National Trust broke my spirit, says Chartwell gardener who was ‘humiliated’ in public

·3-min read
Claire Bryant said she was subjected to a ‘humiliating’ interview for the role of senior gardener in front of members of the public - Surrey Live/BPM Media
Claire Bryant said she was subjected to a ‘humiliating’ interview for the role of senior gardener in front of members of the public - Surrey Live/BPM Media

A gardener at Sir Winston Churchill’s former home has claimed the National Trust “broke her spirit”, as she won nearly £50,000 in compensation for being passed over for a senior role in favour of a less qualified man.

Claire Bryant, a kitchen gardener at the Chartwell country house in Kent, said she was on the brink of a nervous breakdown due to the “horrendous” treatment she received from her managers.

The 63-year-old from Surrey said she felt victimised after defending the length of her colleagues’ tea breaks, and was then subjected to a “humiliating” interview for the role of senior gardener in front of members of the public.

She was later rejected for the job in favour of a male applicant who had scored significantly lower than her during the interview process.

Ms Bryant said the National Trust “completely broke her spirit”. She took the charity to an employment tribunal and has now been awarded £49,297.24 in compensation for unfair dismissal, discrimination and harassment.

“I can honestly say, I have never been closer to a complete nervous breakdown than I have in the last three years – it has been horrendous, absolutely horrendous,” said Ms Bryant.

“It has really knocked every ounce of confidence I have got. But for me, it has never, ever been about the money. It’s about being able to stand up for yourself. I wouldn’t want any of my family, or anybody’s family, to have to go through this.”

Chartwell was Churchill’s residence from 1922 up to his death 43 years later - Surrey Live/BPM Media
Chartwell was Churchill’s residence from 1922 up to his death 43 years later - Surrey Live/BPM Media

Churchill bought Chartwell in 1922 and lived there until shortly before his death in 1965.

Ms Bryant was employed there as kitchen gardener in 2013 and won numerous awards during her employment.

However, tensions arose in 2017 when the length of volunteers’ tea breaks was questioned by her managers, despite them working for up to eight hours a day for free. Ms Bryant said she felt her “card was marked” when she defended them.

When she applied for the role of senior gardener in 2018, she had more than 10 years of professional gardening experience.

She scored 22.5 and 27.5 out of 30 in the first round of formal interviews, while an external male candidate scored 16.5 in both. They were both shortlisted for the role.

‘Informal chat’ turned into ‘character assassination’

Ms Bryant was then invited for an “informal chat” outside the Chartwell cafe in front of members of the public.

She described the meeting as a “character assassination” in which issues never previously raised about her performance were aired, despite her being highly rated in past performance reviews.

“I felt as though I was being attacked,” she said. “It was a very, very uncomfortable conversation and I was feeling extremely upset about the way the interview was conducted.”

Ms Bryant resigned shortly afterwards. She asked the National Trust to investigate the behaviour of senior management at Chartwell, but she was told there was no evidence of bullying and staff had complied with recruitment guidelines.

The employment tribunal, held in Ashford, Kent, found that Ms Bryant suffered direct discrimination and harassment on grounds of sex.

It also found she had been “constructively unfairly dismissed”. This is when an employee is forced to leave their job against their will because of the employer’s conduct.

A National Trust spokesman said: “While we are clearly disappointed by the decision, we respect the judgment. However, the judge did make it clear in the remedy judgment that the discrimination was not deliberate and that it was a clear case of unconscious bias.”

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