Colonial Countryside: writing opportunity


I grew up going to National Trust properties – and of course the trope of the mysterious, magical country house is embedded in British children’s literature: from Green Knowe to the Professor’s house where Lucy finds the wardrobe. But the pleasure of visiting these properties, and indeed reading about them, was made complicated for me when I learned more about their historical relation to race, power and colonialism. That’s why I think the Colonial Countryside project, led by Peepal Tree Press, looks really exciting- and they’re commissioning ten writers! Why not apply, and be part of reclaiming history? You can read more about the project, here:

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Project proposal information

In no more than 700 words, you should cover:

  • your interest in the topic
  • your experience
  • your approach to the commission (including your chosen literary form)
  • how you will guarantee quality
  • your experience of social media (please note: this is not a deal breaker but it is helpful to know if you have an author web page and a social media presence)
  • confirm your willingness to post project information on social media channels and/or your author website (or have it posted there on your behalf)
  • your geographical location
  • your intended audience.

You may decide to use one or more of the historical themes that the chosen National Trust houses reveal:

  • Exotic fruits grown in orangeries (Attingham Park; Calke Abbey)
  • Imperial domestic interiors (Basildon Park; Osterley Park; Attingham Park; Calke Abbey; Dunham Massey)
  • Artefacts from British colonies, such as slave-produced mahogany and Chinese wallpaper (Attingham Park; Basildon Park; Calke Abbey; Dunham Massey; Osterley Park; Penrhyn Castle)
  • Illegitimate children from the empire (Dunham Massey)
  • slave-produced sugar wealth (Charlecote Park; Dyrham Park; Speke Hall; Penrhyn Castle)
  • resident Indian princesses (Wightwick Manor)
  • Black servants and slaves (Charlecote Park; Sudbury Hall)
  • East India Company links (Basildon Park; Osterley Park)
  • Francis Drake’s participation in slave trading and black Tudors (Buckland Abbey)
  • owners who held colonial office (Dyrham Park)
  • commemorations of naval victories in the Caribbean (Hanbury Hall; Sudbury Hall)
  • paintings of black servants (Charlecote Park; Sudbury Hall)
  • Victorian plant hunters (Penrhyn Castle).


Deadline: Midnight 30 April 2018

Submissions to: Dr Corinne Fowler


Arts Council England funded project searching for 10 commissioned writers


Colonial Countryside is a child-led writing and history project about National Trust houses’ Caribbean and East India Company connections. Steered by a child advisory board, this five year project assembles authors, historians and primary pupils to commission, resource and publish new writing. After successfully acquiring funding, Peepal Tree Press are looking to commission 10 authors to write about each participating house (see below). The commissioned work will be published in an illustrated “coffee table” style book containing the ten creative commissions accompanied by accessible historical commentaries written by experts in the field. Commissioned writers will give inaugural readings and appear at literary festivals and black history events nationwide.


The National Trust has over 5 million members and the commissioned writing will have a large readership. These 10 high-profile commissions are also designed to stimulate a new wave of writing about this topic. In order to resource this, the Colonial Countryside project will create a writers’ resource website, delivered by the historical team, and a massive online open course (MOOC), co-produced by children and historians. In a unique addition to the project, one hundred primary children will visit 10 National Trust properties and craft new writing, presenting it to live, print and digital audiences. They will present their work at a conference during the Literary Leicester festival in November 2018. The majority of children are of Caribbean or South Asian heritage and this project will encourage them to think of themselves as public figures who will reshape the national narrative and make this history widely known.


The participating country houses are:

1. Attingham Park, near Shrewsbury.
2. Basildon Park, near Reading.
3. Buckland Abbey, Devonshire. 
4. Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. 
5. Charlecote Park, Warwickshire.

(see one of our previous blog posts about the Charlecote story)
6. Osterley Park, West London.
7. Sudbury Hall, Ashbourne, Derbyshire.
8. Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton.
9. Penrhyn Castle, Gynedd, Wales.
10. Dyrham Park, near Bristol.


During the application process, there is no obligation to identify a particular National Trust property from the list above, though winning entrants will be matched with one house, even if the commissioned writer wishes to explore connections between participating properties.

