My time with the National Trust
It is fifty years since I was first involved in the affairs of the National Trust – I joined the Council in 1961 – though I had been interested in it for some years before.My first real encounter was in the 1940s when I stayed at the City Mill in Winchester, the first of all youth hostels in the South of England.
My fresh involvement stemmed from the fact that in the immediate post War years the Trust decided to widen the field from which the so called “nominated members” were drawn to its Council. Fifty percent of the Council members were elected and a similar number nominated from “kindred bodies\” with aims in common.Most of these were from learned societies, museums and the fine arts.The democratic mood of the 1940s suggested that bodies such as the Ramblers Association and the flourishing YHA should join the family.
My predecessor had been John Clarke, Chairman and then President of YHA, a genial architect from Merseyside, who I suspect took a rather perfunctory interest in the role, which after all entailed attending only two or three meetings a year, each lasting little more than a few minutes.I recall the relaxed and rather laid back Chairman,the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres inviting Council members, if so disposed, to stay on to listen to the debates of the Executive Committee which followed.This struck me as a little odd, since we, the Council, had appointed the Executive Committee, albeit from “a slate.”
The Council did not offer much opportunity for socialising, but I noted that it included a number of well known public figures, such as Harold Nicolson, Hugh Casson, Canon Raven, Lord Chorley, Anthony Blunt and others.After about four years I wrote to the Chairman (by this time the Earl of Antrim had replaced Crawford) to enquire whether there was anything more useful I could do in the Trust’s management.This must have rung a bell, for shortly afterward I was invited to join the estates Committee, concerned with the open space properties – there were separate committees for gardens and historic houses.Here I found interesting problems of management, along with my friend John Cadbury, a generous donor to the Trust (and YHA) in gifting Wilderhope Manor in Shropshire – still in service as a youth hostel. Herbert Gatliff, one of YHA’s more colourful figures, had been to this Committee so in a sense I replaced him.Like all NT Committees of the time it had its share of the Upper Crust.I rather liked the chairman, Earl de la Warr (of Ashdown Forest and Bexhill fame).
But it was in 1967 that I found myself in deeper water.For a couple of years a bitter and unseemly feud had been brewing beneath the surface in the inner circles of the Trust.The early success of the Neptune Appeal, launched by Lady Dalton (wife of Hugh Dalton) to acquire and protect beautiful coastline, led to the appointment of an Appeal Organiser who was Conrad Rawnsley, grandson of Canon Rawnsley, one of the Trust’s founders.Rawnsley had undoubted vigour but was something of an individualist.It emerged later that there had been backstage animosities, involving amongst others the Secretary, a solicitor named Jack Rathbone.
Things came to a head when Rawnsley used a Press Conference on the progress of Neptune to launch an attack on the Trust’s government.He was immediately sacked.This opened a can of worms and within several other disgruntled members set up a “Reform Movement”, culminating in a Special General Meeting with a proposed Vote of No Confidence.Lord Antrim did his best to keep order in a crowded central hall – no easy task – and during a duller patch in the middle of the afternoon he whispered to me (I was standing near the chair) “say something Mr Clark.”
I obliged though it did not amount to saying anything of much consequence, but it seemed to catch the mood of the meeting.I opposed the vote of no confidence but suggested it was time for the Trust to look at its style of government and update its thinking.A motion along these lines was proposed by John Betjeman, a leading member of Council; it was carried and the malcontents headed off. The management then decided they had better act, so they commissioned Sir Henry (later Lord) Benson, a noted accountant from Cooper Lybrand, to head a Committee of Inquiry.
Henry Benson had inhis office (appropriately named Abacus House) a shelf full of volumes comprising his reorganization efforts on behalf of a whole lot of public bodies, from the South African Railways to the BBC). The three other members of Council appointed to the Committee were Sir William Hayter (Warden of new College Oxford), Pat Gibson (later tobe Chairman of the Trust, and myself.
For the next two years we had a busy but fascinating time, with endless meetings, papers and interviews.Henry Benson was always “driving the bus” and also at times to the point of exhaustion the two joint Secretaries, John Rogers and Jack Boles (later Director General.)The Benson report was comprehensive, forthright and persuasive, and although now dated in many respects it is still quoted with a degree of reverence accorded to one of the Books of the Old Testament.
