Member only
Episode
135

The National Trust

Feb 23, 2021
Arts & Culture
-
20
minutes
Art
The Victorian Era
Colonialism
Weird history
British class system
The British Empire
Great Britain

It controls some of the most beautiful houses in the country, 1.5% of the total land area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 20% of the coastline.

In this episode we explore the fascinating history of the National Trust, and uncover where the money to build its properties actually came from.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The National Trust. 

[00:00:28] In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s the biggest conservation charity in Europe, and is responsible for preserving large parts of Britain.

[00:00:38] It is a fascinating story, and through it you’ll learn about how it started, why it was able to become so big, the value it provides today to people in Britain–and of course, to you as well if you visit Britain–and some of the controversy that surrounds it.

[00:00:56] I’m really excited for this episode, so without further ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:04] The National Trust is something uniquely British, there are comparable organisations in other countries, but nothing of quite the same size, or national impact, as the National Trust has.

[00:01:18] If you ask someone in Britain what the National Trust does, they might say something like “they own all those big houses”, or “they have the big parks”, or something along those lines.

[00:01:31] The National Trust does both of those things, but it is much bigger than that.

[00:01:37] It’s an organisation that is responsible for the protection, and conservation of large, historic buildings, of country houses, of parks, of the coastline, and of the countryside.

[00:01:50] And it is responsible for a lot.

[00:01:54] To give you an idea of the actual size of the area it’s responsible for, it is responsible for 2,500 kilometres squared of land, that’s an area the size of Luxembourg. 

[00:02:08] Granted, Luxembourg isn’t huge.

[00:02:11] But nor is Great Britain, really.

[00:02:13] These 2,500 kilometres squared make up about 1.5% of the total land area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so the National Trust is responsible for 1.5% of the total land area.

[00:02:29] Note, I didn’t include Scotland, because there is actually a separate National Trust for Scotland.

[00:02:35] It’s not just the land that the National Trust is responsible for, it also manages large proportions of the coastline, 1,260 kilometres of coastline to be precise, which is about 20% of all the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

[00:02:54] To give you an idea of exactly how much that is, it’s almost exactly the same distance as London to Madrid, as the crow flies, or if you drew a line directly from London to Madrid.

[00:03:08] One of the fantastic things about what this means, from a practical point of view, is that anyone can walk through this land, so if you want to walk along vast parts of the British coastline, you can do it, thanks to the National Trust.

[00:03:24] When it comes to the houses that it is responsible for, it owns over 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens, containing almost one million works of art.

[00:03:37] So, it is big, and it is responsible for a lot. 

[00:03:41] But what you might still be wondering is...why and what does ‘responsible’ actually mean?

[00:03:48] And what exactly is The National Trust?

[00:03:51] To best answer those questions, and to give you an idea of the role that it plays today, we need to go back to where it all started, and that is Victorian Britain, Britain in the late 19th century.

[00:04:06] By the time that Queen Victoria came onto the throne, in 1837, Britain was almost 100 years into the industrial revolution.

[00:04:16] Manufacturing had boomed, people had flocked to the cities, people had gone to the cities in large numbers, and a country that had been predominantly rural and agricultural had started to become industrial and urban.

[00:04:33] Large areas of countryside were used for factories, cities expanded, and there was an increasing feeling that the city was just expanding and expanding, and the countryside of Britain was going to be swallowed up

[00:04:49] You can see this feeling through literature and art at the time, but an excellent example of it is in the 1803 poem by William Blake called “And did those feet in ancient time”, where he talks about ‘dark, satanic mills’ - the dark, factories of the devil that were poisoning the beautiful English countryside.

[00:05:12] So, in 1895, three people got together to do something about it.

[00:05:19] Their names were Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter. 

[00:05:26] But it was Octavia Hill that was the most famous of the three, and is really the patron saint of the National Trust.

[00:05:35] Hill was a fierce social reformer, and she believed in the importance of green spaces, and historic places for everyone, that every person had the right to enjoy the beauty of nature, and that something needed to be done in order to stop the English countryside from being swallowed up by industrialisation.

[00:05:58] So, in 1895, our three heroes, Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter, came together and established The National Trust.

[00:06:10] It started as a company, just like any other, and the idea was that it could buy and hold buildings and land, with the objective of preserving them, of saving them from being turned into factories or sold to industrialists, and allowing everyone to benefit from them.

[00:06:30] That same year, in 1895, the National Trust got its first piece of land, a small piece of land near a cliff in Wales, which it was given by a philanthropist

[00:06:44] Later that year, still in 1895, it bought its first property, a 14th century house in a county called East Sussex, to the south of London.

[00:06:55] It paid £10 for it, and then needed to spend an additional £350 for repairs. 

[00:07:03] £10 back in 1895 is the equivalent of about £600 now, so that’s around €700.

[00:07:12] And this is broadly what the National Trust did for several decades - it received land and property as gifts from people who believed in its philanthropic mission, and it also bought property with money that it had been given as a donation.

