Humble beginnings

Alfriston Clergy House in 1894. ©NTPL

Alfriston Clergy House, in East Sussex, was the first house to be acquired by the National Trust. It was bought for £10 in 1896, a year after the Trust’s founding.

Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920). ©NTPL

This acquisition demonstrates the awakening interest at the end of the nineteenth century in the fate of beautiful old buildings. The vicar of Alfriston had alerted Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, to the fact that the house was ruinous and about to be demolished.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912), in a copy of a portrait by John Singer Sargent. ©NTPL

Canon Rawnsley and Octavia Hill, another of the founders, recognised the importance of the Clergy House as one of the few fourteenth-century hall houses that survived in a more or less unaltered state.

Although small, Alfriston Clergy House has a central hall that rises to the roof. The floor is made of rammed chalk sealed with sour milk, a practice local to Sussex.

The west front of Alfriston Clergy House. The timbering on the right was rebuilt after a fire in the seventeenth century. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Hill was tireless in her efforts to raise funds for the restoration of the house. Her passionate activism was a driving force behind the National Trust in its early years.

She was particularly keen to preserve areas of natural beauty so that they could serve as, in her words, ‘open-air sitting rooms for the poor’.

The vegetable garden. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Support also came from Sir Robert Witt, the first tenant of the house, who was honorary secretary to the National Art Collections Fund. That organisation is now called the Art Fund and it is still a staunch supporter of the National Trust’s work.

I shall be away for a few days, back on 30 September.

4 Responses to “Humble beginnings”

  1. style court Says:

    Fascinating. I think we’d all enjoy learning more about the early years of the Trust.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Courtney, I will keep that in mind. The founders were an interesting bunch of Victorian idealists, and their concerns (e.g. nature conservation) are still very relevant.

  3. le style et la matiere Says:

    What a beautiful spot! It’s good to see that not only grand country houses were considered important by Rawnsley and Hill. It is amazing that throughout time people have recognized the need to preserve remnants of the past, then have gone on demolishing anyway! These days in the French countryside there are many half restored houses that have had to be put on the market by their English owners due to hard economic times. You’d be pleased to know, the work done is usually very respectful of the original construction.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Interestingly, in the early days the emphasis was much more on the idealistic, social-impoving aspects of conservation. The acquisition of large country houses and estates began later, in the 1930s and 1940s, in response to the social and economic changes that were causing them to be sold, broken up and demolished at increasingly faster rates.

    The founders of the NT had the foresight to keep the aims of the organisation loose enough so that it was later able to respond to new challenges.

    Today, of course, the emphasis has again shifted slightly, in response to people’s changing needs and expectations, and to try to deal with concerns about things like food production and climate change.

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