Provoked by the bleak and dilapidated condition of life in Britain’s nineteenth century industrial towns, social reformer Octavia Hill dreamed of creating a way for the urban poor to experience the peace and tranquility of natural Britain. Her aim was to enable ‘Londoners to rise above the smoke…and…see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made.’ It is because of Hill’s dream that we have The National Trust, which today is able to boast a membership of 6 million individuals. But how did this organisation come to be and how has it been shaped into the charity we see today?
Octavia Hill had always been influenced by the fight for social reform. Her grandfather, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith was a leading Victorian public health reformer who campaigned for better housing for the urban working classes. Her father, Robert Owen, was a founder of Utopian Socialism, a belief system which emphasised the peaceful handing over of the means of production from capitalists to the people. Inspired by those around her, Hill renovated several properties in London’s Paradise Place which have been given to her by John Ruskin, famous writer and philosopher. Instead of overcrowding these homes and ensuring a 12% return investment, Hill lowered that number to just 5% and used the money to ensure the upkeep of the buildings. Through such efforts she came into contact with a great number of like-minded people. Two of which were a solicitor of the Commons Preservation Society, Sir Robert Hunter and clergyman Hardwicke Rawnsley. (Furtado, 2019, p.15) These two men would become the co-founders of the Trust.
Hill, Hunter and Rawnsley all shared the belief that nature could heal and so, in 1895, the Trust was born. Its intention was to ensure ‘the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements of beauty or historic interest.’ (Jenkins, 1995) By 1896 the trio had secured their first house, Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex for £10 (or £600 in today’s money). For the next 50 years the Trust slowly but steadily grew in membership and in acquisitions. They acquired their first nature reserve in 1899 and secured a considerable number of donations from prominent figures in order to secure buildings and sites. In 1902, Princess Louise contributed to a fund to ensure the acquisition of Brandelhow on Berwentwater and in 1929, famous children’s author Beatrix Potter used the income from her books in order to support the Trust’s work in the Lake District. Whilst all three founders had passed away by 1920 their work lived on and the Trust continued to grow.
By its 50th birthday the Trust owned 112,000 acres of land, 93 historic buildings and had 7,850 members. Whilst these numbers are impressive, they are nothing compared to what the next 50 years would bring. In 1965 the Trust turned its attention not only to gardens, houses and open spaces, but also to coastlines with the launch of Enterprise Neptune. Today, the Trust cares for over 775 miles of coastline, all over the UK. By the time the Trust reached its 75th birthday in 1970, membership stood at 226,00 and by 1981 it would reach an astonishing 1 million which would double by 1990. By its 100th birthday in 1995, the Trust held 580,000 acres of countryside, 230 houses and 130 gardens.
It is evident then, that as the Trust continues to grow, it remains an integral part of many British people’s lives. Despite its unprecedented growth the Trust remains grounded in its roots and the early beliefs of Hill by continuing to ensure that Britain’s nature and history remains protected. In 2015 they launched their ‘Playing our Part’ initiative in which the Trust pledged to reduce energy use to 15% and source 50% of their energy from renewables by 2020/21.
Furtado, Peter. (2019). History Day by Day: 366 Voices from the Past. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.Jenny Jenkins. (1995).
The Roots of the National Trust. Retrieved from