Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl were owned by the Bishops of Winchester for many centuries, but by the mid-1800s had become part of South Park Farm, immediately south-east of Hindhead.
In about 1890 a wealthy financier, Whitaker Wright, acquired South Park Farm and the adjacent estate, Lea Park. Wright had made his fortune in mining, raising the necessary finance by issuing bonds in his companies. He was a flamboyant man who transformed his new estate to impress society guests and investors, adding extravagant wings to the main house and landscaping the gardens. He named the extended estate Lea Park.
A downturn in mining drove Wright to resort to some highly dubious practices to fulfil his obligations to bond holders; he was accused of misusing investors’ funds and some are thought to have lost their entire capital stake. Ultimately an arrest warrant for fraud was issued. Tipped off, he fled to New York on a false identity, but was apprehended on arrival and eventually extradited.
Wright faced trial at the Old Bailey in late 1903 and on 26 January 1904 he was found guilty and sentenced to a jail term. Unable to face life behind bars, he took a cyanide capsule that he had hidden from court officials and died in rooms below the court. The Lea Park estate had to be sold. The 750 acres (300 ha) that comprised Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl were offered as a separate auction lot. The easy access to London brought by the railway made them an attractive development prospect, likely to be lost as a treasured open space.
The National Trust
Fortunately for Hindhead and for Haslemere, help was at hand. A new charity, the National Trust, dedicated to acquiring open spaces for the benefit of the public, had been established in 1895 and one of its founders, Sir Robert Hunter, lived in Haslemere. Although Sir Robert had a lower public profile than the other founders, Octavia Hill and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, he was both the Trust’s legal architect and its first Chairman.
In the early years the Trust had acquired only modest holdings. So the sale of Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl in 1905 was a huge opportunity and Sir Robert lost no time. Through the Haslemere Commons Preservation Society (now the Haslemere Society) he raised £3,625 and successfully bid for this land. Early the following year the society gave it to the National Trust.
This huge area of open space in the heart of south-east England, owned on behalf of the public, transformed the Trust’s fortunes and firmly established the charity.
However in 1906 the National Trust had neither the means nor the structures to manage a large area of open space. So Sir Robert Hunter set up a committee of volunteers to run Hindhead called the Hindhead Commons Management Committee. Sir Robert was its Chairman, a Mr William Collins was appointed Keeper and funds came from local donations. Members of the Committee included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as Honorary Fire Captain.
Minute book records tell us that the first Committee was most concerned about fire, disfigurement of the hillside by unauthorised stone excavation and inappropriate use of vehicles. Volunteer committees ran the local commons for over 80 years. Finally in 1993 the National Trust found the resources to provide full-time management. However the old committees, the Black Down & Hindhead Supporters and the Ludshott Committee, continue to advise and raise funds for local National Trust properties.
Sir Robert Hunter, a Founder
of the National Trust
In 1867 Robert Hunter became lawyer to the Commons Preservation Society, now the Open Spaces Society, and soon became the leading expert on common land law. He successfully fought to save various commons, including Wimbledon and Epping Forest and this appointment also marked the start of his life-long dedication to protecting open spaces.
In 1882 Hunter was appointed Solicitor to the General Post Office, for which he was knighted in 1894. The Hunter family moved to Three Gates Lane, Haslemere in 1882, where Sir Robert lived for the rest of his life.
He played a very active part in local life, despite the demands of his prestigious appointment. In 1882, he became the first Haslemere Parish Council chairman and co-founded the Haslemere Commons Preservation Society in response to concerns about the rate of development at Grayshott and Beacon Hill. He retired from the Post Office in July 1913, aged 68, but died of septicaemia on 6th November of that year.