[00:07:31] For the first 50 years or so of its existence the properties it acquired were generally quite small. 

[00:07:38] It was a charity, and although it did have an increasing number of supporters every year, an increasing number of people who gave it money, it still wasn’t rich by any means.

[00:07:49] But now it owns some of the most majestic, the most important buildings in the entire country, huge, beautiful country houses.

[00:07:59] How did it manage that, you might be thinking?

[00:08:02] Well, it actually comes down to tax.

[00:08:06] Starting in 1894, an inheritance tax was introduced in Britain, meaning that when someone died, any assets that they passed to their heirs, typically their children, would be taxed.

[00:08:20] It increased gradually during the first half of the 20th century, then at the end of World War II, after a new Labour government was elected, it was increased dramatically, to up to 80%.

[00:08:33] So, when someone died, their heirs would have to pay up to 80% in tax to the British government.

[00:08:42] Whether this is right or wrong is another question, but the result was that many of the old, British families with these huge country houses simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax on the inheritance and keep the property.

[00:08:59] To give you a working example, if your parents owned a large country mansion, a large country house, and it was left to you after they died, let’s say this mansion was valued at £10 million, you might have to pay £8 million in taxes.

[00:09:16] Now, assuming you didn’t have £8 million in your bank account, or in other assets that you could quickly sell, you would need to sell the house to pay the tax.

[00:09:27] This would mean that lots of these old, beautiful houses would be sold to the highest bidder, who could do whatever they wanted with them - knock them down, completely change them, build new villages on top of the land.

[00:09:41] The National Trust offered an alternative to this, and something called the Country House Scheme was developed.

[00:09:48] In short, this meant that someone who inherited a large property but didn’t have the money to pay the inheritance tax on it could give the property to the National Trust, and the National Trust would allow that person and their family to continue to live in a part of the property. 

[00:10:08] So everyone was a winner - the National Trust acquired a grand property, the heirs could continue to live in a part of that property, and the ordinary people of Britain had the right to go and visit these beautiful country houses that had previously belonged to the richest in society.

[00:10:28] Through this scheme the National Trust acquired some of the most prestigious country houses in the country and they are now all open to the public. 

[00:10:39] And they are, in many cases, absolutely fabulous, and if you visit the UK I would certainly urge you to visit some.

[00:10:47] You might even have been to some already. 

[00:10:50] Giant’s Causeway, an amazing volcanic area by the sea in Northern Ireland is a National Trust property, as is Attingham Park, an amazing country house in the west of England.

[00:11:03] If you haven’t had the chance to visit any of them, you will probably have seen them in films and TV series, from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, and of course, Downton Abbey.

[00:11:16] It’s a unique part of British heritage, and is hugely popular.

[00:11:20] Indeed, the National Trust has 5.6 million paying members, 5.6 million people who pay a membership fee to support it every year. 

[00:11:32] So that’s almost one in ten people in Britain, 10% of the British population.

[00:11:38] So far so good, you might think. 

[00:11:41] It’s a cultural organisation that is responsible for protecting beautiful country houses, preserving them for future generations, making them accessible to anyone who wants to visit them, and allowing anyone to visit lovely countryside landscapes.

[00:11:56] I should add that many of these sites are free to visit, you don’t have to pay. 

[00:12:02] Often the larger houses do require a fee, or a donation to go in, but even in this case, the gardens and the grounds are often free to walk around and enjoy.

[00:12:15] This is made possible not only by the 10% of the British population that supports it, but also because the Trust has a huge army of volunteers, people who volunteer to work in the properties for free. 

[00:12:30] There are 65,000 of these people, a huge football stadium full of volunteers who stand in often cold country houses all day long with a smile on their face because they believe in the mission of The National Trust.

[00:12:47] Quite something, right?

[00:12:49] Well, yes it is, but it has come under some recent controversy.

[00:12:54] And the best way of explaining this controversy is through a story of a property that the National Trust relatively recently acquired.

[00:13:04] There is a fantastic great house near Bristol, in the South-West of England, called Tyntesfield Manor.

[00:13:11] In 2002 it was put up for sale by its owners. 

[00:13:15] The National Trust managed to raise £3 million from 50,000 individual donors, an average of £60 per donor, and together with a grant from the UK government, it bought the house.

[00:13:30] The house had been built in 1863, and was in serious need of renovation. The National Trust piled money into it to bring it back to its original glory, and it is now restored and open to the public.

[00:13:48] It’s an absolutely fantastic house, it has huge gardens, 23 main bedrooms and 47 bedrooms in total - including the servants' accommodation of course - it has its own private chapel, and everything you might expect from a huge, country mansion.

[00:14:08] When it was built, in 1863, just the construction of it cost today’s equivalent of £7 million, about €8 million.

[00:14:19] Where did the owner get the money to do this, you might be asking?

