Research seminar: Sir Robert Hunter, the National Trust and the invention of ‘heritage’

The next research seminar takes place on Wednesday 6th November (4.30pm), which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Robert Hunter.  Our Senior Visiting Research Fellow in Heritage Management, Dr Ben Cowell (who is also the Regional Director of the National Trust in the East of England, and author of a new book on Hunter), will be talking.

If you’d like to attend, please register with Julie Barber by email.


Sir Robert Hunter (1844-1913) was one of the three founders of the National Trust. The other two were the social housing reformer Octavia Hill and the campaigner for the Lake District Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Of the three, Hunter is perhaps the least well known or remembered today. Yet this is in many ways a travesty of history.

Sir Robert HunterI argue that Hunter ‘invented’ the National Trust, and in so doing helped to create our modern concept of heritage. He was the first person to come up with the idea of a property-owning charity, operating for the benefit of the nation. Indeed, it appears that he 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 the Trust’s Act of Parliament in 1907, which remains one of the strongest pieces of heritage protection on the statute book.

Hunter’s love of nature, of open spaces, and of the infinite pleasures to be had from countryside, never deserted him throughout his life. Rawnsley described him as having a fierce fighting spirit, a cheery optimism, and ‘an almost child’s power of simple enjoyment’. Yet he combined this with a consummate professionalism and an unstinting devotion to hard work. Hunter was promoted to become the most senior lawyer at the General Post Office, where he worked for three decades on a great many of the most important issues of the day for the postal system including the development of the telephone network. He combined public service with championing a wide number of causes, including the preservation of commons and footpaths, the protection of ancient monuments and buildings, and local government in his adopted home of Haslemere.

Hunter died one hundred years ago, on 6 November 1913, just four months after his retirement. His birthplace in Camberwell shockingly lacks a blue plaque, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. The centenary of Hunter’s death is an opportunity to remind ourselves of Hunter’s importance to the story of the National Trust, to the heritage movement, and to the nation as a whole.

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