Case Study: Liberty and Lottery Exhibition, Brodsworth Hall – Brodsworth, Doncaster
This English Heritage project involved a temporary exhibition at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens. The exhibition explored the site’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade through sculpture, poetry, sound, and object installations. Purchased in 1791 by Peter Thellusson, a banker and financier, the site was developed with money inherited from his fortune, which was derived in part from the transatlantic slave trade. Today, Brodsworth Hall is looked after on behalf of the nation by the charity English Heritage.
- Site and type of structure: Temporary exhibition, Brodsworth Hall and Gardens
- Location: Doncaster, South Yorkshire
- Country: England
- Legal protection: The exhibition did not require planning permission or listed building consent, though the garden plinths used for the sculptures are Grade II listed. The Hall is Grade I listed, and the gardens are part of a Grade II* registered park and garden.
English Heritage’s 'Liberty and Lottery' exhibition at Brodsworth featured five specially commissioned sculptures to sit on empty historical stone plinths across the site (four in the gardens and one inside the hall). The steel wire sculptures, created by renowned carnival artist Carl Gabriel, were inspired by the property’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade through the financier and businessman Peter Thellusson, a former owner of the estate. The title of the exhibition, ‘Liberty and Lottery’, was taken from the names of two of the slaving ships part-owned by Thellusson. Solar audio posts in the gardens brought a sound element to the project.
Inside the Hall were further interpretative works: a large-scale installation of a poem explored the links between the mahogany used throughout the house and enslaved people involved in producing this tropical hardwood; a trail highlighted objects and interior features associated with the transatlantic slave trade; and a display explored contemporary attitudes towards the slave trade and later colonialism found in the books in Brodsworth’s library collection.
The context for reinterpretation
During the 18th century Peter Thellusson amassed a large fortune from trading in goods and money directly related to the trade in enslaved people. This wealth enabled him to purchase the Brodsworth estate. Thellusson died in 1797, and his complex and controversial will meant that the Brodsworth estate was inherited three generations later by Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson, who in the 1860s demolished the old Brodsworth Hall and replaced it with the Victorian house surviving today, also remodelling the gardens and the village. Brodsworth Hall is celebrated as one of the most complete surviving examples of a Victorian country house in England, set in over 15 acres of exceptional gardens.
On the bicentenary of the Abolition Act in 2007 English Heritage produced a list of sites connected to the transatlantic slave trade with an account written by Dr Miranda Kaufmann. Brodsworth Hall was featured as one of four English Heritage sites with the most extensive links.
In 2010 English Heritage commissioned a report on the connections of the property to the slave trade, detailing the extent of Peter Thellusson’s involvement, which included financing, shipping, consignment and refining linked directly to the transatlantic slave trade.
Assessment of options
There is strong documented evidence of Peter Thellusson’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. As part of Brodsworth’s successful temporary exhibition programme, it was decided to focus on this part of the site’s history.
However, tangible links between the current hall and the transatlantic slave trade were limited, as the 2010 report for English Heritage made clear. The exception was the use of mahogany and other interior fixtures in the current property, salvaged from the earlier house: the production of mahogany, a wood from the West Indies, involved enslaved labour.
In view of the absence of objects more visibly connecting the property to the transatlantic slave trade, English Heritage decided to explore the themes through working with contemporary artists and focus not only on how the fortune was made, but also on how the eventual inheritance was spent [Footnote 1].
They also worked with external partners to bring wider perspectives to the story of the property’s past. English Heritage engaged specialist arts and heritage consultants Sandra Shakespeare and Dr Tola Dabiri to advise on appropriate ways to relate the property’s history to visitors.
What was done and who was involved?
English Heritage worked with the consultants to plan exhibits in the house and garden, consulting Historic England on the decisions made. Carnival artist Carl Gabriel was commissioned to produce a series of five wire sculptures reflecting different themes associated with the site’s connection to the slave trade. These included the voyage of the Lottery (one of the slaving ships part-owned by Peter Thellusson), plantations, commodities (particularly sugar, of which Thellusson was heavily involved), inheritance and legacy, and knowledge and memory.
