MAURICE GEORGE fears the heritage institution is forgetting its origins and aims
The National Trust is 125 years old, has a membership approaching 10% of the population and exists to preserve things. How can such a body lose its way? To answer that question, we have to look at the context within which it operates and its sensitivity to current trends and fashionable ideas.
My perspective of the National Trust is based on my experience of visiting properties, reading the magazine, and press coverage when things go significantly right or wrong. A matter of particular concern has been the publicly expressed disquiet among the volunteers, upon whom the Trust is implicitly dependent to be able to open its properties to the public. At one point in the last couple of years I was getting so annoyed at the way the Trust was being run that, had I not been a life member, I might have resigned my membership in protest. In my 60 years as a member of the Trust, membership has increased five-fold and with increasing emphasis on attracting yet more visitors to its properties, I have the impression that the Trust may be losing contact with its origin and fundamental purpose.
I have a special interest in the Lake District, where an essential element in the motivation for what became the National Trust, originated. My first visit to the Lakes as a teenager was for me, a Londoner, a life-changing experience and I have devoted much time since to exploring it and studying its history and culture. For the past 25 years I have been an active supporter of the Armitt Collection held in the museum and library at Ambleside in the Lake District and for 11 years I was Chair of the Friends. This year marks 100 years since the death of Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (one of the three co-founders of the National Trust – see https://brazen-head.org/2020/12/16/work-with-joy-rawnsley-ruskin-and-the-keswick-school-of-industrial-arts/) and I have spent the past two months helping to prepare an exhibition celebrating his work as ‘Defender of the Lakes’.
It was Rawnsley whom we have to thank for really starting the movement to protect the English Lake District for access and enjoyment by future generations and for enabling the creation of the National Trust. Others, including Wordsworth, had raised their voices against perceived threats, but to little effect. Most importantly, Rawnsley recognised that to succeed, his movement needed to be on a national basis and it was the coalescence of his vision and energy with the desire of Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter for a national organisation to protect open spaces that led to the foundation of the National Trust. This year is the 125th anniversary of that event and for the first 25 years of its existence, Rawnsley was the Trust’s honorary secretary.
The National Trust was set up originally to preserve the scenic value of open spaces and access to them for the inhabitants of over-crowded towns and cities. The preservation of buildings followed, with the realisation that there was also an architectural heritage that needed to be saved from neglect or destruction. The National Trust now represents around a tenth of the population of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is remarkable, that since the passing of the first National Trust Act in 1907, the governance of so large an organisation has only once been subject to significant public scrutiny, following the controversy in 1966 over the management of Enterprise Neptune, the coastal protection initiative.
Running the coastal project, which aimed to protect as much of the coastline as possible from development and loss of access, placed too much of a burden upon the existing management of the Trust and it was decided to appoint an appeals director. Conrad Rawnsley, grandson of the founder, was, with some reluctance on the part of the Trust, engaged for the post and thus to run what he called Enterprise Neptune. Rawnsley had radical views as to how the Trust as a whole should be run, and the organisation he set up engaged young people, a group somewhat neglected by the Trust. It also exposed the weakness in the Trust’s management to an extent that the tail (Enterprise Neptune) was wagging the dog. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Rawnsley’s contract was terminated. At the next AGM, Rawnsley’s Reform Group failed to get any of their members elected to the Trust Council and he requisitioned an Extraordinary General Meeting, at which 4,000 members filled Church House, Westminster. My wife and I were active supporters of Rawnsley and the Neptune project and we were among the noisy hecklers who shouted down the chairman when he tried to use procedure to thwart the protest over Rawnsley’s dismissal. The Trust were forced to put a critical resolution to a poll of all members, who rejected it by a margin of two to one. At the next AGM, Rawnsley publicly tore up his membership card and walked out of the meeting.
As a result of this furore the Trust convened an advisory committee, chaired by an eminent accountant, Sir Henry Benson. The ensuing Report reviewed the constitution, organisation and responsibilities of the Trust and recommended changes, which were subsequently largely implemented. The major organisational change was for the management of properties to be devolved within a new regional organisation – a change that had been recommended in an earlier management review but not implemented. There have been various reorganisations since the Benson Committee report but no objective review of the Trust’s purpose and function, despite the fact that the committee had recommended that the Trust should review its workings every ten years or so. Is it perhaps now time for another such review?
There have been other moments of controversy in the life of the National Trust but nothing on the scale of the Neptune affair. However, recently we have seen significant adverse comment in newspaper articles and letters, concerning how the Trust is meeting its declared objectives and the extent to which it should pay attention to current trends of thinking. It is therefore timely to ask whether the National Trust may indeed have lost its way.
The current issue capturing the attention and evoking responses from Arts and Heritage organisations is the extent to which the profits from the slave trade enabled the philanthropy, from which we all benefit today. Attention to issues such as slavery may be inescapable, if we agree with the Director of the National Gallery that silence is construed as denial or disagreement. The fundamental issue here is the attainment of equality of opportunity for all groups in our society, and slavery is being used as an emotive element to gain popular support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The enslavement of black Africans in America is the social focus, which has been carried forward to the present day, notwithstanding a civil war and the passage of time. If however we can detach ourselves from the American situation, and look at how societies have operated over several millennia, we have to acknowledge that slavery, in one form or another, has been an integral element of social organisation and, regretfully, still is, in the sex industry and other forms of exploitation.
