Sir Robert Hunter (1844-1913)
by Peter Judge

As one of the founders of the National Trust in the 1890s, Sir Robert Hunter’s legacy to Surrey and its cultural identity is immense. Building on his work, the trust now manages almost 6,000 hectares in our county – well over two per cent of the total land area. Hunter coordinated efforts to preserve Hindhead Commons, the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Reigate Hill, and shortly before his death in 1913, he led negotiations to save Box Hill from development. Without his involvement, the Surrey landscapes that have inspired countless artists, musicians and writers might well have been lost to us.

Robert Hunter was born in October 1844 and lived in south London for much of his childhood. After studying at University College London, he became a lawyer and began working for the Commons Preservation Society in 1867. His early successes included preventing the enclosure of Wimbledon Common and persuading the Corporation of London to purchase Epping Forest. Hunter’s move to Haslemere in 1883 coincided with him joining the General Post Office as its principal solicitor. He made an immediate impact on the local area and recruited author and local resident Arthur Conan Doyle to a campaign to protect Hindhead Commons. Following the Local Government Act of 1894, Hunter became the first Chairman of Haslemere Parish Council and embarked on an ambitious programme to improve the town’s infrastructure.

In the mid-1880s, Hunter began to work with Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley on ideas for a new company to protect open spaces in England and Wales. Over the next ten years, the plans evolved into the organisation that we know today as the National Trust. Hunter was the first to suggest the name, which was formally adopted in July 1894. The trust was incorporated as a not-for-profit company the following year. As the first chairman, he steered the organisation through its first land acquisitions and secured an Act of Parliament in 1907 to enshrine its duties in law.

Under Hunter’s leadership, a committee of local residents purchased Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl in 1904. The properties, previously owned by the swindler, Whitaker Wright, were transferred to ownership of the National Trust in December the following year. A similar campaign secured the future of Reigate Hill and shortly before his death in 1913, Hunter was heavily involved in the negotiations with Leopold Salmons and the Deepdene estate to protect the western part of Box Hill from development. All those who draw inspiration Surrey’s open spaces owe a deep debt to the work and enthusiasm of Robert Hunter, the pioneering conservationist.

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