Social History

Kelmarsh Hall and the Heritage of Country Houses

Kelmarsh Hall (2)

I recently made a visit, with my colleague, Dr Caroline Nielsen, to Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. Kelmarsh was built in the 1730s to a Palladian design by Francis Smith with the architect James Gibbs for the Hanbury family. The Hall retains many of its original features and 1000 acres of the original estate, including working farms. It has been interpreted by the present guardians, the Kelmarsh Trust, in a sensitive, innovative and intelligent manner.

The aims of the Trust are to preserve the buildings and estates and to educate the public about country houses and the natural environment. This is a tricky balance, both preserving but also interesting young people in what these sites represent. Country houses need to survive, but retain the authenticity that underpins the unique experience that they can offer.

Guided tours of houses can be quite dull and boring for youngsters (and some adults!). Children generally want to move in different directions on their own timescale and explore spaces on their own terms. I’ve visited lots of country houses over the years and seen a lot of stressed parents. The Trust, and their education officer, Tiffany Brownell, have thought about this and done an excellent job.

Servants Hall

Lots of attention has been paid to the ‘below stairs’ areas of the House: There are reconstructions of the laundry, the servants’ quarters (including a 3D projection of a servant explaining his daily routine), a wine cellar, a brewery, a bell system and the servants’ stairs. The gendering of these spaces is emphasized, such as the specifically female space of the laundry.

Country houses pay more attention to these working spaces nowadays, quite rightly. As my research with Jon Stobart has shown the aristocracy spent far more of their income on the day-to-day running of their houses than they did on the more glitzy objects on show upstairs: Consumption and the Country House. So there is an intellectual rationale for showing the areas of houses where the servants did their work. Tours of the downstairs areas of the house begin on 1 April 2018.


The main house upstairs is an elegant series of rooms, from the Hall to the Salon, the Chinese Room, the Dining Room, the Library and the Ballroom. There is much more sense of space and ease to these areas.

The Trust has chosen to focus on the story of Nancy Lancaster and her choices, in the twentieth century, of wall colour and decoration, drawing on her connections to the society decorators Colefax and Fowler. So the story we are presented with at Kelmarsh is layered and complex, but so too is the history of these houses. Choosing where to focus the attention of visitors is a result of a number of different priorities.

Dining Room

The most exciting things going on Kelmarsh are their education projects using the story of the house, and they are telling an uncensored and honest one. No happy chappy servants and benevolent aristocracy here, just the truth about the hard work servants did to keep the house running and, ultimately, help preserve it for us.

The journey from the dark areas downstairs, treated to only partial glimpses of the landscapes around the house, to the light sweeping views upstairs is a reminder of the different lives led by masters and servants.

A new learning centre has been installed in the old coach house, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here school visits allow children to explore history with a hands-on and fun approach to learning. They ‘work’ in the laundry and explore the house and the natural environment.

Schools (2)


Schools2 (3)

Future plans include projects focused on Premium Plus A Level students in the local area. The aim is to educate these students about the heritage of their local area and add value to their learning more generally, to show them, for example, the opportunities that Universities can offer them.

Kelmarsh Hall and the Department of History at the University of Northampton are planning a collaborative project with four schools for the academic year 2018-19. After an introductory visit to the schools, the students will visit Kelmarsh Hall for a day of learning activities, using the excellent facilities the Hall has there.

The project then moves to the University’s Waterside Campus: The students will get a flavour of Higher Education with a workshop on the history and heritage of country houses. They will take a heritage tour of the city centre, beginning at the ‘engine shed’ site on campus, and finishing with a lunch on campus.

There are also plans for history students from the University to take up work placements at Kelmarsh as part of the History Department’s ‘Research Skills’ module and for a programme of student volunteers helping at the Hall during vacations.

These are important initiatives not only for the younger generation but also for the survival of the country house as heritage. After all none of the stock-in-trade consumers of country house visiting, the ones often annoyed by the presence of children, are getting any younger. Cream teas are not really a sustainable economic model. Kelmarsh Trust is showing what the future model should look like.

To find out more about Kelmarsh Hall and the activities on offer there email the Education Officer, Tiffany Brownell at or visit the website:

Watch this blog space for updates on the ongoing projects…

Dr Mark Rothey: Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

DIY Digitisation and Ownership of the Past

Whatever new fads and fashions there are in the study of history (and believe it or not there are many happening all the time) one thing has remained in place since the revolutionary work of Leopold Von Ranke and the German school of history in the late nineteenth century: the use of primary sources dating from the period we are studying.

