The acquisition of Hatchlands Park
2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the acquisition of Hatchlands Park by the National Trust. In 1930s Britain, the landed gentry of the nation’s great country estates were finding themselves unable to pay the large ‘death duty’ tax bills upon inheritance. As a desperate last act, some were forced to demolish their ancestral homes; Britain’s great houses were at risk of being lost forever.
Founded in 1895, The National Trust had been set up to ensure that everyone should have free access to open spaces and benefit from ‘the life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky’. Important areas of countryside and coast were acquired over time, but it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that we began acquiring more buildings.
The catalyst for this change came in July 1934 when the Marquess of Lothian, Philip Kerr, gave a speech at a meeting of the Trust. Lothian had realised that Britain’s country houses were at risk of disappearing, asserting that ‘the country houses of Britain represent a treasure of quiet beauty which is not only especially characteristic but quite unrivalled in any other land.’ He continued that, ‘these are under sentence of death, the axe destroying them is taxation, especially that known as death duties.’
" The country houses of Britain represent a treasure of quiet beauty ... quite unrivalled in any other land."
Aiming to recover Britain’s post war debt, the taxable value of an inherited estate had risen to a punishing 50%. Many families were unable to shoulder such large bills in addition to the considerable costs of maintaining a large mansion. With a succession of male heirs killed in action during the First World War, many families had experienced multiple death duties.
For those that couldn’t pay, the only option was to sell. It became increasingly common practice to demolish the mansion; a demolished house could not be valued for probate duty and a vacant site was more attractive to property developers. Britain’s country estates were being lost.
Lothian called for changes to be made to the 1931 Finance Act which exempted land left to the National Trust from death duties. He wanted the act to include houses and their contents and for the Trust to keep the families living in-situ as tenants. The National Trust Act of 1939 was passed, and the Country Houses Committee was set up with James Lees-Milne as Secretary.
A very social Secretary
Lees-Milne had graduated from reading History at Oxford in 1931 and was unsure what to do next. With his social aspirations set high, a penchant for writing wittily observed literature and his romantic good looks, he found himself in a bohemian circle of luminaries: writers and artists such as Randolph Churchill, John Betjeman and the Mitford sisters.
He was living with the writer Harold Nicolson and working for Reuters, when Nicolson’s well-connected wife Vita secured him a job with the National Trust’s newly formed department for country houses.
Lees-Milne’s first job was to compile a list of houses in need of preservation and then broker a deal. He threw himself into this work with fierce enthusiasm, often turning up on his bike to great houses. This work, and his eclectic circle of friends, were all wittily observed and drily documented in 12 volumes of published diaries.
Describing the events of 1936, Lees-Milne wrote, ‘The country houses of England, I became increasingly convinced, were our most precious secular shrines just as the cathedrals were their sacred counterparts. In a naïve way I longed to devote myself to their protection.’
Accordingly, I was launched upon the most enjoyable summer of my existence, visiting by train, bicycle or Shank’s nag a succession of stately homes and their forbearing owners….'
" I was launched upon the most enjoyable summer of my existence, visiting by train, bicycle or Shank’s nag a succession of stately homes and their forbearing owners."
Following a hiatus during the war, illness resulted in his return to the National Trust in 1941. His wartime diaries depict an eccentric world, visiting country house owners and their requisitioned properties and the pursuit of intense, romantic affairs during the Blitz. Between 1945 and 1949 Lees-Milne acquired the most properties that make up the National Trust’s portfolio, including Hatchlands Park in 1945 after protracted negotiations.
The acquisition of Hatchlands
The ball was set rolling by Oliver Brett, 3rd Viscount Esher, Chairman of the General Purposes Committee at the National Trust. Esher was a friend of the owner, H.S. ‘Hal’ Goodhart-Rendel, through their work as architects. Both men reached the pinnacle of their careers as Presidents of RIBA and Esher would have had much admiration for Hatchlands’ Robert Adam designed interiors.
In March 1940, a formal inspection of Hatchlands was undertaken but negotiations were not always easy. Whilst he was admired and his intellect appreciated by all who met him, Goodhart-Rendel was also described as difficult. His Times obituary of 1959 read: ‘he delighted in lulling an opponent and then pouncing suddenly with a critical objection in an epigrammatic phrase.’
Following the inspection, the estate was found to be excellent, a certificate of approval granted, and negotiations continued to the next phase. Throughout the war, with both negotiators on active service, Goodhart-Rendel continued to change his mind as to the terms of the agreement. Frustrated, Lees-Milne described Hal as immensely likeable but also ‘prone to contradiction, changes of mind and impetuous storms of peevishness.’
When they did manage to communicate, correspondence shows a fractious exchange and it was eventually suggested that Lees-Milne should make a visit to smooth the way.
Describing an unusual first meeting, Lees-Milne wrote: ‘He thrust his face into mine in the earnestness of his talk as though that were the only way to make his words penetrate. He was affable yet distant, uninhibitedly communicative and withal highly sensitive. After delivering a monologue he sank back into his chair and waited politely for approval.’
A deal was slowly brokered for all 420 acres to be held inalienably and open to the public, with Goodhart-Rendel staying on as a tenant for £375 a year. The finer details of Hal’s living quarters in the mansion and which items of furniture and art were to be given over were still to be decided. He continued to change his mind many times, but Hatchlands Park finally passed to the National Trust on December 29, 1945.
By February 1946 it had been agreed that Goodhart-Rendel was to live upstairs whilst the downstairs rooms would be open to the public on Wednesdays between 11am and 7pm at one shilling with no charge for the grounds. His faithful butler, Brewster, enchanted visitors as the tour guide and the guidebook was intricately written by Hal to hand down his knowledge. Hatchlands Park’s survival had been sealed.
" I have made it one of the objects of my life to improve Hatchlands and preserve it from sale, partly because I love the place, as I think you do; and partly because I think it is of national value. The National Trust thinks this too."