Remembering Sir Robert Hunter (1844 – 1913)

Ben Cowell, Regional Director of the East of England, tells us all about the life and work of Sir Robert Hunter, one of the founders of the National Trust.

Last year, we remembered the life and work of one of our founders, Octavia Hill, who died a hundred years earlier in August 1912.

Another of our founders, Sir Robert Hunter, died in November 1913. So this year we are marking another centenary. It’s a good chance to remind ourselves just why Hunter was so important to the story of the National Trust.

Robert Hunter

Robert Hunter

Hunter’s role in the founding of the Trust was absolutely crucial; Hunter turned Hill’s passion and commitment to the protection of open spaces into hard legal reality.

In effect, Hunter ‘invented’ the National Trust. He was the first person to come up with the idea of a property-owning charity, operating for the benefit of the nation.  It appears that he also came up with the name ‘National Trust’ (Hill had wanted to call the organisation the ‘Commons and Gardens Trust’). He was the organisation’s first chairman, and single-handedly wrote our Act of Parliament in 1907.

At the time Hunter was a respected lawyer. Early on in his career he became the solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society. In that role he fought countless battles to protect common land from enclosure, places like Wimbledon Common, Berkhamsted Common, and the great battle over Epping Forest in the 1870s.

Through this work, Hunter discovered a great deal about the legal status of common land. He also lobbied hard for changes to the law that will ensure common land is protected for future generations.

Hill sought Hunter’s advice on the saving of Sayes Court in Deptford. This case becomes one of the spurs to Hunter developing the idea of the National Trust. One of their supporters is the third of our founders, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who immediately saw its potential in the protection of the Lake District.

By this time, Hunter was a well established public servant. He was appointed solicitor to the Post Office in 1882, and spent 30 years in that role until his death, in the year he retired 1913. 

At the same time he was active in a great many causes, in addition to the National Trust. He was chairman of Hampstead Garden Suburb, chairman of an early version of the Ramblers’ Association, vice-Chairman of the Leighton House Trust, and campaigned for a great many places and buildings: the Geffrye Almshouses, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and the many commons around his home in Haslemere, including Devil’s Punch Bowl.

He was also active in pressing for legislative protection for monuments. He wrote the Monuments Act of 1900 and playing a key role in pressing for the Monuments Act of 1913 – a fact that deserves to be featured strongly in English Heritage’s new history of heritage legislation.

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The Trust’s Annual Report of 1914 recorded the ‘severe loss’ of the charity’s Chairman in November 1913. It explained that Hunter had been ‘largely instrumental in founding the Trust’ and noted the charity’s indebtedness to ‘his unwearying industry, his great business capacity, his unrivalled knowledge of the law’.

It is right, in the year we mark the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Monuments Act, that we also note the centenary of the death of Sir Robert Hunter. We owe him so much.

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