Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 05 July 2022

Founders of the National Trustfree

(act. 1894–1895)

Founders of the National Trustfree

(act. 1894–1895)
  • Astrid Swenson

Founders of the National Trust (act. 1894–1895), campaigned for the preservation of open spaces and historic buildings, establishing a body to hold 'places of historic interest or natural beauty' for the nation. Envisaged by Octavia Hill to 'consist of men and women who should be free from the tendency to sacrifice such treasures to mercenary considerations, or to vulgarizing them in accordance with popular cries' (Darley, 297), the society was incorporated under the Joint Stock Companies Act in 1895. The National Trust Act in 1907 gave it the unique power to hold property on an inalienable basis.

The foundation of the National Trust is traditionally attributed to Octavia Hill, the housing reformer who viewed open spaces as fundamental for the physical and moral well-being of the working classes, Sir Robert Hunter, honorary solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society, and Hardwicke Rawnsley, a clergyman campaigning for the preservation of the Lake District.

This triumvirate shaped the organization until the First World War—Hill as member of the committee until 1912, responsible for appeals, Hunter as chairman of the executive committee until 1913, and Rawnsley as honorary secretary until 1920—but it is misleading to think of the early history of the trust only in terms of ‘three founders’. A more coherent picture of the organization's epistemic community, its aims and achievements, and its place in Victorian and Edwardian society emerges when other office-holders, the council and executive committee, and also ordinary members and benefactors are included.

Many of these individuals were experienced in campaigning for the preservation of open spaces and historic buildings. The Commons Preservation Society, founded in 1865 as the first pressure group championing public access to open spaces against overbearing landlords, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877 by William Morris (1834–1896) to fight 'restoration-mania', were among the main headsprings of the National Trust.

The foundation of a new kind of society was provoked by a combination of factors. First, the descendants of the seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn wished to present his house in Deptford to the Metropolitan Board of Works but no legal means existed to do so, leading Hill and Hunter, who had worked together at the Commons Preservation Society since 1875, to conclude that a landholding body was needed. At the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1884 Hunter outlined ideas for creating a joint stock company. Hill suggested calling it a 'trust' instead of 'a company' to bring forward 'its benevolent rather than its commercial character'. Hunter tentatively pencilled '?National Trust' on her letter (Fedden, 18), but more than a decade elapsed before the society's foundation, primarily because George John Shaw-Lefevre (later Baron Eversley) vetoed the creation as it might distract from the Commons Preservation Society. Hill and Hunter continued their fight through existing societies, but the idea resurfaced between them and Rawnsley (whom Hill had originally met through their common mentor John Ruskin) and was reinforced by fears over the effects of a reform of local government upon ancient towns and landscapes. Shaw-Lefevre withdrew his objections when in 1893 several sites in the Lake District came up for sale. Moreover, Charles Eliot junior, son of the president of Harvard University, had employed Hunter's earlier ideas to found the Trustees of Public Reservations in Massachusetts in 1891, which in turn was a model for the constitution of the National Trust.

Hunter, Hill, and Rawnsley organized a preliminary meeting at the offices of the Commons Preservation Society on 16 November 1893. In view of his active role in the Hampstead Heath Extensions Committee and the support he had given to Miranda Hill's Kyrle Society, Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, first duke of Westminster, was invited to become the first president. As a great landowner he could inspire confidence in those who might endow the trust with legacies. A meeting in July 1894 at Grosvenor House was held to approve the draft constitution. The fifty-strong provisional council, which oversaw the subsequent incorporation of the trust, included not only the preservationist activists Sir John Lubbock (later first Baron Avebury), Shaw-Lefevre, and Rawnsley's schoolfriend Gerald Baldwin Brown, a leading expert on preservation in other countries, but many illustrious figures of Victorian politics, art, and science, including Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple Blackwood, marquess of Dufferin and Ava (the trust's second president, 1900–1902), the future prime minister Archibald Philip Primrose, fifth earl of Rosebery, the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederic Leighton, the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley, the provost of Eton, James John Hornby, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Henry Montagu Butler, the painters William Holman Hunt and G. F. Watts, the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward, and the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett. Its executive committee was composed of the 'three founders', the duke of Westminster, George James Howard, ninth earl of Carlisle, the architect Alfred Waterhouse, the journalist John St Loe Strachey, the New Forest verderer and member of the Commons Preservation Society, George Edward Briscoe Eyre (1840–1922), Philip Lyttleton Gell (1852–1926), who was chairman of the universities' settlement, Toynbee Hall, and president of the British South Africa Company, the Manchester businessman and philanthropist Herbert Philips (1834–1905), (Charles) Edmund Maurice (b. 1843), son of Frederick Denison Maurice, whose Christian socialism had influenced several of the trust's founders, and Harriot Yorke (1843–1930), Hill's companion and self-effacing fellow worker, who remained treasurer until 1924.

The trust was incorporated in January 1895. At the annual general meeting in May it officially received its first property: Dinas Oleu, a clifftop in Wales, from Fanny Talbot, a friend of Ruskin and Rawnsley. Many members of the provisional council continued to serve on the annually elected council and executive committee for the rest of their lives. Only the post of secretary was paid, first held by Lawrence Wensley Chubb. The annual membership fee was 10s.; £20 and £100 gave entitlement to life and honorary membership respectively.

