They gave their treasures to the nation: Sutton Hoo, Orford Ness and more

Over the past 100 years a huge number of historic homes has passed from private ownership to the National Trust. A new book looks at some stories behind the transfers – including a couple in Suffolk. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

IN 1945, the National Trust owned 112,000 acres, a handful of “great houses” and had a membership of 7,850. By the time it celebrated its centenary, membership had ballooned to 3.5 million and the acreage to 617,000. The independent charity – founded in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists concerned about the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation – was now caring for 37,000 buildings, 4,000 historic monuments and 235 gardens and parks. “What had taken place, almost by stealth, was a social and cultural revolution on a huge scale,” explains Merlin Waterson’s new book.

Was it, he asks, prompted by last-gasp expediency on the part of a landed aristocracy taxed nearly to extinction, or philanthropy; or a mixture of both?

“Was it socialism by the back door? Were many of the most significant benefactors in fact middle class, imbued with a tradition of public service?”

A Noble Thing: The National Trust and its Benefactors focuses on the years from 1940 to 2010 and seeks to answer some of those questions.

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Merlin, who lives near Cromer, spent 33 years on the staff of the National Trust – starting work in November, 1970, on an annual salary of �900. He reckons he landed the job partly because the only other candidate “made the disastrous mistake of coming to the interview wearing a bright yellow tie with a stain on it”!

From 1981 to 2001 he was regional director for East Anglia, before becoming director of historic properties. He met many of the benefactors.

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There are myriad ways in which properties have come to the trust. Ickworth, near Bury St Edmunds, for instance, was handed over in lieu of death duties in 1956. Theodora, Marchioness of Bristol, provided an endowment from her own fortune, derived from Victorian railway construction.

“The motives of this perceptive, public-spirited benefactor were straightforward. The successor to the title and to the Ickworth estates was her nephew Victor, who from an early age showed signs of being profoundly disturbed,” explains Merlin.

“On a visit to the village post office as a child he had tried to wring the necks of the ducks belonging to the postmistress. In 1939 he was sent to prison for robbery with violence. His son John, the 7th Marquess, was a pathetic but vicious drug addict, who after spells in prison died at the age of 44. Ickworth, the Marchioness perceived, needed to be protected.”

Meanwhile, the story of Orford Ness, the long shingle spit off the Suffolk coast, has plenty of twists and turns.

The land was bought by the War Department in 1913 for bombing practice by the Royal Flying Corps and – thanks also to its austere beauty – developed an air of mystery about what really went on there.

Over six decades this quiet strip on the edge of England saw hand-held bombs dropped from the cockpits of bi-planes and the testing of trigger mechanisms for atomic bombs. Early experiments with parachutes were carried out, and in the 1930s Robert Watson-Watt started trials of an aerial defence system that became radar.

During the Cold War the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment used the ness to gauge how temperature and vibration might affect bombs – building concrete chambers topped by odd-looking “pagodas”.

The site was ruled surplus to Ministry of Defence requirements in the 1970s and, for safety reasons, the public was kept away until the 1990s (a ruling that helped fan lots of wild speculation about actual nuclear weapons being tested there in the past).

“The combination of desolation, debris and weapons of mass destruction made it a threatening place for many of those who came to consider whether it might be a suitable acquisition for the National Trust,” explains Merlin.

No-one could dispute its importance as a haven for rare plants such as sea campion. The National Trust had been established by an Act of Parliament to protect places of historic interest and natural beauty, “but for much of the second half of the twentieth century, the history which it had chosen to safeguard was overwhelmingly that of the country house. It was the history of privilege, indulgence, and sometimes brilliant but frequently rather vapid decorative arts”.

In contrast, Orford Ness offered “monuments to the realities of twentieth-century history: unimaginable destruction, extermination as an industrial process, war directed as much at civilian populations as at opposing warriors. These considerations were stressed in the papers that went to the Trust’s Properties Committee in February 1989”.

It was understandable, he says, that some decision-makers opposed the idea of a venture that could cost a hefty �3.5million. There were also worries about unexploded ordnance and the possibility the trust could be held responsible if sea defences on the ness failed and Orford and Aldeburgh were flooded.

Gradually, the views of experts in areas such as nature conservation and environmental science helped convince doubters abut the spit’s importance. Trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund visited in 1992 – “its representatives were at first baffled and then extremely doubtful about support”, but a generous grant was ultimately given and there was money from the Department of the Environment.

After 80 years off-limits, the site opened to the public in 1995 – the National Trust’s centenary year.

“The response to Orford Ness has been unusual,” suggests Merlin. “It is as though poets and painters have taken up where the Suffolk poet George Crabbe and Turner had left off.” (JMW Turner had in the summer of 1824 taken a boat from Aldeburgh down the Ore, filling page after page of a sketchbook with pencil drawings that inspired a series of watercolours.)

