The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty came officially into being on 12 January 1895 when it was formally incorporated under the Joint Stock Companies Acts, but the notion of such an organisation had already been in the air for a considerable time.  The second half of the nineteenth century, as the adverse effects of the industrial revolution began to be appreciated, had spawned a proliferation of organisations concerned with the protection of the environment.

The Commons Preservation Society, the Kyrle Society, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (for London), the National Footpath Preservation Society, the Selborne Society, the Scottish Rights of Way Society, and the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising were among the most active.  Dozens of local groups with limited and specific aims such as the Lake District Defence Society and the Dartmoor Preservation Society, were likewise set up across the country, and skirmishes over rights of access, enclosures, unsightly advertising hoardings, access to mountains, and so forth, had marked most years in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  These skirmishes pointed up the need for a national conservation body to build on the work of these disparate groups, and the emergence of the National Trust can best be understood as the logical outcome. 

The Commons Preservation Society had a pivotal role in generating public awareness of the need for conservation, and the importance of their influence as a ‘pressure group’, hitherto sometimes overlooked, should not be under-estimated. 

Today, more than a century later, it is increasingly obvious, as Robert Hunter Hunter had recognised, that the actions of the Commons Preservation Society prepared the ground and sowed the seed which would in due course reach its full flowering as a national conservation organisation a few years later.  Without the seminal work of the Society it is highly unlikely that the National Trust would ever have come into existence.  The Duke of Westminster, James Bryce and George Shaw-Lefevre, who with other public-spirited philanthropists had played a prominent role in the Society, were also among those who were to be most closely involved in the successful launch of the National Trust.

In 1884 W. J. Evelyn, an elderly descendant of the diarist John Evelyn, asked Octavia Hill for advice in connection with the future of his old family house, Sayes Court, in Deptford.  He wished to donate it to the Metropolitan Board of Works in order that it could be opened to the public.  Robert Hunter was asked to prepare a report.  He concluded that even were the Board to accept it, they would have no statutory powers to maintain it from the public purse.  The alternative would be to set up a trusteeship, a cumbersome procedure which would be invalidated if the donor were to die within twelve months, and given Mr. Evelyn's advanced age, it was reluctantly concluded that a trusteeship would not in this case be a feasible proposition.

Hunter then wrote to Octavia Hill, suggesting that though it might be too late to save Sayes Court (it has indeed since been demolished) it might be a good idea to set up a Land Company, which would have the power to purchase and hold properties in the public interest.  Hill agreed, replying that she realised that ‘at any moment some other important scheme may present itself and our body ought to be ready’.

Accordingly, in 1884 Hunter expanded the idea in a paper presented to the National Association of Social Science meeting in Birmingham.  Hunter had an excellent track record, having, in his capacity as Hon. Solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society, already guided the organisation through a series of brilliant legal victories, in the process saving from enclosure and development Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common, Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest.  In his paper Hunter reviewed the progress that had been made in conservation, drawing attention to the various Acts of Parliament which had been passed.  With typical modesty he did not point out that these Acts had in large measure been passed in response to his own efforts on behalf of the CPS.  These Acts, he opined, had to some extent stopped the rot, but the danger was still present and commons and open spaces were still under threat:

The remedy for these defects in existing machinery is the formation of a corporate company under the Joint Stock Companies’ Acts for the following purposes: To acquire properties possessing common rights; to co-operate with local authorities for the laying out of public gardens; and to exercise, for the protection of open spaces, rights of common attached to properties purchased.  Such a company might make considerable income from properties acquired, and its operation might be general or local.  The central idea of this is that of a Land Company which shall administer its property with a view to the protection of the public interests in open spaces.1

Hunter sent Octavia Hill copies of this paper for circulation.  She, however, was not keen on the notion of a Company, preferring rather the idea of a Trust, for, as she shrewdly observed in a letter to Hunter:

you will do better, I believe, to bring forward its benevolent than its commercial character.  People don’t like unsuccessful business, but do like charity where a little money goes a long way because of good commercial management.2

The name she suggested to Hunter was: “The Commons and Gardens Trust” – and then printing in small letters – ‘for accepting, holding and purchasing open spaces for the people in town and country’.  Above this note Hunter scribbled: ‘? National Trust. RH’.

In 1886, Charles Elliot, an American landscape architect with a great interest in conservation and who was later to found The Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts, visited the UK.  During this visit he met both James Bryce and Hardwicke Rawnsley, and was presented with a copy of Hunter’s 1884 paper.  Four years later, in 1890, Elliott published an article in the American journal, Garden and Forest, in which he proposed that legislation should be enacted to create a non-profit corporation to hold land for the public to enjoy.  In the Spring of 1891, the Massachusetts Legislature established The Trustees of Public Reservations for ‘the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public beautiful and historic places within the Commonwealth’.  

Several developments in 1893 spurred the key players, Rawnsley among them, into action.  Among these proposals was the construction of a funicular railway to access the summit of Great Orme Head above Llandudno, a picturesque landmark commanding splendid views, which was, however, difficult of access by the faint-hearted.  Other developments which incurred Hardwicke’s ire were the sale of Grasmere Island and Lodore Falls in his beloved Lake District.  This was the last straw.

Hardwicke contacted the Massachusetts Trustees for further information.  Shaw-Lefevre, who initially had been unenthusiastic about the idea of yet another Society, seems to have had second thoughts, and on 16 November 1893 he was present at a meeting at the offices of the CPS attended by Rawnsley, Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter.  At this meeting it was agreed to form The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.  The new association would be registered under the Joint Stock Companies Acts with the licence of the Board of Trade as a non-profit-making society.

