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The roots of the National Trust.

The National Trust was formally constituted on January 12th, 1895. The vision of three pioneers -- Octavia Hill, the housing reformer, Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor of the Commons Preservation Society, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a Lake District clergyman, the Trust was vested with the power to 'promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest'. The idea of the new organisation had first occurred to Hunter and Hill ten years earlier when, working in London and still in their forties, they were closely in touch with other leading social reformers. The three shared an intense love of nature and a belief in its healing power which, in the case of Hill and Rawnsley, had been fostered by their relationship with John Ruskin.

Ruskin was born in 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria, and exerted an extraordinary influence, his books filling the shelves of those with enquiring minds until the end of the century: 'For almost fifty years, to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul' claimed Kenneth Clark. Insofar as he attracts interest today it is because of the complexity of his character, 'a pampered aesthete who gradually became aware of social injustice', and the tragedy of his personal life ending in madness. But his intellectual range and his poetic language appealed to literary figures as different as Wordsworth and Proust, and his concern for moral issues was admired by political leaders as far apart as Gladstone and Gandhi.

Octavia Hill was fifteen when she first met Ruskin in 1853 at the Ladies Guild, a craft workshop for unskilled women and girls. Two years later he offered to train her as a copyist of illuminations and Old Masters and for more than ten years she regularly spent many hours in the company of this turbulent genius, listening to his views on religion, society, nature and art. She must have given satisfaction but, despite her dedication, Ruskin was perceptive enough to see where her real vocation lay: 'If you devote yourself to human expression, I know how it will be ... there will be an end of art for you. You will say hang drawing!! I must go to help people'. And in 1865 it was Ruskin who lent her the money to buy two small blocks of slum property and so to embark on her life's work. She had become pre-occupied with the degrading and unhealthy conditions in which the poor of Marylebone lived and had observed the improvements effected by a local charitable trust. Her aim was to put her properties into decent condition, to manage them on a sound financial basis and 'to rouse habits of industry and effort' among the tenants. Nonetheless Ruskin's belief in nature as a moral being had so permeated her consciousness that towards the end of her life she was referring to 'the holy things of nature'.

Hardwicke Rawnsley also experienced Ruskin's magnetic power when, at an impressionable age, he attended the lectures Ruskin gave as Slade Professor at Oxford. Rawnsley recalled the scene:

Ruskin got, in quite an astonishing manner, at the heart of the undergraduates. One looks back to the crowded audiences at his Oxford lectures, to the delightful breakfasts with 'the Master', to the new experiences, with their fruit for life, of being roadmakers for the Hinksey poor under the direct encouragement and personal supervision of the Slade professor.

(Despite the mockery of their contemporaries Ruskin persuaded a number of young men to help mend the road to the village of Hinksey, just outside Oxford.)

Many of Ruskin's letters 'To the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain', which he published as Fors Clavigera, were written from Oxford, attacking a social system which condemned four-fifths of the population to squalid ugliness and expounding his doctrine that 'There is no wealth but life'. His vivid word pictures illustrating 'this degradation of the operative into a machine' and the need to solve the problem of poverty were influential in persuading Rawnsley and other young men to interest themselves in social movements and in education ('Let us reform our schools and we shall find little reform needed for our prisons', he urged, rather optimistically).

Two earlier campaigning organisations, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and the Commons Preservation Society (CPS) were the main headsprings of the National Trust. Ruskin was the intellectual inspiration for the SPAB which was founded in 1877 by William Morris, the designer, writer and social reformer. Ruskin's delight in sculpture and his respect for craftmanship led him to dislike any form of restoration, whether of architecture, decoration or paintings. He became one of the first and most influential guardians of past work in its original form at the time when his reputation as an arbiter on artistic matters was supreme. He believed that the preservation of old buildings ought not to be a question of expediency:

We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all generations of mankind who are to follow us.

The words, reprinted in the SPAB's manifesto, express one of the themes of Seven Lamps of Architecture, which Ruskin published in 1849 at the age of thirty when he was at the height of his intellectual powers. He argued that the historic and artistic value of old buildings lay in their actual surface, the surface providing visible evidence of age and the tool marks reflecting the craftsmen who made them. 'Do not let us talk of restoration, the thing is a lie from beginning to end. That spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled'. But in one of his swings of mood from elation to depression he wrote later:

I never intended to have republished this book which has become the most useless I ever wrote: the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin.