[00:14:23] The man who built the house was called William Gibbs, and he made his fortune selling guano, the poo, the excrement, from sea birds.

[00:14:34] As you may know, there was a lot of money to be made in guano.

[00:14:39] Gibbs exported guano from Peru, and shipped it to Europe, where it was used to produce fertiliser.

[00:14:47] Gibbs was given a monopoly on the guano trade by the Peruvian government, he was the only person allowed to export Guano from Peru to Europe.

[00:14:55] The business started small, but by 1864 he was exporting 435,000 tonnes of guano to Europe, and making the equivalent of about €9 million in profit every year.

[00:15:12] Indeed, there was a song that was sung about Gibbs that goes “William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds“.

[00:15:22] So, to explain that, dibs is a slang term for money, turd is a slang term for poo, it’s excrement.

[00:15:30] So, “William Gibbs made his dibs, made his money, Selling the turds, selling the poo, of foreign birds“.

[00:15:38] Now, why is how Gibbs made his money important for our story?

[00:15:42] It’s because Gibbs used slave labour from indigenous Peruvians and imported Chinese labourers, these people worked in terrible conditions to collect the guano, ship it to Europe, where it was turned into piles of money, and then ultimately partly turned into this fantastic house that is open to the public to enjoy.

[00:16:04] Indeed, a large number of these properties that are now in the hands of the National Trust were built because of fortunes enabled by British colonialism, and by slavery.

[00:16:17] In 2020, actually before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the National Trust commissioned a report into the links between its properties and the slave trade, and unsurprisingly found that there were very strong links.

[00:16:37] Now, in many National Trust properties, including Tyntesfield Manor, there are signs up that acknowledge the links between the property and the slave trade.

[00:16:48] When these signs started going up, it divided opinion.

[00:16:53] For some, acknowledging the fact that these beautiful buildings exist partly because of slavery was the right thing to do, and indeed it’s not morally right to enjoy strolling through the beautiful gardens and houses without at least understanding the past.

[00:17:12] For others, it was political correctness gone mad, it was the left imposing different cultural norms, and why should people have this history forced upon them when all they want to do was enjoy a countryside walk.

[00:17:25] This debate is all relatively new, and is still ongoing. The report came out in September 2020, and you will see opinion articles in UK newspapers, or letters written in to the editor almost every week with strong opinions either way.

[00:17:42] Whatever your view on the matter, it’s hard to debate the fact that the National Trust is a national treasure.

[00:17:50] Its original stated mission was to preserve properties that were to be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest of those who had no country house.

[00:18:00] And it's quite something that, 126 years later now, whether it’s enjoyment or refreshment you can now find it at over 500 different country houses. 

[00:18:11] And for that, we have a wonderful woman called Octavia Hill to thank.

[00:18:16] Now, I can’t think of any better way to end today’s episode than with a quote from the marvelous Octavia Hill, which really sums up the philosophy of The National Trust.

[00:18:28] And that is: “We all want quiet. We all want beauty... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently."

[00:18:45] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The National Trust.

[00:18:51] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that if you do manage to go to the UK, and you do go to a National Trust property, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this fantastic organisation.

[00:19:05] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:09] What’s the equivalent of The National Trust in your country, if one exists? 

[00:19:13] Who, or what, is responsible for preserving the cultural heritage in your country? 

[00:19:19] And of course a question that is a real hot potato, what do you think the National Trust should do about its complicated legacy with colonialism and slavery?

[00:19:30] I would love to know.

[00:19:31] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a memberUpgrade to Learner membership
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The National Trust. 

[00:00:28] In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s the biggest conservation charity in Europe, and is responsible for preserving large parts of Britain.

[00:00:38] It is a fascinating story, and through it you’ll learn about how it started, why it was able to become so big, the value it provides today to people in Britain–and of course, to you as well if you visit Britain–and some of the controversy that surrounds it.

[00:00:56] I’m really excited for this episode, so without further ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:04] The National Trust is something uniquely British, there are comparable organisations in other countries, but nothing of quite the same size, or national impact, as the National Trust has.

[00:01:18] If you ask someone in Britain what the National Trust does, they might say something like “they own all those big houses”, or “they have the big parks”, or something along those lines.

[00:01:31] The National Trust does both of those things, but it is much bigger than that.

[00:01:37] It’s an organisation that is responsible for the protection, and conservation of large, historic buildings, of country houses, of parks, of the coastline, and of the countryside.

[00:01:50] And it is responsible for a lot.

[00:01:54] To give you an idea of the actual size of the area it’s responsible for, it is responsible for 2,500 kilometres squared of land, that’s an area the size of Luxembourg. 

[00:02:08] Granted, Luxembourg isn’t huge.

[00:02:11] But nor is Great Britain, really.

[00:02:13] These 2,500 kilometres squared make up about 1.5% of the total land area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so the National Trust is responsible for 1.5% of the total land area.

