The Roots of the National Trust

By Jenkins, Jennifer | History Today, January 1995 | Go to article overview

The Roots of the National Trust

Jenkins, Jennifer, History Today

The National Trust was formally constituted on January 12th, 1895. The vision of three pioneers -- Octavia Hill, the housing reformer, Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor of the Commons Preservation Society, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a Lake District clergyman, the Trust was vested with the power to 'promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest'. The idea of the new organisation had first occurred to Hunter and Hill ten years earlier when, working in London and still in their forties, they were closely in touch with other leading social reformers. The three shared an intense love of nature and a belief in its healing power which, in the case of Hill and Rawnsley, had been fostered by their relationship with John Ruskin.

Ruskin was born in 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria, and exerted an extraordinary influence, his books filling the shelves of those with enquiring minds until the end of the century: 'For almost fifty years, to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul' claimed Kenneth Clark. Insofar as he attracts interest today it is because of the complexity of his character, 'a pampered aesthete who gradually became aware of social injustice', and the tragedy of his personal life ending in madness. But his intellectual range and his poetic language appealed to literary figures as different as Wordsworth and Proust, and his concern for moral issues was admired by political leaders as far apart as Gladstone and Gandhi.

Octavia Hill was fifteen when she first met Ruskin in 1853 at the Ladies Guild, a craft workshop for unskilled women and girls. Two years later he offered to train her as a copyist of illuminations and Old Masters and for more than ten years she regularly spent many hours in the company of this turbulent genius, listening to his views on religion, society, nature and art. She must have given satisfaction but, despite her dedication, Ruskin was perceptive enough to see where her real vocation lay: 'If you devote yourself to human expression, I know how it will be ... there will be an end of art for you. You will say hang drawing!! I must go to help people'. And in 1865 it was Ruskin who lent her the money to buy two small blocks of slum property and so to embark on her life's work. She had become pre-occupied with the degrading and unhealthy conditions in which the poor of Marylebone lived and had observed the improvements effected by a local charitable trust. Her aim was to put her properties into decent condition, to manage them on a sound financial basis and 'to rouse habits of industry and effort' among the tenants. Nonetheless Ruskin's belief in nature as a moral being had so permeated her consciousness that towards the end of her life she was referring to 'the holy things of nature'.

Hardwicke Rawnsley also experienced Ruskin's magnetic power when, at an impressionable age, he attended the lectures Ruskin gave as Slade Professor at Oxford. Rawnsley recalled the scene:

Ruskin got, in quite an astonishing manner, at the heart of the undergraduates. One looks back to the crowded audiences at his Oxford lectures, to the delightful breakfasts with 'the Master', to the new experiences, with their fruit for life, of being roadmakers for the Hinksey poor under the direct encouragement and personal supervision of the Slade professor.

(Despite the mockery of their contemporaries Ruskin persuaded a number of young men to help mend the road to the village of Hinksey, just outside Oxford.)

Many of Ruskin's letters 'To the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain', which he published as Fors Clavigera, were written from Oxford, attacking a social system which condemned four-fifths of the population to squalid ugliness and expounding his doctrine that 'There is no wealth but life'. His vivid word pictures illustrating 'this degradation of the operative into a machine' and the need to solve the problem of poverty were influential in persuading Rawnsley and other young men to interest themselves in social movements and in education ('Let us reform our schools and we shall find little reform needed for our prisons', he urged, rather optimistically). …

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