Remembering Robert Hunter

6 November 2013 marks the centenary of the death of Sir Robert Hunter, co-founder of the National Trust. Why have so few people heard the story of this talented, progressive man? Ben Cowell, our regional director for East of England and author of the book 'Sir Robert Hunter: co-founder and 'inventor' of the National Trust,' explains.

The three founders of the National Trust were Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter. Last August, our commemorations of the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death included a special service of remembrance at Westminster Abbey. Her legacy is widely recognised, not least because of her philanthropic work improving the homes of the poor and protecting open spaces.

Hardwicke Rawnsley, meanwhile, is famous for being the defender of the Lake District. His efforts in protecting the uplands from enclosure and over-development were a crucial component in the growing pressure for the creation of the National Trust in 1895.

Robert Hunter’s role is less well-known. I think this is because the bulk of his tireless work was behind the scenes. If Hill was the inspiration for the Trust, with Rawnsley as its chief advocate, then Hunter was its inventor, the puppeteer pulling strings to make it all happen. Where Hill and Rawnsley provided much of the fire and passion that drove the movement in its earliest years, Hunter turned that energy into the legal reality of the National Trust. I’d go so far as to say that the Trust simply would not have been created without Hunter’s vision and foresight.

The following timeline sets out some of the key moments in Robert Hunter's life:

    1844

    Robert Hunter is born in Camberwell, south London, the first child and only son of Robert Lachlan Hunter and his wife, Anne. Robert's father is away at sea for the first year of his life.

    1865

    Hunter attains his degree from University College London. He starts work as a lawyer.

    The Commons Preservation Society is founded by George Shaw-Lefevre, Liberal MP.

    1874

    By now the solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society, Hunter plays a leading role in the Epping Forest case, which concludes with the saving of the forest from enclosure.

    1882

    Hunter is recommended by Henry Fawvett, Postmaster Generalin Gladstone’s government, for the role of Solicitor to the General Post Office. The first Ancient Monuments Act is passed.

    1884

    Hunter advises Octavia Hill on saving Sayes Court, Deptford.

    In a speech to the Social Science Association, he outlines the idea behind what became the National Trust.

    1894

    Hunter is knighted for his public service.

    A year later, the National Trust is registered as a company and begins acquiring land.

    1906

    Sir Robert intervenes to save Hindhead Common and Devil’s Punch Bowl near his home in Haslemere, Surrey.

    The following year, The National Trust Act becomes law.

    1913

    Sir Robert dies, just months after his retirement from the General Post Office. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere.

You can read the full article on Robert Hunter in the autumn 2013 issue of the National Trust Magazine.