[00:02:29] Note, I didn’t include Scotland, because there is actually a separate National Trust for Scotland.

[00:02:35] It’s not just the land that the National Trust is responsible for, it also manages large proportions of the coastline, 1,260 kilometres of coastline to be precise, which is about 20% of all the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

[00:02:54] To give you an idea of exactly how much that is, it’s almost exactly the same distance as London to Madrid, as the crow flies, or if you drew a line directly from London to Madrid.

[00:03:08] One of the fantastic things about what this means, from a practical point of view, is that anyone can walk through this land, so if you want to walk along vast parts of the British coastline, you can do it, thanks to the National Trust.

[00:03:24] When it comes to the houses that it is responsible for, it owns over 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens, containing almost one million works of art.

[00:03:37] So, it is big, and it is responsible for a lot. 

[00:03:41] But what you might still be wondering is...why and what does ‘responsible’ actually mean?

[00:03:48] And what exactly is The National Trust?

[00:03:51] To best answer those questions, and to give you an idea of the role that it plays today, we need to go back to where it all started, and that is Victorian Britain, Britain in the late 19th century.

[00:04:06] By the time that Queen Victoria came onto the throne, in 1837, Britain was almost 100 years into the industrial revolution.

[00:04:16] Manufacturing had boomed, people had flocked to the cities, people had gone to the cities in large numbers, and a country that had been predominantly rural and agricultural had started to become industrial and urban.

[00:04:33] Large areas of countryside were used for factories, cities expanded, and there was an increasing feeling that the city was just expanding and expanding, and the countryside of Britain was going to be swallowed up

[00:04:49] You can see this feeling through literature and art at the time, but an excellent example of it is in the 1803 poem by William Blake called “And did those feet in ancient time”, where he talks about ‘dark, satanic mills’ - the dark, factories of the devil that were poisoning the beautiful English countryside.

[00:05:12] So, in 1895, three people got together to do something about it.

[00:05:19] Their names were Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter. 

[00:05:26] But it was Octavia Hill that was the most famous of the three, and is really the patron saint of the National Trust.

[00:05:35] Hill was a fierce social reformer, and she believed in the importance of green spaces, and historic places for everyone, that every person had the right to enjoy the beauty of nature, and that something needed to be done in order to stop the English countryside from being swallowed up by industrialisation.

[00:05:58] So, in 1895, our three heroes, Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter, came together and established The National Trust.

[00:06:10] It started as a company, just like any other, and the idea was that it could buy and hold buildings and land, with the objective of preserving them, of saving them from being turned into factories or sold to industrialists, and allowing everyone to benefit from them.

[00:06:30] That same year, in 1895, the National Trust got its first piece of land, a small piece of land near a cliff in Wales, which it was given by a philanthropist

[00:06:44] Later that year, still in 1895, it bought its first property, a 14th century house in a county called East Sussex, to the south of London.

[00:06:55] It paid £10 for it, and then needed to spend an additional £350 for repairs. 

[00:07:03] £10 back in 1895 is the equivalent of about £600 now, so that’s around €700.

[00:07:12] And this is broadly what the National Trust did for several decades - it received land and property as gifts from people who believed in its philanthropic mission, and it also bought property with money that it had been given as a donation.

[00:07:31] For the first 50 years or so of its existence the properties it acquired were generally quite small. 

[00:07:38] It was a charity, and although it did have an increasing number of supporters every year, an increasing number of people who gave it money, it still wasn’t rich by any means.

[00:07:49] But now it owns some of the most majestic, the most important buildings in the entire country, huge, beautiful country houses.

[00:07:59] How did it manage that, you might be thinking?

[00:08:02] Well, it actually comes down to tax.

[00:08:06] Starting in 1894, an inheritance tax was introduced in Britain, meaning that when someone died, any assets that they passed to their heirs, typically their children, would be taxed.

[00:08:20] It increased gradually during the first half of the 20th century, then at the end of World War II, after a new Labour government was elected, it was increased dramatically, to up to 80%.

[00:08:33] So, when someone died, their heirs would have to pay up to 80% in tax to the British government.

[00:08:42] Whether this is right or wrong is another question, but the result was that many of the old, British families with these huge country houses simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax on the inheritance and keep the property.

[00:08:59] To give you a working example, if your parents owned a large country mansion, a large country house, and it was left to you after they died, let’s say this mansion was valued at £10 million, you might have to pay £8 million in taxes.

[00:09:16] Now, assuming you didn’t have £8 million in your bank account, or in other assets that you could quickly sell, you would need to sell the house to pay the tax.

[00:09:27] This would mean that lots of these old, beautiful houses would be sold to the highest bidder, who could do whatever they wanted with them - knock them down, completely change them, build new villages on top of the land.

[00:09:41] The National Trust offered an alternative to this, and something called the Country House Scheme was developed.

