From small beginnings towards the end of the 19th century, the collection of historic places now managed by English Heritage has grown to over 400, inspired by a determination to put England’s heritage ahead of private interest.
The extraordinary collection of buildings and monuments now in the care of English Heritage began to be amassed in 1882. At that stage heritage was the responsibility of the Office of Works, the government department responsible for architecture and building. In 1913 an Act of Parliament was passed that gave the Office new powers. These were essentially to make a collection of all the greatest sites and buildings that told the story of Britain. At that stage these were regarded as being prehistoric and medieval remains – country houses and industrial sites were then not really seen as heritage.
By 1933 there were 273 sites in the collection including Stonehenge, Rievaulx Abbey, Carisbrooke Castle and Richborough Roman Fort. Preservation of these important places was, of course, the primary objective, but telling their stories was almost as important. All these places were open to the public and had guidebooks and explanatory signs. Some also sold postcards and even had tea shops.
After the Second World War the Ministry of Works (as it had become) started to be interested in buildings other than castles, abbeys and manor houses. Its first industrial sites were acquired and in 1949 it acquired its first country house, Audley End in Essex. The Ministry had its sights set on a number of other big houses, but the Treasury was very nervous. The government felt it was one thing to take on old castles and abbeys, but quite another to look after, and maintain, huge roofed buildings full of works of art. After some debate it was decided that it would be financially more sustainable if the National Trust took on the country houses and that the Ministry of Works confined itself to the older monuments.
This ruling, though disappointing to the men at the Ministry, did not stop them collecting and huge numbers of historic sites, as windmills, iron works and Georgian villas were added to the collection. By 1970 the English part of the collection alone stood at 300 sites visited by more than 5.5m people: it was by far the largest visitor attraction business in the country. Many of the sites now had museums and shops selling souvenirs and it was possible to buy a season ticket and visit the Ministry’s sites across the country for free.
In 1983 what had effectively become the English national heritage collection was transferred to a new body set up by Mrs Thatcher’s government. It was called the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission. Its name was not thought to be very snappy by its first Chairman, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and so it was re-christened English Heritage. Under Lord Montagu’s inspired leadership English Heritage did two jobs: it cared for the National Heritage Collection and it ran the national system of heritage protection, including listing buildings, dealing with planning issues and giving grants.
Over a period of a decade or more, the collection became better run, better displayed and the old season ticket was transformed into a membership scheme. Lord Montagu and his successor as chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, began to collect more buildings, now including country houses, such as Brodsworth Hall. Membership grew, visitor numbers increased, and people enjoyed the collections more than ever before. In fact, by the mid-2000s, income from the collection was beginning to make a contribution to their maintenance and conservation. In 2011, for the first time, the national heritage collection made an operational surplus. In other words, instead of costing money to open it to the public, a small surplus was made.
Thanks to these successes the government agreed that it would provide £80m to English Heritage if it transferred the national heritage collection to a charitable trust. This happened on 1 April 2015 when the old English Heritage separated into two parts: a charity that looks after the collections, and Historic England that champions the nation’s wider heritage, running the listing system, dealing with planning matters and giving grants.