Hardwicke Rawnsley: 'Defender of the Lakes'

Hardwicke Rawnsley, co-founder of the National Trust

Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley was a charismatic and passionate man, whose devotion to protecting land from development and energetic campaigning style led to his well-deserved nickname of ‘Defender of the Lakes’.

His belief in preserving the natural landscape for everyone to enjoy for ever is as important today as it was 125 years ago, when he helped to found the National Trust.

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley and his twin sister Frances Anne were born on 28 September 1851 to Robert and Catherine Rawnsley. Part of a large family of ten children, they grew up in the small village of Shiplake in Oxfordshire, where their father was parish priest.

Early influences

It was when studying at Balliol College, Oxford, that Hardwicke first began to take an active interest in social reform, after meeting the the radical thinker and social activist John Ruskin.

John Ruskin, pictured on the Ruskin Memorial on Friar's Crag, Derwentwater, Lake District, Cumbria
Ruskin memorial
John Ruskin, pictured on the Ruskin Memorial on Friar's Crag, Derwentwater, Lake District, Cumbria

He joined Ruskin’s ‘Hinksey roadmenders’, working to rebuild the rutted road to Hinksey, a working-class area on the edge of Oxford, to improve their access into city. Although the road was never finished, it fired Hardwicke's crusader spirit and confirmed his enthusiasm of taking practical action for social change.

Urban life

In 1875 he began work as a lay preacher in Soho, London and volunteered at a lodging house for vagrants. He also met social activists (and later fellow founders of the National Trust) Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter for the first time, introduced to them by Ruskin.

In 1876, by now ordained into the Church of England, Hardwicke was appointed chaplain to the Clifton College Mission in one of the poorest areas of Bristol. According to his biographer, Vivian Griffiths, 'He was horrified by the workers’ living conditions, in poorly-built, damp houses.' Realising the health benefits of fresh air and exercise, he set about organising football matches and walks in the countryside for them. 

" He was horrified by the workers’ living conditions, in poorly-built, damp houses."
- Vivian Griffiths, biographer of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley

Showing his interest in heritage, he also became a key figure in the successful campaign to save the St Werbugh’s church from demolition. The building, which was in the way of the city’s road-widening scheme, was instead taken down stone by stone and reconstructed elsewhere.

A move to the country

Whilst holidaying in the Lake District in 1875, Hardwicke had met Edith Fletcher, the daughter of an Ambleside coal merchant. Their friendship blossomed into love and in 1878 they were married. Hardwicke took the post of vicar of Wray, a tiny parish of just 100 people near Lake Windermere.

Wray Church, where Hardwicke Rawnsley became vicar in 1878
Wray Church
Wray Church, where Hardwicke Rawnsley became vicar in 1878

Edith shared many of Hardwicke's ambitions for social reform and they proved to be a great double-act, working together to establish many new initiatives. One of the first, at Ruskin’s suggestion, was setting up a parish workshop, teaching metalwork, woodwork and needlework to the unemployed of their parish. 

When they later moved to Keswick in 1883, they set up the Keswick School of Industrial Arts and also helped found the innovative Keswick High School, one of the first co-educational secondary schools in the country.

The Lake District Defence Society

Today the Lake District is seen as a rural idyll but in the late 19th century it was a centre for heavy industry, with quarrying and mining rapidly transforming the landscape. Voices of protest were beginning to be raised and in 1883, when a new railway line was proposed between Honister and Braithwaite for the slate quarry there, Hardwicke energetically joined the campaign. 

The railway would cut through the unspoilt Newlands Valley and in a letter to the Evening Standard Hardwicke asked: ‘Are the proprietors who work a certain slate quarry up in Honister to be allowed to damage irretrievably the health, rest and pleasure-ground of the whole of their fellow countrymen?’

Hardwicke organised protest meetings, set up committees and wrote letters to MPs, newspapers and local leaders. The storm of protest that he helped to stir up led to the defeat of the proposal, and Hardwicke became a local hero, dubbed ‘Defender of the Lakes’.

Canon Rawnsley (right) in the Lake District with Robert Hunter, his daughter and a friend, c. 1900
Sir Robert Hunter & one of his daughters, with Canon Rawnsley & possibly Benny Horne in the Lake District c.1900.
Canon Rawnsley (right) in the Lake District with Robert Hunter, his daughter and a friend, c. 1900

Realising that the Honister to Braithwaite line would not be the only development to threaten the area, Hardwicke went on to found the Lake District Defence Society, championing the need to save the Lakes as a ‘rest place … for weary workers.’ His campaigning made the preservation of the Lake District’s unique landscape something of national and not just local importance.

Founding the National Trust in 1895

Hardwicke's activism did not stop there. He founded the Keswick and District Footpaths Preservation Society to argue against the closure of footpaths and to recognise public ‘rights of way’. He also became a Keswick town councillor, using his position to oppose developments he felt would spoil the beauty of the mountain passes.

However, opposing developments was only a short-term solution. What was needed was an organisation that could buy land and protect it from future development. His campaigns had once again brought him into contact with Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter, who were members of the Commons Preservation Society. Together they founded the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in 1895, so that green spaces could ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’.

As Honorary Secretary, Hardwicke headed up fundraising campaigns for some of the National Trust’s first properties, including Brandelhow, our first Lake District acquisition. As Vivian Griffiths puts it: ‘His dynamic campaigning roused people everywhere to understand that we affect the landscape we live in, and it in turn shapes us – and we lose that connection at our peril.’

" His dynamic campaigning roused people everywhere to understand that we affect the landscape we live in, and it in turn shapes us – and we lose that connection at our peril."
- Vivian Griffiths, biographer of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley

Hardwicke the writer

A man of many interests, Hardwicke was a regular traveller, visiting many countries including the USA, Egypt and the Holy Land. He was also a keen writer, publishing many books, pamphlets and articles on a wide range of subjects. He became friend and mentor to children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, helping her to publish her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Canon Rawnsley (centre) with Beatrix Potter and her family in 1887
Canon Rawnsley (centre) with Beatrix Potter and her family in 1887
Canon Rawnsley (centre) with Beatrix Potter and her family in 1887

Hardwicke's legacy

When he died on 28 May 1920, Hardwicke left his home of Allan Bank in Grasmere (where he had retired to in 1917) to the National Trust. Friar's Crag, Derwentwater, was also donated to our care after it was purchased with money raised in a public subscription in his memory.

Visitors enjoying the gardens at Hardwicke Rawnsley's home of Allan Bank.
Outside at Allan Bank in Grasmere
Visitors enjoying the gardens at Hardwicke Rawnsley's home of Allan Bank.

Hardwicke had also advised Beatrix Potter, an early supporter of the National Trust, on the land she should buy to protect from development and on her death in 1943 Potter donated 1,619 hectares (4,000 acres) of protected land in the Lake District to us.

125 years on from our founding, we continue to care for the land Hardwicke saved from development, and, thanks to the generous donations of our supporters, we now care for over 250,000 hectares of farmland and 780 miles of coastline for everyone, for ever.

Three founders book

Three Founders of the National Trust book 

Find out more about Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in our new publication. Discover how they came around to preserving lands of natural beauty and sites of and houses of historic interest for the nation’s use and enjoyment.