Interested in applying?

Commissioned writers will be advised by historians who are experts in the field. The participating National Trust properties provide a varied picture of stately homes’ colonial links, telling a range of stories about slave-produced wealth, East India Company connections, colonial administrators, black servants, slave-trading voyages, colonial business interests, Chinese wallpaper, Victorian plant hunters and imperial interior design.

Copyright National Trust images (2018)

Commissioned writers will receive a fee of £1,200 and an allowance of up to £400 to cover research, travel and accommodation. They will attend a work-in-progress day at the University of Leicester. Public engagement is central to this project. Social media training is available if required (writers will post social media content on the project’s behalf or the project manager will post approved content on their behalf). In year three of the project, writers may be asked to give an inaugural reading at the country house featured in their commissioned pieces. Commissioned writers will also be invited to attend literature festivals and black history month events, with expenses paid.

The commissioned work will be published in an illustrated book published by Peepal Tree Press. It is also likely to feature in exhibitions in numerous houses throughout the National Trust’s Challenging Histories year in 2022.

How to apply and deadline

The commission will be judged by a team of acclaimed writers and historians, to be assembled by Peepal Tree Press.

Send your commission entry by email to Dr. Corinne Fowler Please attach:

  • A writer’s CV
    • This should be no longer than one page of A4, font size 12
  • A proposal

In no more than 700 words, explain why you wish to apply for the commission. For more information on what is expected from the proposal, please click here.

  •  A writing sample

This should be no more than 2 pages of A4, font size 12 or (in the case of poetry) no more than three poems.

Eligibility: Non-UK writers may apply, though there is no budget for plane travel to England. The Arts Council expects that the majority of writers should be based in England. As a condition of the commission fee, you must commit to participating in public events during 2020.

Deadline: Midnight on 30 April 2018.



Copyright National Trust images

Literary Leicester 2017: David Olusoga

Colonial Countryside are thrilled to announce that we’ve got a special guest joining us at Literary Leicester this year.

David Olusoga, British Nigerian historian, writer and presenter of BBC 2’s Britain’s Secret Slave Owners will be making an appearance at Literary Leicester,  the University of Leicester’s free literature festival.


In our previous blog post, we spoke about Olusoga’s newest project: Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Much like Colonial Countryside, Olusoga’s new project will tap into untouched primary sources and engage with oral histories. We’re looking forward to delving into archives, taking primary aged pupils with us, allowing them to explore narratives forgotten.

To find out more about Colonial Countryside check out our Twitter and a few of our blog posts.

To find out more about the festival and to see David in action please visit the festivals Facebook for updates.



Read | Black and British: A Forgotten History

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography. -New Statesman, August 2017

The below extract has been taken from the New Statesman book review of David Olusoga’s newest project: Black and British: A Forgotten History.

We are thrilled that the work will look to previous untouched primary sources and engage with oral histories that have been forgotten to statistics.

We also hope to delve into archives, taking primary aged pupils with us, allowing them to explore narratives forgotten. To find out more about Colonial Countryside check out our Twitter and a few of our blog posts.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrushera. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. […] [Olusoga] has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity, and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics.

Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.


Crowdfunding: Young writers craft essays for donors

Nearing our 7th week of crowdfunding it has been announced that donors will receive a digital collection of essays written by the project’s first cohort of pupils. 

Dr Fowler, the project’s lead has announced that donors to the project, including those who have already donated through its JustGiving site, will receive a collection of around 10 essays written by children after their involvement in the project.

After visiting the country home and adjoining archive, pupils will communicate their discoveries and responses through these personal essays which will be digitally available to individuals who wish to engage with the project fundraising.

Dr Fowler has said:

“We want the children to think of themselves as future leaders in the field and to narrate the countryside’s colonial histories in compelling new ways. Writers will help the children to craft and disseminate their writing about this topic.”

We were thrilled to announce a few weeks ago the participation of John Siddique as the writer and Katie Donington, as our first historian of the project.

We look forward to working with them both in the Autumn.


Colonial Countryside Promo Material (5)




image: Harefield School


George Monbiot: The Propaganda of the Victor… “how the poor were airbrushed from history”

Our journey is about uncovering… uncovering a narrative that is often hidden not far beneath the surface.