[00:09:48] In short, this meant that someone who inherited a large property but didn’t have the money to pay the inheritance tax on it could give the property to the National Trust, and the National Trust would allow that person and their family to continue to live in a part of the property. 

[00:10:08] So everyone was a winner - the National Trust acquired a grand property, the heirs could continue to live in a part of that property, and the ordinary people of Britain had the right to go and visit these beautiful country houses that had previously belonged to the richest in society.

[00:10:28] Through this scheme the National Trust acquired some of the most prestigious country houses in the country and they are now all open to the public. 

[00:10:39] And they are, in many cases, absolutely fabulous, and if you visit the UK I would certainly urge you to visit some.

[00:10:47] You might even have been to some already. 

[00:10:50] Giant’s Causeway, an amazing volcanic area by the sea in Northern Ireland is a National Trust property, as is Attingham Park, an amazing country house in the west of England.

[00:11:03] If you haven’t had the chance to visit any of them, you will probably have seen them in films and TV series, from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, and of course, Downton Abbey.

[00:11:16] It’s a unique part of British heritage, and is hugely popular.

[00:11:20] Indeed, the National Trust has 5.6 million paying members, 5.6 million people who pay a membership fee to support it every year. 

[00:11:32] So that’s almost one in ten people in Britain, 10% of the British population.

[00:11:38] So far so good, you might think. 

[00:11:41] It’s a cultural organisation that is responsible for protecting beautiful country houses, preserving them for future generations, making them accessible to anyone who wants to visit them, and allowing anyone to visit lovely countryside landscapes.

[00:11:56] I should add that many of these sites are free to visit, you don’t have to pay. 

[00:12:02] Often the larger houses do require a fee, or a donation to go in, but even in this case, the gardens and the grounds are often free to walk around and enjoy.

[00:12:15] This is made possible not only by the 10% of the British population that supports it, but also because the Trust has a huge army of volunteers, people who volunteer to work in the properties for free. 

[00:12:30] There are 65,000 of these people, a huge football stadium full of volunteers who stand in often cold country houses all day long with a smile on their face because they believe in the mission of The National Trust.

[00:12:47] Quite something, right?

[00:12:49] Well, yes it is, but it has come under some recent controversy.

[00:12:54] And the best way of explaining this controversy is through a story of a property that the National Trust relatively recently acquired.

[00:13:04] There is a fantastic great house near Bristol, in the South-West of England, called Tyntesfield Manor.

[00:13:11] In 2002 it was put up for sale by its owners. 

[00:13:15] The National Trust managed to raise £3 million from 50,000 individual donors, an average of £60 per donor, and together with a grant from the UK government, it bought the house.

[00:13:30] The house had been built in 1863, and was in serious need of renovation. The National Trust piled money into it to bring it back to its original glory, and it is now restored and open to the public.

[00:13:48] It’s an absolutely fantastic house, it has huge gardens, 23 main bedrooms and 47 bedrooms in total - including the servants' accommodation of course - it has its own private chapel, and everything you might expect from a huge, country mansion.

[00:14:08] When it was built, in 1863, just the construction of it cost today’s equivalent of £7 million, about €8 million.

[00:14:19] Where did the owner get the money to do this, you might be asking?

[00:14:23] The man who built the house was called William Gibbs, and he made his fortune selling guano, the poo, the excrement, from sea birds.

[00:14:34] As you may know, there was a lot of money to be made in guano.

[00:14:39] Gibbs exported guano from Peru, and shipped it to Europe, where it was used to produce fertiliser.

[00:14:47] Gibbs was given a monopoly on the guano trade by the Peruvian government, he was the only person allowed to export Guano from Peru to Europe.

[00:14:55] The business started small, but by 1864 he was exporting 435,000 tonnes of guano to Europe, and making the equivalent of about €9 million in profit every year.

[00:15:12] Indeed, there was a song that was sung about Gibbs that goes “William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds“.

[00:15:22] So, to explain that, dibs is a slang term for money, turd is a slang term for poo, it’s excrement.

[00:15:30] So, “William Gibbs made his dibs, made his money, Selling the turds, selling the poo, of foreign birds“.

[00:15:38] Now, why is how Gibbs made his money important for our story?

[00:15:42] It’s because Gibbs used slave labour from indigenous Peruvians and imported Chinese labourers, these people worked in terrible conditions to collect the guano, ship it to Europe, where it was turned into piles of money, and then ultimately partly turned into this fantastic house that is open to the public to enjoy.

[00:16:04] Indeed, a large number of these properties that are now in the hands of the National Trust were built because of fortunes enabled by British colonialism, and by slavery.

[00:16:17] In 2020, actually before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the National Trust commissioned a report into the links between its properties and the slave trade, and unsurprisingly found that there were very strong links.

[00:16:37] Now, in many National Trust properties, including Tyntesfield Manor, there are signs up that acknowledge the links between the property and the slave trade.

[00:16:48] When these signs started going up, it divided opinion.

