Despite its unrivalled natural beauty, Windermere holds a grim history as the playground of those who profited from the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. That shameful past still haunts the area, and a major Lakeland tourism operator has chosen to suppress any mention of slavery.
Windermere, England’s largest lake, has a vibrant and varied history. Each year, passenger boats take hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers up and down the lake to enjoy the beautiful scenery and learn something of that history.
John Bolton, the Colston of the North?
One shameful element of the Lake’s past is its many connections to prominent figures in the transatlantic trade in enslaved people.
Certainly the most notorious local character in that trade was John Bolton, who lived at Storrs Hall, a grand Georgian mansion on the lakeshore that is now a hotel. Bolton was a slave trader directly responsible for the enslavement of around 23,000 African people in the final years of that terrible trade.
For many decades, skippers on those passenger boats would mention the grim truth about the source of John Bolton’s vast fortune as part of their commentaries. I was one of those skippers.
Despite receiving no tuition or guidance on how to talk about this sensitive subject (or indeed any other aspect of our commentaries) from our employer, Windermere Lake Cruises, skippers managed to strike an appropriate, respectful tone, and the commentaries were well-received. (Despite many thousands of online reviews of the boat trips, I’ve only been able to find a single complaint about this aspect of the commentaries, dating back to 2016.)
Questionable response to Black Lives Matter protests
But in 2020, four weeks after the murder of George Floyd by a racist police officer in Minneapolis, and as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the Western world, Windermere Lake Cruises instructed its skippers to stop mentioning slavery in their commentaries. It has claimed this was in response to customer complaints, but in truth it was done upon the request of the owner of Storrs Hall Hotel, the former home of John Bolton himself.
In April 2023 this was confirmed via email by Jennifer Cormack, Windermere Lake Cruises’ sales and marketing director, who wrote:
“It was at the request of Storrs Hall amidst all of the ‘trouble’ a few years ago that we removed the mention of the slave trade at Storrs request, (specifically the ‘shackles’ that apparently still remain downstairs in the hotel’s cellar) this upset the owner of the hotel, who heard this whilst he had guests in the garden, and argued this was factually incorrect.”
Despite this clear evidence to the contrary, the company has persisted in claiming that the decision to stop all mention of slavery in commentaries was due to customer complaints.
Whitewashing the reputation of a notorious slave trader
Having insisted that I and my former colleagues could not make any mention of slavery in our commentaries, Windermere Lake Cruises has taken the matter one step further. They have chosen to misrepresent John Bolton as a respectable man, a successful businessman, not a notorious slaver.
In a pre-recorded commentary that is steadily superseding the live commentaries given by skippers, the company describes Bolton as having worked for a firm of ‘West India merchants’ before setting up in ‘business’ on his own. No mention, no hint even, that the ‘business’ involved the enslavement of tens of thousands of black African people.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, businesses, churches, institutions and even individual families are reappraising their historical involvement in the slave trade. Commendably, Storrs Hall itself now includes appropriate reference to that aspect of its own history on its website.
In such a climate, it is completely unacceptable for a high-profile, highly influential business like WLC to neglect to mention the true nature of this man to its many thousands of customers, and gloss over the source of much of the wealth of Britain during the Industrial Revolution.
Windermere Lake Cruises and corporate social irresponsibility
Windermere Lake Cruises has sought to duck any blame for its actions by claiming it is not responsible for “providing education or historical interpretation” of the Lake.
That is of course true – trips could be conducted in silence, or with background music perhaps. But instead, the company chooses to provide a commentary that, in its entirety, is facts and figures about Windermere. It is both educational and historical interpretation – or rather, in this case, historical misinterpretation.
In that context, the company is unquestionably responsible for ensuring that the commentary it provides is honest and truthful. To distort the facts so that a slave trader is represented as a respectable businessman is scandalous. It is no surprise that the company refused to talk to the media as this story made headlines on BBC and ITV news and in the Guardian and the Times newspapers in June 2023.
Why the continued obfuscation?
The question I’m constantly asked is – what on earth are they thinking? Why is Windermere Lake Cruises persisting with this disgraceful fiction, in the face of huge public criticism and reputational damage?
The honest answer is I simply don’t know. Management repeatedly refused to engage with me on this issue in any meaningful way while I worked for them, and I am still none the wiser.
And, as the company continues to hide from media scrutiny, taking refuge behind a press statement that is, in my view, substantially a work of fiction and refusing to answer pressing questions about its motives, speculation abounds.
Regardless of the reason, Windermere Lake Cruises will have to set the record straight sooner or later. It must stop insulting the intelligence of its customers, and it must stop dishonouring the memories of those brutalised by the transatlantic trade in enslaved people.
North West Bylines contacted Windermere Lake Cruises for a reply. This is their response – a copy of the press statement:
“Firstly, we are mindful of the need to respect confidentiality in relation to employees and former employees, so are unwilling to comment on specific employment related matters.
Windermere Lake Cruises Limited operates 17 Class V passenger boats on Windermere and carries over 1 million passengers annually. Our larger vessels have a pre-recorded commentary system, but on our smaller vessels a live commentary is delivered by the Skipper. Reasonable parameters for these commentaries are specified by the company, which are kept under constant review and are communicated to our Skippers.
We are a sustainable passenger transport provider and these parameters are intended to ensure that our commentaries add to our customers’ enjoyment of the services we offer and do not cause upset or offence to those listening.
Following the receipt of complaints regarding the inclusion of reference to the Transatlantic Trade of Enslaved People in our commentaries, we decided to amend the reasonable parameters for our commentaries.
We are not an organisation responsible for providing education or historical interpretation of the area in which we operate and felt there was no compelling need to refer to the Transatlantic Trade of Enslaved People, given that this aspect of our commentary had been the source of complaints.
We carefully consider the content of our live and pre-recorded commentaries, as well as our guidebooks and marketing materials, and constantly strive to provide a positive visitor experience while respecting the diverse perspectives and sensitivities of our audience.”