London Letter

Declining Trust

In an increasingly atomised and de-socialised Britain, one voluntary body remains top dog: the National Trust. With 5.7 million members, it is by far the largest membership organisation in the country, more than four times the membership of the next largest, English Heritage. It has 50,000 volunteers and 10,000 employees looking after more than 500 historic properties, nature reserves or gardens, over 600,000 acres of farmland and 780 miles of coast. In this diverse portfolio, country houses are the unquestioned jewels in the crown. Every weekend thousands of members and visitors trudge through the stately homes of England cared for by the National Trust—ideally spending a few quid in the shop and café.

Given these figures, the observer could be forgiven for assuming the National Trust is in rude good health. A closer examination reveals a very different picture. But to explore the current crisis it’s necessary to look at the roots of the Trust.

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At the tail end of the Victorian era, social reformer Octavia Hill, lawyer Sir Robert Hunter, and clergyman Canon Hardwicke Lawnsley feared that rampant industrialisation threatened the unique landscapes of England. They founded the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in 1895 to acquire and preserve these lands. By 1907, Parliament had granted the National Trust statutory powers, including the right to declare its land inalienable. In that year, the Trust purchased its first significant country house, Barrington Court, a sixteenth-century manor house in Somerset. The group had been wary about taking the house on, and their caution proved justified when expensive repairs were required as well as expensive continuing maintenance. The Trust solved the problem by leasing Barrington Court to sugar baron Colonel Abram Arthur Lyle of Tate & Lyle, who undertook significant repairs and signed up Gertrude Jekyll to craft new gardens in the Arts and Crafts style.

Barrington Court was held up for decades as a model to avoid. More typical acquisitions were the dunes, marshes and mudflats of Blakeney Point on the north shore of Norfolk and the Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire.

Preservation of nature and landscapes was paramount but the English country house faced an increasing number of threats. The First World War resulted in a disproportionate loss of the sons of country gentry and landed aristocracy. By the early 1930s their parents had begun dying off without any heirs, or the heirs were keen to rationalise family holdings and divest themselves of historic architectural inheritances, increasingly seen as sentimental millstones. Selling them was one option, but the market was not strong in the Great Depression. It was more lucrative to demolish them and build houses, especially for those estates within easy reach of cities.

The National Trust responded in 1936 by setting up the Country Houses Committee. Owners of stately homes were excused stamp duties and death duties if they transferred their houses, alongside a maintenance endowment, to the National Trust. They and their heirs would even be allowed to continue living on the site, provided it was open for public access.

During this period the Trust benefited from the fund-raising efforts of an eccentric band known as “Ferguson’s Gang”—young ladies from society or blue-stocking academic backgrounds. They composed an anthem, one stanza of which went:

Green grass turning to bricks and dust
Stately homes that will soon go bust
No defence but the National Trust.

The slaughter in the Second World War and the post-war Labour government’s punitive taxes—more accurately described as a campaign of cultural warfare by the Labour movement against the aristocracy—did nothing to improve the prospects for country houses.

Nonetheless, the Labour government did use the profits from the sale of surplus war supplies to create a National Land Fund to purchase culturally significant properties in the national interest. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, described it in his 1946 budget speech as a “thank-offering for victory” and a memorial to those who had died in the war. With the big houses still in private hands under assault, the National Trust greatly expanded the properties under its care.

The post-war era was a time of contrasts: rationing finally ended in time for the Coronation and the futuristic optimism of the Festival of Britain. Churchill and the Tories were back in power in 1951, but the modernist puritanism of the Labour party that “owed more to Methodism than to Marxism” was the predominant cultural tone. In some aspects, it was the height of civic participation in Britain. Membership of political parties reached new peaks—more than a million Labour members and 2.8 million card-carrying Conservatives. (Affiliated trade unions gave the Labour movement greater numbers overall.) Today the Labour party membership is just under 400,000 and the Conservatives have around 127,000.

The National Trust earned a place in British life but decisions made by its management in recent decades have dampened public enthusiasm for the body.

On April 29, 2015, a fire began in the cellars of Clandon Park House, former seat of the Earls of Onslow in Surrey. It was several days before it was extinguished, leaving a charred ruin.

An insurance payout was estimated at £65 million, which looked as if it would fund a long-term program of restoration, but in 2017 it was announced that only the most significant ground-floor rooms would be restored because restoration was wasteful and insurance money would be better spent on improving fire safety standards at other National Trust properties. Dame Helen Ghosh, then director-general of the National Trust, countered that the insurance could only be used for restoration or else there would be no payout. A conservative estimate put the cost at £115 million, leaving the National Trust with a £50 million shortfall.

