The Acland Family

The Acland family by the main door of the mansion

“The history of the Acland family, one of Devonshire’s oldest families, is simply fascinating. As one of the major landowners in the South West they were almost continuously involved in politics for over four hundred years. The Aclands amassed their wealth through advantageous marriages to wealthy heiresses and owning land, with the family reaching a peak of prosperity during the Eighteenth Century. Whilst their wealth may have subsequently diminished, their expenditure did not.” - Denise Melhuish, Collections and House Manager

In 1944 Sir Richard Dyke Acland, 15th Baronet, and his wife Lady Anne made the decision for the ancestral estates at Killerton and Holnicote to come to the National Trust. 

Sir Richard and Lady Anne Acland

Sir Richard and Lady Anne made the momentous decision to part with these estates because they no longer fitted with their political ideals. In 1939, Sir Richard had inherited the Estate from his father Sir Francis Dyke Acland, 14th Baronet. By this time Sir Richard could be best described as a Christian Socialist, he believed in a Christian value-based moral society within which shared landownership was a key principle. 

Richard Acland donated the Killerton estate to the National Trust in 1944
Richard Acland of the Killerton estate, Devon
Richard Acland donated the Killerton estate to the National Trust in 1944

In July 1942, Sir Richard merged his political movement with the movement with that of J B Priestley’s, to form The Common Wealth Party. During the war, the major political parties had agreed to not contest by-elections; Common Wealth were outside this convention and put up candidates going on to win three by-elections. Scholars suggest that the party appealed to middle class radicals, who had been marooned by the decline of Liberals and yet remained suspicious of Labour. During the war Sir Richard found himself in the odd position of being simultaneously a voice against the political order (in his role as a dissenting politician) and yet he was also a bastion of established order, as an elite landowner. 

Killerton's communities

Lady Anne, who had married Sir Richard in 1936, had given up a career in architecture in order to manage the Acland estates upon the death of Sir Richard’s father, because Sir Richard was focused on his political ambitions. Lady Anne came to see the estates as communities of people rather than just as land to be managed. 

Lady Anne Acland (1914-1992) by Barbara Campron
An oil painting of Lady Anne Acland
Lady Anne Acland (1914-1992) by Barbara Campron

During the course of the war, as Sir Richard’s increasingly Socialist politics were at odds with his status as a hereditary landowner, so he began to look to sell the land. After many weeks of heated discussion during a Cornish holiday after Christmas of 1942, Sir Richard and Lady Anne hit upon a compromise:

In Lady Anne’s own words: 
“… we hit upon the idea of giving the estates to the NT, reserving some cash to buy a London home for after the war and give a considerable sum to CW. This compromise satisfied R's scruples about private property and my own concern for the long-term well-being of the estates. Having come to this decision, we presented a united front to everybody without pretence & have always maintained it.”

Despite Sir Richard’s best efforts, the Common Wealth Party was reduced to a single seat by the Labour landslide victory of 1945. Failing to win election, Sir Richard left Common Wealth and later joined the Labour Party. Richard was then selected to be the candidate for Gravesend and went on to represent Gravesend from 1947 to 1955. As a result of Labour’s stance on nuclear weapons, Sir Richard resigned his seat in 1955 hoping to win it back as an independent candidate which unfortunately was not to be.

1959 saw Sir Richard and Lady Anne returning to Killerton House, which was owned by the National Trust but leased to St Luke’s Teacher Training College as a Hall of Residence for the students. Sir Richard was a Senior Lecturer at the College, becoming Warden of the Killerton Hall of Residence as part of his role. Sir Richard and Lady Anne lived in a flat at the back of the mansion during this period.

Fun times at Killerton

Our knowledge of Sir Richard’s political career suggests that he was a serious man, with serious political beliefs, but the students’ stories suggest that Sir Richard and Lady Anne both had a fun-loving, informal side as well. Killerton was clearly a lively Halls of Residence; on many social occasions the noise level from the bar would be enough to arouse the attentions of Sir Richard. He would come down to the bar allegedly with the intention of asking for the noise to be reduced, but he inevitably ended up joining in with the merriment, until Lady Anne would arrive to take him up to bed.

The house is full of mementos from the lives of Sir Richard and Lady Anne, including family photographs.

" My favourite memento of Sir Richard’s can be seen in the Library. At a retirement dinner held in his honour, he was presented with a two pint tankard engraved with the names of the students living at Killerton at that time. Legend has it that Sir Richard accepted the gift and obliged his appreciative audience by drinking two pints in one go, to incredible applause."
- Rob Meakings, Collections Assistant
The rear hallway at Killerton
The grand, panelled staircase at Killerton
The rear hallway at Killerton