[00:16:53] For some, acknowledging the fact that these beautiful buildings exist partly because of slavery was the right thing to do, and indeed it’s not morally right to enjoy strolling through the beautiful gardens and houses without at least understanding the past.

[00:17:12] For others, it was political correctness gone mad, it was the left imposing different cultural norms, and why should people have this history forced upon them when all they want to do was enjoy a countryside walk.

[00:17:25] This debate is all relatively new, and is still ongoing. The report came out in September 2020, and you will see opinion articles in UK newspapers, or letters written in to the editor almost every week with strong opinions either way.

[00:17:42] Whatever your view on the matter, it’s hard to debate the fact that the National Trust is a national treasure.

[00:17:50] Its original stated mission was to preserve properties that were to be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest of those who had no country house.

[00:18:00] And it's quite something that, 126 years later now, whether it’s enjoyment or refreshment you can now find it at over 500 different country houses. 

[00:18:11] And for that, we have a wonderful woman called Octavia Hill to thank.

[00:18:16] Now, I can’t think of any better way to end today’s episode than with a quote from the marvelous Octavia Hill, which really sums up the philosophy of The National Trust.

[00:18:28] And that is: “We all want quiet. We all want beauty... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently."

[00:18:45] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The National Trust.

[00:18:51] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that if you do manage to go to the UK, and you do go to a National Trust property, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this fantastic organisation.

[00:19:05] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:09] What’s the equivalent of The National Trust in your country, if one exists? 

[00:19:13] Who, or what, is responsible for preserving the cultural heritage in your country? 

[00:19:19] And of course a question that is a real hot potato, what do you think the National Trust should do about its complicated legacy with colonialism and slavery?

[00:19:30] I would love to know.

[00:19:31] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The National Trust. 

[00:00:28] In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s the biggest conservation charity in Europe, and is responsible for preserving large parts of Britain.

[00:00:38] It is a fascinating story, and through it you’ll learn about how it started, why it was able to become so big, the value it provides today to people in Britain–and of course, to you as well if you visit Britain–and some of the controversy that surrounds it.

[00:00:56] I’m really excited for this episode, so without further ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:04] The National Trust is something uniquely British, there are comparable organisations in other countries, but nothing of quite the same size, or national impact, as the National Trust has.

[00:01:18] If you ask someone in Britain what the National Trust does, they might say something like “they own all those big houses”, or “they have the big parks”, or something along those lines.

[00:01:31] The National Trust does both of those things, but it is much bigger than that.

[00:01:37] It’s an organisation that is responsible for the protection, and conservation of large, historic buildings, of country houses, of parks, of the coastline, and of the countryside.

[00:01:50] And it is responsible for a lot.

[00:01:54] To give you an idea of the actual size of the area it’s responsible for, it is responsible for 2,500 kilometres squared of land, that’s an area the size of Luxembourg. 

[00:02:08] Granted, Luxembourg isn’t huge.

[00:02:11] But nor is Great Britain, really.

[00:02:13] These 2,500 kilometres squared make up about 1.5% of the total land area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so the National Trust is responsible for 1.5% of the total land area.

[00:02:29] Note, I didn’t include Scotland, because there is actually a separate National Trust for Scotland.

[00:02:35] It’s not just the land that the National Trust is responsible for, it also manages large proportions of the coastline, 1,260 kilometres of coastline to be precise, which is about 20% of all the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

[00:02:54] To give you an idea of exactly how much that is, it’s almost exactly the same distance as London to Madrid, as the crow flies, or if you drew a line directly from London to Madrid.

[00:03:08] One of the fantastic things about what this means, from a practical point of view, is that anyone can walk through this land, so if you want to walk along vast parts of the British coastline, you can do it, thanks to the National Trust.

[00:03:24] When it comes to the houses that it is responsible for, it owns over 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens, containing almost one million works of art.

[00:03:37] So, it is big, and it is responsible for a lot. 

[00:03:41] But what you might still be wondering is...why and what does ‘responsible’ actually mean?

[00:03:48] And what exactly is The National Trust?

[00:03:51] To best answer those questions, and to give you an idea of the role that it plays today, we need to go back to where it all started, and that is Victorian Britain, Britain in the late 19th century.

[00:04:06] By the time that Queen Victoria came onto the throne, in 1837, Britain was almost 100 years into the industrial revolution.

[00:04:16] Manufacturing had boomed, people had flocked to the cities, people had gone to the cities in large numbers, and a country that had been predominantly rural and agricultural had started to become industrial and urban.

[00:04:33] Large areas of countryside were used for factories, cities expanded, and there was an increasing feeling that the city was just expanding and expanding, and the countryside of Britain was going to be swallowed up

[00:04:49] You can see this feeling through literature and art at the time, but an excellent example of it is in the 1803 poem by William Blake called “And did those feet in ancient time”, where he talks about ‘dark, satanic mills’ - the dark, factories of the devil that were poisoning the beautiful English countryside.

