The Aclands of Killerton: Remaking Imperial Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century

Applications are invited for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at the University of Cambridge, in partnership with the National Trust.

Available from October 2023, this fully-funded studentship includes: payment of university fees throughout the funded period; a tax-free maintenance grant for your living costs at the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) minimum rate (£17,668 for 2022/23); an additional AHRC stipend of £550 per annum to support costs incurred by working with the partner organisation. Further details about the benefits of an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP award are available on the DTP’s studentships page.

Closing date: 1 December 2022  (12:00am, midnight, UK time)

Project overview

The stories told today about the Acland family at Killerton House in Devon, now a National Trust property, are ostensibly straightforward. West Country landowners for centuries, in the nineteenth century they turned towards public service as politicians, interested in social justice, education, land reform and improving their sprawling estates. Particularly important was Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, 10th Baronet (1787-1871), a friend of William Wilberforce and Hannah More, a supporter of the antislavery movement and a man of faith, embodied in the striking chapel he built at Killerton. Sir Thomas Dyke 11th Baronet (1809-98), also an MP, was a friend of William Gladstone who leaned towards High Churchmanship.

This project offers the opportunity to reframe these local and insular narratives against national and global backdrops. While initial research suggests that the Aclands avoided direct involvement in the slave trade, the family provides rich potential for understanding the new imperialism of post-abolition Britain, as the desire to ‘improve’ the world fuelled initiatives to colonise and ‘reform’ it. Sir Thomas 10th was connected to Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c. 1809-91), the first black Anglican bishop and a key figure in the extension of British influence in West Africa, where antislavery, territorial ambition and profit are impossible to disentangle. Killerton’s gardens were stocked with an exotic plant collection gathered from far-flung locations.

The Acland family more broadly could be a micro-history for what it meant to be an ‘imperial’ family in that world. School and university friendships, marriage and patronage opened ways for them into the colonial world, which they traversed as wives, churchpeople, administrators, physicians, lawyers and settlers. While the family’s naval connections have received some attention, their business activities and private lives remain largely unexplored.

Research questions that the project might explore, then, include the nature of a landed family’s involvement in antislavery, from money and speeches to ephemera and music; the relationships generated by shared education, religion and politics; the emotional, professional or business interests that tied individuals together across time and space; the echoes of empire on a landed estate, its archives and artefacts.

A successful candidate would ideally have existing expertise in one or more of these areas. The project would suit applicants with a strong interest in the history of Britain and the wider British world, especially humanitarianism, religion, ‘empire at home’, elite families, social networks. It also provides excellent opportunities for an applicant interested in public history and heritage to work with, and learn from, a highly experienced team focused on the application of research in a property with high visitor numbers. They will therefore gain a range of skills that will be valuable to them in as academics but would also benefit them if they chose to pursue a career in the heritage sector.

The CDA is based in Cambridge, with wide access to scholars working on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British world, the entanglement of humanitarianism with globalization and imperial legacies. The supervisory team have particular expertise in religious and political networks, philanthropic culture, power and authority and the construction of heritage(s), material culture and public history.

Depending on the project proposed and the candidate’s circumstances, the project is likely to involve considerable time – perhaps 3-6 months – working on archives at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter and at Killerton House, either in one block or across several trips. This brings significant advantages. As well as drawing on local expertise around these archives, they will gain experience of applied practice, including an understanding of how a NT property operates and a sense of how academic findings might inform such practices. They will have the opportunity to connect to national and regional NT ‘Consultancy’ teams, which will provide the opportunity to draw on specialist expertise, as relevant. They will also gain valuable experience of working with volunteers, conveying their research to a range of audiences, and discussing this collaboratively.


The main supervisor is Dr Gareth Atkins, Fellow and Director of Studies in History, Queens’ College, Cambridge. Dr Atkins' profile can be viewed on the Cambridge Faculty of History website.

The partner supervisor is Dr Barbara Wood, Cultural Heritage Curator National Trust, South West Region.

How to apply

We invite applications from candidates from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Applicants will have, or be studying for, a Master’s degree in the history of Britain and/or the wider British world. They will ideally have a strong interest in one or more relevant areas, including humanitarianism, religion, ‘empire at home’, elite families, social networks. They may also have an interest in public history and heritage and wish to pursue a career in this field. Applicants should meet the eligibility criteria for Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC studentships.

For an informal discussion about the opportunity and how you might frame your approach to the CDA project, please contact Dr Gareth Atkins ( in the first instance.

You should apply to the Ph.D. in History programme at the Faculty of History in Cambridge by 1 December (12:00am, midnight, UK time), indicate your interest in being considered for an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP studentship and submit a completed copy of the OOC DTP Application Form at the same time. For further details on how to apply for this CDA through the University of Cambridge, please see the advert on the Cambridge jobs site.