Robert Hunter: mastermind behind the National Trust

A portrait of Robert Hunter (later Sir) as a young man taken in the mid 1860's. Robert Hunter (1844-1913) was a founder of the National Trust.

One of the three founders of the National Trust, solicitor Robert Hunter was a humble man who did not seek the limelight, but his contribution to our story should not be underestimated. By providing the legal expertise to turn the idea into a reality, he was the real mastermind of the National Trust.

 

Early life

Robert Hunter was born in Camberwell, South London, on 27 October 1844, the first and only son of master mariner Robert Lachlan Hunter and his wife, Anne. His father retired from life at sea soon after he was born but continued as part owner of various ships, and Robert enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing.

The family lived in various parts of London at a time when it was fast expanding, and the young Robert would have witnessed the development first hand, seeing green fields near his home replaced by roads and houses. His daughter, Dorothy, believed that: ‘The rapid transformations which he witnessed of the surroundings of his early homes may well have fostered and encouraged his desire to secure for the dwellers in the towns gardens, parks or wide open spaces, as some reminder of the beauties and amenities of the country.’

The Commons Preservation Society

Quiet and studious by nature, by 1865 Robert had graduated from University College, London and started a career in law. In 1866, while working for the firm Eyre and Lawson, he spotted a competition for essays on the topic of commons preservation. Robert entered and although he did not win, his essay made the final shortlist and was later published.

This paved the way for Robert to persuade Philip Lawrence, solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society, to allow him to join his team as an articled clerk. In August 1867 he took up a new role and began working on cases defending common land from enclosure and development. One of his first cases was the successful argument against Lord Spencer’s attempt to enclose Wimbledon Common. 

Wimbledon Common. Defending Wimbledon Common from enclosure was one of the first cases Robert Hunter worked on
Wimbledon Common
Wimbledon Common. Defending Wimbledon Common from enclosure was one of the first cases Robert Hunter worked on

The Commons Preservation Society had been founded in 1865 and was one of the first environmental campaign groups in the country. Octavia Hill (later one of Robert's fellow co-founders of the National Trust) would become a member. 

In 1868, Lawrence sold his firm to Robert Hunter and two other senior partners, Tom Fawcett and Percy Horne, and the new firm of Fawcett, Horne and Hunter continued to work for the Commons Preservation Society. Robert worked on more high-profile cases, saving Epping Forest, Dartford Heath and Hampsted Heath from enclosure and development and began to make a name for himself as the country's leading expert on commons law. As his biographer Ben Cowell put it: ‘He was a modest man who didn’t seek the limelight, but he felt very passionately about heritage and open spaces.’ 

" He was a modest man who didn’t seek the limelight, but he felt very passionately about heritage and open spaces."
- Ben Cowell, biographer of Robert Hunter

Family life in Surrey

In 1869 Robert married Emily Browning, whom he had known since childhood. Tragically, she died in childbirth just three years later. He married again in 1877, to Ellen (‘Nellie’) Cann, and they had three daughters. In 1882 they moved to a substantial property in Haslemere, Surrey, where Robert would live for the rest of his life.

Robert Hunter and one of his daughters in the Lake District, c. 1900
Robert Hunter and his daughter in the Lake District
Robert Hunter and one of his daughters in the Lake District, c. 1900

A new challenge

In 1882 Robert was appointed as solicitor to the General Post Office. It was a high-profile role that he would hold until his retirement in 1913. 

Although he was no longer the solicitor for the Commons Preservation Society, he continued to be an active member of their campaigns. He also became honorary legal adviser and chairman to the Open Spaces sub-committee of Octavia Hill’s Kyrle Society and Octavia introduced him to Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, of the Lake District Defence Society. Hardwicke was one of the key leaders in the campaign against industrial development in the Lakes. A keen fell walker himself, Robert supported his campaign and also helped him fight against the closure of footpaths in Keswick. 

View from the summit of Catbells, Cumbria. Robert Hunter helped HardwickeRawnsley in his campaign to stop landowners closing footpaths in Cumbria, such as the ones at at Catbells.
View from the summit of Catbells.
View from the summit of Catbells, Cumbria. Robert Hunter helped HardwickeRawnsley in his campaign to stop landowners closing footpaths in Cumbria, such as the ones at at Catbells.

Robert also took a keen interest in the work of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1882 by William Morris, and was actively involved in the work that went into the passing of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1882 and in the amendments of the act in 1900 and 1913.

Founding the National Trust in 1895

With Hardwicke Rawnsley and Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter began to discuss forming an organisation that could own land on behalf of the nation, thus saving it for ever from the risk of development and ensuring public access to it.

It was Robert who first suggested the name ‘National Trust’ and in 1895 they formed the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, so that green spaces could ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’.

It was Robert who navigated the legal minefield to allow the formation of the National Trust and, as its first Chair, it was he who gave the Trust its unique breadth in caring for such a wide variety of buildings and landscapes. He described the Trust as being ‘the friend alike of historian, painter and poet’.

He also pushed for an Act of Parliament, passed in 1907, enshrining in law for ever the right and legal obligation of the National Trust to hold property 'inalienably' on behalf of the nation. As his biographer Ben Cowell put it: ‘Where his co-founders provided much of the fire and passion that drove the movement in its earliest years, lawyer and solicitor Robert turned that energy into legal reality.’

" Where his co-founders provided much of the fire and passion that drove the movement in its earliest years, lawyer and solicitor Robert turned that energy into legal reality."
- Ben Cowell, biographer of Robert Hunter

Robert's work led to his knighthood in 1894, ‘for services to the conservation of open spaces’. In 1909 he was elevated to Commander and then Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1911.

Robert Hunter’s legacy

Robert died in 1913, just months after his retirement, and was buried at St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere. Although his grave is unmarked, the monument to his achievements can still be seen today in the land and buildings he helped to save.

Robert was personally involved in the acquisition of some of the Trust’s first lands, particularly the 750 acres of Hindhead Commons. After his death a public subscription in his memory raised enough money to buy 14 acres at Waggoner's Wells, near Haslemere, which were also donated to us.

Robert Hunter helped to acquire Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl for the National Trust
view across hillside and heather at Hindhead Common
Robert Hunter helped to acquire Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl for the National Trust

However, it was Robert's vision and legal shrewdness that has had the greatest impact. As his biographer Ben Cowell put it, ‘He ensured that the Trust’s purpose was written very broadly, to give it the powers to own whatever sort of places its trustees felt were of “Historic Interest or Natural Beauty”.’

Thanks to his foresight, we now care for everything from stately homes and prehistoric monuments to pubs and radar stations and we protect such diverse habitats as waterfalls and coastlines, bogs and moorland. Following the obligations that Robert wrote down in the Trust's purposes, and thanks to the generous donations of supporters, we look after them 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.