[00:05:12] So, in 1895, three people got together to do something about it.

[00:05:19] Their names were Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter. 

[00:05:26] But it was Octavia Hill that was the most famous of the three, and is really the patron saint of the National Trust.

[00:05:35] Hill was a fierce social reformer, and she believed in the importance of green spaces, and historic places for everyone, that every person had the right to enjoy the beauty of nature, and that something needed to be done in order to stop the English countryside from being swallowed up by industrialisation.

[00:05:58] So, in 1895, our three heroes, Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter, came together and established The National Trust.

[00:06:10] It started as a company, just like any other, and the idea was that it could buy and hold buildings and land, with the objective of preserving them, of saving them from being turned into factories or sold to industrialists, and allowing everyone to benefit from them.

[00:06:30] That same year, in 1895, the National Trust got its first piece of land, a small piece of land near a cliff in Wales, which it was given by a philanthropist

[00:06:44] Later that year, still in 1895, it bought its first property, a 14th century house in a county called East Sussex, to the south of London.

[00:06:55] It paid £10 for it, and then needed to spend an additional £350 for repairs. 

[00:07:03] £10 back in 1895 is the equivalent of about £600 now, so that’s around €700.

[00:07:12] And this is broadly what the National Trust did for several decades - it received land and property as gifts from people who believed in its philanthropic mission, and it also bought property with money that it had been given as a donation.

[00:07:31] For the first 50 years or so of its existence the properties it acquired were generally quite small. 

[00:07:38] It was a charity, and although it did have an increasing number of supporters every year, an increasing number of people who gave it money, it still wasn’t rich by any means.

[00:07:49] But now it owns some of the most majestic, the most important buildings in the entire country, huge, beautiful country houses.

[00:07:59] How did it manage that, you might be thinking?

[00:08:02] Well, it actually comes down to tax.

[00:08:06] Starting in 1894, an inheritance tax was introduced in Britain, meaning that when someone died, any assets that they passed to their heirs, typically their children, would be taxed.

[00:08:20] It increased gradually during the first half of the 20th century, then at the end of World War II, after a new Labour government was elected, it was increased dramatically, to up to 80%.

[00:08:33] So, when someone died, their heirs would have to pay up to 80% in tax to the British government.

[00:08:42] Whether this is right or wrong is another question, but the result was that many of the old, British families with these huge country houses simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax on the inheritance and keep the property.

[00:08:59] To give you a working example, if your parents owned a large country mansion, a large country house, and it was left to you after they died, let’s say this mansion was valued at £10 million, you might have to pay £8 million in taxes.

[00:09:16] Now, assuming you didn’t have £8 million in your bank account, or in other assets that you could quickly sell, you would need to sell the house to pay the tax.

[00:09:27] This would mean that lots of these old, beautiful houses would be sold to the highest bidder, who could do whatever they wanted with them - knock them down, completely change them, build new villages on top of the land.

[00:09:41] The National Trust offered an alternative to this, and something called the Country House Scheme was developed.

[00:09:48] In short, this meant that someone who inherited a large property but didn’t have the money to pay the inheritance tax on it could give the property to the National Trust, and the National Trust would allow that person and their family to continue to live in a part of the property. 

[00:10:08] So everyone was a winner - the National Trust acquired a grand property, the heirs could continue to live in a part of that property, and the ordinary people of Britain had the right to go and visit these beautiful country houses that had previously belonged to the richest in society.

[00:10:28] Through this scheme the National Trust acquired some of the most prestigious country houses in the country and they are now all open to the public. 

[00:10:39] And they are, in many cases, absolutely fabulous, and if you visit the UK I would certainly urge you to visit some.

[00:10:47] You might even have been to some already. 

[00:10:50] Giant’s Causeway, an amazing volcanic area by the sea in Northern Ireland is a National Trust property, as is Attingham Park, an amazing country house in the west of England.

[00:11:03] If you haven’t had the chance to visit any of them, you will probably have seen them in films and TV series, from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, and of course, Downton Abbey.

[00:11:16] It’s a unique part of British heritage, and is hugely popular.

[00:11:20] Indeed, the National Trust has 5.6 million paying members, 5.6 million people who pay a membership fee to support it every year. 

[00:11:32] So that’s almost one in ten people in Britain, 10% of the British population.

[00:11:38] So far so good, you might think. 

[00:11:41] It’s a cultural organisation that is responsible for protecting beautiful country houses, preserving them for future generations, making them accessible to anyone who wants to visit them, and allowing anyone to visit lovely countryside landscapes.

[00:11:56] I should add that many of these sites are free to visit, you don’t have to pay. 

[00:12:02] Often the larger houses do require a fee, or a donation to go in, but even in this case, the gardens and the grounds are often free to walk around and enjoy.