While there is no doubt that Rawnsley, Hill and Hunter were the key individuals involved in bringing the National Trust to fruition, others, among them James Bryce, George Shaw-Lefevre and the Duke of Westminster, also played a major part.  It would be invidious to maintain that any one individual made a greater contribution.  The three co-founders all brought different skills to the new organisation. 

From now on events moved fast.  On 17 April the following year the committee of the new Trust, consisting of George Shaw-Lefevre, Robert Hunter, T.C. Farrer, Canon Rawnsley and P. Birkett, met once again at the offices of the Commons Preservation Society.  The Memorandum and Articles of Association were approved and a meeting of the Provisional Council, with other members already recruited, was arranged to take place the following month.

The first open meeting of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty took place on Monday 16 July 1894 at Grosvenor House, by permission of the Duke of Westminster, who presided.  All three co-founders addressed the meeting.

Even before the National Trust was formally constituted, Rawnsley, who with his fluent pen was later, in his capacity as Hon. Secretary, to be well equipped to use the power of the press to good advantage, took up the cudgels on behalf of a variety of different sites currently under threat, not necessarily with the aim of acquiring them for the Trust, but to galvanise public opinion in their defence.

The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty was at length registered at Somerset House under the Companies Act on 12 January 1895, a date which has been taken as the official date of its foundation.  Hunter was the Trust’s first Chairman of its Executive Committee and Rawnsley was its Honorary Secretary, a position he held for twenty-five years. This culmination of years of preparation, of false starts, setbacks and disappointments, widely reported in the Press, was a great day for all who had been concerned in its planning.  An announcement of the acquisition of the first property to be acquired by the Trust, Dinas Oleu, ‘the Fortress of Light’, a cliff pasture above Barmouth with a magnificent view over Cardigan Bay followed shortly afterwards.  Mrs. Fanny Talbot, who owned the land, had initially intended to give it to the Guild of St. George but having been offended by Ruskin’s lack of involvement in the management of the cottages at Barmouth which she had given to the Guild, she instead offered the property to Hardwicke for the new Trust.

The initial membership of the National Trust was set at 1000, with an administrative council of 50 being elected from among the members.  In the event of the Trust failing or being wound up, the financial liability of each member would be limited to £1.  The successful launch of the new organisation was indeed a considerable triumph for the founders, given all the other activities in which they were each involved.  At the first annual general meeting of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, held on 9 May 1895 at the Examination Hall, on the Victoria Embankment in London, under the chairmanship of the Duke of Westminster, Canon Rawnsley reported on the first year's work:

They had, he said, 156 subscribers of 10s. each, and their first year’s work included the acquisition of the beautiful sea cliffs at Barmouth, which they owed to the generosity of Mrs Talbot.  They had been able to help forward the fund for the preservation of Carlyle’s House at Chelsea, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had agreed to hand over to them at a small expense the interesting old Clergy House at Alfriston.3 

Rawnsley then called the attention of members to the threats to the Falls of Foyers on the south-east side of Loch Ness, a magnificent waterfall, doomed, unless public feeling could be aroused for its protection.  Other early forays by the new National Trust included attempts to save the Trinity Hospital Almshouses in Greenwich, the house of Sir Frederic Leighton and its collection of paintings, Highgate Woods, the tower to Sir Thomas Hardy in Dorset, Tintern Abbey and many others.

Early campaigns in which Rawnsley was involved in his role as Hon. Secretary of the National Trust were not necessarily directed at acquisition of the properties concerned, but were intended simply to raise public awareness of the threats posed to them and to bring pressure to bear on developers.  These campaigns included that to save Church Row in Hampstead, threatened with demolition, and the Arbour or Heber Tower, the last surviving remnant of the original town walls of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  These buildings were both saved, though once again it would be overstating the case to claim that their preservation was directly attributable to the intervention of the National Trust.

For such a small organisation, with limited funds and depending for its success on the energy and enthusiasm of a small number of individuals, the Trust became engaged in an impressive number of activities in its first few years of existence.  Its members gave freely of their time to support a variety of causes across the entire country.  The Trust’s expertise, its fund-raising capability, its publicity potential and its influential contacts were at once recognised and envied by other groups. 

Hardwicke, as he had so often done before in support of other good causes, publicised support of the National Trust as a means by which an individual could demonstrate their patriotic spirit.  Love of the land, love of traditional skills and love of ancient buildings were all aspects of patriotism and an increased involvement in these causes would result in an increase in the patriotic spirit.  Octavia Hill, like Hardwicke, was a highly successful fund-raiser, and thanks to her reputation both at home and overseas, she brought new properties and land into the organisation’s remit.  Robert Hunter, with his background as a solicitor, sought ways of reinforcing the Trust‘s legal foundation by drafting, for example, three Bills to be laid before Parliament – the Ancient Monuments Protection Bill, the Land Dedication Bill, and the Places of Natural, Scientific, or Historic Interest Bill.  Each of the three founders brought their individual skills and attributes to the establishment of the National Trust and all had equally important and complementary roles to play in the shaping and further development of the organisation.


1 Hunter, Robert, ‘A Suggestion for the Better Preservation of Open Spaces’, Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Birmingham Meeting, 1884, 753-4, (p. 754).

2 Darley, Gillian, Octavia Hill: Social Reformer and Founder of the National Trust (London, 2010), p. 278.

3 ‘Trust for Historic and Beautiful Places’, Morning Post, 10 May 1895, p. 6.

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