National Trust marks 125 years since first historic house purchase

Jessica Morris, PA
·3-min read

The National Trust has marked 125 years since it bought its first historic house to save for the nation – for just £10.

The then newly-formed “National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty” bought 14th century Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex in 1896 for £10 and spent a further £400 on repairs.

This purchase and restoration paved the way for the fledgling Trust, which now cares for more than 500 historic houses, castles, parks, and gardens and more than one million works of art.

The house originally captivated Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the Trust, who wrote that she was moved by “the pleading voice of the old building itself… to be left to tell its story to the days that are to come”.

The sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House
The sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House (James Dobson/National Trust Images/PA)

Holly Jones, National Trust operations manager for Alfriston Clergy House, said: “Today, 125 years later, the atmosphere when you stand beneath these beams is palpable.

“It has the same power to move and inspire, as it did with Octavia Hill years ago. Our founder knew she had to rescue it and open it to the public. We’re proud to continue her vision in caring for this fine house.

“We want Alfriston Clergy House to be loved, explored and enjoyed by as many people as possible. We can’t wait for lockdown to end and to open our doors once again.”

The house was at risk of collapse when the National Trust purchased it. It is a type of vernacular building known as a Wealden Hall House and dendrochronology (tree ring) testing in recent years has dated the house to 1399-1407.

National Trust curator George Roberts said: “The experience of conserving and finding a use for the clergy house played an important role in the development of the newly-formed, little-known National Trust.

The timber-framed Great Hall at Alfriston
The timber-framed Great Hall at Alfriston (James Dobson/National Trust Images/PA)

“Had its efforts to purchase and restore the house failed, the Trust may never have acquired another building.”

Mr Roberts added: “While Alfriston Clergy House may seem small, in its day the architecture would have been incredibly grand. The timbers and crown post in the hall are truly remarkable. Beautiful natural and historic places matter.

“Our role is to care for them and ensure they look and feel amazing forever, so that they provide the most benefit to the most people.”

The house was home to Alfriston’s parish priest until the early 18th century, and remained in church ownership until it was sold to the National Trust in 1896.

The building underwent several alterations to modernise it as styles and tastes changed. After the Reformation, when clergy were permitted to marry, work took place to enlarge the house to accommodate more people.

The north entrance at Alfriston in 1938
The north entrance at Alfriston in 1938 (National Trust Images/PA)

Church records show that the vicar Hugh Walker, appointed in 1593, had at least seven children living in the house with him and his wife.

By the 18th century, the Clergy House had been subdivided into two cottages. It was still officially the vicarage until the 1850s, when a new house was purchased for the vicar to live in.

The house later attracted figures in the art world, including Arts and Craft architect and designer Charles Ashbee, who honeymooned there with wife Janet in 1898.

The house’s links to the art world continued when it was taken on by Charles Aitken, director of the Tate Gallery in London, and Sir Robert Witt, a well-known art collector and one of the founders of the Courtauld Institute in London.