The Three Founders

It’s blogging time again, but to be quite honest, at the moment with the Corona Virus picture getting daily worse and living with the uncertainty of what tomorrow will hold, it’s pretty difficult to think of anything else.  Certainly, it’s like nothing I’ve know in my lifetime.  I look back to the resilience displayed by my grandparents during WW2 and think that I have nothing like their apparent stoicism.

However, we are told that doing a little of what brings you joy is good for your mental health and that this in turn boosts your immunity, so I’m going to turn my attention just for a while to a book that I have just finished reading.

You may, like me, have by now realised that the National Trust is this year celebrating 125 years since its foundation.  I spotted a book called ‘The Three Founders of the National Trust’ and it has been a most enlightening read.

It gives outlines of the lives of Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley and their respective contributions to this national institution.

I had forgotten, until I read this book, that there is a stone seat – a memorial to Octavia Hill – not so far from here at Hydon’s Ball near Godalming, Surrey.  As the National Trust website states, “Hydon’s Ball is one of our earliest acquisitions and is a memorial to one of our co-founders, Octavia Hill, who died in 1912. It’s one of the highest points in Surrey and the steep, wooded, south-facing slope commands magnificent views across the surrounding countryside towards the Sussex border.”  There you can walk the Octavia Hill Trail and take in the views from the stone seat.

Access to outdoor spaces for all was something that Octavia campaigned for passionately, particularly wishing those in cities to have access to “places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend the day in”.  As well as working to preserve open spaces she worked tirelessly to improve housing standards for the urban poor and through these activities she came to work with both Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley, eventually with them forming the National Trust in 1895.  The 1901 census entry for her, citing her occupation as “living on own means” gives nothing away about just how hard she worked to improve people’s living conditions.  In the 21st century we are increasingly coming to realise the importance for our mental as well as physical wellbeing of having access to outdoor spaces, and in this Octavia was well ahead of her time.  Octavia died in 1912, before the trials of either of the World Wars, but she certainly experienced her own personal dark times, with a difficult early childhood and a major mental breakdown along the way.  She certainly demonstrated great resilience.

Robert Hunter is associated with places even closer to where I live.  In 1883 he moved with his young family to Haslemere and was to live there until his death in 1913, being buried at St Bartholomew’s Church.  It was his work as a lawyer for the Commons Preservation Society which first brought him into contact with Octavia Hill and only 11 years after the founding of the National Trust (of which he was the first Chairman), Hunter was instrumental in the purchase of Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punchbowl, an area which has of course been transformed in recent times by the opening of the Hindhead tunnel.  Two years later Ludshott Common was acquired – another area where we sometimes walk.  Another local landmark, Waggoners Wells, was bought through public subscription in 1919 as a memorial to Robert Hunter.  I noticed that between the 1891 and 1901 census entries, Robert Hunter had acquired the title of ‘sir’:  he was knighted in 1894.

The third founder, Hardwicke Rawnsley, has no local connections to Surrey so far as I am aware, but he alone of the three lived through the WW1 and organised peace celebrations once it had ended.  Early on he developed a great love of the Lake District and was vicar of the parish of Crosthwaite near Keswick for over 30 years.  He started the Lake District Defence Society and also campaigned to protect local footpaths.  Having worked with Octavia Hill as a young man, it is no surprise that his interests lent themselves to his involvement in the National Trust, where he became the first secretary. The Rawnsley Centre in Keswick, owned by the Keswick Convention, today provides a venue for a number of local activities.

Well this blog has nothing at all to do with my own family history, but I have enjoyed learning about the lives of these three founders of the National Trust and taking a look at the census returns in which they appear.  If you’d like to read more, the book is called ‘The Three Founders of the National Trust’ and is by Peter Clayton, Ben Cowell and Vivian Griffiths, published by Pitkin, and available from National Trust shops and online.

Stay well and enjoy the open spaces if you can.

The Devil’s Punchbowl, Surrey