|Peter Nixon, Director of Land, Landscapes and Nature at the National Trust|
Mrs Fanny Talbot: 1824 – 1917
An appreciation of her contribution to the nation and The National Trust
Catalysed by threats of railways and quarrying in the Lake District the founders of the National Trust, Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter held its inaugural meeting on July 16th 1894.
Octavia Hill moved the initial resolution on that day: “That it is desirable to provide means by which landowners may be enabled to dedicate to the nation places of historic interest or natural beauty, and for this purpose it is expedient to form a corporate body, capable of holding land, and representative of national institutions and interests”.
The very first landowner so enabled was Fanny Talbot. At the first meeting of the fledgling National Trust’s Executive Committee the principal item on the agenda was the offer of a property, Dinas Oleu, on the Merioneth coast of Wales, as a gift to the National Trust by Mrs Fanny Talbot.
Mrs Talbot had long been a generous supporter of John Ruskin, who had an important influence on Octavia Hill’s life. At one stage Mrs Talbot had been considering gifting Dinas Oleu to a guild established by Ruskin, but had lost confidence in its financial stability. So instead she turned towards Ruskin’s one time protégé, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who had visited Dinas Oleu and had his imagination stirred when told its name meant “Fortress of Light”.
During the 1890s Mrs Talbot had assisted Rawnsley in the founding of the National Trust, so was familiar with its purpose. She explained her intentions in offering the gift of Dinas Oleu to the Trust: “I am so grateful for this chance, for I perceive your National Trust will be of greatest use to me. I have long wanted to secure for the public for ever the enjoyment of Dinas Oleu, but I wish it to be put into the custody of some society that will never vulgarise it, or prevent wild Nature from having its own way … I wish to avoid the abomination of asphalt paths and the cast iron seats of serpent design.”
The Executive Committee agreed to accept the gift – a moment of huge symbolic and very real importance in the history of the National Trust. Octavia Hill at the time said: “We have got our first piece of property, I wonder if it will be our last”. She need not have worried.
Since those early days the Trust has quietly grown, from the small seedling of the acorn planted by Mrs Talbot into a substantial oak. Over one thousand properties throughout Wales, Northern Island and England are now held in permanent stewardship for all the nation. 775 miles of coastline. And continuing acquisitions – with one of our most recent being Great Orme – another of the jewels in Wales’ crown that shines so brightly. Within sight is the milestone of the National Trust providing permanent stewardship for the nation of 1000 square miles of land.
Equally important is the huge public enjoyment and recreation, a cause so dear to Mrs Talbot, that these properties provide. Over 200 million visits a year to National Trust coast and countryside properties like Dinas Oleu. Each one an opportunity for re-creation of body and mind, of spiritual refreshment provided by beautiful places and the revitalising touch of wilderness, of reconnecting with nature in our hectic, all too often digitally-dominated lives.
Mrs Talbot was prescient in her determination “never to prevent wild Nature – spelled by her with a capital N – from having its own way”. Nature has alas too often been tamed, constrained and fragmented by the needs of modern society – by the pressure all of us are putting on our so precious a resource, the land. Which is why the National Trust has as a principal strategic objective the restoration of nature – of a healthy and beautiful natural environment. I like to think that Mrs Talbot is looking down with strong approval.
So, we are all greatly in Fanny Talbot’s debt. It is very right that we should celebrate her life at this point, one hundred years after her death, reflecting on what she achieved. And above all that we say afresh to her, thank you.
Thank you, Mrs Talbot.