[00:12:15] This is made possible not only by the 10% of the British population that supports it, but also because the Trust has a huge army of volunteers, people who volunteer to work in the properties for free. 

[00:12:30] There are 65,000 of these people, a huge football stadium full of volunteers who stand in often cold country houses all day long with a smile on their face because they believe in the mission of The National Trust.

[00:12:47] Quite something, right?

[00:12:49] Well, yes it is, but it has come under some recent controversy.

[00:12:54] And the best way of explaining this controversy is through a story of a property that the National Trust relatively recently acquired.

[00:13:04] There is a fantastic great house near Bristol, in the South-West of England, called Tyntesfield Manor.

[00:13:11] In 2002 it was put up for sale by its owners. 

[00:13:15] The National Trust managed to raise £3 million from 50,000 individual donors, an average of £60 per donor, and together with a grant from the UK government, it bought the house.

[00:13:30] The house had been built in 1863, and was in serious need of renovation. The National Trust piled money into it to bring it back to its original glory, and it is now restored and open to the public.

[00:13:48] It’s an absolutely fantastic house, it has huge gardens, 23 main bedrooms and 47 bedrooms in total - including the servants' accommodation of course - it has its own private chapel, and everything you might expect from a huge, country mansion.

[00:14:08] When it was built, in 1863, just the construction of it cost today’s equivalent of £7 million, about €8 million.

[00:14:19] Where did the owner get the money to do this, you might be asking?

[00:14:23] The man who built the house was called William Gibbs, and he made his fortune selling guano, the poo, the excrement, from sea birds.

[00:14:34] As you may know, there was a lot of money to be made in guano.

[00:14:39] Gibbs exported guano from Peru, and shipped it to Europe, where it was used to produce fertiliser.

[00:14:47] Gibbs was given a monopoly on the guano trade by the Peruvian government, he was the only person allowed to export Guano from Peru to Europe.

[00:14:55] The business started small, but by 1864 he was exporting 435,000 tonnes of guano to Europe, and making the equivalent of about €9 million in profit every year.

[00:15:12] Indeed, there was a song that was sung about Gibbs that goes “William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds“.

[00:15:22] So, to explain that, dibs is a slang term for money, turd is a slang term for poo, it’s excrement.

[00:15:30] So, “William Gibbs made his dibs, made his money, Selling the turds, selling the poo, of foreign birds“.

[00:15:38] Now, why is how Gibbs made his money important for our story?

[00:15:42] It’s because Gibbs used slave labour from indigenous Peruvians and imported Chinese labourers, these people worked in terrible conditions to collect the guano, ship it to Europe, where it was turned into piles of money, and then ultimately partly turned into this fantastic house that is open to the public to enjoy.

[00:16:04] Indeed, a large number of these properties that are now in the hands of the National Trust were built because of fortunes enabled by British colonialism, and by slavery.

[00:16:17] In 2020, actually before the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the National Trust commissioned a report into the links between its properties and the slave trade, and unsurprisingly found that there were very strong links.

[00:16:37] Now, in many National Trust properties, including Tyntesfield Manor, there are signs up that acknowledge the links between the property and the slave trade.

[00:16:48] When these signs started going up, it divided opinion.

[00:16:53] For some, acknowledging the fact that these beautiful buildings exist partly because of slavery was the right thing to do, and indeed it’s not morally right to enjoy strolling through the beautiful gardens and houses without at least understanding the past.

[00:17:12] For others, it was political correctness gone mad, it was the left imposing different cultural norms, and why should people have this history forced upon them when all they want to do was enjoy a countryside walk.

[00:17:25] This debate is all relatively new, and is still ongoing. The report came out in September 2020, and you will see opinion articles in UK newspapers, or letters written in to the editor almost every week with strong opinions either way.

[00:17:42] Whatever your view on the matter, it’s hard to debate the fact that the National Trust is a national treasure.

[00:17:50] Its original stated mission was to preserve properties that were to be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest of those who had no country house.

[00:18:00] And it's quite something that, 126 years later now, whether it’s enjoyment or refreshment you can now find it at over 500 different country houses. 

[00:18:11] And for that, we have a wonderful woman called Octavia Hill to thank.

[00:18:16] Now, I can’t think of any better way to end today’s episode than with a quote from the marvelous Octavia Hill, which really sums up the philosophy of The National Trust.

[00:18:28] And that is: “We all want quiet. We all want beauty... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently."

[00:18:45] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The National Trust.

[00:18:51] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that if you do manage to go to the UK, and you do go to a National Trust property, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this fantastic organisation.

[00:19:05] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:19:09] What’s the equivalent of The National Trust in your country, if one exists? 

[00:19:13] Who, or what, is responsible for preserving the cultural heritage in your country? 

[00:19:19] And of course a question that is a real hot potato, what do you think the National Trust should do about its complicated legacy with colonialism and slavery?

[00:19:30] I would love to know.

[00:19:31] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds. 

[00:19:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]