Today (January 12) in London History – “the hero of the story was a woman”

January 12th is the anniversary of the founding of the National Trust. That seminal event took place in London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale. And what a remarkable tale it was – and continues to be.


London calling. 

Prefatory remark. Usual deal. In some of this I’m going to push the envelope – push beyond Wikipedia. Free-range rather than just factory farm what’s readily to hand on the Internet. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Ok, off we go. 

Today, January 12th, is the anniversary of the Founding of the National Trust. The year was 1895. 

And sure, we mark the occasion. 

But if you just focus on the official birthday – the National Trust is like the Queen, it has two birthdays – you’re missing the best part of the story. It’s a little like making a big deal of the “silver hammer” and “golden spike” moment, the day the ceremonial last spike – a gold spike – was tapped into the ground with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit, signalling the completion of the American Transcontinental Railway. All well and good, but the real story was the getting there, the laying of those two tracks that met that day in Utah Territory. 

Well, same goes for the National Trust – we mark the anniversary of the day, today, January 12th, when it was officially founded – but we also remember the hard slog that went before. 

Like so many stories in this country’s – and London’s – history, the National Trust story is a tale of remarkable men and women meeting impersonal forces, standing up to them, changing them, making a difference. 

In the case of the National Trust, the hero of the story is a woman. 

Octavia Hill. Love the name. It’s a story in its own right. She was called Octavia because she was her parents’ eighth daughter. And she had a huge hill to climb.  

Now the back story. The industrialisation and urban sprawl of Victorian London was the spur. London’s green spaces were fast disappearing. It was the late Victorian version of the one percent running roughshod over the interests of everybody else. Landholders were busy enclosing commons and footpaths. The idea was to cleanse those lands of the great unwashed, of the public. Clearing off the populace would clear the way to clearing huge profits compliments of developing those commons. 

Octavia Hill’s position was the late Victorian version of No pasaran. They shall not pass. She said,  “we all want quiet, we all want beauty, we all need space.” The key to that was to protect those fast disappearing green spaces in London. And elsewhere in the country. The National Trust’s declaration of intent said green spaces “must be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest of those who have no country house.” Hits home, doesn’t it – that phrase, “those who have no country house.” In other words, the ninety-nine percent. 

That was one position the fledgling National Trust staked out. The other took cognizance of the fact that their era was on a building spree. Lots of old, remarkable buildings were being sent to the knackers yard. Demolished in favour of rebuilding. In favour of profits.

Octavia Hill joined forces with two other Victorian activists: Robert Hunter, the Solicitor for the Commons Preservation Society, and a man of the cloth, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. 

They were three committed, energetic individuals. But if truth be told, they were small fry. They were comfortable but not wealthy. They certainly weren’t powerful. 

They couldn’t topple the forces arrayed against them. But some significant damage limitation was perhaps in reach. Damage limitation – that’s a pretty good alias for the National Trust. An even better one, though, is the phrase Octavia Hill and her fellow founders used to describe their project: they said the National Trust would be a “national gallery of natural pictures.” Not bad, eh.

Now how to turn that dream into reality. Remember, Octavia Hill and the solicitor and the Canon – those three Musketeers – were small fry. 

They needed to get some serious muscle onside, some big hitters. They did. 

And so we come to the conception moment for the National Trust.

July 16, 1894. That was the date. The place was Grosvenor House on Park Lane. Grosvenor House was one of the largest townhouses in London. It was the London residence of the Grosvenor family, better known as the Dukes of Westminster. The house is no longer there. It was requisitioned by the government during World War I. When the Grosvenors got it back after the war they decided it was too expensive to maintain. They sold it and sure enough it was demolished in the 1920s. How fitting would it have been if the National Trust had risen to the occasion and saved Grosvenor House? Wasn’t to be. The name’s survived though. The Grosvenor House Hotel, built in 1929, stands on the site today.

I don’t know, I suppose owning up to this I lay myself open to the charge of being a London nerd but if truth be told I take some satisfaction in looking at that hotel when I’m down that way and knowing that the conception moment for the National Trust can be traced to that patch of Mayfair.

It was his house, so sure enough the Duke of Westminster presided over the meeting. And some meeting that was.

The great and the good were there in force – they’d answered the call from Octavia Hill and the solicitor and the man of the cloth. Let’s take survey of that gathering, let’s look at the face cards in Octavia Hill’s hand: there were two Dukes (the Duke of Westminster and the Duke of Devonshire), there were two Marquises, there were two Earls, there was a Lord, there were four MPs, three knights, the Master of Trinity, the Master of Balliol, the President of Magdalen, the Provost of Eton, two professors and the artist Holman Hunt. Well, you get the idea. How was that assembly not going to get its way, not going to carry the day.

Less than six months later – today, January 12 (1895), the National Trust was founded.

And talk about from acorns to mighty oaks. A hundred and twenty-seven years on the National Trust protects 780 miles of British coastline, including the White Cliffs of Dover and the Needles on the south coast of England. It protects twenty percent of the Lake District. It protects that living film set for Downton Abbey and Jane Austen and Harry Potter – I’m talking of course about the whole village of Lacock in Wiltshire. And those are just the National Trust’s crown jewels. 

The whole shebang is, well, mind-boggling. Strap yourself in – let’s shoot the rapids of the National Trust’s portfolio. 

The National Trust owns over 500 properties. They include over 200 historic houses, 56 villages, 9 lighthouses, 41 castles and chapels, 39 pubs, 29 mediaeval barns and 47 industrial monuments, mills, mines, factories and what not. The what not includes an impressive art collection.

The National Trust owns 970 square miles of land. Greater London runs to just over 600 square miles. So you’re talking all of Greater London and then a third more. The National Trust has nearly six million members. It has 14,000 staff. They’re assisted by 53,000 volunteers. It’s got an annual income of nearly 700 million pounds.

Now we’re London Walks, so let’s get this mentioned as well: There are 11 National Trust properties in the London area. And five National Trust gardens and parks.

But to end let’s do what know one ever does – let’s look at the very first pages of the National Trust album. Let’s look at the baby photos. 

The first ten properties the National Trust acquired – this was when it was just a wee babe, one day old to 18 months old – the first ten properties were:

A 14th-century priest’s house in Alfriston in East Sussex

The Joiners Hall in Salisbury

The keep of Duffield Castle in Derbyshire. It was gifted to the National Trust.

Kanturk Castle in County Cork. Another gift.

The Old Courthouse in Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire.

Eashing Bridges in Godalming. Also gifted.

The old courthouse in “King Arthur’s birthplace,” Tintagel. 

The Winster Market House in Derbyshire.

A cliff in Barmouth in Wales. Another gift.

And 15 acres of Cornish coast. 

Charming, isn’t it.

Just reading through them makes me want to go and see them. 

And a pretty good first haul, I think you’ll agree, for “a national gallery of natural beauty.”

And there you have it. The National Trust. A London idea that went national. Recounting the tale, I feel like I’ve reached into London’s bag of historical gems and flung a handful out on the carpet before you. There is one tiny little gem, though, that’s always overlooked, no one ever sees it. But we’re going to see it. That gem is this: the inspiration for the mighty National Trust came from the American state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts was the pioneer. It had got something going along those lines, Octavia Hill had got wind of it, thought, hmmm, now that is a good idea. We can do that here. And the rest is history. The rest is the National Trust – our national gallery of natural beauty. Something we can all raise a glass to on this day especially.

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