These might be official government documents, personal correspondence and diaries, images, recorded interviews or (as has been the fashion recently) objects. These things are our link to the past, helping us make sense of what people thought and felt. They allow us to inhabit the past, the same spaces as our historical subjects inhabited (in a literal sense when we touch the same documents they created). They are what makes history interesting and exciting.

As a historian I see no other method of enquiry – yes people are writing less (or zero) letters and ‘we’ll all be searching the web and using metadata in the future.’ But one way or another we will have to make direct contact with our past through some kind of evidence, otherwise it will be lost to us, which could have grave consequences.

George Orwell warned of the dangers of losing contact with the past in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, works on historical records for the ruling party in this dystopian future, altering  the past in accordance with Party policy, at the same time trying to remember his own past, lost in a pre-fabricated illusion un-anchored in time and space.

Historians must explore the past and they must be open about what they find, however awkward this may be for others – this is as true of social, economic and cultural history as it is of political and diplomatic history.

Winston Smith.jpg

John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film 1984 (1984) 


Primary sources, then, must continue to be our historical material. But changes have been afoot for the past ten years or so in the methods by which we collect these documents. Advances in digital camera technology and a relaxation(ish) of attitudes to photography in archives have allowed historians (and anyone else who cares to bother) to digitally copy and ‘remove’ huge amounts of historical evidence from the archives.

This process of ‘DIY Digitisation’ has been revolutionary for some, and for others at least a significant change in academic practice. Not all historians now work in archives on their documents, some choose to make flying visits, fill their memory cards, and work on the documents at home. Many archives now bear more resemblance to photography studios than quiet spaces for historical enquiry.

Copyright rules and rules of privacy and ethics still remain central to what historians do in archives and with their documents, quite rightly so. But the fact remains that historians ‘own’ these documents in practical, if not legal terms. They have them ‘saved’ on their computers, available to them at any time (when they aren’t teaching, ‘doing some admin’, sitting in meetings…). In a world becoming more ‘digital’ on a day-to-day basis these documents are becoming more real to us – I know this having used this method for the past ten years and having been on that journey myself.

The documents can be consulted and re-consulted at the whim of the researcher, not at the behest of an archivist, and this is a game-changer. It isn’t just about ‘convenience’, it’s about access. Historians of material culture may argue their preference is to see, touch and feel their objects and many do. But many also rely on images of their objects and capture these for similar reasons – so that they can revisit them.

Charges applied to digital photography in archives (not all but many) are an indication of the contestations going on around the ‘ownership’ of these documents, the purposes of archives in physical buildings and the primacy of archive-researcher in the whole process as recent examinations of the issues have shown Learning to let go: Ownership, rights, fees and permissions of readers’ photographs. Given the mass exodus of documents from archives it seems to be a contest that historians are well equipped for.

Perhaps this is a good thing – history should be ours, it is our history and all history, whether secret communications between Churchill and Roosevelt or the correspondence of families in the eighteenth century, is in the public interest. Interesting things are often revealed when documents emerge from the shadows. Just yesterday we learnt that the Queen has invested (offshore) in some companies with questionable portfolios and ethical practices thanks to the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ Paradise Papers leak reveals Duchy of Lancaster put money into retailer criticised for exploiting poor families. Oh, and Bono bought a Lithuanian supermarket in-between saving the world from poverty U2 frontman was investor in firm based in island nation where foreign investors pay 5% tax on profits, Paradise Papers show

Clearly these matters have more immediate political resonance than the culinary habits of a seventeenth century clergyman, but it all adds up to something bigger than the parts and it is all ours (or should be). I believe that digitisation can potentially have a democratising and liberating impact on our understanding of the past. We are still subject to the rules of archives on access, lots of documents remain unavailable. Some of this material is drip-fed to us by others in the form of online databases, but any of us can now ‘own’ historical documents (again if not legally then in an everyday sense of access) by copying them ourselves and potentially in quite large volumes.

We should beware, of course, that this does not interfere with our professional practice as historians. Reading sources ‘at leisure’ has the potential to loosen and de-formalise the process of document analysis. In his classic examination of the discipline, What is History (1961) E. H. Carr warned against ‘common-sense history’:

‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’

This reminds us that digitisation has not ‘changed everything’ and the fundamental rules and dangers of the game apply. But the way we ‘take them home’ has changed and is, I believe, changing what we can get from the documents and expanding our field of vision as historians. Orwell’s future was dystopian and clearly there are lots of concerns around the digitisation of our lives. But we can take ownership of some of it and the study of history seems like a good place to start.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

If you would like to read a more extended piece on DIY Digitisation and find out more about my experiences of the process follow this link to my online article DIY Digitisation in the Study of Social History . You will find a range of other papers on the subject linked from that page.