In February 2009, George Monbiot, British writer and political activist, wrote a piece linking heritage sites with national consciousness, suggesting that bodies like the National Trust had a responsibility that stretched beyond the tourism sector.

We would like to share this piece again and remain hopeful that the Trust continue to stick to their word…

“we can never hope fully to understand the past, but we can at least recognise that history is open to widely different interpretations … The Trust is ready to explore unfamiliar or uncomfortable history in new ways.”

The piece looks at Stowe Landscape Gardens, a location from Monboit’s own childhood, restored by the National Trust but tells a story of famous architects and great families rather than eviction and famine; a selective view of the past that needs to be challenged.

Picture: Charlecote Park | National Trust


How the poor were airbrushed from history

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th February 2009


Is there any other democracy so adept at editing its history? Even Spain, for years notoriously reluctant to get to grips with the legacy of Franco, has begun to acknowledge the past, as the success of Guillermo del Torro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth shows. The French are aware of every sordid detail of the excesses of both monarchs and revolutionaries. The Germans are pricked by their past every day. In the United States everyone knows about slavery, the civil war and segregation. But in Britain our collective memory has been wiped clean.

Despite the efforts of authors such as Mike Davis, John Newsinger, Mark Curtis, Caroline Elkins and David Anderson(1,2,3,4,5,6), our colonial atrocities still leave the national conscience untroubled. We appear to be even less aware of what happened at home.

Last week the National Trust, which is Britain’s biggest private landowner and biggest NGO, announced that it is creating 1000 allotments – small patches which local people can rent for growing vegetables – on its properties, among them some of its grandest parks and estates(7). This was universally, and rightly, hailed as a good thing. But no one stopped, as no one ever does, to ask where this land came from.

The National Trust has done more than any other body to open up the countryside to the British people, and more than any other body to close down our minds. It bears more responsibility than any other body for the sanitised, tea-towel history which dominates the national consciousness. Last year over 100 million visitors explored its properties(8). They were exposed to a partial and selective view of Britain’s past.

Take one of its finest and most famous holdings: Stowe Landscape Gardens. I know them well, for I enjoyed the astonishing unearned privilege of attending the school that’s housed there. The gardens (really a landscaped deerpark) were a vast playground of crumbling follies and overgrown lakes, of coverts and laurel brakes in which ruined monuments could, like Mayan temples, be discovered by adventurous boys. Licensed by tolerant teachers, I played swallows and amazons here for five years.

Now the gardens have been beautifully, if starkly, restored by the National Trust. The temples have been cleaned and mended, the thickets cleared, the volunteer woodland felled. They have been returned to the state intended by their authors: the first Viscount Cobham (1675-1749) and his descendants.

When you visit the gardens today, or read about them on the Trust’s website, you will learn about the thirteen phases of the development of the gardens, the creation of the avenues, monuments and temples, the commissions executed by the famous architects and designers who worked here(9,10).

But nowhere, as far as I can discover, will you find a word about who lived here before the estate was consolidated in the late 16th Century, or how local people were treated after the gardens were established 150 years later.

The Trust, in other words, says nothing about the village cleared to create the deer-park, or the eviction, imprisonment, transportation or execution of those who lived there(11).

In his book Whigs and Hunters, EP Thomson gives us a vignette of what happened here. As constable of Windsor Castle, the first Viscount Cobham had been responsible for enforcing the Black Acts, which created some 50 new capital offences for poaching and resisting the encroachments and enclosures carried out by the ruling class. He imported this management ethic into his estate at Stowe. “In 1748 two young men … were caught while raiding his deer-park. According to a firm local tradition, the wives of the men sought an interview at Stowe and begged for their husbands’ lives. It seemed that old Cobham, now in his eightieth year, was moved by their tears. He promised that their husbands would be returned to them by a certain day – and so they were, for on that day their corpses were brought to the cottage doors on a cart. Cobham celebrated the occasion by striking statues of the dead men in his park, a deer across their shoulders.”(12)