In this passage he was deploring the practice of Sir George Gilbert Scott and other leading mid-Victorian architects who, when called on to repair medieval buildings, 'restored' them to what they conceived to be the purest form of Gothic style rather than limiting the works to those needed to preserve the fabric. Their attitude was well described by Violletle-Duc, who was an equally active restorer in France and who wrote:

To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair or rebuild it, it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.

By 1855 William Morris was attacking the methods used to restore Ely Cathedral, but it was not until 1877 that he was moved to found the SPAB. In a letter to the Athenaeum that March he wrote:

My eye just now caught the word restoration in the morning paper, and, on looking closer, I saw that this time it is nothing less than the Minster of Tewkesbury that is to be destroyed by Sir Gilbert Scott. Is it altogether too late to do something to save it -- it and whatever else of beautiful or historical interest is still left us on the sites of the ancient buildings we were once so famous for? Would it not be of some use once and for all, and with the least delay possible, to set on foot an associ ation for the purpose of watching over and protecting these relics ...?

Many artists, but initially only a handful of architects, rallied to Morris' society, of which he was secretary and the leading spirit. By the time the National Trust came into being in 1895 the antagonism aroused by the SPAB in the Church of England and the architectural profession was fading and the society was able to devote some attention to buildings threatened by neglect rather than by excessive restoration. Not having the power to hold buildings for preservation itself, the SPAB saw in the Trust a possible source of help and quickly gave its support to the new organisation, drawing the attention of the Trust to the plight of the fourteenth-century clergy house at Alfriston in Sussex.

In urgent need of repair, the clergy house became the first building to be acquired by the Trust and was bought for [pound]10 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in the winter of 1896. 'In places the thatched roof was open to the sky, rain streamed through, unhindered, to the rooms below. Several walls bulged ominously; within, the staircase leading to the upper floor had entirely disappeared. It stood a forlorn relic'. Nevertheless, it was one of the few fourteenth-century domestic buildings left standing in southern England and this alone warranted the [pound]350 that was needed to restore it.

With her experience of rehabilitating slum property it was natural that Octavia Hill should take charge of the repairs. Writing to a benefactor, she recognised that 'to let it deteriorate further would be a sort of breach of trust ... because it is ours now, given in the expectation we could preserve it'. But she did not find it easy to raise the necessary funds -- 'All my friends seem keener about beautiful open spaces ... we don't seem to reach the antiquaries and artists.' Hill herself shared the deep attraction to old timber-framed buildings of Ruskin and Morris, whose enthusiasm for medieval architecture was also the inspiration for young Arts and Crafts architects like Ernest Barnsley and Alfred Powell who joined the SPAB at the turn of the century, and supervised the repairs on two medieval priest's houses for the Trust. Octavia Hill's description of these small houses shows how moving she found them:

Steep in roof and gable, mellowed with the colour of ages, picturesque in outline, rich in memories of England as our ancestors knew it. Alfriston pre-Reformation clergy house, nestled below the Sussex Downs; Long Crendon Court House, used since the time of Henry V, standing at the end of the long street of a needle-making village of Oxfordshire; the old post office at Tintagel, a picturesque fourteenth-century cottage ... There was nothing great about them, nothing very striking, only quaint picturesque out-of-the-world places greeting the eye with a sense of repose.

The SPAB continued to work closely with the Trust, referring buildings to it, advising on (and occasionally criticising) the repairs, and in some cases helping to raise funds.

It was the Commons Preservation Society, more concerned with practical questions than with philosophical and aesthetic ideas, that brought together Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter and channelled their energies into fighting to prevent the development of open land. The CPS, set up twelve years earlier than the SPAB, was the first of the campaigning organisations for what we would now term our 'heritage', following in the wake of many voluntary societies set up earlier in the century to promote better conditions for people living in crowded terraces without proper sanitation or uncontaminated water, let alone schools, parks or other amenities. Its founder was George Shaw-Lefevre, later Lord Eversley, a member of parliament and a member of successive Liberal governments up to 1895. His interest in open spaces was to take up much of his long life (he did not die until 1928) and as First Commissioner of Works he was able to secure the opening of Hampton Court Park and Kew Gardens. Many influential politicians and social reformers supported the CPS, including John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, Sir William Harcourt (later the Chancellor of the Exchequer with whom the National Trust was to negotiate over the question of death duties) and Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster (who became the Trust's first president).

A common is a misleading term to the extent that it is not a piece of land where anyone may roam. It is land which usually belongs to one person, the lord of the manor, over which other people, commoners, have certain rights, for example to graze cattle. The system of land tenure dates back to the Middle Ages, as does the procedure enabling the lord of the manor to enclose common land and use it for his own purposes.

