12 January 1895: the National Trust is founded

On this day in 1895, the National Trust was founded to “set aside the best and most beautiful parts of Britain for the public and posterity”.

When you're a child and you're made to endure endless trips round stately homes to stare at ugly furniture preserved behind ropes you're not allowed to cross, it's easy to imagine that the National Trust was conceived by the country's old people as a way to punish naughty children with an afternoon of boredom.

Its original purpose, however, was to preserve open spaces by acquiring land. It was formed on this day in 1895 "to set aside the best and most beautiful parts of Britain for the public and posterity". And it certainly owns a lot of land – 618,000 acres of the stuff, including 25% of the Lake District, 10% of the Peak District, and 775 miles of coastline.

But it is big posh houses that it is famous for. It acquired its first one in 1907, the Tudor manor house of Barrington Court in Somerset, scene of much of the BBC's candlelit tale of treachery and intrigue, Wolf Hall. But the cost of renovating and maintaining the country pile meant the Trust wouldn't acquire another one for over 30 years.

Now, however, it owns over 350 historic houses, gardens and monuments, about half of which are big country houses. There was something of a wave of donations after the Second World War, when changes to death duties meant that many aristocrats couldn't afford to pass on their ancestral homes. By the 1970s, however, the Trust began insisting on an endowment to cover the cost of maintaining the properties it was offered.

These days, the Trust is trying to broaden its portfolio, and is busily acquiring properties that might appeal to a broader section of society – factories, workhouses and, famously, John Lennon's semi-detached boyhood home.

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