In general “Benson” was a modernising instrument, with a sharp eye on democratic accountability. Amongst its main recommendations (almost all were accepted by Council) was a degree of decentralisation by setting up regional committees, with a monitoring though not executive role.The central structure, which had grown a bit like Topsy, was rationalized by bringing Historic Buildings Gardens and Estates into one Properties Committee.This was presided over by the urbane Irish Peer, the Earl of Rosse, owner of the famous telescope at his home in Birr Castle. He was later succeeded by the equally genial Sir Marcus Worsley, a Yorkshire landowner.
I enjoyed being a member of the Committee, especially when sitting next to Hugh Casson and watching his artistic doodling.The Benson formula lasted more than three decades before another radical modernisation prescribed by Lord Blakenham (whose father I knew on the properties Committee) was adopted.Since then, reorganisation have followed, unabated.It is a good question to ask whether the pendulum has swung too far and too fast.But then the outside world has been changing too.
Nowadays the Executive is a small group of dedicated trustees and much time and paper is saved.However I had a liking for the Benson pattern, which involved a “Committee week”.On Tuesday new acquisitions – and in mytime there were many of them – were considered on merit on Tuesday by Properties, on Wednesday on financial viability by the Finance Committee and on Thursday finally endorsed by the Executive Committee.Despite some duplication this involved some 50 committee members and there was a good feeling of consensus at the end.I did the Tuesday and Thursday slots.
One of the Benson outcomes was an age limit for membership of committees – 75 for members and 70 for the chair.At the time this seemed eminently sensible, but in due time I was recipient of the boomerang effect myself!
Benson opened a new chapter in other ways too.The principal officer had hitherto been the Secretary, but with the departure of Jack Rathbone a Director General was instroduced and the Trust wisely looked outside the somewhat private world of the elite. Sir John Winnifrith, head of the Ministry of Agriculture, took over.
He was a cheery, ebullient character, with formidable government expertise a (as well as a strong antipathy to Europe!)He set about modernizing the somewhat traditional methods of the Trust’s administration and when he retired after a few years he was succeeded by another able Civil Servant, Sir Freddie Bishop.Later there was something of a return to an earlier pattern when Jack Boles graduated to be Director General and was followed by Angus Stirling (both duly knighted.)
Equally rewarding were the contacts with the field staff – mostly land agents (usually trained at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.)Invariably they had the public school stamp of good manners, but I never felt that this was a veneer and found good friendships amongst staff who worked well in partnership with committees.The aesthetic aspect of the Trust, as represented by the Historic Buildings Representative, did sometimes have a jarring note of elitism (Now I believe disappeared) and it was reported that Robin Fedden, a most interesting and engaging head of the aesthetic side once said that the National Trust would be a marvelous organization if there were no members!This may be apocryphal, but is too good not to quote.
A member of the staff with whom I had perhaps most contact was Ivor Blomfield, a Land Agent, then regional Director, Secretary of the Trust and finally Deputy Director General.He had just the right balance of caution and pragmatism that made for a steady hand on the tiller, I also much enjoyed my contacts with Ivan Hills, who had been Chief Agent, especially after his retirement when we had many a mug of coffee putting the Trust on the right course, in his Frensham cottage.
I was fortunate in having got to know Pat Gibson on the Benson Committee and so be comfortable with his steady chairmanship over an important decade (1977-86).We got on well, though he was for me a rather private person who might have opened up in other circles.When Jennifer Jenkins took over from him it was good to have a woman in the chair, and a bonus to have such an able one.Her political connections ensured she was a good conversationalist.
There were times when I wondered whether I had allowed myself to succumb to being part of the establishment, so was reassured when people like Malcolm Petyt and John Anfield joined me on the Executive.
My experiences with the Trust were thus much caught up with personalities and the foregoing comments are somewhat random ones.An extensive and excellent panorama was provided by John Gaze (the Chief Agent who followed Ivan Hills) in his book “Figures in a Landscape”.Sadly he died before finishing it and I was glad to be asked to provide a final chapter.
At the beginning of the 1980s the sort of reverberations of the Rawnsley affair once more disturbed the normally placid NT scene but in a very different form.This happened when many people felt that the Trust had been too readily compliant in permitting the Ministry of Defence to have an underground bunker at its Bradenham Estate in the Chilterns..The rumpus was bound to have some political overtones. One useful outcome was the formation of a very moderate and responsible “Monitor group” which ever since has had its reporters at AGMs and a team of watchers with a wary but fair minded eye on the Trust’s doings.