Enclosure took place sporadically until it gathered momentum in the mid-eighteenth century as landowners realised that only by enclosing land could they introduce alternative crops, new machinery and better stock breeding. Private Enclosure Acts empowered landowners to enclose their common land, often literally with a thorn hedge or wooden fence, while the landless peasants were left with nowhere to graze their cattle. By the mid-nineteenth century, millions of acres of commons had become productive farmland and the remaining commons were unevenly distributed: there was little in the midlands, but in Surrey nearly every parish had its common and there were large areas of upland commons in the north and west. In the south of England commons were becoming valuable building sites just at the time when their importance for the recreation of people living in densely populated areas was being recognised. Many commons were neglected, used as rubbish dumps or treated as wastes, a term by which they were often known. Writing in the 1820s, William Cobbett, champion of radicalism and author of Rural Rides, noted:

Wastes indeed! Was it a waste when a hundred healthy boys and girls were playing there on a Sunday afternoon instead of creeping about in filth in the alleys of a town?

This point of view gained ground and in 1845 a General Enclosure Act was passed which provided that the consent of one-third of the commoners was necessary before enclosure would be granted and that, if granted, some land must be allocated for recreation and allotments. But the Act had little effect: between 1845 and 1864 more than 614,000 acres of commons were enclosed and only 4,000 were set aside for the benefit of the commoners. Then in 1865, in response to a threat to build on Putney Heath, a Parliamentary Committee was set up to 'inquire into the best means of preserving for public use the Forests, Commons and Open Spaces in and around the Metropolis'.

The Metropolitan Board of Works proposed a compromise: the interests of the owners should be bought up, parts of the commons should be built on and the rest should be left for the public to enjoy. Shaw-Lefevre, who was a member of the Committee, rejected this view on the grounds that the commoners had rights to entire commons and not just to parts of them and that these rights still existed under the 1235 Statute of Merton, which was intended to improve grazing without diminishing the benefits of commons. The majority of the Committee supported Shaw-Lefevre and their report led to the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. The act rendered enclosure of commons virtually impossible within a fifteen-mile radius of Charing Cross, though often only after protracted legal proceedings to defeat the would-be enclosers. It was not until some years later that legislation was passed to protect commons outside the London area. The hiatus had disadvantages, for the threat of restrictive legislation propelled some landowners towards enclosure or illegal fencing.

Soon after its formation in 1865 the CPS began a series of lengthy but ultimately successful battles to preserve open spaces, such as Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest within the metropolitan area and Berkhamsted Common and the Malvern Hills outside. But for these victories London would not now have its commons and woodlands to complement its royal parks. It was Epping Forest, out of which arose the longest and most complex of the society's cases, that made the name of Robert Hunter.

By contrast, it was a failure that alerted Octavia Hill to the rapid loss of open spaces in London. In 1875, ten years after buying her first tenement, she took a leading part in the attempt to prevent building on Swiss Cottage Fields, the slope running up to Hampstead village. But the owner withdrew the estate from the market just as she had raised almost all of the purchase price. For the rest of her life she devoted much of her energy to the preservation of open spaces, from small disused burial grounds, which would provide 'outdoor sitting rooms' for the poor, to extensive stretches of the Surrey hills and the Cumbrian valleys, in the belief that 'the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and ... the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men'.

The essential first step towards founding the National Trust was taken by Robert Hunter in September 1884 when, in a speech to the National Association of Social Science in Birmingham entitled 'A Suggestion for the Better Preservation of Open Spaces', he outlined his idea for a company with the power to acquire and hold land and buildings. Rather than working primarily for profit the company would have as its objective the protection of the public interest.

Octavia Hill was enthusiastic about the proposal. In February 1885 she wrote to Hunter:

A short expressive name is difficult to find for the new company. What do you think of the Commons and Gardens Trust? I do not know that I am right in thinking that it would be called a Trust. But if it would, I think it might be better than 'Company' -- you will do better, I believe, to bring forward its benevolent than its commercial character. People do like charity when a little money goes a long way because of good commercial management.

At the top of this letter Robert Hunter has written in pencil, 'The National Trust?'

Another ten years were to elapse before the Trust was formally accepted by the Board of Trade, perhaps because both Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter were immersed in other public work.

In the early 1890s a number of important properties in the Lake District came on to the market. Fearing that, without protection from the proposed trust, beauty spots such as the Falls of Lodore would soon be ruined, Hardwicke Rawnsley gave powerful support to the campaign.

