Did the National Trust Save Belton House?

Last week, as part of my Heritage Master’s the department took a field trip to Belton House in Lincolnshire. It’s a magnificent country house, connected to queen Adelaide and the Brownlow-Cust family, who were influential aristocrats of the 15th-18th century, and I greatly enjoyed my time there. However, as I strolled through the gardens, and looked around the grand rooms of the stately home, I couldn’t help but consider to what extent the National Trust made it what it is today.

Belton House

The house was sold to the National trust in the 1980’s for a sum of £9million (now worth £21million when calculating for inflation). However, this is a small amount of money when compared to the £1,381million in total funds that the National Trust reported for the year 2017-18, or even the £1billion that the Telegraph reported they had in 2017, and since then the Trust has earned back their investments tenfold.

In 1975 the V&A curated a gallery titled The Destruction of Country Houses, showcasing damage that many houses had gone through over the hundreds of years that they have existed. Places like Threntham Hall in Staffordshire went through catastrophic losses in architecture and buildings. This was largely brought on by economic damages that had occured throughout the 20th century. The first and second world war’s saw workforces in decline, as men joined and died in the army, and women were drafted out of houses to work in factories, and the crash of Wall Street in the USA, which affected much of the global economy, made the cost of upkeep difficult to set pace with, while stocks plummeted and money stretched thin.  Because of this, there was a general public disinterest and inability in maintaining the wealthy homes, as people focused on fixing the economy post-war.

Trentham Hall - demolition in progress 1912

The decline in country houses, however, could be seen as a symbol for the decline in the British economy, and structure, and the gallery was designed to bring this to the forefront of public awareness and opinion.

“The exhibition promoted the idea that not only were England’s great country houses under threat, but that if these richly symbolic buildings were lost, so too would be important aspects of English history, culture, and identity.”

Ruth Adams, ‘Museums & Society’ 11,1.

The gallery helped changed opinion, and the heritage sector became concerned about maintaining the status of these country houses. If the decline in country houses was to be taken as a symbol for the decline in our economy, and ultimately as an end to our power (the end of the second world war and the years that followed would see in the end of the British Empire, and the end of England as the dominant world power), then it was in the best interest of the heritage sector to continue to uphold an image of a country that stood strong.

Image result for the V&a destruction of country house
The display at the V&A gallery

This gallery, and the change in public opinion, came about at the same time that the Brownlow family tried to turn their house into a visitor experience, possibly to help with the maintenance costs and to create more of a revenue during this period of economic recovery. The family created an adventure playground, and opened their house to the public, however it proved unsustainable. It can be inferred, that the family could not afford to maintain the house by themselves, and selling the house to the trust was the best thing they could do to protect their net-worth. At the time of the selling, many items were also auctioned off or liquidated, for more profit, and the family moved to Jersey, which is known as a tax haven.

Many of the houses objects were sold when the building was handed over to the National Trust, or moved with the family to Jersey, however, what remains tells an interesting story about the history and use of the house.

With the arrival of the National Trust, came a substantial amount of funding for reparations, with membership donations and heritage lottery funding that helps to maintain the cost of many sites across the UK. The National Trust also brought in the professional knowledge for the development of the house, to open the house fully and curate an image, and a change in the way that Belton House operated as a whole.

As I walked through the grounds, and later on my research, I considered how things could have been if the family did not sell the house when they did. With such high expenses, I wonder how much the house would have fallen into disrepair, or how much of the artwork inside would have been auctioned to maintain the upkeep of the house. Indeed, Belton House had been in a state of disrepair multiple times, only saved by a three-year restoration in the 1960’s to repair the roof. I believe that either way, had the Brownlow’s kept the house for much longer, we would have lost one part or another of what makes the house the “perfect English country house” as it is known as now.


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