‘Everything is tenser than it seems’: the culture war descends on Dunham Massey
A trigger warning about an almost-invisible figure in a painting is confusing visitors at the National Trust property
Dear Millers — we recently paid a visit to Dunham Massey Hall, a stately home owned by the National Trust in the leafiest stretch of Altrincham. Dunham Massey is not typically fertile ground for high drama: you can see deer clipping round the park, consume organic ice cream and enjoy an insight into how a Georgian stately home was run. Today, all that changes: an almost-invisible figure in a painting in the hall is churning up disagreements between volunteers and staff.
But before all that: Tickets are now live for our next Mill members’ event. Back in March, members enjoyed a live interview with Andy Spinoza about his book Manchester Unspun. Next Thursday, Mill editor Sophie Atkinson will be in conversation with David Scott, author of Mancunians, which takes more of a sideward glance at Manchester’s cultural history. Sure the Hacienda was there, but Scott reckons there were many unsung cultural scenes that helped shape the city just as much. It’s £5 to attend, plus you’ll hear from the critically acclaimed photographer Anne Worthington, whose portraits of inner city Mancunians in the 2000s capture a community sticking together as their institutions fell away. For tickets, click here — see you there!
Now on to our round up of the news: more train struggles and a prominent Oldham politician claiming conspiracy theories are still rife.
Your Mill briefing
Transpennine Express (TPE), the beleaguered rail operator that has come under scrutiny in the past year for its poor service, will lose its contract at the end of this month. The Department for Transport has said that — despite TPE launching a recovery plan in February and making slight improvements — to get performance levels up to standard “both the contract and the underlying relationships must be reset”. Northern mayors have been calling for the contract to be taken away for almost a year, saying that TPE’s poor service has damaged northern economies and blighted the daily lives of commuters.
Amanda Chadderton, the third Oldham Council leader in as many years to lose their seat in a local election, says the town still hasn’t moved away from the conspiracy theories that have poisoned its politics. Chadderton says her ousting was partly due to an unfounded conspiracy theory which claims she, and others in Oldham, tried to cover up child sexual exploitation in the borough. A report found no evidence of this. She has been replaced as leader by Arooj Shah, the previous leader of the council before Chadderton, who was also voted out after what she described as a “smear campaign” led by the same conspiracists.
There’s some interesting analysis in Place North West’s Subplot newsletter today. David Thame looks how the Conservatives losing their spot as the biggest party in Bolton will affect the governance of Greater Manchester: “Without a Conservative voice on the GMCA it gets harder for the GMCA, and Mayor Burnham, to get things done,” Thame writes. “Bolton's Tories were sometimes a useful backchannel to government, and they will be missed. Burnham will also miss being able to claim multi-party buy-in for whatever GMCA does.”
Manchester City Council have expanded their programme of landlord licensing. This allows the council to require landlords in areas struggling with poor housing conditions to obtain licences to uphold standards. The recent expansion, which came into force on Tuesday means 700 private sector homes in Levenshulme, Longsight, Moss Side, Whalley Range and Rusholme will require licences.
ICYMI: On Monday, it was reported that ex-Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese has been named an honorary president of Manchester City Football Club. Leese has long been a supporter of Manchester City.
🎧 Listen to our podcast
In our latest podcast Darryl and Mollie pick through the local election results, and ask what Arooj Shah returning as Oldham’s council leader means for the town’s fractured politics. Plus, we journey to neighbouring Liverpool for the Eurovision Song Contest and digest new rules for Greater Manchester’s landlords.
Listen on the Spotify player below or click here to listen wherever you get your podcasts.
By Jack Dulhanty
To call Dunham Massey Hall “peaceful” is to traffic in understatement. The feeling a person has, strolling the sprawling grounds of the stately home, enjoying the birdsong and the drone of a bumblebee motoring past, is roughly equivalent to ingesting half a sleeping pill. You are a little drowsier, a little more relaxed than you might normally be. But do not be deceived by the bright bunting, nor by the children in hand-made rabbit ears. Do not, for a second, let the daisies sunning themselves on the front lawn induce you to lower your guard. You are on the front line of the culture war. Everything is tenser than it seems.
I recently headed to Dunham Massey Hall on a day off, with the aim of getting to know Greater Manchester’s history better. It’s a historic National Trust property close to Altrincham, the present building dating back to 1616. The park surrounding it is much older: the first written mention of it is from 1362.
But its curation is resolutely and cheerfully contemporary. An abstract poem decorates one wall of the dairy, while messages painted onto utensils narrate the different steps people used to take to make butter. These interjections reach a climax when you take the stairs from the Great Hall and approach the summer parlour, an ornate room in which the nobles used to take tea.
No matter which way I approached the parlour (there are two entrances), an “Advance Notice” blocked my way.
It read as follows:
“Please be aware that the room includes a 17th Century painting of an enslaved child. The visitor route continues into the Great Gallery if you prefer not to view the room.”
At this point, it was tempting to commend the National Trust for their good sense. Nobody knows what feelings a graphic image might prompt! Surely it’s best to err on the side of caution? But on entering the room, things took a turn for the peculiar.
I had expected the image to be so striking that I would immediately be arrested by it; after all, it is described as a “painting of an enslaved child”. But in fact the notice had the unfortunate and presumably unintended effect of turning the parlour into a game of Where’s Wally? I scanned each painting in turn, looking for the person described in the notice, but each time, I was left mystified.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Mill to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.