In Liberty Against the Law, Christopher Hill tells the story of the redistribution of land and wealth from rural labourers to the landed classes between the 16th and 18th centuries and the rack-renting, eviction and persecution of the poor. For landless labourers, he says, the termination of rights to common land “meant the difference between a viable life and starvation”(13). Many died in the famines of the 1590s, 1620s and 1640s(14). Many more – 80,000 in the early 17th Century according to the historian Peter Clark(15) – became vagabonds whose wandering put them on the wrong side of the law. They were branded, flogged back to their parishes, press-ganged by the navy and the merchant marine or forced into industries whose conditions and wage rates were “little better than slavery”(16). The children of vagabonds and paupers were transported to Virginia, effectively as slaves(17). Many of them died in transit. There were enclosure riots (attempts to resist the landlords’ seizure of the commons) all over the country(18). Almost all of them failed, and many of the rioters were transported or executed. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Marion Shoard records in her book This Land is Our Land, a further 7 million acres of England – 20% of the total land area – were enclosed by landowners(19).

Of course there is no single history of the countryside and no single means of interpreting it.

Sir Tony Wrigley, for example, emphasises instead the constraints of a local agrarian economy, and sees population growth as the main driver of migration(20,21). But neither version of the lives of the other 99% is given by the National Trust when you visit its stately homes and grand estates. The story is told solely from the point of view of the landowner. History, to the Trust, is the propaganda of the victor.

In its document History and Place, the National Trust maintains that

“we can never hope fully to understand the past, but we can at least recognise that history is open to widely different interpretations … The Trust is ready to explore unfamiliar or uncomfortable history in new ways.”(22)

And it is true that if you visit one of the workhouses it has lovingly restored, you can relive “the harshness of the nineteenth-century Poor Laws.”(23) But when you read what it says about its great estates, you will find no clues as to how those workhouses were populated. Perhaps because it doesn’t want to scare its visitors away, perhaps because it has absorbed the views of previous landowners, it has airbrushed the poor from history.

Allotments have been used as a sop to the dispossessed for at least four centuries. The General Enclosure Act of 1845 took 615,000 acres from the poor and gave them 2,200 acres of allotments in return(24). Just because we love and value allotments should not stop us from seeing that they also represent paternalistic tokenism. But I’m not asking the Trust to divide up all its lands and give them back to the people: its management of property on our behalf is liberal and benign. I am asking it to give us back our history.



1. Mike Davis, 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso, London.

2. John Newsinger, 2006. The Blood Never Dried: a people’s history of the British empire. Bookmarks, London.

3. Mark Curtis, 2003. Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. Vintage, London.

4. Mark Curtis, 2007. Unpeople: Britain’s secret human rights abuses. Vintage, London.

5. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Jonathan Cape, London.

6. David Anderson, 2005. Histories of the Hanged. Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

7. Sarah Mukherjee, 19th February 2009. Trust frees land for allotments. BBC News Online.

8. Rebecca Smithers, 19th February 2009. Dig for recovery: allotments boom as thousands go to ground in recession. The Guardian.

9. The National Trust, viewed 23rd February 2009. Stowe Landscape Gardens: History.
This page then refers us to the following:

10. John Tatter, 2007. Stowe Landscape Gardens: A Summary History.

11. Interestingly, Tatter (see above) records that “This early seventeenth-century landscape also included Stowe church and the village of Stowe, to the east.” But he doesn’t mention the village again. It simply vanishes from the record. In reality, all its buildings were destroyed, except the church.

12. EP Thomson, 1975. Whigs and Hunters, p223. Penguin, London.

13. Christopher Hill, 1996. Liberty Against the Law, p31. Allen Lane, London.

14. ibid, p.33.

15. Peter Clark, 1983. The English Ale-house: a social history. Cited by Christopher Hill, ibid, p.52.

16. ibid, p.30.

17. ibid, p.165.

18. ibid, p.38.

19. Marion Shoard, 1997. This Land Is Our Land. Gaia Books, London.

20. Tony Wrigley, pers comm. See:

21. EA Wrigley and RS Schofield, 1981. The Population History of England 1541-1871. Edward Arnold, London.

22. The National Trust, no date given. History and Place.

Click to access w-whatwedo-history_place.pdf

23. ibid.




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