keep an archive which might have shed crucial light on the business affairs of their ancestors.
‘My suspicion, on reading this shoddy piece of work, is that most of their source material came from Wikipedia,’ remarks Adler.
The Trust’s research process cannot have been helped by the fact that it is firing 1,200 staff, including many expert curators and art historians, after its income collapsed during the coronavirus crisis.
After the Mail raised Adler’s concerns with the Trust yesterday, a spokesman conceded that ‘some amendments are being made’ to the proposed entry on Ham House as a result of his contribution.
‘Part of our review process has included consulting with families whose ancestors owned houses that are now in the care of the National Trust, as they often have family archives and other useful sources for research.
Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire is pictured above. Of course, this certainly isn’t the first time the Trust has chosen to wade into culture wars
‘We have shared the content for individual entries with them as part of our fact-checking process in advance of the report being published, and we are grateful to the Tollemache family for helping to clarify factual details for the reference to Ham House.’
They deny conducting shoddy research or having a political agenda, saying information in the gazetteer has ‘come from several reliable sources including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and primary source documents in the British Library and the National Archives’.
A Trust source added that finding errors while consulting with families was a good thing, not a bad one, as it showed the process was working.
Of course, this certainly isn’t the first time the Trust has chosen to wade into culture wars.
Last year, for example, one of its senior curators announced that it should stop emphasising the role of families in the history of stately homes because this ‘privileges heterosexual lives’.
Another kerfuffle was when unpaid guides at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk staged a revolt after being ordered to wear rainbow-coloured lanyards and badges to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality.
There was a row over displays at Avebury Manor in Wiltshire on which the abbreviations BC and AD were dropped in favour of alternatives that made no reference to Christianity, and another about the word ‘Easter’ being removed from egg hunts at several Trust properties, where they were rebranded as ‘Cadbury’s Egg Hunts’ in a sponsorship deal.
Most recently, a strategy document leaked last month attacked the Trust’s ‘outdated mansion experience’ and suggested ‘repurposing’ or closing many of its country homes.
Now, say its critics, the Trust’s apparent desire to portray so many key properties as monuments to slavery provides more evidence of a general antipathy to country homes.
‘This is typical of the National Trust’s obsessive politicisation over the past nine years,’ says Harry Mount, the author of How England Made The English.
‘It has replaced scholarship and intellectual high-mindedness with political lectures and badly spelt, low-IQ signs and displays.
‘According to the National Trust Act of 1937, the Trust’s explicit aims were the preservation of buildings of national interest, along with their furniture and pictures, and the preservation of beautiful landscapes. The Trust is betraying that original duty.’
Many of Britain’s grandest families will feel that they, too, are being monstrously betrayed.