Heritage: How Wimbledon set the stage for birth of National Trust

Wimbledon Guardian: Ben Cowell, lecturer and a regional director of the National Trust Ben Cowell, lecturer and a regional director of the National Trust

Tomorrow’s talk on Sir Robert Hunter (1844-1913), inventor of the National Trust and a key player in the successful campaign to preserve Wimbledon Common, will be the first free lecture of 2014 organised by the Wimbledon Society.

Ben Cowell, National Trust Director for the East of England, will give the talk tomorrow, Saturday 25 January, at Christchurch, Cottenham Park, starting at 2pm.

He made a special study of Hunter on the centenary of his death last year. Hunter was one of the three founders of the National Trust in 1895 alongside Octavia Hill and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley.

But years earlier in the 1860s he had acted as solicitor to the Commons Preservation Society, one of Britain’s earliest environmentalist groups.

That was founded in 1865 in response to Earl Spencer’s attempt to enclose Wimbledon Common and sell off part for housing development. (See Heritage story 16 November 2012.)

Hunter’s work for the campaigners made him the country’s leading expert on the law covering common land.

Commons were unique among public spaces as they were also still legally private property. Designated commoners had legal rights of access dating back to medieval times, including the right to graze livestock, collect timber and remove turf from the commons.

But, technically, access by other members of the public was dependent on the whim of the Lord of the Manor.

Nevertheless, when Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor at the time, proposed reducing Wimbledon Common by a third so that he could benefit from housing development, Robert Hunter wrote in the Clapham Gazette newspaper: “It was a little startling to some of the inhabitants of Wimbledon to be told suddenly that, as a great favour, they might be allowed to enjoy, under strict regulations, about two-thirds of the Common which they had always supposed to be wholly theirs.”

He also wrote that “any commoner whose rights are molested is clearly entitled to throw down the whole fencing or other obstruction erected”.

By studying ancient records, he was able to use an early 17th century land transaction to prove that this applied across the whole of Wimbledon and Putney Commons. As a result, a special Act of Parliament was passed in 1871 protecting them permanently.

Wimbledon Guardian:

Hunter (pictured) went on to fight similar battles to protect other commons, among them Tooting Graveney and Wandsworth nearby and further afield Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest.

In due course he broke new ground by proposing that a property-owning charity should be established to operate for the benefit of the nation. He came up with the name ‘National Trust’, was its first chairman, and personally wrote its 1907 Act of Parliament.

His death at 69, just four months after retirement in 1913, was a real loss. His love of nature, open spaces, and the countryside never deserted him and he combined this with a consummate professionalism and an unstinting devotion to hard work.


The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.

Click here for more fascinating articles about Wimbledon's heritage

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