Walking in their footsteps: The women who shaped the National Trust

Volume 17

Updated 15 February 2022

By Hannah McCann

‘We all want quiet. We all want beauty … we all need space.’

In this past year, the importance of nature and outside spaces has never been greater. Many turn to nature as a form of therapy, a way to unwind and relax. The National Trust has for many provided this green space, in the form of country houses, nature reserves and protected woodland. Their aim is to preserve and protect land and buildings ‘forever’. Two women were essential in helping to form the National Trust; co-founder Octavia Hill and the author and conservationist Beatrix Potter.

Octavia Hill was one of three founders of the National Trust and from a young age showed signs of her deep compassion for people and for nature. She was born in 1838 to a family of social reformers. Her grandfather was an influential health reformer, who campaigned for better living conditions for the working class, and her parents opened Wishbech Infant School to care for the poor.

Octavia lived in relative comfort until her father left her family. Her mother then moved the family to London where she took on a job in the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Octavia followed in her footsteps. At the age of 14 she was placed in charge of a workroom where Ragged School girls would make toys. Shocked by their poverty, Octavia organised meals, nature walks and visited them if they fell ill.

Octavia’s first act of social reform was to purchase properties where she set the rent at 5% of the investment (the norm was 12%) and used the money to repair and improve the buildings. The money was also used to pay for group outings and music lessons. In 1874 she was in charge of 3,000 tenancies in London, a firm but fair landlord who cared about her tenants.

Surrounded by the urban world, spending her time in the centre of London, Octavia found solace on “the hilltop [that] enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke’. She believed that:

‘We all want quiet. We all want beauty … we all need space.’

She campaigned against the development of green spaces in London and went on to form the National Trust, along with two other founders, in 1895. Their aim was to protect the spaces so that they could ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’.

She continued to work for the Trust, helping the organisation to purchase its first house in 1896 for £10 in Sussex and its first nature reserve in 1899. When she died in 1912 she left a legacy of protecting green spaces, despite some of her views on the welfare state remaining controversial.

Another woman who was vital to the success of the National Trust was Beatrix Potter. Beatrix, best known as the author and illustrator of books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, was also a skilled scientific illustrator and made significant contributions to the National Trust. 

Beatrix studied fossils and archaeology and later found her passion in studying mycology, the study of fungi. She would use a microscope to get the most accurate drawings and submitted a paper to the Linnean Society in 1897, which was recently rediscovered. 

She published her first fiction book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, with her own money in 1901. The success of her books allowed her to purchase Hill Top House in the Lake District and surrounding farmland. Her books often reflected her farming life, and her happiness in nature.

She supported the National Trust and in her own properties preserved traditional craft, furniture and stonework. When she died in 1943 she left nearly all her land and buildings to the Trust which amounted to 4,000 acres of land, 16 farms, numerous cottages and herds of cattle and sheep. At the time, it was the largest gift ever to the National Trust and allowed the organisation to preserve the Lake District. Her original illustrations were also left to the Trust.

The National Trust has preserved nature within the United Kingdom for generations and during the past year has been a sanctuary to many. Without the role these women played, the Trust and its properties would be unrecognisable today. In the face of the uncertainty and disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution, Octavia and Beatrix stood their ground and protected nature for generations to come.

Category: Modern