Sir Robert Hunter

Founder of The National Trust in 1895

Sir Robert Hunter (15K)

Born in Addington Square, Camberwell, he was the first child of Robert Lachlan Hunter and Anne Hunter. He had one sister, Anne, 4 years younger. His mother came from a missionary family. His father had, as a child, run away to sea to join the whaling fleet and had become a master mariner by the time Robert was born. His sea-going career had been profitable enough to allow him to establish his own mercantile business in London, and he then lived at home.

Social unrest at this time posed a threat to security, and Robert senior enrolled as a special constable to assist Peel's Metropolitan Police force in dealing with the riots. Chartist gangs roamed the streets and the residents of Addington Sq. hid their jewellery in the water butts. On one occasion in 1848, young Robert and his pregnant mother only just reached the relative safety of their home before a violent mob invaded Camberwell Road.

In 1847 Robert, then nearly three, was seriously ill. He slowly recovered but remained subdued and went on to suffer severe forms of every childish illness. In 1850 he attended a day school for little boys run by a Miss Cribb. He had personal memories of the 1851 Great Exhibition and of the Duke of Wellington's funeral. In 1853, the family moved to Denmark Hill. Living in a tall, north- facing house overlooking fields, the view on a clear day was superb, right across London as far as Highgate. At the weekends he and his sister were taken to concerts, museums and book clubs, and on one memorable day to the Crystal Palace to see Blondin wheeling a barrow along the high wire.

In 1861, Robert senior was sent on medical advice to Dorking, and thus young Robert became acquainted with the Surrey commons and hills which he held in great affection in later life. In the same year, he was awarded a place at University College, London, where he studied Logic and Moral Philosophy.

Here he also developed a love of walking and climbing. Encouraged by his father, he enrolled as an articled clerk with a firm of solicitors in Holborn, but he found the work totally uninteresting. To relieve the boredom he read for a Master's degree in his own time. In 1866, Sir Henry Peek offered prizes of £400 for essays on Commons and the best means of preserving them for the public. Hunter wrote one of the six best entries, and when a vacancy came up in 1868, the Commons Preservation Society made him their Honorary Solicitor.

Here he achieved many successes in saving common land from enclosure, most notably Epping Forest, which Queen Victoria declared open as a public park in 1882. In that same year, he was recommended for the position of Legal Adviser to the Post Office, where he stayed for the rest of his working life, though he still regularly assisted the Society in its work.

In 1877, five years after his first wife had died in childbirth, he married Ellen (Nellie) Cann. They had three daughters, Dorothy, Winifred and Margaret.

In 1883, he and his family moved to Three Gates Lane in Haslemere, where he joined the growing band of rail commuters employed in London. The following year, Octavia Hill enlisted his help in trying to save Sayes Court in Deptford. The owner wanted to give the property to the nation, but no organisation existed to accept the gift. Hunter felt a new 'Company' should be established for such purposes, and so began his idea of a 'National Trust.'

The idea lay dormant for nearly 10 years until 1893, when Hardwicke Rawnsley sought help to buy some land in the Lake District which was under threat from speculators. This time the seed grew, and in January 1895 the National Trust was founded, with Hunter as its first chairman.

Knighted the previous year for his services to the Post Office, he also became chairman of the first Haslemere Parish Council, formed in the same month as the Trust. This diligent, quiet man retired from the Post Office at the end of July 1913, but by early November had died of septicaemia.

Waggoners Wells, near Grayshott, was acquired by the Trust in 1919 and dedicated to his memory.

Taken from A Balance of Trust by John Owen Smith
Large-format pages - 60pp, photos, maps, biographies - ISBN 1-873855-12-5See details and order form

See also Hindhead is Safe and details of the Sir Robert Hunter Trail on Hindhead Common