Acquisitions of new properties – often large houses and estates – were a regular feature on our agendas, and each seemed to have special qualities not to be ignored.The Trust was taking on a stately home at the rate of about one a year, apart from Important stretches of countryside and coastline – which presented less of a problem for me.When we were considering taking on Chastleton House, near Moreton in Marsh (acquired in 1991) I remember going down to view it in advance on my Honda motorbike with a firm prejudice against it – I felt that enough was enough in country houses – only to be bowled over by its very special character and dust hallowed atmosphere which persuaded me to support the acquisition.
As I have said the countryside acquisitions were those which usually gave me a special thrill – none more so than the Abergwesyn Commons (16000 acres) in Mid Wales – another long motorcycle trip to view.I heard, again apocryphally maybe, that a Committee member had said “If Len wants it, we had better let him have it”. I greatly doubt I had that sort of influence.Another round trip to view the Begwns in Radnorshire was marked by unrelenting rain. Wales always had a special appeal!
THE REGIONAL COMMITTEE: Shortly before he died Lord Antrim was anxious that the last remaining region – the South East – should have a Regional Committee and I was persuaded to take it on.This involved the privilege – never to be repeated – of being able to handpick the 12 members of the committee.Again I remember my two firm prejudices: no Etonians (not because I had anything against them per se but they were already very well represented at Queen Anne’s Gate – quite the contrary); and a better representation for women.
After working on this agenda with David Musson, the Regional Director, we assembled a useful team – with just two women – and two Old Etonians.Incidentally one of my successors, Chris Brickell from the RHS, who I suspect dismissed my doctrinaire approach regarding women, was much more successful than me in increasing their quota.
The Regional Committee work was absorbing.David was an amiable team mate, though some people found him resistant to change.One cause célèbre occurred when the Committee agreed, on the agent’s advice, to an arrangement whereby we and a local owner, Patrick Evelyn, exchanged roles for managing adjoining pieces of one another’s land, in our case passing over to him care of Severalls Copse at Friday Street.
What we did not know was that the land in question had been acquired as a result of local subscriptions and that Patrick Evelyn was persona non grata with many locals.The protests were loud and we narrowly escaped being pelted at a public meeting held in the village.Fortunately I had as Vice Chairman Eric Sibert, former County planning Officer and experienced in handling public uproars.We agreed to reconsider and at a recall meeting three months later the temperature and attendance were half of those at Abinger.We backed down and the locals formed a Friends Group and sent us a cheque to help maintenance costs.
I suppose it was a “perk” of the job to have tickets to attend some prestige chamber music concerts held at Petworth, Clandon and the Vyne promoted by an upmarket estate agent for his potential clients.I recall vividly programmes by Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy and ,many leadingstring quartets.
The Trust’s Council has always suffered from having too much accumulated expertise in specialist fields and a dearth of functions.As a result there was always some sense of frustration.At one time Council decided the level of subscriptions, but I doubt whether this now applies.
THE CENTENARY.This was rightly a year of great rejoicing.The Trust had reached its century and had achieved much.Several histories were published and sages predicted the future for the Trust.A celebration lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel (doffing a cap to the Duke of Westminster, sometimes considered the “fourth founder”).Perhaps the most impressive event was a three day Countryside Conference in Manchester Town Hall ranging over many aspects of the environment.It attracted a pantheon of “Countryside Top Brass” and was memorable.
By this time I had shed my regional function but was still on the Executive and Properties Committees – but for just one more year.At Roger Chorley’s suggestion I was one of two “assessors” to assist Lord Peter Oliver, a former Lord of Appeal, in his review of the constitution, which largely endorsed the status quo and that, my third committee of inquiry into the workings of the Trust, was an interesting chapter.My fellow Council member/assessor was Gunter Treitel, an academic lawyer from All Souls.
Once the 75 year boomerang had struck I was winding down.There was an advisory committee on road schemes (many threatening inalienable Trust land) which met intermittently and finally died out.Charles Nunneley succeeded Roger Chorley in the Chair and after Martin Drury had finished his stint as DG (preparing smoothly for transition) Fiona Reynolds became Director general.I had some quiet satisfaction from knowing that I had not only been on the Committee appointing her to her first job post Cambridge, but of having introduced her to the Trust at Queen Anne’s Gate.More major reorganization was on the way and this time I was just a distant observer.
The Trust were very generous in giving me one of their Founders’ Awards – too heavy to wear but an excellent paperweight.But I had received far more from the Trust, in discoveries and friendships, than I had ever given it.