From celebrating the landscapes of Capability Brown to preserving the aristocracy’s stately homes, the National Trust was seen as drawing its members from a narrow demographic. But much has changed, says Paul Stewart
The National Trust is shaking off its image as an organisation for middle class people to have a nice day out. It is now engaging with working class communities and encouraging young people to come out from the cities and discover what its houses, gardens, collections and the countryside it protects can offer.
Although some people may see this as a departure from its traditional support base, it could be argued that the Trust is returning to its roots.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill with the express purpose of providing access to beauty for the urban poor. She was a social reformer and associate of Christian socialist minister FD Maurice, radical John Ruskin and the anti-capitalist author, Charles Kingsley.
It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the Trust morphed into an organisation perceived as cordoning off its Palladian mansions with red velvet rope and providing life support for the aristocracy in its post-war decrepitude.
Indeed, it is not just with the founders that we can find radical politics and activism. From the right to roam to campaigning for greater representation and trade union activism, National Trust properties and spaces have often been places where people fought to express and contest their political rights.
Prospect members in the National Trust – from curators to gardeners, conservators to rangers, and community participation officers to visitor experience managers – are all playing their part in raising awareness of the whole story connected to the special places they look after, how our past is relevant today and providing access to it for all of society.
As part of this work, the Trust has been running a series of annual themes.
In 2018 the Trust marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted some women the right to vote in British parliamentary elections for the first time.
A year earlier, 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Trust explored our LGBTQ heritage with a programme called Prejudice and Pride.
In 2019, the Trust is focusing on people’s history, as shown in two examples here:
Kinder and the right to roam
Kinder Scout in the Peak District, much of which is now managed by the Trust, is the site of the Mass Trespass of 1932 and won us all the right to roam. People came together from the surrounding polluted cities to seek respite from low paid and demanding jobs.
Many people believe the trespass forged the way for open public access to the countryside and the creation of the UK’s national parks.
Through history, people met under big trees. The Tolpuddle tree is one of the most famous and it was under this tree that we arguably saw the beginning of the trade union movement.
Under this tree in 1834, six agricultural labourers, exploited by their employers and living in dreadful poverty, formed the first trade union in Britain to bargain for better pay and working conditions under the leadership of George Loveless.
The Tolpuddle Six were arrested and charged under the 1797 Mutiny Act. They were convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, sentenced to seven years and transported to Botany Bay in Australia.
The sentence was deemed to be unequal to the crime and the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned after three years to live out their days in the village.
The tree is under the stewardship of the National Trust and this year, Prospect’s National Trust branch and the Trust itself will be celebrating this important part of our political, social and cultural history at the annual festival of trade unionism in the village of Tolpuddle.
Paul Stewart is Prospect branch president at the National Trust.