However, to focus on one aspect of enslavement without reference to the wider historical perspective leads to self-indulgent attitudes of apology for the acts of our ancestors. Unfortunately, the National Trust and other cultural bodies have been drawn into seeking out historical connections to slavery, but we may ask what useful purpose does this form of navel-gazing actually serve? I believe it is an intellectual dead-end which simply diverts attention away from the object of preservation, into a discussion of the acts of our forbears, and the passing of judgement on their actions according to the standards of our own time.
Being wise after the event is prudent in respect of avoiding the repetition of potentially harmful errors, but for little else. Do we really want theoretically to punish swathes of royalty, chieftains, and religious leaders for acts of oppression, bigotry, or greed, carried out at a time when such actions were a normal aspect of society? We should surely always look forward to providing a better living environment for our successors and preserving for them the cultural wealth of our times.
Even before the current obsession with slavery, we had the Trust applying a common theme across all its properties. Examples were the emancipation of women and gay pride, which were a distortion of the perspective for viewing all those places. This was taken to extremes in some cases, for example with depictions of wartime conditions. Was it rational to store all the artworks and furniture in order to show a house in its wartime condition as the home of a bank, albeit the one of which the property’s owner was Chairman? For a whole year, anyone wishing to see any of the very fine artworks or to view the porcelain collection, the usual reasons for wanting to visit the house, was denied the opportunity to do so.
The Trust has also attracted criticism for amalgamating some of the Lake District farms bequeathed by Beatrix Potter, with the instruction that they should be maintained as she had left them. They also defeated a group of farmers seeking to purchase and maintain other Lake District farms in the traditional way. Hardwicke Rawnsley and Beatrix Potter sought to preserve land, traditional farming practice and Lakeland culture, and that should remain the objective of the National Trust today.
Rawnsley’s final book, published in the year of his death, was a valedictory tour of National Trust properties in the west of England. Only a quarter of these properties comprised buildings as well as open spaces. How much has changed since then, and how wonderful are many of the buildings in the care of the Trust, but do we really understand the purpose of this national archive of natural and constructed beauty and interest? Moreover, the guardianship of properties that have not come into the ownership of the Trust but are deemed to be of value to the nation’s heritage, has passed from government department to public charitable support with English Heritage. All of these places attract visitors from overseas and contribute to export earnings, yet we have no overall cultural policy for this nation. Culture matters too.
There is though some hope that common sense and rationality will ultimately prevail. The Director General has indicated that there will in future be more emphasis on the open spaces in the Trust’s care. However, she is thinking of closing some smaller properties to the public and presumably members too, and maybe in this electronic age, we will have to make do with virtual tours. She is also saying that the report on connections with slavery was an investigation and has opened the way for discussion on what should be done with its findings. There is clearly a need for a genuinely objective review of the status and function of the National Trust and what its future conservation policy should be. History is a mixture of fact and hindsight, but it is open to subjective analysis, from which this article is not exempt, but that should not be allowed to spoil the average day out at a Trust property.
Finally, here are some suggestions that might help to bring about some beneficial changes in National Trust policy. For domestic buildings, there should be a clear understanding that they represent an encapsulation of social, and often, architectural history, for the period when they came into Trust ownership. Their history should be presented in an accessible, scholarly, and unprejudiced way. Public buildings no longer fulfilling their original purpose may offer scope for exhibiting material not necessarily connected with that purpose, and which would not be easily accommodated in domestic properties, unless those properties have much unused space.
Open spaces should retain their original character wherever possible unless the pressure of public access demands changes, such as the strengthening of mountain paths to prevent more widespread damage. Grazing of upland areas should be commensurate with maintaining the character of the landscape as near to its original state as possible. Areas that were not wild when they came into the Trust’s care should remain as they were at that time, and not now be allowed to go wild. Traditional farming practice should be maintained, with as little change as possible even if uneconomic by current standards, since that practice is part of what is being preserved. Appropriate subsidy from within the Trust’s huge estate should not be an impossible burden. Tree planting and clearance should take account of the distant views that might be lost or restored. Preservation should be the driving force in decision-making.
The National Trust does not have a remit to modernise its properties in any way, other than providing satisfactory facilities for visitors. However, the use of digital aids supported by good scholarship should of course be employed to enhance the experience of visitors. At the same time, the historical perspective and the reason why properties came into the care of the Trust must not be forgotten or obscured by subjective contemporary ideas.
MAURICE GEORGE was born and schooled in historic Greenwich. Following a degree in mechanical engineering at Imperial College and attracted by the concept of turning swords into ploughshares, he emigrated from London and joined the nuclear industry at the Harwell research centre in Berkshire. After an exciting career in the nuclear industry and a short spell as a consultant in basic workplace safety, Maurice and his wife wrote three books about holidays in the UK with their domestic cat. Leisure interests are gardening, fell walking, railways, music and reading