‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]