Skip to content

History of The Aclands at Killerton

A bust of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland with portraits in the background at Killerton, Devon
A bust of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland at Killerton | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

The Acland family amassed great wealth and land, yet due to their political beliefs decided to pass it on to the National Trust. This became one of the biggest bequests the National Trust had ever received and included the two large estates of Killerton in Devon and Holnicote in Somerset. Discover more about what prompted such a large donation.

Sir Richard and Lady Anne Acland

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

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.

The Common Wealth Party

In July 1942, Sir Richard merged his political 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 a voice against the political order (in his role as a dissenting politician), and 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 land to be managed. Anne was a key, influential figure, ensuring that the Killerton estate stayed intact.

A view of the fireplace, portraits, bookcases and table inside the library at Killerton, Devon
Inside the library at Killerton | © National Trust Images / Andreas von Einsiedel

Killerton and the National Trust

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:

‘… 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 and have always maintained it.’

- Lady Anne Acland

Labour victory

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.

He was then selected to be the candidate for Gravesend and went on to represent it 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.

Returning to Killerton

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.

Parties at Killerton

Sir Richard’s political career suggests that he was a serious man with serious political beliefs, but the students’ stories suggest that he 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.

A large wooden staircase in the Staircase Hall at Killerton, with portraits on the wall behind
The Staircase Hall at Killerton , Devon | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

House of memories

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.’

- Robert Meakings, Collections and House Officer

A view of the study room at Killerton, with red walls and two grey sofas

Killerton's objects and collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Killerton on the National Trust Collections website.

You might also be interested in

A view across the park to the house in the background at Killerton, Devon

History of Killerton 

The Aclands lived at Killerton for almost 300 years and in that time they renovated the house into a Georgian mansion and transformed the garden and estate with exotic plants.

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland 7th Baronet, by Joshua Reynolds, hanging in the Drawing Room at Killerton, Devon.

The collection at Killerton 

Discover some of the highlights in the collection at Killerton, from an historic landscape painting to a pair of special wine goblets.

Path lined with spring flowers at Killerton, Devon

Things to do on the estate at Killerton 

Explore the forests, orchards and parkland on the vast estate at Killerton and discover the creatures that live here, from Highland cows and dormice to bats and butterflies.

A view of the bookshelves and table with the draped windows in the background, inside the Library at Killerton, Devon

Things to do in Killerton House 

Step inside and explore the country house residence of Sir Francis Acland, 14th Baronet, home of the Acland family from the late 17th century. The house is open daily.

A close-up view of the bodice of Lady Mary Curzon's peacock dress


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)


From landscape gardeners to LGBTQ+ campaigners and suffragettes to famous writers, many people have had their impact on the places we care for. Discover their stories and the lasting legacies they’ve left behind.

A view of the fireplace, portraits, bookcases and table inside the library at Killerton, Devon

Killerton's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Killerton on the National Trust Collections website.