The sculptures were installed on four empty plinths in the gardens, left empty as a result of loss or damage to their original statues. The plinths are Grade II listed; however, the light touch nature of the installation meant that no consents were required. One sculpture was installed on an empty plinth inside the hall.
Award-winning poet and dramatist Malika Booker’s poem, 'Songs of Mahogany' was presented on a large-scale tablecloth installation in the dining room of the Hall. The poem explores the use of the tropical wood within the house, and links to the lives and labour of enslaved people.
As part of the project, collaborations with young researchers enabled new research projects to be carried out, including:
- Investigating the Caribbean Newspapers Archive for references to the plantations, ships and personalities connected to Thellusson’s activities;
- Researching the story of Plaistow Lodge in Bromley, Kent, Thellusson’s primary residence during the main period of his career and built with wealth derived from the slave trade;
- Researching the business networks of Thellusson, focusing on his sugar refineries.
Others were based further afield, including at the School of Arts and Sciences at St. George’s University, Grenada (Thellusson loaned money to plantation owners in Grenada). All pieces of this research fed into the interpretation in the exhibition across the whole site.
The exhibition opened on 4 September 2021 and closed on 31 October 2022.
The Brodsworth Hall team consulted with the property’s volunteers at an early stage in the project’s development. Since this was during lockdown, discussions were held initially via Zoom, with updates sent through internal newsletters, in addition to in-person training sessions and tours arranged during project installation. Although most volunteers were engaged and interested in the project, particularly the new sculptures, some volunteers did not welcome the project since it affected the narrative they would prefer to relate to visitors.
English Heritage produced an extensive handbook for volunteers and staff containing information about the project and the exhibition content. There were concerns about negative responses from visitors; however, the response was mainly one of general interest in the property’s history, positive engagement with the exhibits and broad support driven by a desire for the ‘whole story to be told’. Evaluation of the project was informed by conversations with the interpretation team and on-site volunteers, detailed qualitative interviews with visitors, and visitor observations. Interviews with both visitors and volunteers indicated that the vast majority were initially surprised by the exhibition but came to accept and support it as they engaged with the interpretation and volunteers and understood the clear inability to separate this history of the transatlantic slave trade from the site.
Lessons and insights
The 'Liberty and Lottery' project at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens is a useful case study of how a property’s links with the transatlantic slave trade can be acknowledged in the absence of tangible objects, and the full story of a place brought to life in creative ways. This is likely to apply to many historic properties which were built using wealth created by involvement with transatlantic slavery, and to others which have no artefacts which can be easily interpreted.
The engagement of arts and heritage consultants Sandra Shakespeare and Dr Tola Dabiri with their expertise in Black history, the sculptor Carl Gabriel, poet Malika Booker and of British and international researchers were seen as highly successful features of the project. Their involvement was considered instrumental in balancing the focus of the project on the enslaved people, rather than solely exploring Peter Thellusson’s activity. Of the minority opposed to the exhibition, the strongest reaction was to the poem, partly because of the language but predominantly because it obscured an antique table that the visitor(s) wished to see. Despite some opposition, the poem had a strong impact on visitors and was considered to be the most impactful, visceral element of the interpretation.
The project was initially published with a ‘soft launch’ and was slow to develop. This was in part because there were national and related projects (e.g. the portraits of ‘Painting our Past: the African Disapora in England’) underway at the same time. There was also concern from English Heritage about how the project would be received by the public and the media, and a desire to ensure that staff and volunteers should not be exposed to hostility. Yet these concerns were not realised: both media response and public reaction have been broadly positive.
- The links between our heritage and the transatlantic slave trade can be acknowledged in the absence of tangible assets.
- A light-touch approach has been possible in this case, informed by dialogue with experts, stakeholders and statutory advisory bodies.
- Earlier engagement with the public would have given project leads more confidence in publicising the exhibition and stimulating visitor interest.
- At the start of April 2015, English Heritage separated into two different bodies: a new charity retaining the name English Heritage looking after the National Heritage Collection of sites in English Heritage's direct care; and Historic England, continuing the statutory role of giving expert advice to owners, local authorities and the public, and championing the wider historic environment.↩