Luckily, 1200 of the 3600 objects in the Clandon inventory had been preserved, of which more than half were rated either of the highest significance or of considerable significance. The Trust’s website stated that because “so many original features have survived, we believe we should restore the magnificent state rooms on the ground floor”.

In 2022, however, the Trust announced that only the one room that survived the fire would be preserved, with the rest of the building redeveloped along simple modern lines, allowing visitors to experience the fire-damaged shell, and adding a new roof terrace to take advantage of the fine views of the surrounding countryside. 

Even these plans, curiously, were costed at more than the £63 million but were eventually paid by the insurers. Neither explanation nor rationale was given for the change of course, nor was it clarified whether Dame Helen’s comments saying the money could only be used for restoration were accurate. It also emerged that the National Trust had been warned in 2010 that Clandon Park’s electrical distributor—which sparked the fire—needed to be further compartmentalised to prevent spread in case of fire, but had failed to act.

The Clandon Park controversy has sparked debates about the National Trust. When restoration is feasible and contents have been preserved, is there an obligation on behalf of the custodians of a historic home ruined by fire to pursue restoration? Or should the fire be accepted as part of the history of the house, and it be preserved in its ruined state instead?

That debate is philosophical, but more mundane incidents have raised questions about the National Trust. For more than a century, people have enthusiastically visited National Trust houses to see the architecture, learn a little history, and enjoy the grounds. In recent decades the management seem unpersuaded by the intrinsic value of their great inheritance and are seeking “relevance” that, by the time it is given in to, has just as quickly moved on. Britain’s role in the slave trade—whether profiting from it or the heroic campaign for its abolition—is highlighted at National Trust properties, distorting historical perspective.

The Trust’s portfolio of £1.6 billion is reported to have lost several million pounds in value, in part owing to investment in underperforming funds recommended by eco-friendly wealth managers. For all the environmentalist posturing, it was revealed that the current director-general of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, lives in Northern Ireland, and has to fly several times a month to the Trust’s head offices in Swindon in Wiltshire. Press reports also suggest that the Trust was swindled out of £1.7 million by a surveyor submitting false invoices for fictitious or vastly inflated construction work.

Many volunteers have resigned in the face of disappointments, but the management says the coronavirus is to blame, rather than the treatment of volunteers and the culture of the Trust. A volunteer at Ightham Mote in Kent complained about “convoluted, patronising, and largely irrelevant” mandatory training on “diversity” and “institutional racism”, and called it quits after ten years volunteering. The Trust revoked the passes of nearly seventy volunteers at Dunham Massey’s medieval deer park following disputes with new management.

At Chedworth Roman Villa, a 2011 Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled the Trust to construct classrooms to replace “the leaking sheds we had outgrown”, former education volunteer Jane Lewis reported. But a new operations manager decided the storage space would be used as a stock room for the shop, and the classroom chairs would be more useful in the café.

“We were one of the few sites in the country to allow children to handle real Roman artefacts,” Lewis said. “Up to 10,000 children visited us each year,” from the youngest schoolchildren to university students. “Many of the children came from inner-city areas and had never seen such countryside,” she said. “They were buzzing.” But during Covid, two staff members were let go—despite the government’s generous furlough support package—and the education team at Chedworth Roman Villa was disbanded.

Democratic accountability is also lacking. One contentious practice is the chairman’s proxy vote. Many resolutions are presented at the annual general meeting, but if a member is only interested in voting on two or three, the chairman can use the member’s vote on the rest by proxy to approve resolutions the member didn’t vote on. At the most recent AGM, the Trust introduced the “QuickVote”, whereby members could vote on all elections and resolutions simultaneously with a single click—but only in favour of the management’s preferences. One slate of candidates for the Trust’s council is officially recommended, while those who stand without the management’s backing—such as Restore Trust, an internal pressure group encouraging the Trust to return to its core purposes—failed to get a single member elected to the council in November. Surely an organisation with such a broad membership can afford to hear a variety of opinions on its ruling council?

Despite these questions, the National Trust remains firmly planted in the life of England. It is central to the preservation of the country’s historic landscapes and buildings, and remains a treasure that has done far more good than harm. The foundation of a group like Restore Trust is proof that there is life yet in the old girl, and they are encouraging those who have been disappointed by mismanagement and politicisation to stay and fight rather than resign. No struggle has ever been won by quitting the field of battle.

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