The membership has been described as a 'London Club who shared a pleasant community of interests' and 'could be relied upon to make a generous financial contribution' (Fedden, 17). The trust avoided any partisan image; a promotional pamphlet stressed its 'purely patriotic interest in those things which in the crush of our commercial enterprise and in the poverty of landholders or in the lack of local care, run the risk of passing away' (Jenkins and James, 28). The interest in conservation was shared by a socially and ideologically heterogeneous group, but motivation for preservationism had different roots. Politically, the majority of the early leadership was closer to the left than to the right. Hunter was a liberal, Hill a Christian socialist; fifteen members of the provisional council were either Liberal MPs or Liberal members of the House of Lords, but Conservative imperialists and radical socialists were also among the trust's supporters; socially, middle-class social reformers, dedicated to giving the people regular access to natural beauty, mingled with aristocratic landowners.

Long before establishing the National Trust, many founders and early members were connected through personal ties and voluntary work in numerous areas. In addition to using informal networks provided by families, friendships, and cross-memberships to increase the trust's reach, the founders also systematically formalized connections with other institutions: first, by choosing a number of bodies from major learned societies, museums, universities, and preservation societies who would each year nominate about half of the council's members; second, by collaborating with the new county councils, to which many of the trust's founding members sought election. Third, the founder sought to establish a list of local correspondents and encouraging local societies to affiliate. While the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings had failed with a similar endeavour, thirty field clubs and archaeological societies had formally joined the trust by 1914. It also frequently brought about the creation of new local societies, such as the Thames Preservation League (1899).

Acquisitions were limited to England and Wales, but the trust campaigned in different parts of the British Isles, and abroad. In 1899 a motion was passed to establish branches in Ireland and Scotland, although the National Trust for Scotland was not founded until 1931. Members corresponded with European preservationists. A transatlantic link was systematically fostered by James Bryce and Rosebery, both members of the Imperial Federation League. Rawnsley and C. R. Ashbee went on promotional tours to America, a short-lived American council (1901–4) was established, and campaigns for sites in England and America were organized together—all part of a wider vision to preserve a common heritage of the English-speaking world. The executive committee also expressed its readiness to hold properties in other parts of the British empire, from Cyprus to the West Indies.

During the lifetime of the founders it was not obvious that the National Trust would eventually expand into 'the most important and successful voluntary society in modern Britain' (Cannadine, 11). Despite vigorous propaganda and effective fund-raising, it remained a small-scale organization. Individual membership rose from around 100 in 1895, to 500 in 1905, and 700 in 1915. Acreage increased from 5 to 1500 and 6000 for the same dates. The trust was only one of several similarly sized preservation bodies. In theory these had different competences and concerns: the Commons Preservation Society being responsible for legal questions, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings for restoration and campaigns for ancient buildings, and the trust for landscapes and acquisitions. In practice, concerns overlapped as much as membership, and collaboration was frequent and fruitful, creating an increasingly organized movement.

The establishment of the National Trust is often cited to demonstrate a British special path in conservation, privileging private initiative above government action. However, the vision of the founding generation differed little from that of their European counterparts, emphasizing the importance of both government intervention and civic society initiatives. The formation of the National Trust reflects 'a wider concern to push preservation beyond individual voluntarist group interests and to institutionalise and provide for the movement a national and an international context' (Hall, Politics of collecting, 349). Although lacking the political connections at the highest level which later generations of trust leaders would have, early achievements lay not only in the trust's acquisitions but also in translating the founders' principles into legislation, an activity to which considerable energy was devoted, ranging from Lubbock's and Shaw-Lefevre's Ancient Monuments Acts to the town and country planning legislation fostered by the committee member Patrick Geddes.

The death of the 'three founders', coinciding with the social and economic changes brought by the First World War, marked the end of the 'liberal intellectual' (Cannadine, 27) phase of the trust. There were some personal continuities, for instance through Hunter's daughter Dorothy, but each generation of leaders invested the idea of 'national heritage' with new meanings and changing priorities, while the organization continued its steady growth.


  • National Trust, Reports (1895–1921)
  • C. E. Maurice, ed., Life of Octavia Hill (1913)
  • H. D. Rawnsley, A nation's heritage (1920)
  • E. Rawnsley, Canon Rawnsley: an account of his life (1923)
  • E. M. Bell, Octavia Hill (1942)
  • W. T. Hill, Octavia Hill: pioneer of the National Trust and and housing reform (1956)
  • R. Fedden, The continuing purpose: a history of the National Trust (1968)
  • G. Murphy, Founders of the National Trust (1987)
  • J. Gaze, Figures in a landscape: a history of the National Trust (1988)
  • G. Darley, Octavia Hill (1990)
  • D. Evans, A history of nature conservation in Britain (1992)
  • J. Jenkins and P. James, From acorn to oak tree: the growth of the National Trust, 1895–1994 (1994)
  • M. Waterson, The National Trust: the first hundred years (1994)
  • P. Weideger, Gilding the acorn: behind the façade of the National Trust (1994)
  • D. Cannadine, ‘The first hundred years’, The National Trust: the next hundred years, ed. H. Newby (1995), 11–31
  • Octavia Hill and the social housing debate: essays and letters by Octavia Hill, ed. R. Whelan (1998)
  • M. Hall, ‘The politics of collecting: the early aspirations of the National Trust’, TRHS, 13 (2003), 345–57
  • M. Hall, ‘Affirming community life: preservation, national identity and the state, 1900’, From William Morris: building conservation and the arts and craft cult of authenticity, 1877–1939, ed. C. Miele (2005), 129–57


  • National Trust, Swindon
Page of
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society