Aware of the urgency, Hill, Hunter and Rawnsley joined forces and wrote to likely supporters on paper headed 'National Trust for Historic Sites and Natural Scenery'. A preliminary meeting to discuss the formation of the Trust was held at the offices of the CPS on November 16th, 1893. The reports next day were enthusiastic. The Times wrote:

We see no reason why for public purposes a bit of beautiful scenery should not be the subject of a forced sale under equitable conditions just as much as a bit of ugly country for a railway.

When the time came to draw up the Trust's memorandum of association Hunter sought advice from across the Atlantic. He would have read the writings of the Scottish-born naturalist, John Muir, prclaiming the therapeutic value of wild places for an urban society. He must also have been well aware that the United States had given a lead in preservation not only through the establishment in 1872 of Yellowstone, the world's first national park, but also through the work of local historical and nature conservation societies in buying up old buildings and natural sites. At his prompting, Octavia Hill wrote to Ellen Chase, an American who had worked for her in London, asking for reports on the open-space movement in the USA, in particular the constitutions of the Boston Metropolitan Park Commission and the Trustees of Public Reservations in Massachusetts. The Trustees of Public Reservations had been set up in 1891 'for the purposes of acquiring, holding, arranging, maintaining and opening to the public under suitable regulations beautiful and historic places and tracts of lands'. The corporation was empowered to 'acquire and hold by grant, gift, devise, purchase or otherwise real estate such as it may deem worthy of preservation for the enjoyment of the public but not exceeding $1m'. This clearly influenced Hunter's wording of the Trust's constitution but he was sufficiently confident to set no financial limit on its growth.

By 1895 the United States had overtaken Britain as the world's leading industrial power although its political influence took some time to catch up and the Royal Navy remained dominant. Despite the seeds of relative economic decline, Britain was to all outward appearances approaching the zenith of empire. Lord Salisbury's third government had begun a decade of Unionist power, which enjoyed the united support of the landed interest in a way that would not have been possible before Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule had driven out of the Liberal Party the likes of Trollope's Duke of Omnium, who in the 1870s had regarded Toryism as socially rather inferior.

Although the landed interest had become united, its political pre-eminence was cumulatively threatened, but not destroyed, by the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1885. And in 1879 its mid-nineteenth-century prosperity, which had been enhanced by gains from railway development, mineral rights and the rising value of urban property, had come to an end with the onset of the long agricultural depression following the import of grain and meat from the New World. Many landed estates had seen their rent rolls fall by a third or more, and then in 1894 the introduction of death duties struck a further blow. The owners of great houses who found themselves without sustenance from business or American wives were increasingly forced into selling land or works of art.

When the Provisional council met on July 16th, 1894, at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, the Duke of Westminster's London house, Octavia Hill proposed the motion that it was 'desirable to provide means by which landowners and others may be enabled to dedicate to the nation places of historic interest or natural beauty, and that for this purpose it is expedient to form a corporate body, capable of holding land and representative of national institutions and interests'. The aim, she explained, was to 'save many a lovely view or old ruin or manor house from destruction and for the everlasting delight of thousands of the people of these islands'.

Although the 'deep red glow of [the] furnace fires' of industrial England, glimpsed by Mr Pickwick on a visit to Birminham in the 1820s, had lost their novelty and unique position, the nineteenth century brought about a massive movement of population from the countryside to the towns. By its end 77 per cent of the population of England lived in towns and cities, compared with only 25 per cent a hundred years earlier. Crammed into narrow streets beneath smoky skies, these urban dwellers looked to the municipal authorities for their basic services as well as for such amenities as museums, parks and libraries. On Sundays and Bank Holidays an increasing number of them were able to escape to the countryside by railway or on the 'safety' bicycles which had replaced the penny-farthings.

In seeking to protect 'places of historic interest or natural beauty' for public enjoyment, the founders of the National Trust did not follow the Birmingham route of municipal enterprise or the American and French models of government ownership for national parks and historic monuments. Instead they decided to create an independent charity which would be dependent on individual effort and private funding. Although much slower off the mark than the public agencies of America and France, the Trust has proved well suited to the British wariness of state intervention. After a hundred years, with the support of more than two million members, it has proved that it can respond to new needs and can continue to protect in perpetuity a wide range of historic monuments as well as ever-extending areas of coast and countryside.
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Title Annotation:U.K. National Trust
Author:Jenkins, Jennifer
Publication:History Today
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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