Apethorpe Hall (Photo By Brookie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4667014)
The Country House. For my international readers, not just a house in the country. The Country House is the centre of an estate, the rural seat of power that complements the Town House of the aristocracy of Britain. They grew in size and social importance from the Jacobean core that some of them retain, drawing in building materials and lands from dissolved monasteries, to reach a peak just before WWI. They were run by an army of servants, with a power structure that extended that of the masters they served. To work in one was to be ‘in service’.
My Great Grandmother was ‘in service’ when my Grandmother was born. She was not married. I don’t know how she managed to retain her position, or whether she managed to get another, but clearly ‘the child’ could not be accommodated and was sent to live with an aunt. My Great Grandmother sent money for her up keep, but she was nonetheless abused and neglected, never allowed to forget the ‘shame’ of her birth. On the rare occasions she saw her mother it was not a happy occasion.
Given this family background I’ve never been able to enjoy ‘period’ dramas such as “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downtown Abbey”. I know many people will say they humanise both sides of the power relation that is expressed in the ‘Country House’. But what about heritage?
There has, of course, been a lot of discussion of how an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ props up the descendants of this same power system. And there are houses that make more of the experience of servants (though most of them focus on the labour, rather than the lives of the people who lived there). There are even houses that have dared to acknowledge that the money that built them came from slavery (as this important volume describes).
But they remain the most enduring image of what heritage in England ‘is’. Most descriptions of them focus on their architecture, their art collections and the ‘achievements’ of the families associated with them (Of course, the family is the aristocratic family, not the many families who built them and spent their lives running them).
This evening I saw a post on Facebook, linking to a site enumerating the ‘lost’ country houses of Wales . While this site is not seeking money to restore these houses, it still sees their abandonment and destruction as a loss.
Reading it, something in me just snapped. These buildings are a concrete expression of the foundational inequality of our world. They drove and and were built by colonialism. They were the lynch pin the survival of hereditary inequality through the modern period. Where they were not built on the profits of slavery, they were built on the profits of horrifically exploitative labour. They are still fulfilling that role. The aristocracy of England still live in them, still own huge tracts of land while proclaiming that Britain is full (as Dorset MP and descendant of slave owners Richard Drax maintains).
I was reminded of a conversation with Simon Thurley about Apethorpe Hall. The building began life as a Jacobean Hunting Lodge and grew in power through the modern period. In the 20th century, the ‘family’ sold it, the new owners built a new house on the entranceway of the old one. The old one was used as military space, as a borstal (prison for young people) and finally as a conference centre. Finally, the cost of upkeep outstripped the income that could be extracted from it, and the building fell into disrepair.
English Heritage had bought Apethorpe Hall through compulsory purchase and had spent many millions researching and stabilising the material up to the 20th century and removing that which was built in the 20th century. The purpose was to make it workable for a private owner again and when I spoke to Thurley we had just sold it to a private family. He was particularly pleased because the family kept a pack of hunting hounds. He told me he was happy that the building would go back to its original use. The original purchase cost £3.5 million English Heritage spent £8 million and the new owner paid £2.5 million. But we will be allowed to buy tickets to see it in July and August.
For me, these buildings are dark heritage. Certainly not something that should be forgotten, but where we keep them we should use them to expose and explore the power that they represent. Not something we should be looking to put back to their original use. That use requires the social structure that it was integral too and we can’t use the buildings that way without perpetuating that social order.
We don’t need to keep all of them. Certainly not when we are cutting social housing and education. When they collapse, I am happy to see it. I hope to live to see a future in which those few that remain are in public hands, museums which stand as a warning of what can happen when power is allowed to concentrate in the hands of the few.