“One of the most thoughtful responses is in Christopher Woodward’s book In Ruins. He had been particularly struck by the Trust’s decision to allow the concrete pagodas to deteriorate gradually, without attempting to prevent or even slow down the rate of decay . . .”

Woodward wrote that “In a new and hopefully more peaceful century the ruins would crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by nature.”

n A Noble Thing is published by Scala, in association with the National Trust, at �39.95

The folk who batted for Sutton Hoo

MERLIN Waterson’s book also details how the Sutton Hoo site near Woodbridge came to be in the hands of the National Trust.

He explains how the discovery in 1939 of a 6th or 7th Century ship burial, by largely-self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, revealed not only the richest treasure ever found on British soil, but also that a key period of our history had been misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s a story familiar to most of us in East Anglia – however vaguely – but it’s always worth reminding ourselves just what we have on our doorstep. And the former National Trust man tells the story so well.

“The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were shown to be a period of the very highest artistic accomplishment. The courts of Anglo-Saxon rulers were culturally cosmopolitan: included in the treasure were silver bowls from the eastern Mediterranean, coins minted in France, and weapons associated with royal burials in Sweden.”

Merlin chronicles how wealthy Edith Pretty bought the Sutton Hoo estate in 1927. Within about seven years she’d had her only son and become a widow.

In the summer of 1938 she employed Basil Brown at 30 shillings a week to excavate one of the mounds on her land. Its contents had already been plundered. However, the following year he found a ship burial “of unprecedented size, larger than any Saxon finds in Britain or any Viking ships found in Norway”.

The book describes the tensions between various factions of the archaeological fraternity as the excavation continued, and how an inquest at Sutton village hall in August, 1939, decided the treasures had not simply been temporarily concealed all those hundreds and hundreds of years ago (in which case they would belong to the nation) but had been buried with the idea of them staying buried – in which case they belonged to the landowner.

Nonetheless, Edith Pretty decided to present the treasures to the country. They were taken to the British Museum in London.

And then war broke out.

“In 1943 Sutton Hoo House and the burial ground were requisitioned for army training: tanks were driven over the mounds, which were also used as a firing range.”

Edith went to stay in Surrey, unexpectedly developing a blood clot on the brain and dying about a week before Christmas.

In 1966, Basil Brown was given a civil list pension of �250 a year in recognition of his work at Sutton Hoo.

“Unfortunately, a spirit of generosity and imagination had been conspicuously absent in the 1980s, when Martin Carver tried to enlist the help of government agencies with the long-term protection of the burial ground,” writes Merlin.

Professor Carver had directed the dig when excavation work started again in 1983. In the autumn of 1990 he made contact with the National Trust – he spoke to Merlin, actually – to discuss what might happen to the site when work came to an end, since the arms of government meant to protect such places did not seem overly-keen to act.

The trust was concerned about a site “of such national and international importance” being inadequately safeguarded. Left alone, it was likely to fall prey to rabbits and metal-detecting enthusiasts.

Merlin admits, though, that at the time the charity’s record of looking after its existing archaeological sites “was at best patchy”. He goes so far as to admit they became “the Cinderellas of the Trust’s estates” after the war.

Still, something ought to be done.

“The owners of Sutton Hoo had been encouraged to involve government agencies, but in the face of their supine response, all serious negotiations went into abeyance. Such was the situation when Mrs Annie Tranmer (the owner) died in 1993.”

She left the estate to her trustees – daughter Valerie Lewis and family solicitor John Miller – to be used for charitable purposes.

Under Mr Miller, “plans to give Sutton Hoo a secure future now began to take shape. As he wrote later: ‘. . .the preservation, protection and securing for the public of this real treasure has been my utter concern since Leslie Tranmer (Annie’s husband) died in 1973. I regard it as the high point of my life’s work.’”

Valerie Lewis and John Miller put the inheritance into what became the Annie Tranmer Charitable Trust and decided to make a gift to the National Trust of the burial ground, land and Sutton Hoo House.

There were still many obstacles to overcome – detailed in the book – but eventually a plan was hatched for two new buildings close to the stables, an exhibition with a replica of the burial chamber as a centrepiece, and the use of the house for holiday cottages, study rooms and educational activities.

“The burial ground itself was to be reached by a footpath, which looks down to the estuary from where the great ship was dragged to its final resting place. The mounds would simply be roped off. In order that the whole site could be easily seen, a wooden viewing platform was to be built, tucked into the edge of Top Hat Wood.”

The new era was launched in March, 2002, and the house was renamed Tranmer House, in recognition of Annie.

“When planning the exhibitions, the expectation was that around 60,000 people might visit,” writes Merlin. “In 2002 there were over 200,000 visitors to Sutton Hoo.”

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